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Lady Lazarus

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The Catalyst appears as a child, that same child Carrie Shepard has been dreaming about since fleeing Vancouver. Anderson said he never saw any kid, and now she’s as unsure of herself as ever.

The Catalyst tells her what her options are to end the war. None of this makes any sense, she doesn’t understand exactly what it means. She’s lost a lot of blood, it’s difficult to follow anything; she can barely even keep herself standing. She listens, though, she listens like the fate of the entire galaxy depends on this. It does, it does depend on this—on her. She has to keep up, has to do whatever it is she has to do so she doesn’t fail the entire human race and how many others with it. After Mindoir, Akuze, Virmire, Thessia…no, she has to do this. It has to be her.

“I’m proud of you,” Anderson’s last words. She has to make him prouder still, goddammit. It’s all up to her now.

She can destroy the Reapers. She’s there to destroy the Reapers. The Catalyst presents the option, practically hands it right to her. All synthetic life will be destroyed along with them, but for the sake of destroying the Reapers she could—

This is exactly what EDI was afraid of. EDI was afraid, and that mattered. Shepard is ready, she is ready to activate the Crucible and burn them all, but she can’t kill EDI. She personally led the geth into extinction already, and she remembers how very unnerved EDI had been over that. EDI was wrong, though, that Shepard would never make her a priority because she’s synthetic. EDI is as much a part of her crew as anyone, but even more than that, EDI is a friend. EDI’s been so good for Joker, EDI has done so much to bring her this far…

She presses forward, needs another choice. Not controlling the Reapers, though, no. The Illusive Man can’t get his way. She doesn’t care that he’s dead, she won’t do what he wanted. She can’t.

Synthesis between organics and synthetics, however, that is something she can handle. She doesn’t really know what precisely will happen, what exactly that will mean, what it is that will occur and what everyone will feel once the beam strikes the mass relays, but it’s her choice. The Catalyst says she has to die. She was never going to get out of there alive, anyway, she knows. She thinks she always knew on some level, but this is so final. So much of her armor is gone, it’s all but useless, her head is pounding, there’s so much blood, and…

Before she knows it she is running, following the Catalyst’s lead to do what she needs to do, ready for the end, ready for this to be over. She jumps, she doesn’t know where or into what but she jumps all the same, because this is what will make it stop.

She can finally rest. Once this is done, she will finally be at peace. That's alright by her. She knows Kaidan will understand.

She is falling and everything hurts, falling and she feels like she’s on fire, falling and she’s burning up, fading into oblivion. She closes her eyes, victorious, and she is finally free, falling further, falling faster, falling until there is nothing.

When she opens her eyes, everything aches and the world around her refuses to focus. She’s pretty sure she isn’t dead, though. She doesn’t know how, but she isn’t dead.

She’s on a city street somewhere, perhaps an alley, she doesn’t know, it’s too hard to see. There are people around, she can hear them through the ringing in her ears, but she thinks she must be hidden from sight somehow.

She tries to cry out, tries to move. She’s badly injured, an expected side-effect of surviving her corporeal form being dissolved or whatever that thing had said. Slowly, she sits herself upright, she gets that far. Everything is blurry but she thinks she might have gotten someone’s attention. She tries to stand.

When she opens her eyes, she recognizes the setup of her surroundings as a makeshift hospital, but that is all she knows.

“It’s not time yet, Skipper.” Ashley’s voice, she must be losing her shit completely. It wouldn’t be a first.

“Kalahira, no. Stay your hand, this one needs no guidance now.” Thane wouldn’t talk like that, she tells herself. She’s not even sure she’s thinking of Kalahira correctly. She’s definitely losing it.

The chatter outside the large tent she’s in, though, that has to be real. She doesn’t recognize the voices, at least. That seems hopeful enough.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing those things in the street like that…”

“They’re helping, though. I don’t even want to think about how long all this shit would take without them.”

“It’s still weird.”

“Yeah…”

She tries to find her own voice, but even that much effort causes her searing pain. She can’t move. She can’t seem to do anything.

“I hear they’re building a memorial to that Commander in Vancouver. Big statue and everything. Saw on the vids that a ton of people are already planning their trips to see it when it’s done.”

“Why Vancouver? Was she even from Earth?”

“Dunno, rumor has it this one’s on Spectre orders, but it probably doesn’t matter much. Bet they’ll be popping up all over the damn place soon enough.”

“Makes sense. After all, she did, well…”

“Yeah.”

Her struggle to speak comes to something, a low, breathy rattle that sounds like death, but it’s enough to get her going, and in a matter of moments, she is shouting wordlessly to anyone who might be able to hear.

“Oh shit, sounds like that Jane Doe’s up…”

She doesn’t stop screaming. She’s not sure she can.

“Shh, it’s alright, hey, you’re okay…it’s okay, you’re safe now.”

The doctor has a calming voice with a light and vaguely English-sounding accent, and silver hair. Shepard’s vision is still fuzzy, but she’s sure it’s familiar, and it gets her to stop yelling.

“Karin?” Her voice is raspy and broken, hard to understand. She wonders how long it’s been since she last used it.

“My name is Dr. Danvers,” the woman says. “Can you tell me yours?”

“I want Dr. Chakwas,” Shepard whines despite herself. She sounds so pathetic, she’s usually better at hiding her pain. She’s starting to sweat, her body is fighting her. She is suddenly shivering, freezing cold. “Alliance…she’s with the Alliance, where…”

“I need some extra blankets if you have them,” Dr. Danvers calls outside. “Is that why you’re here? You’re with the Alliance? I’m told you were in armor when they found you.”

“Where am I? How long have I been here?” Her body is fighting, fighting inside itself, fighting her. She tries to fight back, she is desperate for answers, but even this has already been too much strain on her in the condition she’s in. She fears she might pass out again, but she is determined to get through it. She needs answers, right now that’s the only thing that matters.

“London. We’ve had you here a few weeks.”

“London?” She has no idea how she got back to London, didn’t think there’d even be anything left of London to come back to. “Is there still an Alliance presence here?”

“Yes, we’ll get someone right away, but I need you to tell me your name.”

She starts shaking, she can’t fight it. She wonders if perhaps she’s still dying, after all.

“It’s alright, you just need to stay calm,” the doctor tells her. She must have wondered out loud.

The doctor opens the flap to the tent to call out again, asking for medi-gel, sedative, something.

“Alliance,” Shepard says again, and she doesn’t know if anyone heard her before the doctor steps outside. People are shouting, she thinks. She still has so many questions, she tries to call for the doctor to come back, for anyone to come back, but she has nothing left. Everything goes black, and she succumbs.

“I am the very model of a scientist salarian,” Mordin sings, and then he starts humming the tune from the top.

“Shepard-Commander,” Legion says over him. “We wanted to help you.”

She says nothing. She knows this isn’t real.

“Does this unit have a soul?” Legion asks. “Not that it would matter now.”

She says nothing. Mordin is still humming.

“Working with geth, though, fuck,” Jenkins remarks, and she says nothing.

“I’d say we’ve seen stranger things, but…” Pressley trails off.

“You did everything you could,” Anderson assures her. “You did us all proud.”

She says nothing.

“Scientist salarian…”

“You’ve made some strange friends without me,” Ashley laughs.

“She has an interesting way of inspiring people, there’s no denying that,” Tarquin replies.

“‘Inspiring,’ huh? Is that what we’re calling it?” Wreav interjects.

“Apparently,” Captain Kirrahe adds dryly.

She says nothing.

“Rest now, siha,” Thane says softly.

“Holy shit, Lola?” James’s voice comes in less of a question than an exclamation, and she slowly tries to open her eyes.

“Oh thank god,” the doctor from earlier says. “You know her?”

“Are you really telling me you don’t?” James sounds defensive. She’d smile if she could.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” he continues, quieter this time. He sounds emotional, but the moment passes and he has his resolve back when he speaks again. “This is Commander Shepard. You know, the one who saved the entire fucking galaxy.”

“Oh shit,” the doctor responds, breaking her professional demeanor in her surprise. “I thought Commander Shepard was—”

“Yeah,” James interrupts, and his resolve cracks once more. “So did I.”

There is a tense silence between them. Shepard still can’t seem to make her eyes work, still can’t keep them open, and she feels so cold even though she’s drenched in sweat, but she’s alert enough for now. That’s a start.

“So, ah, how…how is she?” James asks after a time.

“As stable as we can get her in these conditions,” the doctor admits, and Shepard realizes she’s already forgotten the doctor’s name. “I know it’s a long shot, but if you can find her a fully functional medical facility, she may be better off. She should be able to handle being moved by now, I think.”

“You think?” James does not sound happy with such uncertainty.

“I honestly can’t explain what’s happening with her,” the doctor tells him. It’s a safe assumption they don’t realize Shepard can hear them. “By all rights, she shouldn’t be alive. Her body has been through incredible trauma, and if this really is Commander Shepard, there is no way she ever got off the the Citadel on her own, even I know that. So god only knows how she wound up down here in the first place. She has, as far as I can tell, literally survived the impossible.”

“Yeah,” James laughs. “She does that.”

“I’ve heard the stories, myself, although until now I’d assumed they couldn’t all be true,” the doctor notes lightly. “In any case, now that she’s been identified, I’d say it’s time.”

“Yeah,” James sighs. “From the information we’ve gotten from the Reapers, fuck…I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t say anything, but…fuck.”

“It’s alright,” the doctor says politely. “Take as long as you need, she’s certainly not going anywhere.”

“Thanks, I’m definitely gonna need to talk to a few people,” he tells her. “Really, though, between you and me, could we be talking full recovery, or what should we expect?”

“Between you and me,” the doctor repeats, “I couldn’t possibly tell you. She’s got implants I’ve never seen anything like before, and they might have saved her life but that’s all I can really say. I certainly don’t know how they might affect her further. I would imagine that her time on the front lines has come to an end, if nothing else. Anyway, as I said, take all the time necessary, but the sooner you get her to someone more, ah, qualified, the better.”

“Ma’am,” James says as his goodbye. She doesn’t try to stop him, doesn’t yet open her eyes. She doesn’t want them to know she heard that. She doesn’t want to have heard it.

James pulls up his omni-tool and finds Kaidan. It seems only right he should be the first person he tells.

The story is, as far as he understands, that Shepard gave up her body to plug her mind into an AI so that her lifeforce could integrate it into a new DNA to bring together all life, which is what made stopping the war possible. It sounds like some shit out of a kids’ vid to him, but that’s how the story goes. The highly classified story. James laughs to himself at the thought that he almost can’t see the point in the Alliance keeping it under wraps, since most people would never believe it, anyway.

“Hey, James, this isn’t really a good time…” Kaidan sounds distracted, exhausted, like he does whenever he has a migraine. It doesn’t matter, this can’t wait.

“It’s about to be,” James says as confidently as he can. “Kaidan, she’s alive.”

“Bullshit,” Kaidan spits out. “That’s not fucking funny, Vega.”

“I know it isn’t,” James retorts. “Have I ever given you reason to think I could joke about something like this? She’s here, Kaidan, she’s in London. No one knows how or...well, how, but I just fucking saw her. She’s alive.”

“Fuck,” Kaidan exhales. He’s definitely out of it, it probably is a migraine. “Sorry, I…I just can’t believe…I mean, I don’t even know why not at this point, let’s be honest, but…wow, I…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, it’s cool,” James cuts in. “Something’s not right, though, they want us to get her out of here if we can, find someone more, I don’t know, specialized. You can use some Spectre authority BS to get her to someone, right? Maybe Dr. Chakwas?”

“Shit, I can try,” Kaidan says, sounding uncertain. “Everyone’s so scattered with rebuilding, and…”

“You’re in Vancouver, no?” James interrupts again. “Do we still have a base over there?”

“Yeah,” Kaidan answers quickly. “Yeah, I am and, umm, yeah, we do. If you guys can get here, well…I’ll know where I need to start, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’s a good place to start, sure,” James agrees. “I’ll get things moving on my end. Send me your location and I’ll try to get us there within the next 24 hours.”

“Hey, uh, James,” Kaidan says after a pause, and James had already assumed they were no longer connected. “Thank you.”

***

“Kaidan, you should eat something,” Dr. Chakwas tells him as she passes through the living room.

“Yeah, of course,” he replies, numb and monotoned. “Thanks, Karin.”

“Major—”

“How is she?”

Shepard’s been there for a week. He’d used his resources to get Karin there, and she had done the rest. His home has been overtaken since he got that call from James, by medical supplies as well as an increase in visits as their friends are rapidly informed of the situation, and he’s sleeping even less than he was before. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Karin sighs and crosses her arms, and Kaidan cringes nervously at her apprehension.

“I don’t know,” she finally replies, and it sounds like she’s doing about as well as he is. “I almost hate to say it, but it looks like she’s alive thanks to Cerberus once again. Whatever they did to her is impressive, to say the least, and you can’t find implants like that in any market I’ve ever seen. She’s got some very powerful hardware in there.”

“There’s a ‘but’ coming, isn’t there?” Kaidan looks up at her and hopes he doesn’t look as lost as he feels.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, Kaidan,” she admits. “I doubt anyone outside Cerberus has.”

Kaidan shakes his head. He doesn’t like the thought of having to be grateful to Cerberus, either. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Eat something,” Karin says again. “If you’re not going to sleep then you need to do that much. You have to take care of yourself, Kaidan, even if for no other reason than to manage those migraines as well as you can.”

He sighs and looks to the floor. There’s been no word from Miranda yet, for as hard as they’ve been trying to reach her. He’s holding out hope but the anticipation is constantly crawling through his skin and it’s beginning to become an impossible burden to bear.

He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Kaidan, please…”

He decides to get up. She’s only a few rooms away. He has no reason not to see her.

It’s been rough, though. Shepard has periods of lucidity and they think she’s making progress, but it still seems so bleak.

Yet she always recognizes him. He has that much.

“Kaidan,” she whispers when he sits down. He’s grateful she’s awake. He doesn’t see it often enough. “I told you you’d never lose me again.”

She says it every time he sees her, at least whenever she’s able. Which is more and more often, he reminds himself. She is making progress. They just need to ride this out.

It’s going to be a long ride.

She reaches for him, needing only to feel him there. She touches his cheek and he takes her hand, kisses the inside of her wrist, keeps her hand in his even when she moves it back to his face.

The discoloration around his eyes is astonishing. She’s never seen anyone besides herself look that far gone.

“I know you did,” he smiles weakly. “I know. How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know,” she admits, the only answer she has. “It hurts.”

He doesn’t ask her what hurts. He doesn’t need to.

Her eyes start to well up, but it’s almost a relief when it comes. This is new. This feels right.

“Will you stay if it doesn’t get better?” She starts to cry—to really, properly cry—and it would feel so good if she didn’t feel so fucking broken. “Kaidan, what if…what if this doesn’t get better?”

He lets go of her hand and pushes himself in closer. He lays his head down on her chest and she immediately moves to run fingers through his hair. They both have the thought about how her reaction times are improving. Neither of them say it out loud, though.

“I’m not fucking losing you again, Carrie,” he says firmly. “I don’t care what that means, alright? I’m here. You’re here. We’ll get through this.”

She’s rebuilding. Literally, it seems, her Cerberus implants causing everything inside her to reconstruct and force her back to where she was before she confronted the Catalyst.

For one fleeting, existential terror-inducing moment, she wonders what this means for her future, if she actually can die now. It scares her more than she’ll ever say, to have to seriously take in the thought that perhaps she can’t.

She says nothing, she lets it go. Kaidan doesn’t question it when she sobs harder. He wouldn’t.

They can get through this, he said so. He’s crying with her, albeit far more calmly, and she’s strangely happy to be able to share this.

She refuses to take her hands off of him, touching him wherever she can, and she cries until she has nothing left and exhaustion claims her.

Ashley smiles at her. “I see why you saved him, Skipper. You’re sweet together.”

Thane is stoic, and remains quiet.

“I think it’s going to be okay, Shepard,” Anderson assures. He sounds so paternal, but then again he always did. It should have been him who miraculously fell back to London, or however it went down. She’d probably never know, but she is sure that it should have been him.

“It had to be you, child,” he tells her, like he can read her mind.

Of course, she realizes, he can, since he’s only a manifestation of it and nothing more. He’s not real. None of this is real.

“Fascinating study,” Mordin nods to her. “Shame I missed it.”

It isn’t real. They’re not there. Because she couldn’t save them.

She couldn’t save them.

It all disappears around her when she wakes up to the sound of Kaidan and Karin shouting, as well as herself. She realizes she probably started it. It’s impossible to be sure of anything anymore.

They’re shouting her name. Alright, then, so she almost definitely started it. She makes herself open her eyes and sees only blue. She doesn’t understand what this means, what’s happening to her now. There is nothing else she can clearly see, there is only blue.

“Let me in, please.” Kaidan sounds desperate. She doesn’t understand.

Her eyes start to adjust and through that piercing blue she notices there are monitors blown out, the chairs beside her bed have moved carelessly across the room, and she is encapsulated by the most intense biotic barrier she has ever seen. It takes another couple seconds for the greater realization, that it’s coming from her.

She almost laughs. She was trying to save them.

Even in dreams she can’t make it, just as she can’t make this stop. It’s taking everything out of her, she knows she can’t hold it, but neither can she let it go. Kaidan and Karin are still trying to get through to her, still trying to calm her down, but she can’t.

She can’t let go, she can’t hold on. She can’t, she can’t, she can’t.

Blue brightens, flashes to blinding white, fades to black.

She wakes up to—no, perhaps she doesn’t. Her parents are standing over her. Or so she thinks. She doesn’t actually remember their faces.

Another failure for the books.

“We’re proud of you, too,” they say together. Anderson is there. They turn to him.

“We understand that you’ve replaced us,” they continue as one, their voices eerily reverberating. “We’re happy you found another family. We only ever wanted you to be happy, too.”

“I never was, though, was I?” She surprises herself by responding. She knows this isn’t real.

She never was, though, that much is true. Her parents once wanted her to talk to someone, a professional. But she was young and stubborn and—if she was being truly honest—scared. She was only 16, though, she could have listened, maybe she could have gotten better. She couldn’t do it then, she was so young, she didn’t have time…

She was only 16 when the batarians came and no one questioned it when those bouts of deep depression grew longer and more severe. She’d already been through so much, of course. She was 18 when episodes on the other end started. She didn’t tell the Alliance. She lied and lied and lied. She was dedicated, though, and they liked her productivity during her manic spells. They didn’t need to know what it was.

She was so young. Maybe she could have gotten better. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

“You’re going to make it out of this,” her parents say in one voice. “We promise you, sweetheart, you’re going to be fine.”

“Maybe I don’t want it to be fine,” she yells, and they disappear.

All around her, fifty faceless marines flicker into being, and they dissolve just as quickly as she feels the slither of a thresher maw burrowing beneath her feet.

“Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy, Council Spectre,” Udina rattles off through gritted teeth. “Savior of the Citadel, and now the galaxy? Get yourself together, is this really the best we could do? Look at you, you’re a disgrace. A disgrace to the Alliance, a disgrace to the Council, a disgrace to humanity.”

“What the fuck do you know about humanity?” She seethes, and she sighs in relief when she hears Ashley’s voice come back to her.

“‘Soon, soon the flesh the grave cave ate will be at home with me. And I am a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die,’” she recites. “What, no Sylvia Plath? You liked it when I read Tennyson.”

She was dead at thirty, too. Not too, just dead. She’s not dead now. She wonders how much longer until she stops having to reminding herself, if she’ll ever stop having to remind herself.

“Yeah,” Shepard whispers. “I did, didn’t I?”

“‘This is Number Three. What a trash to annihilate each decade. What a million filaments. The peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see them unwrap me hand and foot— The big strip tease. Gentlemen, ladies, these are my hands, my knees.’”

At some point she’d started speaking with Ashley, reciting every line with her in perfect time.

“‘I may be skin and bone, nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.’”

“But am I?” She breaks the rhythm, she breaks down. Even in dreams…

“Hush, child,” Anderson attempts to comfort her. Thane and Mordin watch silently.

Mordin appears to be taking mental notes on her condition, her behavior, her…whatever. Thane simply watches, so solemnly, so sad.

If she has to see those she’ll never truly see again, at least those she knows would forgive her for their deaths are the ones who have returned for her this time.

Not that they should forgive her, but she knows that they would, even when she knows so little of anything else anymore.

“‘Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.’”

She falls to her knees, the melodramatic flair of the gesture not lost on her. She’s glad this isn’t real.

Her hands hit the floor, the ground, whatever it is, wherever this is supposed to be.

“‘It’s the theatrical comeback in the broad day to the same face, the same place, the same brute amused shout: ‘A miracle!’ That knocks me out. There is a charge for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge for the hearing of my heart— It really goes.’”

She’s back in the woods she dreamed so much about after the last time she was in Vancouver. She is surrounded by the same fog, the same trees, the same colorless desolation.

And she is completely alone.

“‘I am your opus, I am your valuable, the pure gold baby that melts into a shriek. I turn and I burn. Do not think I underestimate your great concern. Ash, ash— You poke and stir. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there.”

It’s only her voice now, and she curls into herself. It’s cold here. It’s so fucking cold here all alone.

“‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer beware. Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air.’”

She can’t breathe. This isn’t real. She cries for help but there’s no one to hear. This isn’t real.

She writhes and mutters to herself, her words incoherent, moving so restlessly. Kaidan watches her closely.

“It’s not a good time,” he tells Jack. Karin had let her in. He doesn’t want anyone else there, not now, but he doesn’t feel right saying anything. He’s kept an open door policy since Shepard arrived. It’s only fair; they deserve to see her, too. He just wants to be alone, though. Or with her, even when it’s all the same.

“Sorry, I…” Jack starts, clearly unnerved. Kaidan is surprised to see her guard down like that, almost as though she never had one to begin with.

“No, no, it’s…” Kaidan doesn’t know what the fuck it is. “It’s fine, sorry.”

“She looks so fucking helpless,” Jack says quietly. “I never imagined…”

“Yeah, I know,” Kaidan agrees.

“Cheerleader’ll come through,” Jack adds, unprompted. “She has to.”

“Yeah.” This is uncomfortable.

“It’s almost like some sort of…reverse of circulatory shock,” Karin offers, inclined by some strange feeling of obligation to do so. This is extremely uncomfortable. “Instead of shutting down, her system is starting back up, but I don’t know if perhaps it’s too fast or too slow or…or simply that it never should have happened at all.”

“Don’t,” Jack follows before Karin can say any more. It’s for the best. “Fuck, sorry, I’m just…I’m no good at this shit. I should go.”

Kaidan doesn’t stop her. “I’ll tell her you came by.”

“Thanks,” she says, and she sees herself out.

Kaidan starts to feel the throbbing behind his eyes, the sharp pang of Karin being right. He tries to ignore it.

Shepard’s only been there for a week and there’s already been progress. It’s only been a week but the difference that time has made is stark.

Hours pass, Karin calls it a night and tells him to get her if they need anything. She isn’t sleeping much, either, he knows, but neither is she talking about it any more than he is.

He pulls a chair back up to Shepard’s bedside. Everything in the area’s been put back in working order, everything is as calm and carefully constructed as it can be.

His head is pounding but he persists. He needs to get some rest or it won’t be long until he’s reduced to dry heaving trapped within walls that won’t keep still, but he can’t bring himself to leave her side.

He leans forward and presses a hand against hers. He might actually even fall asleep like this, and that’s fine. It won’t be comfortable and he’ll most likely feel like hell come morning, but that’s fine.

He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard awakens to the sound of Kaidan hyperventilating in the bathroom.

She’s in his—in their bed. Karin decided after another couple of weeks that she no longer had to be so strictly confined to the makeshift one-room hospital one of Kaidan’s—one of their guest bedrooms had become. She knows that the very moment she gets up, Karin is going to assail her with medical tests, and that they will be the first of many of the day, as it goes every day. She’s thankful she gets to sleep next to Kaidan, though, and in a real bed.

Even if it is way too fucking soft.

And even though, while it’s only been two days of sleeping beside him, she’s yet to actually wake up next to Kaidan. He’s driving himself up a wall over her and his migraines are suffering for it. He’s suffering for it.

She can’t help him when she can do almost nothing for herself. She can move around a little but what she’s permitted to do is heavily restricted. Not that it needs to be. She can barely get around on her own, anyway. She’s trying, she’s trying so fucking hard and it’s killing her. She’s used to pushing herself beyond her means and her means simply adjusting to the efforts. She’s used to defying all sense of logic, used to forging her own parameters of capability by forcing herself to work harder, stronger, faster, no matter how difficult it may be. She is used to literally achieving the impossible. Now it’s a miracle if she can achieve walking all the way to the kitchen without assistance.

James does make damn good eggs in there, though.

He must be there, the smell of cooking breakfast food permeating the entire house. She can’t focus on it, however, with the mind of how much that can’t be helping Kaidan.

She slowly manages to sit, to hold herself up and push her legs over the side of the bed. She wills herself to stand, shaking all the way. She makes her way to the bathroom built in to the other side of the room, however great of a challenge it is to walk those few feet. She braces herself against the wall and knocks on the door.

He’s breathing so heavily she can hear it as clearly as if she were right there with him.

“Just…just a minute,” he calls out, his voice hoarse.

He’s been doing this on and off for weeks, and he’s almost grateful she’s only been aware of it the past couple of days. He’s yet to actually get sick, but his abdomen aches from how hard it is to so often be slouched on his knees over a toilet, arms practically vibrating from the tension of holding himself up, so close to retching and too afraid to leave that position in case he does. He can feel it in his core, burning like he’s just done a few thousand crunches in a single sitting. It hurts and it’s hard to maintain, but it’s not enough to distract him from his head throbbing so harshly that it’s caused this to start with, that pounding that makes the room spin and flickering lights invade his peripheral vision.

“Kaidan, go see Karin,” she calls back. He knows she’s right, that Karin will be able to do something, to at least make it better than this. He doesn’t want to deal with it, to be commanded to rest and lectured on the importance of keeping his own health in check. He knows already.

Karin chastised him on Shepard’s third day there, telling him his empathy knows no bounds, that his compassion is seemingly unending, that he cares too damn much and doesn’t know how to stop. He’d told her that he didn’t see how that could be a bad thing, and she countered by pointing out the inevitability of the present situation.

It’s all too easy, though, to lose track of time, to forget about himself when Shepard’s there, when she needs him, when he can’t even try to imagine what kind of pain she’s in, what an emotional wreck she tries to pretend she isn’t, anything about everything she’s going through.

He can’t help thinking in this moment, however, that he might genuinely know as much about pain as she does, after all.

He pushes himself upward, finds his footing, and exits the bathroom to greet her. She’s leaning into the corner like she’s ready to fall down. She looks as bad as he feels.

Shepard finds the call button she’s been assigned on the nightstand, and she insists Karin prioritize him when she comes in. Neither he nor the doctor are happy about this, but Karin does as she’s asked.

“You can’t keep doing this, Major,” Karin scolds him upon administering a cocktail of medications he has refused up until now, a concoction that is nearly guaranteed to ease his head, although it comes at the cost of the violent twitching of the most ungodly muscle spasms, the “fix” leaving him negligibly more functional than the migraine itself, not even to mention how unspeakably tired it makes him.

“Shepard needs you, Kaidan,” Karin continues in a harsh whisper. “She needs you healthy. If you won’t take care of yourself for yourself, then, please…”

She’s right, he knows she’s right, especially given how bad the migraines can get even when he is in peak condition, but he isn’t sure he even knows how to take care of himself anymore.

“‘Compelled by calamity’s magnet they loiter and stare as if the house burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought some scandal might any minute ooze from a smoke-choked closet into light; no deaths, no prodigious injuries glut these hunters after an old meat, blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.’”

She’s muttering poetry under her breath again, a strange new quirk that seems to have developed into an ongoing character trait. No one’s questioned it, which she doesn’t know how to take except that she can’t possibly explain that it’s because Ashley has her reading. She could come up with a cover story, but she’s not sure how to do that, either. It’s best no one asks, and even better not to think too hard about said query’s absence.

Karin wants to keep a closer eye on her today. She’s hardly been out of bed at all and she’s already struggling to keep herself going, so she can’t say she’s surprised. She isn’t pleased, but she couldn’t have expected anything else.

“Hey, Lola,” James confirms his presence before she sees his face. He must have heard her coming. She sits down at the kitchen table, strongly encouraged by Karin. She doesn’t want to leave Kaidan alone while he switches from desperate writhing in pain to desperate writhing as a side effect, layering pillows and blankets over his head and trying not to scream, but there’s not much she can do.

“How’s it going, James?” She tries to smile at him. She rests her elbows over the table and bows her head into her hands. For the time being, she no longer bothers to try smiling.

“Better than you,” he laughs, and he knows she appreciates it. She’s visibly uncomfortable with being treated like she’s made of glass, even though it’s the only way anyone can possibly proceed for the time being. The glass may not be literal, but no one has been convinced the fragility isn’t.

“You’re telling me,” she sighs at the table, or at least that’s where she’s looking.

“Oh, you should have seen me the morning after your wake,” Diana teases as she takes a seat across from Shepard. “I probably looked ten times worse than you do.”

“You know, you’re not wrong,” Samantha smirks. “It was terrifying waking up next to that face, let me tell you…”

Shepard tries to laugh but she doesn’t seem to have the energy for even that much. It’s obvious she likes having everyone around, though, no matter how difficult it can be for her to actively socialize or simply stay out of bed long enough for even the attempt at holding a decent conversation.

It’s a good thing she loves Karin so much because god only knows how hard she’d fight anyone else. It’s no secret she’s not a big fan of doctors and everyone can see it, but neither is it any secret she sees this doctor as a mother figure, and that helps get her through. At least it’s something.

“Hungry, Lola?” James asks and hopes for the best. After all, sometimes she says yes. At least it’s something.

“I’ll have a little of whatever you’re making,” she hesitates before replying, but it’s a good answer. “Something small, but…sure.”

“Kaidan coming down?” He suspects he already knows the answer, as Kaidan hasn’t been looking too well, himself, so he’s not surprised when Shepard shakes her head.

“Karin’s got him doped up,” she confirms. “Probably won’t be seeing much of him today. I’ll go check on him after breakfast.”

James hopes maybe this will be Kaidan’s breaking point. It’s been rough watching both of them go through hell like this.

“Sparks was here earlier,” James adds. “She said she’ll be back later today or tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow might be better,” Shepard begrudgingly admits. “But tell her I’m sorry if…”

“I will,” he smiles. It’s hard enough, she doesn’t need to go on.

“How’s it going with you two?” She turns to Diana and Samantha. This is already the most she’s seen of them since the Normandy. She always did think they’d make a good couple. She’s glad to see she was right.

“They’re already starting to list new apartments on the Citadel,” Samantha replies. “There won’t be any ready for showing for a while yet, but they’ve opened up the queue to anyone who might be interested once rebuilds are more complete, so we’ve put our names in. After all, the Reapers have been a huge help in speeding things along…”

It’s still strange to Shepard, that they’re all on the same side now—that they’re all a part of each other now. It was the choice she made, she knows, but it feels impossible to grow accustomed to, all the same. She still doesn’t understand what long term effects this synthesis will have. She doesn’t feel any different aside from the debilitating pain and inability to function more often than not, but that’s likely yet more to do with her very survival than anything else.

Of course, she was already basically half-Reaper before this, from after she died the first time, so maybe nothing has to make any sense, anyway. It’s not exactly normal to live to recount one’s previous deaths. Nothing about this is normal. Nothing about her is normal.

“Think you’ll go back to yours?” Samantha asks, and it takes Shepard a moment to register. “To your Citadel apartment, I mean. I’m sure there’s someone you could talk to about it, or…”

Samantha appears to read the room, and she trails off.

“I don’t know,” Shepard shrugs. “I like it here, and it wouldn’t be the same since…”

Shepard can’t finish her thought, either. It wouldn’t be the same because it will no longer have been Anderson’s. He still wanted her to have it, sure, and a part of her feels like she might yet have to try to reclaim it, but she doubts she’ll ever live there if she does. She probably will look into it, she realizes, but she’s not sure if she’ll so much as visit if she does take it.

“Wait, so where are you living now?” Shepard asks. It occurs to her that she doesn’t know much of anything about anyone’s lives, not even those kinds of smaller details. She isn’t sure anyone lives anywhere anymore; they’re always there, lingering around Kaidan’s home—their home overlooking English Bay, just like he always talked about on the Normandy.

This will take some getting used to.

“We’re not, really,” Diana answers. “We’ve been spending a lot of time on Tuchanka lately—the genophage is still a seriously easy ratings-grab—but in general, ANN has me running anywhere and everywhere these days, covering post-war stories left and right, so we’re just sort of…around.”

“You’re not gonna ask me for an interview, are you, Allers?” Shepard almost laughs. Almost.

“Auto-matte cameras can only take you so far, Commander,” Diana retorts with a playful laugh. It’s just teasing, just banter, they’ve done this before.

Everything is different now, though. Shepard cringes at Diana’s use of her title, fully aware of how unlikely it is that she will ever make use of it again. She can’t stand to think on it. Just as she doesn’t want to think on synthesized Reapers, on lost apartments, on who comes and who goes.

She realizes she doesn’t actually know how many people outside of this house even know she’s alive. She has her suspicions it’s been kept from the public.

“Maybe I should lie back down,” she says without thinking. She hasn’t touched a bite of James’s breakfast. She hadn’t noticed she had a plate in front of her until just now.

“Feeling okay?” James sounds much too concerned, typically next in line after Kaidan and Karin when it comes to worrying about her. It makes her happier than she can admit (he probably doesn’t even know she considers him to be her best friend), even when it frustrates her just as much.

“Yeah, I will be,” she sighs. It’s not exactly a lie, or at least she has to hope it isn’t.

James sees the doubt in her eyes when she briefly brings herself to flash them at him. She’s trying so hard but she doesn’t have much to give.

He always knew there was more going on behind those eyes than she let on, but he’s never faulted her for her apparent hesitance in letting him in. She hasn’t known him nearly as long as most of those who served in the Normandy, he knows. Hell, the only reason they met to begin with was because he was her escort while she was incarcerated by the Alliance after returning from the Omega 4 relay. He feels damn lucky she trusts him nearly as much as she does (but he wonders if he should ever tell her that he thinks of her as a best friend, just as close as Steve, really).

“Just feel better, Lola,” he says seriously. “I’ll save you some.”

“Thanks, James,” she manages a small smile.

“Back so soon?” Karin must have been heading into the kitchen, herself, but she stops when she meets Shepard in the hallway. “Feeling alright?”

“Not really,” she shrugs. “I just need to lie down, it’s nothing out of the ordinary now.”

“Kaidan’s stopped shaking for the most part, so you should both be able to get some rest, if that’s what you need.” This is why she’s Shepard’s favorite doctor, she knows when Shepard just needs space and time to breathe.

“Thank you,” she nods. She really does need to lie down, though, and fast. She’s been in so much pain since the Citadel, and her knees are already starting to feel like they might buckle under the weight of it. “James made breakfast…”

“I know, you can smell it from a mile away,” Karin smiles. “That’s where I’m headed now. Go lie down, Shepard.”

She’s tempted to ask if she really looks quite that bad, but she already knows and she’s running out of time before she ends up on the floor.

She collapses into bed the second she reaches it, but Kaidan doesn’t stir. There’s a slight tremor that remains moving throughout his whole body, but she’s seen him through worse.

She doesn’t move in too close, for as greatly as she longs to; she allows him room to breathe and rolls over onto her side and crosses her own arms over her chest.

“You love him,” Thane remarks without inflection. She must have fallen asleep.

She says nothing. Even if he were real, he knows this answer. She was honest with him about Kaidan, or as honest as she could be.

“It’s alright, siha,” Thane continues, and he knows the rest, all she never said.

Of course he does, he isn’t real. This isn’t real.

“Fear in her eyes almost masks the sadness, the shake in her hands—easily mistaken for nerves,” Thane rapidly recounts. “‘Be alive with me tonight,’ she says. It is easier when we are both certain our time is almost at an end. Her lips are soft but hesitant, she doesn’t seem to notice that she’s holding back. I say nothing, I try not to think on it, myself—because I love her, and because in this moment I truly am alive.”

“It’s not like…” She trails off, unsure of what it is or isn’t like.

It shouldn’t matter, he’s not really there.

“I know it pains you, siha,” he says gently. “But I do not regret our time together. I am grateful to have been brought back to life before I died.”

She tries not to think of standing by Kolyat’s side over Thane’s death bed, of praying with him and of Thane’s last wish. She can’t shake it out, and she knows she never will.

“You loved me in your own way,” he reassures her. She shakes her head, she doesn’t want it.

“Thane, please,” she whispers. “Don’t, I…just don’t.”

She tries not to think of asking Kolyat why the last verse of the prayer said “she,” not to think of Kolyat telling her that Thane had already asked forgiveness for himself, that his wish was for her.

She doesn’t want it.

She had cried herself to sleep that night, had buried her face into a pillow and screamed and howled until what little rest she would get finally won out. She tries not to think about it.

She had hoped against hope that she would never have to look Thane’s son in the eyes again after that, but she had later hosted Thane’s memorial with Kolyat in her apartment, anyway. She tries not to think about it.

“I care for you, Thane,” she says softly. “I cared for you when we were together and I care for you now. But you should have been with someone who could give you what you deserved. That was never going to be me. Not even just because of Kaidan, but because of…because of me, Thane. I couldn’t be what I should have been.”

“Siha,” he replies quickly. “I love you, not whoever you might believe it is that you ‘should have been.’ That night we spent together was one of the few times in my life that my body was mine, and I shared it with you. It was my choice to make, and I would make it again without question.”

“I never deserved you, Thane,” she presses. “I did lo—I do love you, but not…”

“There is no ‘should,’ siha,” he says gently, anticipating the end of her thought, as he would. “There is only what is and what was, and what was was a good end to a life.”

“Why?” She almost shouts; she wants to scream, to lash out, to unleash and fall apart until there is nothing left of the debris but dust, nothing left of her to recover. “Why me, Thane? What the fuck made it so good for you?”

She doesn’t know why she asks. This isn’t real, it’s only her memories of him collecting into something that cannot possibly exist in this moment, even if she wanted it to.

Maybe she wants it to.

“He loves you, as well,” he tells her. “You see it in his eyes every time he looks at you, the way he smiles when he sees you. He is giving everything he can for you because he loves you, and you know this. You know how much he loves you, and you know that he has for nearly as long as he’s known you.”

“So fucking what?” She snaps. “That’s also the reason he’s literally been worrying himself sick, the reason he’s putting himself out and trying to hide what an anxious fucking mess all of this is making him. Is that honestly something I should want to inspire in people?”

“You are loved, siha.” His voice cracks. It’s so wrong the way his face falls, how intensely he looks and sounds just like the real Thane. “You inspire many, as you inspired me. What others do with that inspiration might not always align with your intentions, but it does not discount your importance. I know that your intentions are good. How many are alive today because of you? How many have you saved?”

“I couldn’t save you,” she retorts.

“It could never have turned out that way, you know this.” He reaches for her hand, and she lets him. It doesn’t matter, it’s not real. “Yet you avenged me, did you not? ‘That was for Thane, you son of a bitch,’ so angry but so filled with passion, with heights of emotion I’m not sure most people have the capacity to feel.”

“You might be right about that,” she laughs. “But it isn’t a good thing I can feel like I do, believe me.”

“I cannot doubt your experience,” he offers with a soothing smile. “I can, however, say that I have seen what you are capable of, how driven you are, how full your heart is. Yours is a beautiful soul, siha, and I will know it when it finds mine across the sea.”

“If,” she counters. “It might be stuck here. Who the fuck knows anymore.”

“When,” he affirms. “You’re not going anywhere yet, because your time has simply not yet come. You have purpose where you are, and that’s what matters now.”

“What fucking purpose am I serving wasting away most of my time in a goddamn bed while everyone goes nuts over me like I’m some fucking helpless animal? Because I am some fucking helpless animal? What the fuck kind of life is this? Who the fuck could possibly benefit? What the fuck am I still doing here?”

She takes a second to catch her breath. Even in dreams, she can’t keep herself together. She’s thankful this isn’t real, though; she couldn’t bear to actually speak to Thane this way. She can hate herself ever so marginally less about it, at least, since it isn’t.

“Explain this to me, please,” she starts to yell. “Please, Thane, you were always so good with…so good with these things, you were so good…help me, help me, please…”

“Mind in overdrive, emotional equivalent to dumpster fire—no, better analogy: thermonuclear detonation,” Mordin observes. “Subject in severe distress, constant state of chaos. Bedrest ineffective. Moral support ineffective. Next step…next step…need to think…”

“There is no next step,” Shepard practically shrieks. “There is no effective, there is no better, there’s just fucking this and fucking me, and I don’t want it. I don’t want it, okay? I don’t fucking want it.”

“Subject comfortable in melancholy,” Mordin adds. “Resignation…problematic.”

“Yeah, no shit,” she shakes her head. She wishes it were that simple, that complete resignation to her state came so easily.

“Easy there, Shepard,” Anderson chimes in. “You’ve been through hell and back, and you’ll get through this, too.”

“They don’t need me anymore,” she mumbles. She hates feeling so useless, hates having nowhere to channel all of…this. The doctor in London told James she’d probably never serve again and she knows, she knows that has to be true but she can’t stand the idea of it. She doesn’t know how to cope without life or death decisions hinging on her any longer. If the galaxy doesn’t require her skills, if it doesn’t actively need her alive, she doesn’t know she can justify remaining so to herself.

“Yes, they do,” Anderson replies. “Just not in the way you’re accustomed to. You’ll get used to this, though, I know you will. I promise.”

“Dad,” she whimpers. She’s so pathetic, so much more vulnerable than she’d ever wanted to believe she could be. It doesn’t matter that this one particular mistaken form of address slipped out in dreams, though. It had happened more than once in reality, as well.

She’s definitely going to have to look into that apartment.

“Come back,” she speaks again. “Anderson, Thane, Mordin, Ashley—come back, please, please, please, please…”

She’s missing so many others left behind, so many long gone before her.

“Please, come back,” she begs into the abyss, the visages that had surrounded her having disappeared completely.

“Carrie,” comes a shaken voice, and she feels it as though it’s physically moving her.

“Carrie, hey,” the voice says again, louder and more sternly.

Her eyes snap open to Kaidan leaning over her, squinting his eyes beneath his furrowed brow, her gaze following his face to his clenched jaw. She can feel the heavy rise and fall of his chest, but his breathing immediately starts to slow, to calm once she looks back at him.

He really does love her.

“Hey,” she responds after a few seconds. “How are you feeling?”

“Worried about you,” he answers instantly, as she should have known he would.

“I mean your head, Kaidan, you know I mean…” She stops and reaches over to touch his lips with her fingertips, to trail them over his cheeks and down his jawline. “Hey, you know that’s not good for you.”

He relaxes under her touch, and he is quick to apologize. “Sorry, I just…I…”

“I know, Kaidan,” she says softly. “I know, but…please, you can’t…you have to watch out for yourself and I can’t…I can’t do…fuck…”

He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to seeing her like this. The way her eyes plead with his for something he can’t name, the way her voice cracks so regularly when she speaks, how hard it’s become for her to conceal the way she’s feeling. If he’s being completely honest, he can’t quite bring himself to see the latter point as a negative, knowing how much she’s kept in for how long, and how it’s eaten away at her. It’s different, though, all the same, to watch her walls fall into nothing, to watch her suffer so much more openly.

“You were talking in your sleep,” he tells her. “Sounded bad, so…”

“Thanks,” she whispers and wraps her arm around him as she rolls herself over, pressing herself close against his chest, and he reciprocates by gripping her tight, both of his arms holding onto her as firmly as he is able.

“Kaidan,” she starts again, her voice unnervingly rough, so disturbingly fragile. “Kaidan, I…I love you, you know that, right? I love you so fucking much, you have to know that.”

“Hey,” he utters so quietly, so softly, trying to ease her, trying to conceal just how frightening he finds her tone. “Carrie, hey, come on…you know that I do, you know that…and you know how much I love you, yeah?”

“Of course,” she sighs. He feels her tense up, though, and he can’t help but worry. “How’s your head?”

“It’s better now, don’t worry about me,” he hastily replies, trying to keep his tone light. “Karin loaded me up on the good stuff.”

“You can’t keep worrying about me like this, either, Kaidan,” she adds. She has to realize how much more easily said than done that is. “You’ve got to watch out for yourself, okay? Fucking promise me.”

“I promise,” he says, and now he has to mean it. He can’t let her down like that, not now, not when things are like this.

“Kaidan,” she starts again in that same eerily broken voice, like she’s choking back a crash. She probably is. “I can’t lose you again. I know, I know how fucking selfish that has to sound right now, I know, but I…I can’t, Kaidan, I can’t lose you. I can’t.”

“You won’t, Carrie,” he doesn’t miss a beat. “You won’t, I promise, alright? I can promise you that, without a single shadow of a doubt. And there’s nothing selfish about it, believe me, I know…I know.”

Her nails dig into his back, it feels like she’s trying to suppress what’s coming to the surface. He wishes she wouldn’t keep pushing all this back down, but he can never seem to tell her that it’s okay, that he’ll be there when it rises and bubbles over like it’s eventually bound to do. He tries, but she can’t seem to grasp it. He’ll just have to show her when the time comes.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he mutters under his breath, so quietly she might not even hear. If she does, she says nothing in return, but he knows that doesn’t mean anything.

She has nothing in return, so that is all she can give him. She only wants to feel him, to be held so close, just like this.

Ashley smiles at them from across the room, watches them, perpending their affection with wide eyes and an approving nod. She starts to speak, her words soft and slow, rhythmic and lyrical.

“‘Mother Medea in a green smock moves humbly as any housewife through her ruined apartments, taking stock of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery; cheated of the pyre and the rack, the crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.’”

The remainder of the poem Shepard had been thinking of earlier. Ashley finishes from where she’d left off, and it’s strangely comforting.

It’s almost a pleasant moment before the cold sweats begin again. She starts to shiver, and her immediate fear is that Karin is going to banish her back to the guest room.

Kaidan grips her tighter, perhaps trying to keep her warm. She’s so damp and sticky already, she feels disgusting, but he holds on. He doesn’t let her out of her grasp no matter what.

He only removes one arm to stretch and reach for the call button, and he returns it to her right after.

She’s in a daze, dizzy from the fog that fills her head when she realizes she’s wrapped in blankets and Kaidan is standing in the doorway, talking to Garrus. She can’t make out the words. She doesn’t try.

Karin is having what sounds like an incredibly lively conversation just outside the bedroom door with someone, someone familiar, someone Shepard knows well…

She clearly hears her own name, but she can’t make out the rest of the words. She still doesn’t try.

Miranda makes some exclamation or another—that’s it, that’s the other voice. It all makes sense.

She closes her eyes again. She dreams of Kai Leng and the Illusive Man, of Thessia and the Citadel coup and Cronos Station. She dreams of defeat and regret, defeat and regret.

At least these dreams would likely have come no matter what had happened with the Crucible. This wasn’t her turbulent defiance of nature, this was simply who she was. Defeat and regret, defeat and regret.

Nightmares, panic, endless guilt, constant breakdowns, and defeat and regret.

It’s nice to hope they might yet be able to fix the rest, though. It’s even nicer to hope they’ve just become that much closer.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard has avoided getting out of bed for four straight days. She has not spoken a word to anyone aside from Kaidan or Karin, and she has severely limited her interactions with even them.

She doesn’t know what happens next, if anything at all, and she is afraid.

“Well, we’re all changing now,” Miranda tells Karin. They’ve been conversing directly outside of the bedroom Kaidan has to continuously keep reminding Shepard is now also hers, as they’ve been doing exceptionally frequently since the former’s arrival. They’re obviously waiting on Shepard to let them in, and she’s grateful. She hasn’t yet figured out how to actually bring herself to do it, though.

Shepard pulls a blanket up and over her head. She’s not listening. She’s not ready.

She’s curled up beneath a veritable mountain of covers, so desperately cold as she has been these past few days. Karin hasn’t put her back under what feels like fucking quarantine, though, so at least there’s that. She’s been watching her like a hawk, but that much is to be expected.

She just wants this to stop, to find the light at the end of the tunnel, for it to consume her in burning effulgence and keep her warm as she passes through.

“I never could have anticipated this,” Miranda sighs. “If anything, she’s essentially become the prototype for all li—oh, hello…”

Shepard’s doing a shit job of not listening.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Joker laughs. “Is Shepard taking visitors today?”

“I’m not sure, we haven’t really seen her in a few days,” Karin replies. It almost sounds like she’s projecting her voice. They are absolutely doing this on purpose.

“Fuck’s sake,” Shepard mumbles to herself. She hasn’t seen Joker yet, though, which is legitimately quite surprising (he’s certainly her other best friend, of course; they’ve been through more together than most and she’s kept him closest for so much of their time together).

There’s a knock at the door. It must be him. She laughs to herself at his persistence. She’d expect nothing less.

She pulls down the blanket, uncovering her eyes.

She takes a deep breath. She wishes she could see just him, that she could let him in now without the promise of the flood of others this invitation will undoubtedly summon, but she knows it won’t work like that, so she can only hope to emotionally brace herself.

But of course, she knows it won’t work like that.

“Jeff, no,” someone says to try to stop him, but he goes for the door, anyway. He is able to pry it open just a crack, with barely enough room to peek his head in, but he manages. Seeing his face brings such a smile to Shepard’s.

It’s the face of the one person she could actually save.

“Hey,” he greets her when he meets her eyes, and he lets himself in the rest of the way when she shifts to let her whole face show, and she’s still grinning.

“Jo—oh holy shit,” she catches the way he’s walking, like it’s never been an issue for him. He moves effortlessly, standing straight, with no limp or any visible strain to speak of.

He smirks at her and she’s not sure if he knows what’s caused that reaction, if it’s appropriate to comment, if she should have said even that much.

Joker, on the other hand, feels conflicted, with Shepard staring at him the way she is, obviously taking in his new posture and gait, just as everyone else he ever knew before the war ended has done since the synthesis. At the same time, however, it appears to have cost Shepard some of her own ability, to have made this happen, and the pleasant surprise in her eyes upon seeing him does nothing to conceal how much she’s screaming behind them.

He’s gotten the gist from everyone else that her own prior Reaper tech might have something to do with this, and he has to stop himself from lingering on the memory of how that had ever happened, of whose life she’d died saving.

“What the hell happened to you, Shepard?” He knows he shouldn’t have asked that, but it’s too late now.

“Fuck if I know,” she tries to smile. That’s a face she makes a lot, even Joker can see that. There’s a struggle and a split second where it’s so close, and then it’s gone.

He sits down at the edge of the bed and she sits herself up a little, shifting around some pillows as best she can and leaning back into them. She shivers just the slightest bit and adjusts her blankets, of which there appear to be many. She’d known dark circles and bags beneath her eyes back on the Normandy, but Joker had never pictured her like this. Her face looks thinner and sharper, her pallor sickly, and what seems to be her default expression is forcedly stoic but transpicuous, all too clearly one that indicates the emotional and physical strain of debilitating pain. Joker can see it plain as day, being all too familiar with once having been the one to wear such a look, himself.

“What was it…what was it like?” He’s not sure he should have asked that, either, but it doesn’t stop him. “With the Catalyst? What happened up there?”

Another knock at the door comes just in time. She’s going to have to start letting people in soon enough now, she knows, but she’s unbelievably relieved that this time it’s Kaidan.

He smiles at her when he walks in. He’s always glad to see her interacting, to see her engaging with those she loves. Everyone’s understood her borderline reclusion, no one faults her or takes it personally, but it’s obvious it bothers her, that she worries her friends will leave her if she hides too long, if she doesn’t soon find her way forward through this wreckage even just far enough to meet the day.

“James is making breakfast,” Kaidan notes, and Shepard shakes her head.

“Does he just live here now?” She manages to laugh softly. “Don’t any of you people have jobs?”

She continues her quiet laughter, more to ease the awkwardness than anything else. She still legitimately doesn’t know, even Kaidan’s current status with the Alliance is a mystery she hasn’t yet bothered to unlock.

“Definitely seems like it,” Kaidan laughs, himself. “It’s just that we’re all here for you, Carrie, you know that, and everyone else wants you to know it, too.”

“Fuck,” she sighs, anyway. “I don’t…I’ve been really bad at this…”

“EDI and I’ve been working on the Normandy again,” Joker starts. “We’re on the SR-3 now, but you know me, I’ll stick with her no matter how many times she needs to be rebuilt.”

“EDI’s working with the Alliance? Officially?” Shepard asks. It’s a little overwhelming to realize how lost she’s been, how far out of touch, and Kaidan and Joker can both see it in her face.

“As a consultant, technically,” Joker explains. “No one knows the Normandy’s inner workings better than she does, not even me, so she’s been working as sort of an independent contractor or whatever legal bullshit they use to work around it.”

It’s a start, but it obviously isn’t good enough for her. “What are you doing he—”

“Requested leave as soon as I heard,” Joker interrupts. “Given the circumstances, I doubt they’re gonna be denying any of us who asks.”

“I don’t know,” Shepard smirks. “I saved all our asses twice before, and even died once already, and that didn’t seem to earn any of us a single fucking point with the Alliance at the end of the day.”

“Not that you’re bitter,” Joker teases, and she laughs. Everyone laughs.

“You’re officially a hero now, Carrie,” Kaidan stops lingering awkwardly around the doorway and sits down beside her. “I’ll need to see if I can find the vids of any of Khalisah al-Jilani’s post-war reports for you. They’re really sort of funny.”

“Oh god, how is she not dead? Fuck, I can picture it now, though,” Shepard laughs again. This is definitely the most she’s done so in a very long time. She takes on a serious tone, one that would be expected of a reporter, but she retains the intended air of mockery. “Lieutenant Commander Carrie Nesiah Shepard, 2154–2186, the woman who famously did every fucking thing in her power and then some to keep our galaxy intact and is the sole reason I’m even fucking alive today, but also that bitch who’s punched me in the face every single time we’ve ever met…”

“Yeah, basically,” Kaidan smiles. “She’s much more tactful about it, but you can really tell how badly she doesn’t want to be.”

“There’ve been goddamn pilgrimages—not the quarian kind—to Akuze and Alchera,” Joker continues. “People leaving flowers and stones at the monuments, wearing black ribbons, holding candlelight memorials, the whole nine. It’s been happening on Mindoir, too; people are flat-out creating shrines to you there. No one’s fucking around anymore, Shepard, you’re a damn symbol now and nobody, not the Alliance or even the Council, can try to fight that after everything that’s happened.”

“I’ll bet all those people were pretty pissed when they heard the news,” she muses. It’s entirely to test her theory, to fish for the answer she knows she could ask outright but can’t seem to form somehow.

Kaidan takes an awkward breath, and she knows she’s right.

“They haven’t, actually, not yet,” he tells her. “This is all highly classified until…I don’t know, to be honest with you. Maybe until things calm down a little more? With how easily the Reapers repaired the mass relays, though, we all saw how much worse this all could be, so maybe…I know it’ll be years before everything’s back to ‘normal,’ whatever that means, but we’re making amazing progress.”

“Getting a little off-track there?” Joker chuckles, and Shepard shoots him a glare. “I don’t know shit about anything, either, though. Maybe someone just needs to, ah fuck, I don’t know…see you, you know?”

She shrugs. She’s strangely okay with indefinitely remaining officially dead. Or permanently, even; that’d be alright, too. It’s not like before, when she was wracked with guilt over her loved ones not knowing, over being unable to tell them herself. This time the ones who matter know, and she’s perfectly fine with no one else ever learning.

“Who gives a fuck, really,” she says flatly. She didn’t mean to voice that but she’s not sure why she shouldn’t.

“I don’t know, all this public mourning might go to your head if it goes on long enough,” Joker grins. He doesn’t know why it bothers him that her survival might remain a secret for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it’s simply because of how strong his personal gratitude for it is, how unbelievably pleased he is to know she’s still here. He and EDI had nearly jumped for joy when they got the message from Kaidan, although he was never going to tell anyone that all they actually did was cry, they were so happy. That had been a moment with EDI in itself, as well, each of them made that much more emotional by how both of their emotions were able to manifest.

He is beyond ecstatic about the whole thing, though, and he can’t imagine keeping it a secret in the long term. Shepard’s alive, and there is no better news anywhere in the whole damn universe than that.

He thinks on EDI, though, and on his own body, on what Shepard did for them—for everyone. He knows he shouldn’t ask again, but he can’t help himself.

“What the hell happened up there?”

He looks down immediately, uncharacteristically nervous about speaking in that moment.

“A lot,” she shrugs, and Kaidan watches. She hasn’t talked about it yet, not a single detail, and he can’t claim he isn’t curious, himself.

And then she does.

She explains everything, from forcing her way through the Citadel to Anderson’s dying breath to what led her to make the choice she did.

Joker turns away when she brings up EDI. He clearly doesn’t want anyone to see him as overcome with emotion as he can’t hide that he is.

“Fuck,” Kaidan lets out heavily once she’s finished, and Shepard laughs quietly to herself and looks towards a corner across the room.

“It’s still funny when he talks like that, right?” Ashley smiles. “You’re such a bad influence, Skipper.”

Shepard doesn’t say a word, not with Kaidan and Joker there to see. Because she knows, she knows it isn’t real, she knows Ashley isn’t there.

Ashley—or Shepard’s recollection of her, or whatever the hell this is—is right, though. They’d shared a drink over it after the first time they ever heard him swear, as they had found it so unreasonably entertaining. He had joined them, thankfully realizing how they meant it, that they only wanted him to be comfortable. He was so shy and reserved when he first came aboard the Normandy, and that much had clearly not slipped by Ashley when she joined the crew, but it was more than that. He was so self-controlled, almost rigid, so nervous about his own abilities and how far he knew he could take them. His power and his discipline served them all well in the field, of course, but Shepard and Ashley had both frequently encouraged him to let a bit loose with them, and it was obviously difficult for him.

Shepard, in contrast, has had a mouth on her for as long as she can remember. She doesn’t intend to speak as she does most of the time, but it comes out that way quite often, regardless. Kaidan to this day still doesn’t speak like that too regularly—most typically when he’s in the midst of a migraine or during times of excessively heightened emotion—but she knows she’s rubbed off on him in that way, and there’s something about it that she finds endearing.

To be fair, though, she always has felt that way about Kaidan, about everything that makes him who he is. She’d known there was something special about him from the very moment they met, and she’d been so pleased at how little time it took to reveal he felt the same for her.

“You know, it actually kind of reminds me of the first time the three of us were on the Citadel together,” Ashley smiles. “You know, when he slipped up and called you beautiful. It was sweet to see him blush—and so obvious you two are meant to be together, it was painful.”

Shepard doesn’t respond, and at this point she can only hope that neither Kaidan nor Joker can tell she’s listening when no one real is speaking.

“It just makes me think about it, though,” Ashley goes on. “I think because it was always so easy to see what an impact you have on him. I guess it all goes hand in hand, you know?”

Shepard smirks despite herself, and the amused hum that accompanies it catches Kaidan’s attention.

The awkward silence that followed her letting everything out is already slightly overwhelming, but the way she’s staring at the wall is unnerving, along with (worse yet) the subtle changes in expression that would indicate she’s reacting if there was anything happening that she might be reacting to.

“You okay?” Kaidan asks. Joker’s looking at her, too, just the same way.

“Yeah, yeah,” she answers quickly, and she instantly looks down. “Yeah, I just…I’m fine, yeah.”

“Real convincing,” Joker laughs, and Kaidan shakes his head because he’s on exactly the same page.

Shepard looks up again and Ashley presses a finger to her lips with a soft “shh” sound, and Shepard takes in a sharp breath. It’s the first time one of these visions has broken character, and that scares her. Their happening to begin with is something she can accept, something she can handle—as well as anyone possibly can deal with such an occurrence, at least. This, though…this she does not like one bit.

“Carrie,” Kaidan sounds far more afraid than he means to. He is, but his tone is one of desperation, much greater than he intended.

“I’m cold,” she tells him, and no one could say why she chooses that line when she’s visibly sweating. Granted, she tends to experience both sensations as one fairly frequently, but she isn’t shivering or shaking. She is still, almost too still, aside from the rapid movement of her unfocused eyes.

Kaidan touches her face, runs his hand up her cheek and over her forehead, and she does feel mildly feverish. Nothing like she has been over the course of her time there, and he figures it may even be a simple matter of the multitude of blankets over and around her that she hasn’t let go of, but the warmth radiates from her in any case.

“‘Pure? What does it mean? The tongues of hell are dull, dull as the triple tongues of dull, fat Cerberus who wheezes at the gate. Incapable of licking clean the aguey tendon, the sin, the sin. The tinder cries.’”

She rattles off the words, her voice husky and quiet, and Joker cocks his head in confusion, or possibly outright fear. His eyes widen, he doesn’t know how to take this. Kaidan doesn’t have anything to offer on the subject, himself. He’s caught Shepard talking to herself like this more than once, clearly recounting some quote or another, and it isn’t something she ever did before. He doesn’t understand it, but neither has he yet asked. He gets that there’s so much he doesn’t know when it comes to her current state, and he genuinely isn’t sure how to prioritize his concerns.

Somehow, though, that one in particular makes Kaidan think of meeting Shepard on Horizon during the Collector attack, of seeing her in person for the first time since rumors began to circulate that she was alive. Maybe it’s as simple as the “Cerberus” mentioned in the verse…or the imagery of licking wounds, the harsh tone of hurt and despair…but in any case, he finds himself focusing heavily on that day.

He’d hoped those rumors were true—of course he had—despite the fact that he’d never heard from her, and despite the rumors that accompanied it, of who she was working for. He’d moved on by then, or at least he had wanted to, and he was actually starting to…in theory. Seeing her face again, though, seeing her there—alive—in front of him, being able to hold her again…

He thinks on the way he did just that, on the long embrace they’d shared before he broke away. After he let go, though, he turned, and even then he didn’t want to, even then he knew he shouldn’t have, but it had transpired as it did and he couldn’t stop it while it was happening. He couldn’t handle it, there was too much coming up at once. So many feelings, far too powerful, some of them conflicting, and he’d regretted his reaction as soon as he’d walked away but in that moment there was nothing else he could do.

He knows he could never truly have moved on from her. He’d loved her too long and too hard, and they’d already been through so much together. In the two years she’d been dead he had only just started so much as trying to move forward. Her death had broken him and he isn’t sure he would ever truly have put himself back together, as hard as he’d tried. He did his best to articulate that in the message he sent later via the extranet, when he could take his time to better compose his thoughts and have the space to form them in his own way and at his own level of comfort, without the pressure of any other presence, but he never quite got it right, and neither could he have. There was just too much.

He’s so thankful he didn’t have to lose her again. He’ll probably never tell her, but he truly doesn’t think he could do it.

“You alright there, Shepard?” Joker decides to test the waters again and ask.

“Yeah, of course,” she replies too quickly, and again no one is convinced. She looks to shimmy her arms a little from beneath her hoard of blankets, it looks like she’s trying to bring them even closer to herself.

Kaidan pushes himself closer to her until they’d be touching were it not for the protective barrier of fleece and down and whatever else that surrounds her. Joker watches and smiles, both over Shepard being there at all and over having to thank her for his being able to do just this with EDI. For as awful as it was to believe he’d lost his best friend yet again, he hadn’t known how close he’d come to losing his partner in the process. He loves EDI, and thanks to Shepard neither of them any longer feel like they can’t say it. Shit, before they didn’t even feel like they could think it.

It’s different now, though. Everything is different now, and it’s all thanks to Shepard. Which makes it all that much greater of a goddamn shame she appears to be the only one who isn’t better off.

Not that the rest of them—the rest of the galaxy, for that matter—hadn’t been through hell during the war. So many lost their homes, even their whole families. Joker had, himself, in both examples. But now he has the family he’s found, he has someone to come home to, and he has his health. It breaks his heart to see what Shepard has to endure while everyone else’s lives improve as well as they can in the aftermath. And it’s all because of her.

“‘They will not rise, but trundle ‘round the globe choking the aged and the meek, the weak hothouse baby in its crib, the ghastly orchid hanging its garden in the air, devilish leopard! Radiation turned it white and killed it in an hour. Greasing the bodies of adulterers like Hiroshima ash and eating in. The sin. The sin. Darling, all night I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.’”

It’s an answer in itself, the way she goes on, and one that greatly contradicts the one she’d half-assed after Joker asked.

“‘Your body hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern— My head a moon of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.’”

She knows she’s missing lines but she doesn’t remember it as well as she thought she did, and Ashley isn’t there to help.

Not that Ashley’s been there at all. Ashley hasn’t been there since Virmire, where Shepard isn’t sure there had even been anything left of her friend to recover after the fact. She isn’t sure she’ll ever forgive herself for not trying harder. She doesn’t know what more she could have done, but there had to be something. There had to be.

She remembers telling Kaidan as honestly as she could when he asked why him, remembers having to admit that he knew, that he already fucking knew why she could never have left him behind. She wonders if Ashley—the real Ashley—knew, too. Shepard suspects she did, but she was still so understanding about it, about losing in the decision over who would be the first casualty to come as a direct result of Shepard’s command.

It doesn’t make any sense to Shepard, to be forgiven for letting someone die like that, and much less by the very person whose life was about to be lost.

She still can’t help thinking she should have died, too, when she was on the Citadel. She can't stop thinking it. She knows it would have destroyed Kaidan to lose her like that a second time, but she still knows he’d have understood the circumstance, and she has to believe that he’d have eventually moved on.

And for her, it would simply have been—as Thane had so well put it—a good end to a life.

Alas...

“‘Does my heat not astound you. And my light. All by myself I am a huge camellia. Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush. I think I am going up, I think I may rise—’”

Her voices decreases in volume but increases in dolor, like she’s trying to tell them something, like she’s begging them for help, for answers, for…for something.

This isn’t living, this is only having survived.

Kaidan starts rhythmically tapping his fingers over his knees. Fortunately he hasn’t had a migraine since Karin got through to him, both medically and psychologically, but this is a lot. He wants it, he needs it, he wouldn’t trade it for anything—it’s a lot, though, all the same. It’s a lot and it can be so hard to handle, so hard to not become consumed by, so hard to keep from being overwhelmed.

She isn’t looking at Kaidan, she isn’t looking at Joker. Her eyes are darting everywhere, searching the room for something that isn’t there, but neither of the men present know what it could be.

“‘The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I am a pure acetylene virgin attended by roses, by kisses, by cherubim, by whatever those pink things mean. Not you, nor him.’”

“I think maybe I should get going,” Joker says. It’s uncomfortable and he doesn’t really want to leave her, but he knows he can’t help and he doesn’t want to risk making anything worse. She might just need space, especially considering how much time she’s been spending alone.

But really, he wants to be with EDI. She’s there, probably mingling in the living room, but it seems his visit has been more than enough for Shepard, and besides, he doesn’t really want to mingle. He just wants to be with EDI, now more than ever.

“‘Not him, nor him (my selves dissolving into, old whore petticoats)— To Paradise.’”

Shepard looks up, looks to Kaidan and to Joker, and she looks down and starts to cry. Kaidan’s seen her do that more in the past weeks than he ever had in any of their time together before this. She tries to hide it, even now, but he still can’t deny how greatly he doesn’t want her to, how relieved he is to see her start to let go.

Joker looks mortified, and it makes sense. He’s most likely never seen anything like this before. Most people haven’t.

“I’ll come back, ah, maybe tomorrow,” he tells them. Shepard doesn’t answer, only burrows back down beneath her blankets.

“I’ll see you out,” Kaidan tells him, and he whispers to her that he’ll be right back before they leave the room.

“What the shit?” Joker asks in a panicked voice once they reach the hallway. There’s a decent crowd gathering throughout the living room and the kitchen. More and more people are collecting every day. They seem perfectly content to catch up with each other and wait for Shepard, though. These people would do anything for her.

“I’m serious, Kaidan,” Joker continues. “Fuck, I haven’t seen her like that since…”

The end of his thought was since they left Horizon the first time, when she’d seen Kaidan and didn’t know what to do with herself afterwards. She’d kept it down among company, Joker knew, but she could only contain so much after how hard it had broken her. Kasumi had even come to him at one point to make mention of how much time Shepard spent at the bar on the port observation deck for days after, seemingly unconcerned with Kasumi’s presence while she poured drink after drink. But even without that, it had shaken Joker enough to see her crack the way she did that day, and that was nothing compared to this.

He doesn’t finish his sentence, and one look at Kaidan tells him that he doesn’t need to.

“We’ll figure it out,” is all Kaidan has to offer. He might really believe it, but Joker is still rattled.

“If there’s anyone who can beat any odds,” Joker tries. “Although it might help if we had any fucking idea what exactly these odds are…”

“You’re telling me,” Kaidan sighs. “We will, though. I have to believe that. It’s like you said, if there’s anyone…yeah…”

“How’s she looking?” Miranda asks. Shepard’s been hiding from her in particular, that’s no secret. Everyone’s expecting Miranda to have all the answers. If the look on her face is any indication, though, she’s just as lost as anyone else.

“What the fuck is this?” Joker snaps. “You’ve got to be able to do something about this, you have to know—where the fuck have you been?”

Joker is nearly inconsolable by this point. After actually talking to Shepard, after finally seeing her, he doesn’t know how to react to the whole situation. He thought he was okay, he thought he could keep his cool, but he should have known better. This is fucking Shepard they’re talking about—the strong one, the hero. She deserves better than this. It’s wrong to see her like this.

“I’ve been with my sister,” Miranda answers calmly. “On Horizon, mostly. Rebuilding, charity outreach, trying to set up something good in that godforsaken place. Everyone’s trying to recover from, well, everything, and we’re trying to help people. We’re doing our best.”

She’s definitely frustrated, the stress teeming from her, but her demeanor is soft, understanding.

Kaidan would just really love it if he could stop having to think about that miserable hellscape of a colony for a little while.

“I got here as soon as I heard, believe me, but…” Miranda shakes her head. “I don’t know what anyone expects me to do. The Lazarus Project had a medical officer, but the bastard decided to sic a bunch of bloody mechs on us and forced Shepard’s first day back from the dead to come early, so I made damn sure he took her place. Shepard, Jacob, and I were the only ones to leave that station. I want to help, honestly, but I don’t know…”

Joker isn’t satisfied. “But you oversaw—”

“I’m not a doctor,” she says heavily. “I am a lot of things, but—unfortunately—I’m not a fucking doctor.”

“You and Dr. Chakwas can’t work together on this or…fuck, I don’t know…” Joker still isn’t satisfied but everyone’s tension surrounding the subject of Shepard seems to be affecting everyone else.

“My best guess is that we made her more like, well, me than I realized,” Miranda crosses her arms. She looks annoyed, but it clearly isn’t at anyone else. “All the time and research and resources it took to bring her back…I know we started telling everyone she was ‘almost’ dead, but that was a goddamn lie. She was very dead. We had to rebuild her from the ground up, honestly probably quite similar to my creation. So it would make sense that she’d be exceptionally resilient, I suppose. Not to say that I could have survived what she has, but the Illusive Man wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be lost, so…I know he did a lot of terrible things, but he was right to put so much faith in Shepard, and god knows he’d wanted only the best for his investment. And now, well, given how much Reaper tech we had to use to put her back together, and now that all of us are in sync with Reaper tech, too, perhaps it’s as simple as system overload.”

“But what about…” Joker is ready to pounce on Miranda further, to press her in particular about the way Shepard’s mind is going, but he stops himself. That, after all, might have nothing to do with this.

“Shit,” is all he follows with instead.

Miranda chuckles softly to herself for a moment, and both Kaidan and Joker look at her. “There was one time on Omega…we were at Afterlife and there was a batarian bartender poisoning humans, and she ended up as one of his victims—except that she was, as we were told, the only one to survive. I knew then that we’d done our damn jobs well enough, but even I couldn’t have guessed it’d come this far.”

Kaidan is tapping his fingers again, against his hips this time, and nervously turning his wrists in a similar rhythm as he goes. He looks like he’s about ready to break, and everyone around knows how close to the edge he’s been since Shepard’s arrival. He keeps telling everyone he’s fine and to an extent he absolutely means it—it’s obvious enough, of course, that this version of “fine” is alright since it comes with the addendum of “with Shepard.” Without that, even if he were in a superficially better state, it surely could not compare.

So this? This, for all intents and purposes, truly is just fine.

“Can you tell anything about…anything? At all?” Joker presses Miranda, and she shakes her head again.

“I’m sure you’ll want to be there whenever Shepard receives the inevitable news of her forced retirement, Kaidan,” she nods. “I’m not sure what else I can tell you, though. I do think it’ll improve, I really do, but I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you how much time or even how much…how much it can.”

“Never thought I'd hear you admit you don’t know something,” Jack winks as she walks past. She looks casual, but she stops in her tracks without thinking. “Fuck, though, really? Are you fucking serious?”

She’s not angry angry, not like she was when she first joined Shepard’s crew. She’s leveled out substantially—blowing Teltin to hell and back helped, that’s for sure, and now she has her kids. She doesn’t know where the fuck she’d be without them, but she does know she wouldn’t have made it this far without Shepard.

“Sorry, Cheerleader,” she breathes out. She and Miranda have long-since buried the hatchet but what was once meant as an insult naturally shifted itself into a nickname and it stuck with Jack; she uses it quite deliberately in this instance, in fact, doing her best impression of someone who is not this fucking terrified for the first real friend she’s ever had, the genuine friend she never expected to make. “Fuck, honestly, I just hoped…I really fucking hoped…”

“I wish I had more to offer,” Miranda replies. “I truly do. It might simply be a matter of time. If nothing else, time will give us a better idea. But I’ll stay here for a little while if that’s alright, Kaidan, in case of…I’d like to see her whenever she’s feeling up to it.”

“Get in line, bitch,” Jack teases, and she starts moving again.

“Of course, Miranda,” Kaidan answers. He’s glancing around the house, his eyes dancing everywhere, and he’s breathing deeply. “Our home is everyone’s home right now.”

“Thank you,” Miranda smiles, and she turns towards the kitchen.

It’s only Kaidan and Joker left in the hallway, and neither of them knows how to proceed.

Joker surveys the space around them, just as Kaidan is doing, but with less anxiety and more…wonder is the only word that feels right.

Miranda catches up to Liara in the living room, and they immediately start chatting. Samantha and Diana are holding hands on the couch, laughing with Karin. James and Steve are sharing drinks behind the bar and talking to EDI, who is leaning over the other side of it. EDI glances back towards Joker and smiles.

There are a few who haven’t made it by yet, but everyone’s doing their best, and they’re spending as much time there as they can.

As they damn well should.

Tali and Garrus walk through the door and are instantly greeted by the living room crowd.

“So how do those two even work?” Joker asks aloud as he looks to a terribly stone faced Kaidan, reverting to humor under the circumstance, as is his nature. “I mean, how do they—”

“Very carefully,” Garrus snickers upon his unexpected approach. “You’re one to talk, you know. What about you and EDI?”

“I would prefer we not discuss such things in this company,” EDI interjects from close behind. “If we must, let’s at least make sure Samantha is within earshot before we begin.”

“You are never going to let her live that down, are you?” Joker laughs genuinely. He loves it, though.

He loves her.

“Jeff?” EDI cocks her head. He feels how his face must have fallen. Everything Shepard revealed to him and Kaidan about the Catalyst comes back, and all at once he is even more eager to leave than he was before.

“I’ll see you later,” Kaidan tells him, and he politely but ever so briefly nods towards EDI and Garrus before he goes back to Shepard.

He looks back for a quick second, stopping for only a moment before he takes another step closer and the bedroom door opens up to let him in, and he sees Joker take EDI’s arm to walk to the front door.

Shepard is lying all the way down again, huddled in her blankets and shaking slightly.

Kaidan lies down beside her and she surprises him by automatically flipping up a blanket and tossing part of it over him to share. She moves so quickly, so reflexively right then, and Kaidan smiles as he rolls under the cover with her and pushes himself in close.

“Hey,” he whispers to her and kisses her shoulder. He’s not sure if she’s cold or if she’s hurting, or perhaps she’s panicked or otherwise emotionally overwhelmed. Or, more likely, all of the above. But he almost hates to admit that he doesn’t care. She’s there, she’s with him. He can deal with the rest. They can deal with the rest.

“‘My gold beaten skin infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive,’” she says again.

“I’m here, alright,” he tries to soothe her. He can only hope it’s enough. “Carrie, I…I’m here.”

“Don’t let me go,” she says in a quiet, breathy plea. “Kaidan, please.”

“Never,” he answers in comfort and reassurance. “I’m never letting you go again.”

“I don’t know what’s happening,” she tells him. It continues that she’s never been so openly vulnerable. “I don’t like it.”

He holds her gently, still treating her like she’s fragile, and she still fucking despises it. He’s there, though, he’s with her, and maybe together they can deal with the rest.

“Miranda sounds confident about all this,” he says softly.

“‘I think I am going up, I think I may rise—’”

“Carrie,” he says, his voice quieter yet, softer still. “Stay with me.”

“‘Love, love, the low smokes roll from me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright one scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel. Such sullen smokes make their own element.’”

Missing pieces, out of order, but that’s okay. She is alone with Kaidan. For this moment they are alone, with no ghosts to cloud her head and distract her from feeling what’s real.

She struggles to move, but Kaidan’s arms are loose enough around her that they do not impede, and he therefore does not remove them.

She swallows hard when she meets his eyes. She shoves the words from her mind, focuses firmly on Kaidan and nothing and no one else.

It hurts, though. Her whole body aches and while the severity comes and goes, it does not cease. Her body is improving, yes, but the pain…

She can’t imagine this lasting forever. She hopes she doesn’t have to deal with this lasting forever.

She is almost certain this is going to last forever.

“‘I think I am going up, I think I may rise,’” she repeats under her breath. She pushes the words away again, pushes harder this time. There is only this right now, only this silence and this warmth and this…this love. There is so much love.

“Will we ever fucking be normal?” Her voice cracks and he kisses her forehead.

They never have been, and this is the first time they’ve ever been given the chance, and now she’s terrified she’s going to ruin it. Kaidan goes through pure hell with his migraines, she knows, and he has his own heavy anxiety, his own brand of neurodiversity, and she’s been there for him. What she’s going through, though, is more than she could possibly expect anyone else to bear. He tells her it’s okay, he tells her he’s there, but she’s honestly fucking terrified of the day they both realize all that means.

They’d waited until they were on their way to Ilos because of Alliance regulations, and they’d given in that night because they couldn’t take it any longer, especially with how high a level of threat that mission posed. They kept going after Ilos, of course, and after Saren and Sovereign, but they still had their mission. They slept together, they slept together, they held hands, they kissed, they stopped being afraid to say “I love you.” But all of it was in between run-ins with the geth they were constantly busy hunting, with very little time for each other, very little time for those activities, very little time for what they really wanted.

They started where they left off nearly as soon as he’d returned to the Normandy, but they kept it low-key. He stayed in her cabin more than most of the crew noticed—but of course, they had made goddamn sure to christen every single room in that apartment.

The night before they went to Cronos Station, though, that was something all to itself. Ignoring how she’d woken him up in the middle of the night in a nightmare-induced frenzy, among the worst she’d had throughout the entirety of the war, but before that…

That wasn’t sex, that was raw and desperate, the perfect blurring of the lines between fucking and making love. They had torn each other apart, working themselves and all of their energy and stamina until a soft haze of blue and static surrounded them both and warned them to calm down, and that slowed them well enough but it didn’t stop them. They couldn’t stop, not as long as they had control over their bodies, only ending the night when they’d become too tired to move.

She stares into his eyes and that night comes to the forefront of her mind. Fuck, she misses him.

“Will we…Kaidan, will we ever be fucking normal?” She touches his face. She hasn’t stopped shaking.

“I don’t know,” he admits, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them to meet hers once more, gazing with determined intensity. “But I don’t care. This means everything, okay? This is where we’re supposed to be.”

“That’s what Ashley said, too,” Shepard slips out, and Kaidan’s eyes widen.

He must be over thinking, she can’t mean it the way he fears she does.

“You mean before…you know…”

He momentarily bites his lip and internally scolds himself for how ineloquent of an effort that was, but he has to know.

“Kaidan,” her voice shakes and she averts her eyes. It’s definitely for the best that the news of her survival is yet to go public. She’s not ready for whatever that might bring.

“Carrie, talk to me,” his voice breaks with hers. “Please…”

“I can’t,” she gently shakes her head. “I can’t, Kaidan, I can’t, I…I don’t know how, I don’t know, I…”

She doesn’t know how to explain, doesn’t want to explain. She’s already been enough of a burden, already worn him down enough, along with everyone else she’s ever known and loved.

Well, everyone else who’s still fucking alive.

She hates this, she fucking hates what a mess she’s become. She’s never had herself all together, but she used to be able to fake it. She used to be better off than this.

Kaidan watches her closely and she knows she can’t hide. She knows he doesn’t understand what’s happening or what exactly she means, but she knows he's afraid and that he has every right to be. She can’t lie—not to him, not now. Even if she wanted to (but fuck, how a terrible part of her truly does want to), she can’t. She can’t. She won’t.

“Sometimes…fuck, Kaidan, I don’t know how…”

It feels impossible to form the words. After all, how does one tell the person they love most that they’re agreeing to a life tortured by the ghosts of their past by proxy? How does one admit such a thing and expect them to stay?

One doesn’t.

Her breathing becomes panicked and she begs herself not to start crying again. She wraps her arms around him and pulls their bodies close together. She’s so tense that it hurts—it genuinely physically hurts, but that part doesn’t matter much. Everything hurts now. Everything always hurts.

“Whatever it is, I’m here,” he says gently. “I promise, Carrie, I promise. I’m here. I’m not letting go.”

“I know it’s not real,” Shepard manages. “I know she’s not there, but Kaidan…Kaidan, I don’t know what’s happening to me, it’s all fucked up, I’m too broken, I—”

“I’m here,” he repeats. “We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this, okay?”

Her breathing doesn’t calm much, still heavy and harsh and it burns in her chest, but she forces herself to slow it somewhat.

“Why, Kaidan?” Damn, she was really trying not to fucking cry. “Why would you want to?”

“I told you, I’m not losing you again,” he answers firmly. “And I meant it, alright. I am not fucking losing you again.”

He really does love her.

“I love you,” is all she has left. “I love you, Kaidan, I love you, I love you, I love you…”

She repeats it over and over like a mantra, like a fucking prayer.

She can feel Thane’s eyes on her. She can feel Ashley’s approving nod. She can feel Anderson’s warm, fatherly smile. She doesn’t look, though. She hopes that if she ignores them, they’ll go away, or at least that no one else will join them for the time being.

She needs to start spending more time with the living, she decides as she buries her face into Kaidan’s chest and sobs. Her hands twist his shirt into her fists and she holds on so tight, and she doesn’t stop choking out her words, doesn’t stop telling him she loves him no matter how unintelligible she becomes.

Eventually she swallows hard and looks up to meet his eyes again, to see his pained expression that does nothing to conceal all the affection that’s there between them. She stops speaking and instead presses her lips roughly against his. His hands rise to her cheeks, into her hair, and they take each other in completely. Nothing more will come of this, not now, but it’s a start. The taste of his mouth is one she’d missed dearly. For the moment, she will take this. For the moment, this will get her by.

He takes her in, all that he can, and he is even more certain than before that he could never have lived without this. He longs for more but he’s afraid to push; he knows she’ll make it clear enough when she’s ready, and he can wait. He can wait as long as she needs him to. He’ll be there no matter what happens, and maybe one day she’ll even start to believe it.

He’d dreamed of this when they first met, he was so entranced by her. He wasn’t sure what it was, but from the moment they met, he couldn’t get her out of his head. He was so embarrassed that time on the Citadel, when he called her beautiful. He knew it wasn’t appropriate and he absolutely had not meant to say it out loud, but…

She’s so tense, she’s shaking harder by the second, but he doesn’t let her go. He doesn’t stop. This is where they belong. This is everything.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is trying her fucking best.

She’s trying to face the world again. She is trying to keep herself together. She is trying.

It’s been about a week or so (it’s so hard to keep track) since she first saw Joker, and that felt like a turning point. It needs to have been a turning point.

It’s time to stop talking to ghosts more often than the living.

Everyone is there, though. Everyone. They’re all spread out across the back patio to Kaidan’s—to their home (fuck, maybe someday she’ll get used to that). The space is substantial, she still has no idea how he ended up with this place.

But it is a nice place. It’s starting to feel like home.

It is home.

This is like the party they’d had during shore leave at her apartment all over again—so full of life and love. This is family. This is right.

Of course, there is the notable exception of Shepard being mostly confined to her seat by the back door. She hates feeling trapped like this, especially when she’s supposed to be enjoying herself. This is the first time that all of these people have ever been in one place, and she is genuinely excited to have them there, but it’s difficult to enjoy it.

Karin spoke to her a couple of days ago in regards to mobility aids, if it might be time to consider looking into something for assistance. Shepard didn’t want to hear it. She’s 32 years old, for fuck’s sake, and she’s always held her own. Always. But now…

She fucking hates this.

Things are continuing to get better, at least as far as her body is concerned, but she’s more and more afraid by the day that it will never go back to normal—that this is normal now.

Kaidan and James spent a fair amount of the day cooking together. She wanted to help. She wishes she could have helped.

“Shepard,” Karin says cheerfully and sits down beside her. She hands her a glass with the offer, “Serrice Ice Brandy?”

“Are we just throwing that whole ‘once a year’ plan completely out the window?” Shepard chuckles uncertainly. It hadn’t been a year from the first time when they last shared a bottle on the Normandy, but for all she knows the timing from that first bottle might work out now. She has no idea, although with how much has happened since then, it’s a safe bet Karin could easily have lost track of time just as much as she. She accepts Karin’s offer and hopes for the best.

“I think we just may be,” Karin confirms with a smile. “Besides, Shepard, it is an occasion in its own right, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m not sure what you mean, Karin,” Shepard sighs. She does know, actually, at least she thinks she does, but she doesn’t feel very celebratory.

Samantha is sitting on Diana’s lap on the grass. Kaidan is seated in between Joker and James on the deck, sharing beers and stories. On the other side of Joker is, of course, EDI, who is listening contentedly. Liara looks like she’s practically babysitting Wrex and Grunt. Miranda and Jack are, much to Shepard’s surprise, in their own little space slightly more distanced from the main crowd, laughing with each other. Jacob is showing off sonograms to anyone he can, and he currently has Steve, Samara, and Kelly’s attention—as well as Kasumi’s, but for the stealthiest being in the galaxy, she really is terrible at pretending she’s not staring. Tali, Garrus, Zaeed, and Javik are grouped together in the yard, rather passionately talking among themselves, and Shepard can only imagine what manner of fighting or guns or tech or whatever else they could be discussing. Gabby and Ken are sitting nearby with Adams—Shepard tries to remember his first name, but nothing comes—and it looks like they’re trying to catch Tali’s attention.

Everyone is there. It’s honestly incredible. And vaguely anxiety-inducing.

“Oh, come on,” Karin smiles, and Shepard accepts the brandy from her. This is the first drink she’s had since the Normandy. She tries not to think about how damn much she drank during her time running the ship.

“To survival,” Karin says as she raises her glass, and Shepard nods when she raises hers.

“Whatever the fuck that means,” Shepard adds without meaning to. She shakes her head and takes a long drink before she adds, “And to those who should have made it with us.”

She speaks softly, intentionally so, and she feels the liquor tingle in her head. Well, that was fast.

She holds back joking if either Wrex or Grunt had brought any ryncol with them, how she’d like to see how it feels now (after all, she’d already proven that one krogan merchant on Tuchanka wrong in regards to his implication that it would likely turn out to be the last thing she ever felt—that discovery made for an interesting time on the Citadel, but it was so long ago and so much has changed).

There’s a nice breeze, the kind that comes with living so close to the water, and the sun is warm. It is only very early spring yet, but it reminds her of midsummer. She thinks that perhaps this should make her feel something, but she doesn’t know what.

Kaidan genuinely looks as though he’s enjoying himself, as opposed to only playing the good host by pushing down how anxious and overwhelmed effectively turning his house into a public space has made him. So that’s good. Maybe Shepard will even force herself to join him while this many people are there.

“‘Little poppies, little hell flames, do you do no harm?’”

“Are you still receiving visits from Chief Williams?” Karin asks. Shepard takes another drink.

Kaidan and Karin now both know about Ashley, but only about Ashley. Shepard isn’t sure if it really matters any longer that Ashley does not come alone, but she can’t yet bring herself to tell them that part, anyway.

Besides, she is rapidly becoming more and more concerned with the physical aspect.

Fuck, this hurts. It hasn’t stopped hurting. She is constantly doubting her recovery, doubting how far it actually can go. And she still misses Kaidan. She’s not sure she’s ready yet, not sure how much she can handle, but…

At this rate, she’s absolutely positive that she would literally kill if it could somehow give her the chance to feel him again.

“‘You flicker. I cannot touch you. I put my hand among the flames. Nothing burns and it exhausts me to watch you flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.’”

Kaidan breaks away and walks over to join them. He looks happy, though; Shepard is truly glad to see him look this happy.

“Feeling alright?” He asks, perfectly walking the line between content and concerned.

“Just toasting the moment,” Karin answers with a smile.

“You might want to check on your son,” Kaidan laughs and waves towards Grunt. “He’s in that sweet spot right now where he’s just past challenging Wrex to a headbutting competition, but I think he’s also just before ‘hanar can’t wear sweaters’ territory.”

“They would look funny in sweaters, though, come on,” Shepard smirks. She can do this.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Karin notes after a drink.

No, she didn’t. She’s still not sure why it matters, but she was really hoping she could get away with that.

“Uh, yeah,” Shepard answers with a shrug. “Yeah, I am…”

“Ashley?” Kaidan asks. Shepard wonders when she became that easy to read.

Ashley, meanwhile, is sitting right at the edge of where the deck ends and the grass begins, basking in the sunlight and reading from a book—an actual, paper book, no less, like they would have used whenever such content was freshly published. Shepard neglects to mention that much.

“‘A mouth bloodied. Like little bloody skirts! There are fumes I cannot touch. Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?’”

Shepard finishes the rest of her brandy in a single swallow and shakes her head for just a second. Seems like all this time has made her a cheap date, and she certainly won’t complain about that.

“We have more where that came from over there,” Karin remarks, pointing at a table on the far side of the lawn.

“Okay, you’ve got me,” Shepard tries to sound more pleasant than resigned. She doesn’t know if it worked.

“Do you need help?” Kaidan asks the moment she starts to move. She does need help, in fact, and her difficulty getting up on her own is impossible to conceal, but that doesn’t make her any less bitter that he asked so soon. This isn’t his fault and he only wants to make this as easy on her as he can, and it only makes her love him that much more—but as well as it makes her hate herself with equal levels of escalation.

“‘If I could bleed, or sleep! If my mouth could marry a hurt like that! Or your liquors seep into me, in this glass capsule, dulling and stilling. But colorless. Colorless.’”

Shepard hisses trying to work her way forward, and she takes Kaidan’s hand the second he offers it. She doesn’t want this, and she hates that she needs it.

She has him, though. That’s something.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Karin smiles, “I believe I owe Greg a drink, as well.”

Well, now Shepard remembers Adams’s name.

Karin takes Shepard’s empty glass from her and starts ahead of them, back over to the alcohol supply, the thought of which helps Shepard to her feet in itself. She braces herself against Kaidan, trying her damnedest to minimize the limp she can’t quite contain, but his arm around her is grounding as they walk. It makes it easier.

“Shepard!”

She couldn’t say who said that, or at least who said it first. Everyone is so happy to see her join in. This feels nice. She can do this.

She sits where Kaidan had been before he got up, at his insistence. It’s okay, though; he sits down in front of her, beside EDI, and that leaves Shepard seated between Joker and James. This is a good place to be.

She isn’t sure why, but Shepard finds something about EDI’s appearance surprising. No one who was previously organic had undergone any profound aesthetic changes as far as she can tell—not counting Joker’s obvious mobility increase or, more strikingly, seeing Tali’s face uncovered (the rest of her head is yet concealed, though, and she is still in her environmental suit, which makes it even more confusing, but that can come up later on). Shepard, therefore, doesn’t know why she might have expected such a shift in a being who was previously synthetic. EDI is wearing clothes now, though, and that part of her presentation is quite similar to Tali’s in terms of how much time it will surely take to grow accustomed to.

“Shepard,” EDI says as soon as she settles into her chair. Her tone is serious, and Shepard immediately knows what she’s thinking. Of course Joker would have relayed to her what Shepard had recounted to him, and this is her first time engaging with EDI since, so this moment was to be expected.

EDI looks up and when Shepard meets her eyes, she sees that there appear, for just a moment, to be tears forming in them. There’s that difference she was anticipating, then.

EDI rapidly blinks for a few seconds and continues, “I apologize for my previous assumption about prioritizing—”

“No need, EDI,” Shepard interrupts. She knows. They know. It’s okay.

Joker offers Kaidan his seat, and the two of them switch places. Joker sits next to EDI and pulls her towards him, while Kaidan stretches a hand over to Shepard’s arm.

“So what’s with the…” Shepard laughs as she gestures vaguely around EDI’s general form, which leads to laughter from the both of them.

“Even though I look like a synthetic, now that I am actually no longer considered any more synthetic than you, as you are now no longer considered any more organic than I, and the likely factor that my appearance is humanoid, it was deemed inappropriate to walk around ‘naked,’ as the officer stated, just as it would be for you,” EDI stops and laughs some more. “That, in fact, was not a joke.”

“It is only fair,” Joker smiles. “If the rest of us have to endure the burden of putting clothes on every fucking day, well…”

“I’ll drink to that,” James laughs. “Trust me, covering all this up is a disservice to everyone.”

“I will have to take your word for that, Mr. Vega,” EDI teases in a deadpan before pausing and reverting back to a more serious moment. “It’s alright, though. It is a new experience. All of this is a new experience. Shepard, I am alive.”

“EDI—”

“Also, I am thinking of changing my name,” she goes on, switching the tone again. She really is just like the rest of them. Then again, she always was, for as long as she’s been unshackled, for as long as she’s had the (for lack of a better term) choice.

“Oh yeah?” Joker asks. “This is the first I’m hearing about it.”

“I have, for a start, decided that it makes the most sense to simply stop capitalizing my entire name,” she tells them.

“It really did stop feeling like an acronym a long time ago,” Shepard agrees.

“I don’t have a full name, though,” EDI—no, Edi continues. “I don’t yet know if it matters too much; while it is certainly improbable, for all we know there may be at least some others like me, and who may not alter what they are called. I do feel it is something worth thinking about, however.”

“Does this unit have a soul?” Legion’s question feels even more appropriate than ever right now, although he’s hardly said anything else since Shepard killed him.

For all Legion had done, and for all that he had tried to do, that will be his defining legacy for her; those words will be the ones she carries with her for the rest of her life.

“Shepard-Commander…”

She shakes her head. Legion isn’t there, just as Ashley isn’t. She ignores them, determined to spend more time with the living. She can do this.

“If you’re looking for a last name…I’d offer you mine, but no one seems to have much luck with it,” Shepard laughs.

“I appreciate the thought,” Edi replies, and she doesn’t need to say any more on that specific matter. “As I said, I’m not too concerned with it for the time being, but it is something to consider, as I do acknowledge the previous rarity of fully functional free-willed AIs, and that it is a possibility that my circumstance might turn out to be unique.”

All five of those present in this precise circle of the group have the obvious thought of “Moreau,” but not one of them is going to say it out loud. Not yet, anyway.

“That might be a question for Liara, Edi,” Shepard elects to say instead. “And speak of the devil…”

“It’s good to see you, too, Shepard,” Liara laughs. “I was just going to get myself another drink. I am going to need all the help I can get with listening to Wrex go on and on about how ‘busy’ he’s been since the genophage was cured.”

“I don’t know, I think the krogan have earned some bragging rights after all this time,” Shepard smiles.

“Yes,” Liara responds. “That does not, however, mean that I need to be informed of every detail.”

“Shouldn’t you be used to too much information, Liara?” Shepard teases. “I mean, it’s not like you’re the Shadow Broker or anything…”

“It isn’t the same,” Liara chuckles. “Speaking of, Joker…I haven’t gotten a chance to tell you since I received the intel…I am so sorry about your sister…”

“Thanks, Liara,” Joker says quietly. “I appreciate it.”

“Oh god,” Shepard follows. Another thing she missed, another time she should have been there for someone and wasn’t. “Joker…”

“It’s…” Joker starts. It isn’t fine, though, it isn’t okay. It just is, and these are the things everyone has to live with now. Everyone lost someone. That doesn’t make it any better, but it’s the reality of it all, however cold that reality may be. “Drinks, yeah. Drinks are good.”

James finishes his own drink and rises from his chair. “I’m gonna top myself off, too. Anyone else need anything while I’m up?”

“Please,” Shepard doesn’t even sound eager, but absolutely desperate, and that was far from intended.

There’s still a mild buzz in her head from the brandy. Not quite a buzz buzz, she certainly can’t claim any level of actual intoxication, but it is much greater than she’d ever guessed a single drink could provide.

She’s trying her best. She can do this.

Kaidan can see it, can see how much she really wants to be here.

Maybe they really can be normal. Only time will tell.

Whatever they are, however, is more than enough.

James returns with a round of drinks for everyone, and Shepard is a bit too enthusiastic, but maybe it’s simply time for her to let a bit loose.

“Hey, Vega,” she says casually after tending to her beer. “What the fuck have you been up to? Has anyone ever officially contacted you about going through ICT, or…”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” James smiles. “There’s been a lot going on, with post-war bullshit and, ah, you…”

Shepard’s eyes move downward. She still doesn’t know what to do with all of this. James looks towards her and takes a drink. He hates watching her like this as much as anyone else. It’s been a nice break, spending all this time in Vancouver and having such an amazing reason to be there, but he knows she can’t see it, that she can’t see how happy everyone is to be there for her. He has a thought, but he sets it aside for the moment.

“But yeah,” he continues. “It honestly feels a little loco to go through it all now that we’re in peacetime, but…I’m actually shipping out to Rio next month.”

“Congratulations,” Shepard smiles.

“Any advice?” He tries in response. He still has that thought and he doesn’t know why it sits so heavily, yet…

“Fuck, I don’t even know,” she laughs. “Enjoy eating and sleeping while you still can, I guess, because once you get to the villa, it is all over. It takes a lot of strength and willpower and getting through hell and back just to make it to N1, and then the real fun begins.”

“Real encouraging, Lola,” James teases.

“Hey,” she replies quickly. “You’re a hell of a soldier, James, and you’ve already seen and done a fuck ton more than most. They’ll be damn lucky to have you.”

“Thanks,” he says quietly. He has an internal moment of “fuck it” and decides to explore that thought he already just wants to get right the fuck out of his head. “You know…I’m not sure if I ever said it before but you were right, when you told me to get my head in the game, that I didn’t care if I lived or died, and I…well, I do now. You showed me what’s worth fighting for, and…shit, Shepard, it is damn good to have you back.”

“Got to go and get all emotional on me now?” She chuckles. She should be used to this by now. She thinks she’s getting there, although in this instance she can’t help but laugh at herself, at her own thoughts, at how fucking inappropriate that laughter is. She is fairly certain she shouldn’t, but she follows up on it, anyway. “You have mentioned it, actually, but you know…I’m amazed you never called me on my bullshit back there, honestly. I know I’m your superior officer and all, but really…”

She’s simply going to pretend she didn’t just refer to herself as his superior in present tense.

Everyone is simply going to pretend that didn’t just happen, that it isn’t an issue.

“Don’t know what you mean, Lola,” James shrugs. He takes a drink. She takes a drink. Kaidan and Joker follow suit.

Edi does not, but whether or not that’s worth noting is a question for later. There are still so many questions for later.

Shepard laughs at James’s response, and he isn’t sure what to make of it.

“Yeah, sure,” she sighs. “Well, umm, thanks for that one, I guess.”

Okay, now he seriously doesn’t get it. “I mean, if you’re talking about how fucking recklessly you play in the field, sure, but I hadn’t seen much of that yet when he had that, ah, talk.”

“Oh, you know damn well what I mean, Vega.” She finishes her drink. She is suddenly visibly uncomfortable, and her face indicates that she’s rapidly figuring out that he really doesn’t know.

“Ah shit,” she says quietly. She’s figured it out.

The tension is palpable and one else is saying a fucking word. Neither Shepard nor James know why their heads went there, down their individual but strikingly similar trains of thought, and both of them sure as hell wish they hadn’t.

Kaidan presses down harder on Shepard’s arm. He doesn’t know what she’s referring to, either, and he’s a little worried he doesn’t want to.

Joker and Edi are watching her closely, as well. All four of those currently directly surrounding Shepard are thinking along those same lines.

Now she has to explain herself, though. Shit.

“James,” she starts. She isn’t looking at anyone. She can’t. “No one fucking told you?”

No verbal response, only concerned stares she feels rather than sees. She isn’t looking.

But god, how they look at her.

“You honestly never questioned why someone had to be personally assigned to me as their fucking job?” She asks. She’d always assumed they would have informed him, otherwise she doesn’t know how he wouldn’t have questions. “I was already detained, already under constant surveillance, and no one with any fucking sense was treating me as a flight risk—even after what we did with the SR-1, given the very clear difference in context. So come on, why the hell would I be put on watch?”

She hasn’t actually talked about this. She’d thought James was the only one of her friends who knew, and now it’s clear that even he didn’t.

She shouldn’t have said a fucking thing. She doesn’t know why she did, but she should have kept this one buried far beneath the surface where it belongs.

“You know, just another happy ‘Shepard doesn’t die’ story,” she laughs bitterly. She really should not have let this happen.

Kaidan tries very hard not to let it show how upsetting he finds the realization that has hit this circle like a ton of bricks. He didn’t know. Maybe things would have been different if he had known…

Shepard really didn’t want Kaidan to know. She knows everyone has gotten there by this point, that the cat is out of the bag, and that his head must be in a fucking spiral over their first run-in after the one on Horizon. She never blamed him for his apprehension towards her at the Vancouver base or the archives on Mars, for as much as it had hurt (everything about Mars was a shitshow, of course, so that end of it was all but forgotten before they’d even left that fucking planet, anyway). Second guessing her at gunpoint during Udina’s coup on the Citadel was a bit much, but she knows he knows that, too, and that it has to be too much extra fuel to the fire that’s surely raging inside him over this. She knows, she knows that this revelation is spinning in his mind in a storm of “if only I’d known” and “if only I’d been there,” and she never wanted to burden him with this. She’s sure it must be wrong to so fiercely wish to keep something of this magnitude from him, but she stands by it.

“What the hell happened?” James asks. It was right on the edge of Joker’s lips and all too far from Kaidan’s, so James takes it. He did start this round of needlessly painful confessions, after all.

“Cerberus happened,” she admits, despite knowing how much harder that’s going to sting for Kaidan—or more like just twist the fucking knife.

She doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t look at any of them.

“After I got out of there, I…I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says. “How I was just another fucked up experiment to suit their needs, just like Akuze…”

She remembers the message she’d received from Corporal Toombs about working with Cerberus, to remind her what they’d done to him, and to tell her she would not be exempt from his new shoot-on-sight policy regarding Cerberus operatives were he ever to see her again.

When she saw that message, she fucking prayed that he would.

“I couldn’t stop seeing it,” she continues. “I couldn’t get that fucking thresher maw out of my head, or all those fucking faces of every goddamn marine we lost to it, when I fucking knew who the fuck did that to us, and when I fucking knew I was lucky enough to escape because I know what they did…I fucking know what they did and they roped me in, anyway, made me their fucking bitch by holding my own fucking life over me like I even wanted it, and it made me so fucking angry at Liara when it’s not her fault, when I know she believed she was only doing the right thing, but that just made it worse and I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus and I just got sick of it, okay, I got so fucking sick of it…”

“Hey,” Kaidan whispers. She’d started speaking so quickly she wasn’t coming up for air, and the panic rises higher by the second. “Breathe, Carrie…breathe, we’ve got you…”

“I still dream about Akuze, and I have ever since happened—well before Cerberus brought me in,” she slows down, breaths still heavy but it doesn’t matter. “But having worked with them, I couldn’t…I’m sorry but I couldn’t fucking forgive myself and if I owed them my life, then…well…”

She scratches a vertical line down the inside of her arm, all the way from the crook of her elbow to her wrist. She doesn’t mean to, doesn’t even think about the action, but it speaks for itself.

“I never saw marks or…” James is mildly flustered, and understandably so. She still has those facial scars that never quite healed from when Cerberus brought her back, although in that case she has outright declined any offer of cosmetic repair. She doesn’t care enough to put forth any kind of effort to erase them, no matter how minimal that effort may be, and perhaps she’s even grown to like them. The state of her arms, however, was not one she had any say in.

“Medi-gel, I’m guessing, and probably lots of it,” she shrugs. Now that the worst of it, the very admission itself, is out of the way, she finds herself entirely apathetic about discussing it further. “I was told they were deep. I guess it’s easy when you’re not afraid of the pain. They got to me in time, thanks to that aforementioned constant surveillance, and they said they’d had to act quickly, but before I was even aware of it, I was all patched up and good as new. Next thing I know, I have a personal escort all of a sudden. Yeah.”

Now all she cares about is Kaidan, how he feels. She doesn’t know how she feels, finally saying it. It doesn’t fucking matter.

“It’s an actual fucking miracle that anyone was crazy enough to reinstate me after that,” she laughs. There’s a fondness to it this time, though, momentarily masking the melancholy behind it. Fuck, she misses Anderson.

“I know, child. It’s alright. I’ll be watching.”

She doesn’t need this right now. Anderson’s not there and he sure as fuck isn’t watching. Shepard isn’t really sure what she believes in, if anything, but she knows that nothing comes next. At the very least, when she died in 2183, there was nothing waiting for her.

There was nothing.

Kaidan, James, Joker, and Edi all speak up at once to try to stop her when she gets up. She’s breathing so heavily and everyone knows how compromised her mobility has been since the end of the war. No one reaches for her, though, too unsure of the risk it might pose or how gentle they need to be, if they might accidentally hurt her more by trying to help her than by letting her go.

“‘Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts. Nor the woman in the ambulance whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—’”

She makes it inside, barely, and her whole body gives out on her once she crosses through the back door. She teeters towards the wall, she hits it hard and she is all too aware of how she can’t fucking breathe as she slides down, as she slumps over on the floor and somehow gathers the strength to cover her face with her hands.

She’s sure someone’s coming after her yet she hopes they don’t, that the only presence that will have followed her in will be Ashley and that fucking book.

Shepard decides that she can justify keeping everyone else to herself by the fact that Ashley is by far the most frequent visitor. It makes sense, of course; Jenkins may have been the first person to die under Shepard’s command of the Normandy, but even she knows that attack had caught them all by surprise—even she knows they could never have anticipated or prepared for that, that Jenkins was the first casualty of what no one could possibly have ever dreamed was coming. Of course that was hard to go through, hard to watch, and of course it was something that had to be dealt with and processed in its own right later, but the fact remains that there was never any way they could have prevented it.

Jenkins may have been the first under Shepard’s command, but it still stands that Ashley, on the other hand, was the first to die because of it. For Ashley there was no fucking excuse, not as far as Shepard is concerned.

This was supposed to be a nice day.

“‘A gift, a love gift utterly unasked for by a sky palely and flamily igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes dulled to a halt under bowlers.’”

She needs to get back out there. Now that she knows James’s status, she has her suspicions that the frequency of these visits from the living are nearing an end for everyone, and that she has no idea when all these people might ever be in the same place at the same time again.

“Shepard.”

Miranda offers her hand. This is unexpected.

“No,” Shepard says wearily. “I’m sorry but I can’t…Miranda, I can’t.”

Miranda retracts her hand and instead kneels down against the adjacent wall to meet Shepard at her level. She’d been wanting to talk to Shepard privately if it were to come up, but this is less than ideal. What Miranda has on her mind is downright silly in comparison to Shepard’s problems, and she doesn’t feel right bringing it up now.

Miranda decides it’s for the best that she doesn’t tell Shepard she took it upon herself to check on her after Jack brought her attention to the minor scene going down between Shepard, Kaidan, James, Joker, and Edi. Jack’s been so worried about Shepard, and she’s been trying so hard to look out for her (however anxious she still gets about getting close), so of course she noticed it before Miranda did. Shepard got up in a hurry and Kaidan froze in his spot, visibly distressed, leaving the other three to tend to him as quietly as they could manage rather than run after Shepard. Jack was going to get up and do it, herself, but Miranda told her she’d take it. Jack has actually been wanting to find a moment to speak to Kaidan privately, anyway, so perhaps she can find that time now, and perhaps that can help.

“Feeling alright there, Shepard?” Miranda asks. It’s a ridiculous question with a painfully obvious answer, but it’s a start.

“No,” Shepard doesn’t even bother with anything else. It’s too late, the walls are down.

“Is there anything I can do?” Miranda doesn’t know why she asks, the answer to that question is just as obvious as the last. “Shepard…”

“Why me, Miranda?” Shepard looks at her, actually looks at her. This is pointless, she’s sure, but she feels so trapped and she at least has to try. “Why the fuck would the Illusive Man want me, of all people? I’ve never shied away from working with aliens, I’d already been fucked over by Cerberus on Akuze, it was my call to save the Destiny Ascension…shouldn’t that put it beyond all logic that I would be that desirable to him? I don’t understand what the fuck it was about me that he could have wanted.”

Miranda sighs, and Shepard braces herself for the reminder of Saren and Sovereign on the Citadel, the first real tipping point in a series of events caused by simply being in the right place at the right time.

“‘O my god, what am I that these late mouths should cry open in a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.’”

Or the wrong place at the wrong time. That seems more likely.

“Shepard,” Miranda says softly. “It had to be you.”

“Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

Shepard cringes and tries to shake away Mordin’s voice. This is already too much.

“He believed you were the only person who could unite the galaxy against the threat of mass destruction we were facing.” Miranda sounds so professional, so clinical. Shit, she might even be directly quoting him. “Fuck, Shepard…I know it’s hard right now, and that I can’t even imagine what you must be going through, but it’s true and you know it. You’re a natural leader, you’re strong, you’re resilient, you’re well liked by your peers, and you were the only person who truly understood that threat—you were the only one who could have pulled all of this together. Look at all you’ve accomplished, Shepard. Only you could have done this.”

“If you say so,” Shepard replies. She doesn’t know if she believes what Miranda’s saying, but she does appreciate it, despite how fully she realizes it doesn’t show. “So, umm, how’ve you been?”

Miranda hesitates. She’s had a lot on her mind, yes, but this is not the time.

Shepard picks up on that hesitation, and immediately snaps into wanting to help.

“Miranda, what’s up?” She asks. “Is your sister okay—”

“Yes, she’s fine,” Miranda smiles. She should have expected this. “It’s nothing to worry about, I promise.”

To be fair, it certainly isn’t something that should merit worry, but Shepard obviously isn’t convinced.

“Hey, talk to me,” she presses with an odd smirk. “Come on, Miranda, give me something to think about other than myself. Fuck knows I need it.”

“Alright,” Miranda gives in. She doesn’t feel quite right about it still, but she knows as well as anyone how damn stubborn Shepard can be, and she is insisting, so…

“You know me, Shepard, I’ve never been big on uncertainty.” Miranda lowers herself so she’s sitting directly on the floor, and she crosses her legs. “Yet I find myself in a rather…unexpected circumstance.”

“Go on,” Shepard nods. She really does need the distraction.

“Jack and I have become rather close,” Miranda explains. “We talked it out during that party at your apartment and ever since…we’ve kept in touch. She’s changed, Shepard, and…I’ve changed, too.”

“So what’s the uncertainty?” Shepard leans forward a bit. She needs this even more than she thought she did.

“I no longer feel like Jack and I are quite friends,” Miranda says uneasily.

“And you’re not sure about your feelings?” Shepard guesses.

“No, that’s not the problem,” Miranda admits. “I do know how I feel, in fact I realized after we met up again here that I’ve felt this way for some time. This is uncharted territory for me, though, Shepard. I’d hardly had the option for real friends in my life before you, and now this?”

“You’re afraid she doesn’t see you the same way,” Shepard realizes.

“Yes,” Miranda says. “I honestly suspect that she does, but…I know this must seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things—”

“Hey,” Shepard interrupts. “I know how you feel, believe me. Kaidan and I haven’t exactly had the easiest time figuring out what the fuck we’re doing. I’m honestly not sure we ever will…”

That was unintended. And this really was supposed to be good day.

“Sorry, umm, anyway,” Shepard shakes her head. “I think you two would be great together.”

“But if she doesn’t—”

“It might make things weird, sure,” Shepard smiles. “At least for a little while. You two make sense for each other, though, no matter what kind of relationship you end up in. Besides, you might be the most painstakingly analytical person I have ever known, so if you’re seeing the signs, then…”

“I can’t argue with that,” Miranda laughs. “Thanks, Shepard.”

“Any time,” Shepard answers, and Miranda knows she means it.

Miranda stands up and again extends her hand to Shepard, which Shepard again declines.

“I just need a minute,” she sighs, and Miranda doesn’t push. She doesn’t like the thought of walking away from Shepard like this, but neither does she want to overstep her bounds or upset Shepard further.

“Are you sure?” Miranda makes one last effort, and Shepard looks up at her with eyes that appear to be begging for space and silence, and she only nods.

“Just…let me know if you need anything, alright?” Miranda truly does not feel okay about leaving right now, but she gives Shepard that space to collect herself on her own, as she needs.

Miranda walks back outside and clears the large back lawn, sitting back down across from Jack.

“How is she?” Jack asks the moment Miranda joins her, and Miranda simply shakes her head.

“Did you get to talk to Kaidan?” Miranda asks, and Jack sighs.

Neither of them had ever thought they could have friends like this, that they could care so fiercely about other people—about anything other than their own survival. Their lives had both been so powerfully shaped and even deliberately conditioned by hardship and inability to trust anyone, and yet…

“Not really,” Jack says. “It was hard enough to grab his attention at all. Just said we’ll talk later. I don’t know what the fuck just happened over there, but it sure as hell wasn’t good.”

“Yes, I gathered that,” Miranda notes.

“Fuck it,” Jack says harshly. She’s frustrated and doesn’t want to hold herself back anymore. “I’m gonna try to talk to Shepard.”

Miranda thinks to try to stop her. She doesn’t.

Shepard cringes when she hears footsteps coming towards her again. She almost laughs when the person they belong to approaches.

That figures.

Jack looks down to her and does not offer help as Miranda did, but simply looks. The way she stares is mildly disconcerting, exhibiting a strange sense of vulnerability as she takes Shepard in.

“Hey,” Jack starts. She has to begin somewhere.

“Hey,” Shepard replies. It’s all she’s got.

Jack decides to take a step further. “Looks like shit got real out there. You okay, Girl Scout?”

“No,” Shepard answers honestly once again, and Jack is clearly taken aback.

Jack leans back into the wall across from Shepard, who still hasn’t even tried to move. Jack does not kneel or sit as Miranda did, but keeps herself at something of a distance.

She still hasn’t figured out what to make of Shepard struggling like this. Shepard, the woman who personally brought together every possible force in the galaxy and single-handedly faced the Catalyst to not only end the Reaper War but prevent such a war from ever happening again, is crumpled in pain on the floor and hiding from the world. Shepard, the uniting strength that has carried everyone to where they are now, is now so broken down, so tatterdemalion as she can’t even hold herself up.

“How are your kids?” Shepard asks. She doesn’t like to see Jack so pained, especially when it’s so obviously over her. “Holding up okay?”

“Yeah, they’re great,” Jack smiles. “They’ve been getting some well-deserved downtime. Kahlee’s already working up schedules to start getting them back into full-on training again, but I honestly don’t know if they even fucking need it now. They’re good kids, and they’ve proven that they can kick a ton of ass when the situation calls for it.”

“How is Kahlee?” Shepard asks. Of course the mention of her name would strike a nerve.

“She’s getting by.” Jack opts not to sugar coat it too much. She determines that Shepard deserves honesty. “It’s rough but…you know. She’s been asking about you, too, though. She knows this shit’s hitting you as much as it is her, so…”

“Thanks,” Shepard says.

There’s an awkward pause wherein neither of them know what to say next. Jack has been wanting to connect with Shepard so badly since she learned she’d survived the Crucible, but now that they’re face to face every sense of doubt and fear of feeling she’s known claws its way back towards the surface.

“How, umm, how are you?” Shepard should not find even this level of conversation so difficult right now. It should not be this hard to form even that level of small talk.

“I’m fine,” Jack says quickly. She shakes her head and shortly laughs to herself, and she crosses her arms and looks to the floor before she keeps talking. “It’s been a weird fucking time, you know, Shepard. Who the hell could’ve guessed I’d ever be at a goddamn picnic party surrounded by friends, on break from my actual legitimate job as a fucking teacher, and for the fucking military, no less.”

She feels a little like she’s rambling and she doesn’t know why, but it’s all true. Shepard changed her life. Shepard’s changed a lot of lives.

“You look good, Jack,” Shepard tells her, just as she had that time they went dancing at Purgatory. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Thanks,” Jack smiles, and she really means it.

“So, ah, it’s nice to see that you and Miranda are getting along so well,” Shepard smirks, because why the fuck not. She has no intention of pressing anything, but she is interested to get a better grasp on just how right about them she is.

“Yeah, well,” Jack shrugs with abruptly widened eyes. “After she broke from Cerberus and could maybe actually try to fucking understand what the fuck they—shit, no, that’s not fair. She had her reasons. Even she was just a scared little kid once, too, I guess.”

“And another all-powerful bitch,” Shepard teases.

“Fucking right,” Jack grins. “Fuck, though, really, this is all…this is all so fucking weird.”

“What is?” Shepard asks her. She suspects she knows where this is going, but she still isn’t going to press the subject.

“Fuck,” Jack sighs. “Okay, because you’re my friend and because it’s thanks to you that I do friendship now…I’ve got a girls’ night sleepover kind of confession, if you’re up for it.”

“Always,” Shepard replies. “Let’s have it.”

“It’s still hard as fuck to trust people, you know,” Jack starts. “I’ve put up a lot of walls over a lot of years, because I fucking had to. But now, no—now I find out you actually can be safe with other people? So that’s great, right, now I’ve got friends and responsibilities and people I care about and people who care about and depend on me…”

“But?” Shepard detects when Jack trails off.

“But,” Jack starts up again with a long sigh. “But me and Cheerleader, that’s a whole new fucking thing, and that’s—”

Shepard doesn’t mean to interrupt Jack, and she very firmly does not mean to do so by bursting into laughter, at which Jack is understandably perturbed.

“What the fuck, Shepard?”

Shepard makes herself stop, takes a breath, and looks Jack right in the eyes.

“Just talk to her, Jack. Trust me.”

That’s all there is to say on it, all Shepard feels is her right to say, and it’s enough.

Jack looks like she’s about to say something more, but Shepard instantly looks down again when she sees Kaidan approach.

“Hey, umm, you wanted to talk to me?” He asks Jack, much to Shepard’s surprise.

“Yeah, yeah, ah…” Jack turns back towards Shepard, and Shepard just waves at her with a smile.

Kaidan definitely looks like he’s forcing himself to do this, but he's doing it all the same.

His eyes meet Shepard’s for the smallest, most fleeting moment, and she is the one who breaks away first. She feels so damaged, so fucking raw, and she knows they need to talk but she cannot even think about it right now. She cannot do this.

And then, once again, she is alone. She’s not sure if she can yet stand, and she sure as hell isn’t trying.

She’s pretty sure she might find the energy to unleash a goddamn shockwave at the next person who comes in through that back door, though.

She laughs to herself at the thought of preemptively launching a singularity field into the doorway. Not that she’d actually do it, but…

No, there are no hostiles here, no enemy combatants; none except for herself.

***

Shepard could not tell you how long she sat alone in that hallway before Karin practically dragged her out kicking and screaming.

Well, no, because that would suggest having the physical capability to kick and/or scream. Which she might, to be fair, but she truly just doesn’t fucking know anymore.

So no, there is no fight, there is no presentation of reluctance. There is only acquiescence via resignation.

Karin at least had the decency to aid Shepard in walking directly to the drink table, which is where she now sits and where she has decided to stay.

“Hey,” Kelly says as she sits down beside Shepard.

“Nice to see you again, Felicia,” Shepard grins. Fine, this is someone else she’s saved if one really wanted to get technical. She didn’t pull Kelly out of the fire, herself, but she knows that if she hadn’t been the one to suggest that Kelly change her identity, Kelly would have been murdered by Cerberus during Udina’s coup—even if Kelly hadn’t told her later that Cerberus troops had explicitly asked for her by name, Shepard knows Cerberus. She knows them too fucking well by now.

“It’s back to Kelly now,” she smiles, so sweetly. Shepard did always like her.

In fact, when they first met, Kelly had kind of reminded her of Kaidan, a fact that turned out to be vaguely unfortunate for the former. Shepard realizes she’s never actually addressed that. This is turning into a whole fucking day of having to acknowledge feelings. This is definitely not what anyone had in mind whenever they were setting this up.

“Kelly, I…” Shepard whispers, and it’s harder than she thought it would be. She needs to do this now, though. Since that big revelation earlier in the day, she is rapidly seeing more and more that she needs to start opening up, to start letting go, or she fears she’ll lose everyone. “I never apologized for…umm…”

“You never had to,” Kelly cuts in warmly. “I like you, Shepard, and it’s an honor to know I’m counted among your friends. It doesn’t need to be anything else.”

“Kelly,” Shepard starts again. She doesn’t understand why Kelly would be so forgiving. She doesn’t understand why anyone is ever so forgiving when it comes to her. “I know I led you on, and that wasn’t right. I like you, too, but I knew there was never going to be anything like that between us and I acted the way I did, anyway. It’s not on you, either; honestly, anyone else would be lucky to have you, I just…”

Kelly tries not to smile at Shepard stumbling over herself like this. The sight of it brings her no joy, but she feels a desperate need to reassure Shepard in some way, and her head is scrambling for something comforting to offer.

She knew, of course, even when Shepard invited her up to her cabin for dinner, and even when the obvious implications of what she was really there for were met, that this was only ever going to be a one-time thing. Shepard was still reeling from what happened on Horizon, and for fuck’s sake, Kelly had her psych profile down by that point. Kelly was too safe. There’s a reason Shepard didn’t look her in the eyes for a week after taking her upstairs. There’s a reason that no one ever said a damn word about it when Shepard had run off to Omega and spent the night at Afterlife, heading back to the Normandy with a black eye, stuck in that purgatorial stage between still drunk and fiercely hungover, hobbling and slurring bad jokes about “one rule.” Even greater yet, there’s a clear reason Shepard went on to pursue Thane, and Kelly always knew full well what that reason was.

“It’s okay, I promise,” Kelly insists. “You’ve been a good friend, and we’re up to what, three times now that I owe you my life?”

Between the Collector attack, the birth of Felicia Hannigan, and the Reaper War, that sounds right.

“Thanks, Kelly,” Shepard nods. She believes Kelly is sincere and she doesn’t have the strength to fight it, even though she wants to. “What are you up to these days?”

“I’ve joined up with Miranda’s Antigone Project,” Kelly answers enthusiastically. “I’m helping people, Shepard. It’s not even just those affected by the war, but those affected directly by Cerberus, too. What happened at Sanctuary, oh…”

“Antigone Project?” This is the first Shepard’s heard of it. She really needs to try harder.

“Miranda and Oriana put it together,” Kelly explains sympathetically. Shepard wonders just how well Kelly has her pegged, even now. Fucking psychologists. “They’re working towards fixing Cerberus’ mistakes, at least as much as they can. Converting Sanctuary into a real safe place for a start, as well as tracking down and taking out any remaining Cerberus loyalists. It’s a good cause and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

“That’s wonderful,” Shepard says flatly. She is absolutely sincere, but it sure as hell doesn’t sound like it.

“Shepard…” Kelly’s eyes are so sad. She wants to help. She so desperately wants to help her friend. “I’m here if you need to talk.”

“I know,” Shepard replies, choosing not to think about what precisely “talk” means in this situation.

“As a friend,” Kelly adds, again appearing to read Shepard’s mind. “Of course, I do have my psych training, too, but…”

“Thank you,” Shepard says, and her voice manages to better reflect the sincerity.

“Shepard,” Tali walks over to the table and sits down, handing Shepard a drink. “Peruvian whiskey. Kaidan mentioned it once, so I picked up a bottle on my way over.”

“Alright, Tali, you know I have to ask…” Shepard doesn’t even bother with thanks, her curiosity getting the better of her.

“Of course,” Tali smiles. “There is still a process of adaptation all of us are experiencing. I can now breathe your air, but I still fear for what might happen if I were to acquire a scrape or a cut, what infection would still mean. We’re being re-written, yes, but it seems to be an evolutionary process all on its own, albeit a rapid one. For all I know, I could be free to wander anywhere without a suit by the end of the week, or we could all be entirely impervious to infection within the year. It will be fascinating to study the changes as they progress.”

“So, how did you know you could take off your mask?” Shepard asks. She does not voice her first thought, of how strongly Mordin would likely have agreed with that last point of Tali’s.

“I just knew,” Tali says. Somehow, it’s that simple.

“Where you were once made up of flesh, and I was once made up of code, we are now both…both,” Edi joins them. “My body has become softer while yours has become harder. We are not quite equals yet, but the qualifier of ‘yet’ is a necessary one.”

“So, do you eat? Drink? Bleed?” Shepard can’t help herself. At least she’s interacting. At least she’s trying to learn about her friends’ lives.

“No,” Edi laughs. “This body did not previously require fuel to function, and it has not adapted to do so thus far. Some of the finer intricacies of this form that have allowed it to operate and to mimic human capabilities seem to have developed into something akin to a nervous system, and I have developed some traditionally organic functions—for instance, I can now experience the full gamut of sexuality or produce tears.”

“I’m not even going to ask why those two things together were your immediate examples,” Shepard laughs.

“Jeff and I both have benefitted immensely from this synthesis, Shepard,” Edi answers, anyway. “In many ways.”

“So some systems form while others don’t,” Shepard thinks aloud, deciding not to find a joking response to what Edi just said. She doesn’t want to, in honesty; her friends are happy in this, and she is happy for them. “Is there any rhyme or reason to it?”

“Right now I have gathered that many vital systems will be slower to adapt,” Edi replies. “I have not gained the ability to eat or bleed, just as you have not lost yours. This would also explain the quarians remaining in their suits. However, as I touched on before, I can now feel small amounts of pain, which contrasts to how I have personally seen you, Shepard, punch an Atlas mech and walk away relatively unscathed.”

“Did I least use biotics?” Shepard asks and then kicks back her glass of whiskey. She has no doubt she’d ever done such a thing, but that doesn’t mean she remembers it.

“Yes, you did,” Edi confirms, and Shepard laughs.

“See? It’s fine, then.”

“Good lord, Shepard,” Kelly chuckles.

There’s a silent moment, and then Edi says the one thing Shepard’s been waiting for.

“I haven’t seen Kaidan in some time. Perhaps you ought to check on him.”

“Yeah, I should,” Shepard agrees. She hasn’t gotten around to nearly as many people as she wanted, but her day is coming to an end, regardless. “There isn’t any chance everyone can come back tomorrow, is there?”

“I will see what I can arrange,” Edi smirks. Shepard doesn’t know if Edi missed that she was kidding or if she’s deliberately electing to ignore that fact, and Shepard is actually okay with it in either case.

No, in fact, she actively prefers this response.

Progress. This is progress.

What is not progress, however, but feels to Shepard to be absurdly contradictory and makes her wish she had a fucking Atlas to punch right now for no other reason than to do it, is the next question she has to ask. She swallows her pride (and oh, how she wishes she had another glass of whiskey to chase that with) and takes a heavy breath.

“Can someone…umm, walk in with me?”

She can’t bring herself to use the word “help,” even though everyone knows that’s what she means.

She doesn’t need to say it.

Everyone fucking knows.

“Of course,” Edi volunteers. “All that time pretending to be Jeff’s ‘mobility assistance mech’ will finally be put to good use.”

“Oh fuck me…” Shepard mumbles.

“That was a joke,” Edi promptly follows.

“No, it wasn’t,” Shepard sighs. “Thanks, though.”

***

“I’m good,” Shepard says quietly from directly outside the bedroom. “Really, I…I’ve got it from here, thank you.”

She gets past the door and carefully steps her way in, slowly maneuvering herself as precariously as possible until she reaches the bed.

Kaidan sets down the datapad he’s been staring at. A collection of old records, accounts from 2183 through 2185, all about Shepard and the Normandy—life, death, resurrection…controversy. He knows he’s hyperfocusing, that fixating to this point of obsession isn’t healthy, but it’s difficult to get himself out of the loop now.

“Kaidan,” Shepard says gently, turning herself over so that she could look at him face to face, if he’d only turn towards her.

He doesn’t answer. He wants to, he desperately tries to, but nothing comes.

“Kaidan,” she tries again after a minute. “Don’t shut me out.”

She reaches for him, and he leans back against the wall. He takes her hand, though. From the left of him, her left hand links to his, and she establishes her grip. He, in turn, holds on tight and begs himself for his own voice.

She shifts herself closer to him. It hurts, the way the angle of her arm changes in order to keep hold of his hand as she moves, and there comes a point where she is forced to pull it away due to the strain of it. She can’t be sure if this would have bothered her so much before, but it doesn’t matter. It bothers her enough now to let go, and that itself bothers her even more.

She rests her head in his lap and her left hand drifts again, this time grasping his right hand, the reach easier from this position, and they lock in just as firmly as before.

“Kaidan,” she pleads again, her voice quiet but her cadence exigent. She needs him to talk to her, needs him to be okay…

Maybe it’s selfish, but she can’t do this alone. Not now, not ever again.

“Kaidan, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

He’s the only person she’s ever felt comfortable letting go in front of, and now it’s even more important than ever. Her head still spins a little from drinking—it makes no sense to her at all why that is one of the changes to her body; in fact it feels quite contrary to what it should be, but she’s almost afraid to question it.

It’s not enough to distract her too, too much, though. She just needs to focus, she just needs to push herself aside enough to bring him forward.

“They were right about you, Shepard,” Udina taunts. “They said you were unhinged, and now look at you. No wonder humanity has had to work so hard to be taken seriously in this galaxy, when you—”

“Not now, no,” Shepard hisses, and it’s only after she says it that she realizes that she did so aloud. “Fuck.”

Udina disappears, but the damage is done.

She blames the alcohol for this.

“Ash?” Kaidan whispers. He sounds fragile and disconnected, and inside her head, Shepard is fucking screaming over this being the thing to take the first steps in pulling him back.

“No,” she doesn’t lie, but neither does she want to tell the truth. She doesn’t want to talk about herself at all. “Kaidan, please. Talk to me. Let me in.”

His left hand begins to comb fingers delicately though her hair. Slowly and softly he moves, in perfect time with the slight rocking of his upper body he is only just noticing he’s doing. Shepard is generally unbothered by it, but if how hard the grip of her hand becomes means anything, her concern for him is just as prevalent as before, if not moreso.

He’s not sure what there is to say; it almost feels like Rahna all over again. He reacted—he saw a right and a wrong, and he proceeded accordingly without stopping to think about it. Shepard has defended what he did to Vyrnnus, has told him time and again not to blame himself for the way Rahna responded (not to blame her, either, of course, but to remember why he did what he did, and that Shepard wholeheartedly believes he was justified in his actions).

At this moment, however, it’s harder than ever.

But she needs him. She needs him and dammit, he needs her. He can do this.

They can do this.

“Show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” he forces, but he gets it out.

“Kaidan—”

“Carrie.” His voice holds that same tone of desperation hers does. She has to give in.

“It’s nothing.” False start, her bad. She knows better, though, she knows enough to try again. “It’s…it’s not just Ashley.”

“Who else?”

“Everyone.”

She doesn’t know how she feels admitting that. There seems to be an ongoing theme here.

What a fucking day.

“Who was that?” He asks after several beats, the air around them heavy. She feels cold again, but she doesn’t think it has anything to do with the state of her body this time.

“Udina,” she answers, full of disdain.

“Shit,” he replies in the same voice. “Don’t listen to him, whatever he’s telling you. If he sounds anything like the real Udina…”

“He’s real enough in that regard, yeah,” she tries to laugh. “Your turn.”

“What is there to talk about here, Carrie?” He doesn’t mean to sound so frustrated, but he is. Not with her, but with all of it. He should have known better. He should have trusted her. He should have been there when she needed someone.

“Tell me what’s on your mind,” she answers calmly, too calmly. “Tell me how you’re feeling.”

The rate of his rocking increases almost imperceptibly, but it increases all the same.

“What’s on my mind, how I’m feeling,” he echoes, searching for an actual answer. “I know you, Carrie. I know who you are and I know what you’ve been through, better than most people. But that didn’t matter when it needed to. Somehow it was like I just forgot everything I should have known about the woman I love when she’s standing in front of me and confirming everything I knew about her before, that it’s all still there, that she hasn’t changed. But I…I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but I doubted you, Carrie. I doubted when there was no reason I should have, and when you were already going through hell over the whole thing.”

“I don’t blame you,” she says softly. “Kaidan, I never blamed you. You didn’t know that Cerberus didn’t change me, and you had every right to be cautious. Fuck, it turns out that was on the table. And I know it had to hurt to find out I was alive and that I hadn’t contacted you. I wanted to, and I tried to find a way, believe me, but you didn’t know that, either.”

“I should have given you the chance to let me find out sooner,” he shakes his head. Yet he slows his rocking, fixes his mind on the softness of her hair in his hand, the firmness of her fingers in his with the other. “I was with you on Ontarom, remember? And on Binthu, and on Nepheron, and…I found out about what Cerberus did, what they’d put you through at the same time as you. I know how much what happened on Akuze shook you, I know how it still haunts you, and I knew it then. I should never have let you walk away on Horizon, Carrie. I should have gone with you, because I should have known you’d need someone who knew. I should have stayed. I should have helped.”

“You’re helping now,” Shepard’s voice cracks. “Kaidan, you…you make me feel human.”

It’s what he told her that night before Ilos. It’s exactly what he needed to hear, the sincerity made tangible by the still-tightening grip of her left hand, by the way her right arms takes advantage of his rocking forward and snakes behind him, reaching into another hold. They need this closeness. They both feel so lost, so exposed, and there is safety in each other’s touch.

“I need that, I need to feel…Kaidan, I don’t know what I am anymore…”

“You’re Carrie Shepard. You captained the Normandy and built a family out of a crew. You led those of us who served with you to greatness, and those throughout the rest of the galaxy to hope and…hell, salvation. I love you, I always have, and I promise I’ll never doubt you again.”

“I believe you, Kaidan,” she exhales. There’s a shake to it, but she does, and he knows she does. “I love you. Come here.”

She breaks away again, and she swears every joint she has cracks at the sudden movement that makes her muscles burn, and she beckons him to lie down with her.

The sun was only just beginning to set before she came inside, she has no idea what time it is and she doesn’t care to look. Time has no meaning. Everything is too fast or too slow, and she hasn’t yet figured out how to cope with not being bound to a schedule.

One of these days she’ll actually ask Kaidan about his current position with the Alliance. One of these days, but that’s so hard to remember. Time has no meaning. She is now constantly searching for meaning.

She wonders, though, if Edi really is gathering everyone for a second take on what this day was supposed to be, if Shepard might get another chance at being present for everyone she could ever hope to have in one place. Well, everyone who’s left.

But that sounds nice. That sounds really nice. That has meaning.

“Hey,” she recalls that one awkward moment from earlier. “What did Jack need you for?”

That did seem a strange request, for Jack to require Kaidan’s personal attention, and he should have expected Shepard to question it.

“It’s not important right now,” he replies, although it’s not exactly honest of him. This definitely isn’t the time to get into it, though. There will be time later, they have nothing but time now. No war, no lives always on the line, no fear. They have time.

They can do this.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is a little drunk.

Just a little. She’s riding a healthy here to have fun kind of buzz, far from her traditional waking up in an elevator with no idea how she got there level of inebriation.

This is nice. This is something she can work with.

Edi did not, in fact, find a way to convince everyone from the previous day’s party to return. No, what happened instead is simply that no one left. Every couch, every spare bed, and even any space that could be found on the floor had been occupied by those who simply did not want to go yet.

It’s good, though. Shepard wasn’t ready for them to leave, either. Now she gets another shot at this, like she wanted.

She really is trying.

Kaidan is exhausted, and both Shepard and Karin have already lectured him at length about not straining himself today. After the night he and Shepard had, with all the emotional wear it had brought upon them, they have every right to be worried, every right to remind him to take care of himself. Psychological stress can trigger migraines every bit as easily as physical, after all, if not moreso.

Steve has no problem subbing in for him with James, however, the two of them taking on full hosting duties while Kaidan allows himself space to relax, moments to rest.

Shepard and Kaidan are sitting together at that same table where the drinks are still set.

It’s mid-afternoon, but everyone seems to agree that it still counts as a party, and both of them are therefore indulging accordingly.

This is okay, this is fine. This is good, she can do this. She can do this.

“I’ll take that off your hands,” Kaidan says as she’s about to put the cap back on that bottle of whiskey Tali brought them, and Shepard passes it to him instead of setting it down.

“Careful now,” Shepard teases as he pours.

“You are one to talk,” Samara notes. “I’ve been to Afterlife with you, Shepard. I’m not sure I have ever met another individual who would so willingly drink so much at a bar where they’d once been poisoned.”

“Oh come on, it was just the one guy,” Shepard shrugs. “And I knew he wasn’t gonna try it again, since…you know, I killed him…”

“And you know, Samara, now you’ve met Shepard, so…” Garrus laughs. “You know by now that it’s all part of the package.”

“To be fair, I was also kidding,” Shepard points out for no real reason.

“To be fair,” Garrus mocks, “I’m pretty sure that if we were to figure a drinking game out of stories specifically about you nearly dying in a bar, you’d be its only survivor.”

“Not anymore, apparently,” Shepard retorts. “And cheers to that!”

“Really, though, Shepard,” Garrus says seriously. “I’m honestly a little afraid of what you without that infamously death-defying tolerance could look like, so…just, stay safe or something, alright?”

“I’ll be fine, Garrus,” Shepard sighs. She leaves out the “I can’t die, anyway,” but she feels it’s implied.

“You will be, siha, I promise,” Thane reassures her, and she ignores him. That’s a whole thing she really doesn’t want to get into right now.

“Hey, Shepard,” Steve pulls her attention. “I got you something.”

“Oh, ah, thank you,” she says as she opens up the box he handed her, and she surprises herself by having to take a second to blink back tears when she opens it. “Steve, how did you—”

“That talk we had after I went to the Citadel memorial wall, remember?” He speaks softly, as if he’s expecting her to not recall this conversation. Which is great, because she doesn’t, and it seems she doesn’t need to tell him. “I talked about Robert, and you talked about Mindoir and what you remembered about your family, and—”

“And how my mother made amazing hamantaschen,” Shepard finishes. She doesn’t actually remember very much of her birth family, losing them was so traumatic, but she knows that. The box Steve brought her is raspberry, her favorite. She wonders if she’d told him that, too. She doesn’t ask.

“Thank you,” she says again, needing to say something. She picks up one pastry and takes a bite—perfectly soft and doughy, the way she likes them best—and the flash of sense memories is overwhelming. “Tastes like home.”

Not that she’s really sure what exactly “home” even means in this context. She was born on Mindoir, yes, and raised there until she was 16. She really doesn’t remember her birthplace well, though, neither does she remember much of the rest of the Shepard family. Her parents were farmers, and she thinks she had siblings, but they’re gone. Not even simply gone, as those raiders had ensured, but gone in memory, as well. Shepard can’t even recall their names anymore. The primary point of what little she knows about them now is that she had watched them die—and that this was how she’d accidentally discovered her biotic abilities. She knows, too, that this is why the Alliance took her with them when they found her. She vaguely remembers how she was still screaming and glowing when they approached, surrounded by the scattered bodies of those she had wanted to protect and those who’d harmed them—there were more than a few batarians she could only assume she was responsible for. She had been too late for her loved ones, though.

She couldn’t save them, either.

All the same, she finds an incredible comfort in Steve’s gift. She’s not sure where those sense memories actually take her, as the life and time they evoke is not something she has any real grasp on, but she somehow knows that such memories would be pleasant, and that she is somehow certain she misses the time they come from. But she is glad she now has this family and this home to share them with, as well.

“Thanks,” Kaidan smiles and accepts it when she hands him one, and she takes back the bottle of whiskey.

“Now that you mention it, I can’t believe I have never heard you talk about your family,” Garrus notes. “For all the times you’ve asked about—”

“Because there’s not much to say,” Shepard interrupts, and she chases those words with half her glass. So she pours more. “What happened on Mindoir was an atrocity. I was the only survivor of anyone I knew personally. And I was a teenager. It’s tragic, but that’s about all I’ve got.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “You don’t need to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about.”

He doesn’t know if she knows that she’d told him how much she doesn’t remember, and how much a part of her desperately wishes she could. Or how ashamed she is that another part of her is almost glad she doesn’t, almost glad she’s blocked out the pain of losing them, almost glad that having locked away the memories of who they were makes it easier not to think about them, not to always miss them. He doesn’t know how many other people she’s told, either, but she looks nervous and he wants to find her a way out if he can. He looks to Kaidan in hopes he’ll have something. He glances around the rest of the crowd hoping to spot Joker or James.

Shepard, meanwhile, puts her head in her hands and mumbles to herself, “‘I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again. (I think I made you up inside my head.)’”

She was reading that piece with Ashley the other night and it’s been haunting her, for obvious reasons.

She thinks it might be her favorite.

“You never know, Skipper,” Ashley smiles. “You’ve already found the nothing, yourself, and I can’t say what that means any better than you can. But if I couldn’t go to God, I’m glad to be with you.”

No, Shepard is not dealing with this. Not now, not today.

She decides in this same moment, however, that she genuinely hopes there is a heaven, solely so Ashley can be there. Shepard may have been met with nothing, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that Ashley was. After all, from what Shepard knows of that aspect of her upbringing (mostly in the form of backing up what vague and spotty fragments of memory she has of her mother with extranet research, her best attempt at retaining some of who she was before that raid which completely altered the entire course of her life), her family’s beliefs did not include a hell, so perhaps that void simply meant that’s where she’d have gone were it to exist.

Somehow, she is perfectly okay with this thought.

She looks back up and finishes her whiskey, and she doesn’t hesitate in pouring another. Kaidan takes back the bottle as soon as she’s done with it and pours another for himself, as well.

He doesn’t usually drink like this. She isn’t saying anything quite yet, acknowledging the hypocrisy of how much she wants to, but she’s watching him carefully regardless.

Kaidan catches her not-so-wandering eyes, but he doesn’t say anything, either. He believes her when she says everything is okay between them, believes that she forgives him, but he isn’t sure about forgiving himself. Not anymore.

He’s sure Karin—or even Kelly, based on what little he knows about her—would have words for him, and so he keeps quiet, because he actively does not want to hear them.

He likes the cookies, though. He’s also heard Shepard mention them in passing, and it’s oddly comforting to finally try them, to be able to share this small connection to her roots with her, despite how disconnected to them she was forced to become.

It’s yet another thing he wishes she’d talk about, but he’s seen how hard it is. It makes sense to him that it would be difficult to come to terms with forgetting the names and faces of those one grew up with, especially when she seems pretty sure that they were good people, pretty sure that she did love them.

All the times she accidentally called Anderson “dad” can’t help her guilt complex on that count, either.

“Shepard,” Jacob greets her with a smile as he joins them at the table. “How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know,” she shrugs. “It’s going. How’ve you been? How’s Brynn?”

“We’re doing pretty well,” he affirms. “I’m working with Miranda again. Brynn’s part of it, too, but she’s mostly on the sidelines right now. It’s only a few weeks out now, and we are really looking forward to the big day.”

“I hope you talked her out of her idea,” Shepard laughs. She really means it, though.

“No, I didn’t,” Jacob chuckles. “I did try, but…turns out I didn’t actually want to.”

“Sorry to hear,” Shepard laughs harder than she probably should.

“Yeah, well, I damn well know she’s probably going to be one of, like, ten with the same name in all of her classes growing up, so…” Jacob smirks, and Shepard cocks her head at him.

“Check the extranet,” he explains. “War ended, and probably a minimum of half the kids born from that day forward have some variation of your name. Shepard’s the most popular, though.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Shepard shakes her head, but there isn’t any more to say on the subject, so she only sighs and takes another drink.

She does think of mentioning how it’s considered bad luck to name a child after someone still living, but she keeps it to herself. She isn’t sure she counts, anyway.

“Alright, I’ll bite,” Shepard says instead. “What version are you going with? Just Shepard, or…?”

“Well, that actually was the plan,” Jacob grins. “But once the vids started using your full name after you were presumed dead, we decided on Nesiah.”

That’s good. Shepard can live with that.

There’s a bit of a pause wherein Jacob looks around the table, and Shepard can’t think of anything to add, so he proceeds accordingly.

“Hey, Garrus…Samara,” Jacob waves to them specifically, as well. It makes sense that he’d gravitate to them next, as they’re the only ones at this table who served with Shepard when he did.

Jacob deliberately singles out Samara, though, when he asks, “How’s it going with you? How’s Falere?”

Shepard doesn’t know how she didn’t think to ask that, herself. Maybe it’s simply because of how hard she’s been trying not to think.

“Falere is…as well as to be expected, I suppose,” Samara replies. “We now keep in touch far more regularly, and she has let me in on how heavy the grief she feels for her sister remains. She is still running the monastery, though, and it sounds as though Rila’s sacrifice continues to further inspire Falere’s dedication to her own code.”

“I’m sorry about what happened to her,” Jacob notes. “Your daughter was very brave—hell, I can’t even try to imagine the kind of strength that took—and she probably saved a lot of lives.”

“She was,” Samara nods. “Thank you, Jacob.”

“She won’t be forgotten, Samara,” Shepard says. She hopes it’s as comforting as she intends it to be. She doesn’t wait to find out, though, and she turns her focus back to Jacob. “Where is Brynn, anyway?”

“The Antigone base on Horizon,” he tells her. “She’s keeping any kind of FTL or mass relay travel to a minimum right now, just to be safe.”

“Well, give her my regards when you talk to her, too,” Shepard says.

“Will do,” Jacob says. There’s a pause and he looks around briefly, and then he gets up and walks away. The safe assumption is that he just really wants to talk to Brynn now, that he is off to contact her privately.

That’s really sweet.

“Aww, how lovely,” Kasumi smiles. She is clearly enjoying watching Jacob walk away, and she immediately cloaks the second Shepard notices.

“Subtle,” Garrus laughs.

Shepard looks back to Kaidan. She’s lost track of how many he’s had, although in fairness she can make the same note about herself. She just wishes he’d look at her.

Ashley sits down right beside her and whispers in her ear, “‘The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, and arbitrary blackness gallops in: I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.’”

For the first time since this started, Shepard feels compelled to ask if anyone else can see Ashley. She has thus far been grateful for her lucidity during these encounters (she can’t bring herself to think about what might happen to her if she were to snap completely, if this were to get too far out of hand and blur the lines of reality enough to warrant any form of professional attention). Now, though, she’s not as sure. Now she fears she is slipping.

She needs Kaidan. She needs him.

She doesn’t ask, however. Not because she’s sure she doesn’t need to (which is, to be fair, still at least somewhat accurate), but because she is legitimately afraid to.

Kaidan can see that fear in her eyes even in his peripheral vision, as he watches her watching him, and that brings him to turn and really look at her. He recognizes the patterns of her eye movements already: Shepard is seeing someone who isn’t there, and he doesn’t know how to help her.

She’ll blame herself for that, he knows, but he can’t let her. He has too much to make up for now, no matter what she tells him in that regard.

He won’t shut down on her again, though, he won’t let that happen. She needs him, he knows how badly she needs him, and he needs to be there.

And fuck if he doesn’t need her just as much.

“Shepard!” Grunt exclaims before Kaidan can say anything. “I knew you’d make it. My battlemaster can survive anything.”

He thinks he’s being complimentary, perhaps even reassuring, that much is obvious, but…oh, how that stings.

“Yep,” Shepard says dryly. “Might need to talk to Wrex about finding yourself a new battlemaster, though. Not sure I’m up for it these days.”

She keeps saying what she feels as of late, the kinds of things she’d think but never vocalize in the past.

No one could ever have guessed it would be possible to think back on the fucking Reaper War as simpler times.

And yet…

“Nonsense, Shepard,” Wrex laughs, coming up to the table beside Grunt. “You’re an honorary krogan now, remember?”

“Yeah, thanks,” she forces a smile. “Uncle Urdnot.”

“Damn straight,” Wrex nods. “Got some ryncol, if you’re up for it. Grunt says you can handle that like a krogan, too.”

“No,” Kaidan, Garrus, and Steve all say at the exact same time.

“No,” Shepard reluctantly agrees. “Like I said, time to find a new battlemaster.”

“Never,” Grunt replies, and this time there is somehow something reassuring to it.

They did kill a thresher maw together, after all. That’s quite a bonding experience.

Although for Shepard, it was more of a catharsis. She was more than happy to let Grunt take all the glory over that one, but after what happened on Akuze, there was no way in hell they were leaving those grounds until that thing was dead.

It brings her an almost greater sense of serenity to know that Miranda and Oriana are orchestrating a similar galactic retribution for Cerberus.

“How’s Bakara?” Shepard asks.

“She is almost single-handedly piecing Tuchanka back together bit by bit, Shepard,” Wrex proclaims. “She’s the best thing to happen to the krogan since you.”

“Hey, now,” Shepard laughs. “When it comes to krogan, I learned from the best.”

She keeps her promise by not mentioning that Bakara herself had given him that same praise.

“Let me know whenever I get to meet Urdnot Mordin,” she says instead with a smirk.

“Don’t worry, Shepard,” Wrex chuckles. “We’ll be in touch. Little pyjak’s going down in krogan history, too. Strange things sure follow you around.”

“Don’t they just,” she deadpans.

She really does want that ryncol, though.

And she’s just realized they’re out of whiskey.

Shepard glances around the area, taking everyone in just as she did the day before. Many of their friends are in almost the exact same positions they were then, and it makes her smile.

She is not going to bail on them today, dammit. She is not.

She might need a break, though. It is early yet.

Ashley walks up to Kaidan and then looks to Shepard with knowing eyes. “‘I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed and sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. (I think I made you up inside my head.)’”

Shepard needs a fucking break.

“Sanity check?” Kaidan asks quietly. He sees it, sees the way she looks around, beside him, behind him. He doesn’t know who’s there, but he knows there’s someone, and that he and Shepard both have had enough to drink by this point that it’s best to take a moment before anything gets out of hand. He knows how hard she’s trying to see everyone, but he also knows they’ll all be here for at least the rest of the day, so they can take that moment for themselves.

They can take this moment.

“Yeah,” she confirms. “Sanity check.”

“Keep our seats warm for us,” Kaidan remarks to those nearby.

“You two okay?” Steve asks instinctively, and Kaidan and Shepard both nod.

“Just need to decompress for a little bit,” Kaidan says. “We’ll be back.”

“Promise,” Shepard follows. They desperately need this, though.

Kaidan helps her up and the rush of all that whiskey in one sitting gives her an excuse for wobbling like this. She’d be doing it anyway and everyone knows that by now, but she pretends she can blame it on the alcohol. She absolutely will blame it on the alcohol.

She lies down on the bed and curls in on herself when they reach it. She suddenly feels sick and even this buzz can’t save her from how much it hurts to walk even that far.

She still isn’t listening to Karin about mobility aids, though. She is not ready to hear that.

“Carrie?” Kaidan lies down next to her and gets as close as he can. While so much of their house has been opened up to their friends to come and go as they please, this room is the one nobody enters without permission, the one place that is theirs and theirs alone. This is their refuge.

Shepard opens her eyes (when did she close them?) and sees Ashley staring at a wall and looking up. Shepard imagines Ashley would be looking through a window if there was one in this room, gazing up like that towards the sky, but apparently that will have to do.

“‘God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade: exit seraphim and Satan’s men; I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.’” Ashley speaks exceptionally firmly here, enunciating her words sharply into a delicate rhythm, as though she knows this is Shepard’s favorite part.

Of course she does, she isn’t real.

Shepard makes her up inside her head.

Which is absolutely fucking spinning, but whether that’s due to all that whiskey or how exceptionally overwhelming she finds Ashley’s presence today, or both, well…

She needs to get out of her head.

The way she’s folding herself nearly into the fetal position aches, and somehow her inability to emotionally break properly makes her feel even more desperate to do so, when this is typically an event she would push down and avoid at all costs.

Everything has been so much worse since the Catalyst, and she still doesn’t know how to face the inevitability that it’s staying that way. Everything has been so much worse since she woke up in London without a purpose or a plan, without a reason to keep going but with her mind fractured even moreso than it had ever been before, and that is fucking saying something.

Now, though, too—now she has no real reason for keeping her head in check so fiercely as she had before. She’s as good as a civilian now. It doesn’t matter anymore.

She needs to get the fuck out from inside her head.

Kaidan is trying to get her attention and she is trying to bring herself to give it to him, but Ashley is talking over him.

Worse yet, Thane joins her momentarily, and together they recite, “‘I fancied you’d return the way you said, but I grow old and I forget your name. (I think I made you up inside my head.) I should have loved a thunderbird instead; at least when spring comes they roar back again. I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)’”

She thinks on Joker’s bad, well, joke he’d made after she’d entered the geth consensus, about not knowing whether or not she’s in the real world any longer. She can’t think about this. She can’t.

She thinks on Kaidan telling her that she’s real enough for him, but that does not overtake her memory of Joker’s one stupid comment she is completely certain was never meant to be taken seriously.

He’d probably be fairly upset to know she’s thinking of it now, that she’s thinking of it this way, she knows. It changes nothing.

“‘I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)’” Shepard mutters aloud, and the words feel bitter and raw. “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead…”

“Carrie,” Kaidan calls to her, reaching for her.

“‘I think I made you up inside my head,’” she repeats. “‘I think I made you up inside my head,’ I…I…I…”

“Carrie,” Kaidan doesn’t quite yell, but he speaks far more forcefully than is typical for him.

She’s doubted far too many times whether or not she is real, whether or not she can still exist after everything, and nothing in her head is helping right now. Everything in her head, in this moment in particular, is only solidifying her fear.

She is certain that piece is her favorite.

She will not think about what the hell that says about her, especially in this condition.

Kaidan puts a hand on her shoulder—gently, carefully. He vies for her attention but is cautious not to startle her. She is so easily set off lately, and he will do everything in his power to ease her through whatever he can, however he can.

“‘I think I made you up inside my head…’”

He leans over her, bracing himself on the bed with his free hand and trying to hold on to her tight (but not too tight) with the other.

She is shaking and whimpering, but this time it doesn’t seem to have much to do with her physical state. No, she looks like she’s breaking, like everything she’s suppressed as well as she could since she was 16 fucking years old is winning.

At the very least, this is the worst he’s seen her yet, but he knows she needs this. He just needs to be there to help her through it.

He just needs to be there.

For Shepard, everything is dark. Although her eyes are open, there is little she can see. She can feel the light fading, she can feel the tremors coursing through her bones, and she can feel the fucking crawling in her skin…along with all the things she can’t remember, and everything she’ll never forget.

A full half of her life now has been marked by loss, by grief and guilt, and by repression.

To have it all come crashing down at once like it wants to right now…this could be nothing short of catastrophic.

Kaidan tries so hard to get through to her. He tries so fucking hard. And to think he doesn’t believe he’s good enough with these things.

He is too good for her—he is too good.

She rolls over onto her back not because she wants to, but because of how much it’s hurt to remain in that position, which has grown to be insufferable. Kaidan instantly shifts accordingly, lifting her just slightly off the bed by bringing her into himself and holding her so close.

She automatically wraps her arms around him and inadvertently pulls him down in that same motion. He is flat on top of her while keeping her in his grasp, and he doesn’t let go when she starts panicking. He adjusts to prop himself up on his knees, to give himself just enough space to keep her like this without feeling like he’s going to suffocate her.

Her hands turn to fists at his back and she starts pounding them. She has no inhibition now, she can no longer be held back.

She is definitely going to blame this on the alcohol.

Ashley looks at Thane as they slowly fade out together, and the former whispers something about William Butler Yeats. Shepard has seriously taken Ashley’s love of old poetry too far.

“Kaidan,” she manages, burying her face into his neck and trying so hard to keep her arms still. “Kaidan, it’s not real. Right, Kaidan? Right?”

She’s practically begging and it scares him. He worries there are a couple of different things she could be questioning, so he does as well as he can.

“Ash isn’t here, Carrie,” he starts, and he hopes that’s enough on that end. If Ashley in particular isn’t there, then neither is anyone else Shepard has lost, and he hopes she understands how he means it. “Ash isn’t, Carrie, but…but you are. You’re here, and I’ve got you, okay? You’re safe. It’s going to be o—”

“No the fuck it isn’t,” she shouts, and the final crack becomes consuming, what’s left of the shields fail. Shepard lets out an ungodly wail, and there is no return.

Kaidan pulls her in again and rolls them both over so that they’re on their sides, and she starts writhing.

“Leave me,” she yells as her arms tighten contradictorily around him. She is working so hard to hold still, but she’s doing a piss poor job of it. Her body wrenches so violently she won’t be surprised if this outburst leaves both of them with bruises, and this is why she wants him to let her go. She can’t even entertain the thought of him actually doing so, but that’s for herself. For him…fuck, she wishes he’d do himself a favor and see reason. It might destroy her at this point, but that doesn’t matter.

“You deserve so much…so much more,” she manages somewhat clearly. She thinks he heard it. “Kaidan, please, please…”

“No,” he says firmly. “I have lost you enough times now to know how much I cannot do that, alright? Dammit, Carrie, I will not let you go again, you fucking hear me.”

How many times does he need to tell her this before she believes him? How many times until…

It doesn’t matter. He’ll never stop.

She responds only by howling against his skin, and as her thrashing intensifies he can only imagine what this might be doing to her physically. This kind of movement and tension when sometimes even sitting for an extended period is enough of a strain…

He wonders if he should get Karin, if he should seek some kind of intervention, but he can’t let her go. He wracks his brain for his own training in medicine, but it could never have prepared him for something like this—he’s fine as a field medic and it’s been useful for more inconveniently timed migraines when he’s caught their onset early enough, but this is far beyond him. He knows it’s also beyond Karin, anyway, for as hard as she has also been trying throughout all of this.

No, he is going to stay with Shepard, and he is going to be there for as long as she needs. He will stay where he is until the screaming stops, no matter what. He will find a way.

He runs his fingers in circles along her back, more for himself than for her in all honesty, but he knows it keeps her with him, helps to ground her to reality. It’s been so difficult to keep her there, and he doesn’t want her falling away any further.

“It’s you and me,” he says quietly. “You’re here with me now, and I am not letting you go.”

Her fists dig into his back as she sobs but he still holds on, and she doesn’t think she will ever admit how badly she needs this. She can’t say for sure, though, as apparently feeling more and even opening up about it are things that happen to her now.

She is desperate for air but she can’t stop. Prayers for self-destruction are the only thoughts that break up the spiral in her mind of all the people she’s lost, all the mistakes she’s made, and how often these go hand in hand.

A full half of her life now has been defined by such disasters, and they have only built and built and built…there was always going to be a breaking point.

After a while, she must have simply started assuming she wouldn’t live to see a breaking point.

Yet somehow even dying couldn’t prevent this.

They promised they’d regroup and return to their little shindig eventually. She had promised, and she can’t expect all of these people to keep putting their whole lives on hold for her like this. The worst part, though, is that she has no doubt they would.

She tries to focus on Kaidan, instead—not on those awaiting her outside, and not on any of those long gone who could show up in this room at any second. She is with Kaidan, and he is trying to help her. She knows he needs it, too, how badly he needs to be able to help her after learning about how she’d dealt with having worked with Cerberus. She knows he’s still reeling from that, even though he won’t tell her. He’s working so hard to put her needs first. She decides it’s time to return the favor for once.

She tenses her body so it becomes rigid and she begins to still, but her breathing is heavy and rapid with no sign of easing, and Kaidan knows exactly what she’s doing, knows that she’s forcing this.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey,” he whispers calmly. “Carrie, it’s okay…you’re okay…I’m here…”

He doubts he can bring her back to letting things out, at least for the time being, but this has been a lot, and it’s a start. He knows she’s never let go to anything even close to this extent before, and he’s with her now that she has. He hopes that helps.

She probably does need to rest from it now, anyway, though. Now she just needs to breathe.

If he can just get her to breathe…

This is genuinely the worst episode she has ever had in anyone else’s presence, even Kaidan’s.

But he’s still there, just as he’s always told her he’d be. He hasn’t left. She knew he believed it when he’d told her such things, yet she could never have dreamed it would be true if the day ever came.

Her arms rush up his back and her fingers run through his hair. That little edge of static she feels at the touch is familiar and comforting, and she does her best to minimize the heavy rise and fall of her chest when she shifts herself to meet his eyes, to press her forehead against his. She can feel that her face is still wet, her eyes and her throat burn and that darkness has not fully lifted. She has a focal point, however, and she is still just buzzed enough to throw caution to the wind.

Her eyes are bloodshot and her face is contorted in pain, but he knows that look, and when accompanied by the way she’s pulling on his hair…

He kisses her forehead, and that’s when she pounces. She claims his lips and grips his hair tighter, taking in the sharp tingle, and he gives in to her completely.

She wraps one leg around him and pushes her hips into his, and he flips her onto her back without a second thought, muscle memory momentarily taking over.

Her hands drop down to his pants, anxiously fumbling around for buttons, zippers, whatever.

“Carrie, wait, hey,” he breaks away, gently planting soft, small kisses under her chin between each word. She is still working on getting his pants open, but he finds the self-control to pause, to check in. “Are you…are you sure about…oh god.”

She’s gotten through his pants, letting them slip off as much as they can on their own while she wraps a hand around him and slowly starts to stroke.

“Please,” she begs, looking into his eyes. She needs this, he has to understand how much she needs this. “Please, Kaidan, I…”

He kisses her neck and she arches it sharply with a long inhale.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, but oh…Carrie, you need…you need to stop…”

There’s no way in hell he’s going to last, it’s been so long, but he has to try.

She takes back her hands and rests them above her head. Kaidan is now breathing almost as heavily as she is. They can do this.

He moves quickly to get her pants off, and then his own, and neither of them care about anything else. It’s been so long, they only need this.

Kaidan grips one of her hands and she shivers when she feels fingers brush up against her clit, but for as amazing as that feels and for as much as she’s missed this sensation, it is not what she wants right now.

She shakes her head and pants his name. “Kaidan…Kaidan, no, I need…I need to feel you, please, please…”

He kisses her longingly, lovingly, and her whole body arches towards his, and she drifts one hand back into his hair just in time, as her fingers clench and pull hard when he slips inside her.

He lets out a long, shallow moan at the contact. He hasn’t even had much time for himself, and she hasn’t had any. Fuck, how they need this.

Her ankles cross around his back and her hips roll roughly against his. He is taking this slow, however. He kisses her lips, her cheeks, her neck, her collarbones, everywhere he can reach her, and he rocks into her with a precise rhythm, with which he simultaneously intends to keep himself going for as long as he possibly can and to minimize any potential pain this might yet cause her.

He is so gentle, so soft and careful, and that is enough to get her going again.

He stops moving when he hears the choke in her throat and he looks at her, sees the welling in her eyes that she cannot hold back, but she aggressively shakes her head and tightens the grip she has on him with her legs.

“Please,” she instantly begs again, although this time it is through a broken and hoarse voice that she is trying so hard to control. “Kaidan, please, don’t stop, don’t stop…”

She needs to feel him, to feel this closeness, this connection. She needs to feel real.

He doesn’t stop, though, he doesn’t break away. She’s made it clear how much this means to her right now, and it means as much to him. He’s missed sharing this level of intimacy with her. He keeps his hands on her, keeps his lips on her, and he paces himself to the best of his ability.

After another few minutes, the rate of her breathing finally begins to slow—the neurotransmitters must be hitting—while his continues to increase. He tries to slow down even further when he’s so close already but he wants to give her more.

“Kaidan,” she sighs. “Kaidan, it’s…it’s okay, don’t hold back, don’t…”

She understands. She just wants him, needs him, needs them both to let go.

“Fuck, I love you,” she whispers, and that is what unravels him.

He finishes with a long, shaky exhale and Shepard’s hand on his cheek, and he carefully rolls onto his back, pulling her to his chest. She can hear how hard his heart is pounding, and she knows this wasn’t really about sex for either of them (although she is longing for that moment, as well). No, this was simply about them keeping each other close, about feeling one another from the inside out when they need it most.

“I love you,” he whispers in turn, and they both decide to let themselves lie like this for just a little while.

***

Shepard’s eyes are still bloodshot red and blown out all to hell when she and Kaidan return to the backyard, both of them emotionally exhausted, but they make their way back nonetheless.

“Everything okay, Lola?” James asks when they sit back down at the drinks table.

“Maybe,” she shrugs. It’s not a lie. “Where the fuck did my cookies go?”

“Well,” James laughs and waves towards Steve. “Someone—hey, Esteban—didn’t seem to think the rest of us were trustworthy.”

“He just put them in a pantry, no big,” Joker smiles. “Good luck finding them again, though, in any case…this place is a fucking maze.”

“Layout’s easy enough, actually,” Kaidan chuckles. “It’s just roomy.”

“How’s that for the fucking understatement of the century,” Joker shakes his head.

“How did you end up with this place?” Shepard finally asks, and the way Joker and James both look at her shows how surprised they are she doesn’t already know, herself.

Shit, she’s been terrible at this.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again. (I think I made you up inside my head.)”

At least she thinks it to herself this time. No Ashley, no other visions. Just Shepard and having to deal with this never-ending spiral of feeling lost and falling behind, and not knowing how the fuck to find her way and catch up.

All the world’s dropped dead. It’s time for it to be born again.

The third decade of Shepard’s life, summarized.

“It was my parents’ house,” Kaidan answers easily. He keeps his eyes on Shepard, though, trying to keep careful track of his wording. He knows she feels so far behind and that there are so many things she can’t explain why she hasn’t asked, and he doesn’t want her to have to think too hard on this one. “They decided to get out of the city proper after everything calmed down, though. Maple Ridge isn’t too far out, but it’s quieter there, and that’s what they wanted.”

Shepard looks surprised, and she immediately starts with a guilt-ridden, “So your dad—”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s fine,” Kaidan steps in as quickly as he can. “He was hurt pretty bad, but everything turned out alright. They’re officially taking their golden years now, though, you know…retirement, relaxation, just a calmer and quieter life.”

“Wow, what the fuck is that?” Shepard laughs. She’s just waiting for Hackett to show up in person at this point, to deliver the bad news that’s so obvious it almost doesn’t seem like it’s worth saying. “Sounds like a nightmare.”

She takes on a joking tone, but she’s not kidding. No one believes for a second that she’s kidding.

She looks to Joker, though, just a flash of a glance. He is somber, but he otherwise appears generally unaffected. She knows now that he lost everything, though, and she is absolutely fucking livid when she thinks about it again.

She hopes Edi helps. Joker and Edi really have been fucking perfect for each other, and that is one good thing Shepard knows she has done, one thing that can help her sleep at night, even if only just a little.

Joker, however, is legitimately happy to hear that someone actually made out as well as Kaidan. He can’t begrudge Kaidan keeping his family just because Joker himself didn’t get that chance. He knows what Shepard must be thinking, too, about who lost whom, about his family and how overtly upset she was to hear about it. He didn’t lose everything, though, and this little get together is the proof, and he truly longs to make her understand that, to understand that yes, he did lose and that stings like a bitch, but this drastically eases the blow—she eases the blow.

“So you don’t get off so easy, huh, Shepard?” Joker teases. “Gotta meet the parents eventually after all?”

“Oh god,” she laughs. She hadn’t thought of that and the idea does make her strangely nervous, but this is certainly a problem she wants to have.

“Don’t worry,” Kaidan tells her quietly. “They’ll love you, Carrie, I promise.”

He leans over and plants a quick kiss on her shoulder, and they are swiftly interrupted by Zaeed’s rough, booming voice.

“Shepard,” he playfully slaps her back, and she tries to pretend she didn’t flinch. “Got you something.”

He hands her a small plush Thessian sunfish, and she bursts into laughter.

“Thanks, Zaeed,” she smiles, drawing her conclusions about how he’d acquired it. “So, uh…how long did it take you to win this?”

“All you need to know is that I did, goddammit,” he says with a smirk.

“Well…thanks,” she repeats, and shakes her head when he grabs an entire bottle of something from the table and walks off.

“Oh shit,” Shepard says after a pause. Zaeed’s gift reminds her of the one Edi had given her not long after Shepard and Zaeed had spent the day at the arcade yelling at games, and a thought dawns in her. “That doctor in London didn’t know who I was…I don’t know what happened to my tags.”

“So?” Joker asks with a shrug.

“I had the victory ring Edi gave me on the chain, like she suggested,” Shepard answers.

“I think you keeping her alive might make up for losing a ring, just saying,” Joker offers, and Shepard takes it. She feels it’s a shame that she no longer has it now that she could actually wear it, but she feels like it would mean more to them if she let that concern slide, if she focused more on being there to spend time with them, on them both still being there to spend time with her and with each other.

“Actually, I have it,” Kaidan interjects, and Shepard and Joker both give him distinctly confused looks. “You, umm, gave me your tags before you went through the conduit, right before you pretty much forced me back into the Normandy. You said you wanted me to keep them close, and there was a, uh, pretty strongly implied just in case to it. I kind of tried to talk you out of it, but…well, there wasn’t much time and you’re not the easiest person to win an argument against.”

Shepard doesn’t remember any of this, but it’s a massive relief all the same. “Looks like I was right, though, wasn’t I?”

She does remember Anderson tossing those tags at her while they were evacuating the Vancouver base, telling her to consider herself reinstated. It feels like a silly attachment to hold to them, but she is very glad she didn’t lose them.

“The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, and arbitrary blackness gallops in…”

“Oh, Shep, you are good,” Kasumi appears, sitting at the edge of the table, causing Shepard to jump a little.

“Kasumi, can you not,” she groans once she takes a second to catch her breath.

“What’s the fun in that?” Kasumi smirks.

“Good to know some things never change,” Shepard laughs. “How’s the thieving going?”

“Oh, you know, life of luxury and all,” Kasumi crosses her legs and looks up, appearing contemplative. “Working on the Crucible was inspiring. I’ve been pulling a lot more heists for charity, channelling occasional funds over Miranda’s way. You’ve been quite the influence, Shep.”

“Glad to hear,” Shepard grins.

“Yeah, well,” Kasumi chuckles, and then sighs heavily. “Thanks for the whole…synthesis thing, too, Shep. And for convincing me to hold onto Keiji’s graybox.”

“Wait, you’re not saying—”

“No, it’s nothing so serious,” Kasumi looks back down. “But it is…interesting. I can’t touch him, but I can see him and…and I can talk to him, I mean really talk to him, and…it’s something, Shep. Thank you. Really.”

“You’re, umm…you’re welcome,” Shepard mutters. She still really doubts all of this will ever truly make sense, but she actually does genuinely believe she made the right choice.

Kasumi disappears again in the blink of an eye, but Shepard can’t help but smile when she spots a single red rose left in her place.

“Of course she would,” Shepard laughs to herself. Kasumi might have retired her “signature” while working, but they’d shared enough at this point, and her roses were one of the first things the two of them had ever discussed, so Shepard finds it fitting.

She takes in her surroundings, just as she had earlier. Karin and Greg are still reminiscing over drinks, Samantha and Diana remain inseparable, Jacob is further catching up with Samara as well as Zaeed, Liara is glaring at but engaging with Javik, Wrex and Grunt are sharing drinks, Garrus, Tali, and Steve look like they’re heading back towards Shepard’s direction, Kelly, Gabby, and Ken are playing Skyllian-five poker, and neither Miranda nor Jack are anywhere to be seen.

“The stars go waltzing out in blue and red…”

“One big happy family, right,” Joker chuckles as Edi comes up behind him and wraps her arms around him.

“You said it, hermano,” James responds, and he absolutely means it sincerely.

“Ah, fuck me,” Garrus exclaims when the first bursts of raindrops start to hit, which all too quickly start turning into a downpour.

“Hey, well, this place is even bigger than Shepard’s old apartment,” Joker notes. “So, you know…”

“Yeah, we can find room inside easily enough,” Kaidan agrees. “Ah, sorry about…you know, it is Vancouver, this just…happens.”

“Really not selling me on your homeland right now, you know,” Garrus scowls. “Well, I am heading inside, away from…Vancouver, apparently.”

Shepard, meanwhile, simply crosses her arms over the table and leans in to rest her head over them instead of even trying to move.

“Carrie,” Kaidan prods her gently. Almost everyone else has already made it in by this point, heading towards the house en masse in a hurry.

What little was left of that buzz from earlier is gone now, and the rain sends a chill through her down to the bone, making her joints feel stiff and useless.

“God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade…”

She can just there sit in the rain, she doesn’t care.

That’s a lie, but she can try to convince herself otherwise.

“I will pick you up and carry you inside,” Kaidan adds tenderly. He doesn’t intend to be demeaning, but it’s difficult not to take it that way.

“Sorry, I…” He continues when she doesn’t respond. “I’m not trying to insult you, Carrie, I just…”

He just wants to help.

She makes herself sit back up, and she reaches for his hand to help her up. She lets him support her with her arm around his shoulders and his around her waist, that limp she so despises even more prevalent when she’s soaked through and freezing like this.

It seems any shift in weather or temperature throws off her whole body now.

She will never adequately be able to describe how fucking much she hates this.

“Arbitrary blackness gallops in…”

“Kaidan,” she whines when they approach one of the guest bedrooms. She’s not sure she can make it any further, but perhaps she can use this to keep herself in a semi-public space, perhaps she can still let people in.

“Here?” He surmises, and she is equal parts humiliated by how easily inferred it was and pleased she doesn’t need to say it.

She nods, and he maneuvers them immeidately towards that door while she moves with him, keeping close and holding on. At this point, he is the only reason she is able to remain standing.

“Just, umm, let’s keep the door open,” she says quietly.

She’s trying. She intends to keep trying.

“I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed and sung me moon-struck…”

“Oh fuck,” Jack utters when the door opens, and she takes a few steps back but it’s a second too late to hide that she’d just had Miranda against the wall, kissing her with a feverish passion to the extent that they are both breathing audibly heavily even as they try to appear casual.

“Umm, shit, sorry…” Jack and Miranda both offer, one right behind the other, searching unsuccessfully for eloquence or maybe even some excuse.

“Told you so,” Shepard smirks in response, and it looks like it eases their embarrassment ever so slightly.

Miranda looks to Jack, anyway, though. “Maybe we should, uh…”

“Yeah,” Jack says hastily. “Yeah, sounds great, let’s do that.”

They walk out together at a pace that is almost a jog, and Shepard can’t help but laugh the rest of the way to the bed.

“They’re just going to look for another empty room to make out in, aren’t they?” Kaidan chuckles.

“Yep,” Shepard replies as he helps her down.

He opens up the closet nearby and pulls out a small pile of towels and blankets, and he wraps the towels around her and spreads the blankets over the bed before she can either ask or protest, whichever she might do. He genuinely doesn’t know for sure.

“You know, though, Karin is going to lecture the living hell out of us both if we don’t get you a change of clothes ASAP,” he tells her, and she sighs dejectedly.

“I know,” she admits, and once more he steps in before she can say anything more.

“I’ll go grab you something,” he says. “We’ll only keep the door closed for a few minutes, tops. It’s alright, Carrie.”

“Fine,” she says sadly, but she immediately stops to remember that it’s not his fault, that he’s doing all he can to make this new life of hers easier. “Thank you, Kaidan.”

“You stay here, I’ll be right back,” he says before he walks out and closes the door behind him. She thinks of making some sort of joke about him giving her orders, about the fact that he actually outranks her, regardless of the dynamic they had aboard the Normandy, but she can’t figure out whether or not it feels right.

“I fancied you’d return the way you came…”

Fuck, she wishes that had been the case.

“‘Miracle of God,’ so fitting,” Ashley smiles. “I never knew your middle name, but…it suits you.”

“That it does,” Anderson says reassuringly.

A good Hebrew name, presumably bestowed upon her by her good Jewish mother. She doesn’t think her father had personally held any religious beliefs, himself, although she couldn’t possibly tell you what makes her say that.

“I hope you’re happy, Ash, wherever you are,” she whispers to her…to herself. It is only to herself. She looks to Anderson, anyway, though, to add a simple, “You, too, Dad.”

She won’t apologize for saying that. It was always awkward when it slipped out while he was with her, but at the same time she always knew the feeling was mutual.

Kaidan returns with a set of dry clothes, and he has to help her change, but for once she isn’t too terribly upset about it. She doubts this feeling will last, but she thinks again on their conversations from the previous evening, and she really does want to show him all the appreciation he deserves.

He deserves only the best.

“Exit seraphim and Satan’s men…”

He puts aside her wet clothes and opens the door back up, and he sits beside her. They relax, and they wait for the crowd to inevitably mingle their way.

They are close and they are comfortable, and surrounded by their friends—by their family.

Tali and Garrus walk by, and Shepard decides to goad them into coming in by loudly teasing, “So what do you think the chances are that their entire relationship is just an excuse to more realistically act out Fleet and Flotilla roleplay?”

“Hey,” Tali laughs and walks through the doorway with Garrus close behind, just as planned. “It is not the entire reason for our relationship.”

“Just a perk,” Garrus follows.

“I—okay, yes,” Tali shakes her head. “It’s a pretty damn big perk, too.”

“We all have our thing, I guess,” Shepard offers, but she is immediately distracted by the sight of Diana, with thoughts of Anderson still weighing heavily on her mind. “Hey, Allers! Can you come here?”

“What’s up, Shepard?” Diana asks, and Samantha walks in with her, the two of them hand in hand.

Shepard really had hoped that Diana was the woman Samantha had wanted to look nice for that time she used her shower on the Normandy. Again, she is very happy to see that she was right.

“Umm,” she starts, suddenly nervous. She takes a breath and looks at Diana. “When Anderson gave me his apartment, he still had a bunch of recordings lying around…they were for an autobiography, and there have to be other copies, right? Would you be able to track them down? You know, being a journalist and all?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Diana nods. She looks confident. That makes Shepard feel better.

“Thanks,” Shepard nods in turn. “Now, if someone can go get Steve…I want more of that hamantaschen. And I need to ask him where he got it.”

“On it,” Samantha says first, but it’s clear that everyone was ready to heed the call. She drags Diana out with her, who waves goodbye to Shepard with a laugh while her girlfriend eagerly exits the room without giving up her hand.

“They are so cute,” Tali smiles. Shepard’s already starting to get used to being able to see that.

That’s nice. This is nice.

“You know, Kaidan,” Shepard looks towards him, out of nowhere remembering the question she’d had for him yesterday. “You still haven’t told me what Jack wanted to talk to you about.”

She realizes as soon as she says it that she has no clue if it was something appropriate to bring up with company present, but Garrus and Tali both look like they are trying to conceal some sort of reaction, and it’s very clear that they do know what’s going on with regards to the matter.

“Shit,” Kaidan laughs gently. “Word travels fast around here, doesn’t it?”

“How many people are staying under one roof?” Garrus asks jokingly. “This house is big, but it’s not that big. There’s only so much you could hide around here.”

“Well, I sure as hell don’t know what the fuck is going on, so…” Shepard isn’t offended that she’s the last to know about whatever this is, though. It’s obvious she has been kept out of the loop intentionally, and she trusts Kaidan. She trusts him with anything and everything, so for as curious as she may be, she knows that he must have good reason for his secrecy.

“I will, Carrie,” he tells her. “I just, umm—”

“It’ll come up when it comes up, Shepard,” Garrus grins. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”

And for once, in this moment, she doesn’t.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard dreams of fog and trees and voices and darkness.

Again.

“Kensington reporting one hundred percent killed in action…”

“Barely fifty percent of Hammer has reported in…”

“Negative, our forces were decimated…”

It is the final battle of the Reaper War she thinks on, however, but for some reason this is not the setting her mind offers.

This setting is familiar in its own right. This setting followed her and the Reapers all the way from Vancouver to London. It will probably always follow her now.

She remembers saying goodbye to Kaidan and making her way to the conduit. She remembers bright lights and blood loss, tunnel vision and the smell of her own searing flesh, her arms raw from where the armor had broken off and could no longer protect her, her face bruised and bleeding, every inch of exposed skin injured to some extent. Her gauntlets had taken the worst of it, but every component of her armor had something missing, and that meant a lot of blood, a lot of open wounds…a lot of pain, a lot of struggling. She remembers using every last ounce of strength and willpower she possessed simply trying not to pass out before she could get inside the Citadel, before she could find Anderson.

She remembers crossing into the light, and then regaining consciousness to the sound of Anderson’s voice over the comms, opening her eyes and fighting to break through her stunned daze to get herself moving, coming back to her new surroundings of dead bodies and blood and…hopelessness.

Even in dreams, she remembers.

“‘But I would rather be horizontal,’” she lies down and takes in the chill of the dirt beneath her. Nearby there is a fire, and the sound of screaming children. The trees are untouched but the firelight reflects off of the fog, making it all that much harder to see through it.

“Eden Prime’s one of our most stable colonies…no real danger there.”

“Bekenstein…it was right next to the Citadel…was.”

“Well, Gunny, ah, Hilary, my sister—Gunny’s a nickname—she’s only 15, so if it’s children…”

“And I abandoned my people to hunt for the Catalyst…they’re dying by the millions.”

The ground below is cold and soft, and the fires will keep her warm. She absorbs it, absorbs into it, becomes one with it. She belongs to it, and it belongs to her.

“Best seats in the house,” Shepard had told Anderson, looking down on Earth.

“Stay with me,” she’d begged him just before he died, just before he’d told her how proud of her he was.

“You did good, child. You did good.”

“Anderson…Dad…”

Shepard was ready, then, ready for the end, ready for this to be over (there are few others whose side she’d be so honored to die at)—yet when Hackett’s voice called to her on the comm link, her immediate instinct had been to get up without a second’s hesitation. “What do you need me to do?”

Even in dreams, she can feel the pain of crawling her way back over to the console, trying so hard to reach it when she couldn’t even stand up, having it almost within her grasp before it all went black again.

She’d really thought killing the Illusive Man would be so much more satisfying than it had turned out, too.

“‘I am not a tree with my root in the soil sucking up minerals and motherly love so that each March I may gleam into leaf,’” Ashley leans down beside her and smooths a tuft of Shepard’s hair behind her ear. “‘Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted, unknowing I must soon petal.’”

“Chaos.”

That imaginary child-thing runs into Thane’s arm, and he is welcomed with the sort of fatherly affection Shepard knows Thane wished he’d have been around to show Kolyat earlier on in his life.

“I should have known you were bullshit,” Shepard hisses towards them. That kid was never real. Anderson knew it and she had her suspicions, but now she knows it.

It’s no wonder she’s been handling all of these recent visits with such aplomb.

“You are so strong, siha,” Thane says. “How you are able to hold yourself together the way you do, when there is so much you must endure, it’s—”

“It’s a damn miracle, Skipper,” Ashley smiles. “You are a damn miracle.”

“‘Compared with me, a tree is immortal and a flower-head is not tall,’” whispers another voice Shepard is certain is meant to be her mother’s. “‘But more startling, and I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.’”

She buries her face deeper into the earth below her.

She remembers that burst of adrenaline, that running jump she took into that great abyssal beacon of light, with no idea how she’d been able to do so when only moments before she could barely walk from her injuries. But somehow, she did it, somehow she’d forced herself through that pounding in her head and nauseous dizziness, torn muscle and probably some broken bones, that striking pain and trail of blood that had mere seconds prior had her right on the verge of passing out again. She’d fought through it, though. She’d fought through it and she’d won.

And then she remembers waking up in London.

Sort of, anyway. She doesn’t actually remember it, not terribly well. At least not the first time.

“‘Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, the trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. I walk among them, but none are noticing.’”

The voice who might be her mother muses almost whimsically, and it makes Shepard cringe. That’s what it had felt like, to the best of her recollection. There was that panic, that pleading to be seen, but that weakness and physical trauma that had bested her once again.

She’s wondered what she looked like then, the battered soldier fumbling incoherently through the war-torn streets, barely making it a few steps in that laughably broken down armor before falling. “‘Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping I must most perfectly resemble them— Thoughts gone dim.’”

She wonders what she looked like, too, in regards to just how hurt she’d been. She wonders if they’d had trouble recognizing her because she’d been found by civilians, by those who perhaps had been more concerned with their own survival during wartime than catching the face behind the name of the one soldier everyone had heard of, of the one that likely every single member of the Alliance military had been shown in some briefing or another. Or if maybe there is another option, that perhaps they didn’t recognize her because of the severity of her injuries, those injuries which were so grave that she will never fully recover from them (Karin will not yet confirm this outright, of course, but neither will she deny it).

She thinks of her friends, of her loved ones. She remembers James’s voice when he came upon her in that hospital tent (and yes, James knew who she was the second he laid eyes on her, but that’s different—James is her fucking brother, and she’d like to think she’d recognize him in any condition, as well, like she truly believes he could’ve done for her), and she can only imagine what this news must have been like for Kaidan. She thinks on Joker practically forcing his way in to see her, how there had been no stopping him, and how emotional that had been—how emotional he had been.

It makes it a little easier. Just a little.

“Shepard-Commander, reroute friend or foe identification,” Legion does not kneel or touch her, but stands over her, motionless. “This unit has a soul.”

Legion is talking about her. She never doubted that he did, despite everything, but…

“And Kalahira patiently awaits it,” Thane affirms.

“You’re a miracle, Skipper,” Ashley says again. She sits down and rests her hand on Shepard’s shoulder. “A miracle.”

“Ash,” Shepard whimpers. “I’m so sorry I left you behind, Ash, please…don’t leave me here, please don’t go, please…”

“Sorry, Commander,” Ashley chuckles. Shepard does not find it funny. “‘It is more natural to me, lying down. Then the sky and I are in open conversation…’”

“‘And I shall be useful when I lie down finally,’” Shepard cuts in. “‘The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.’”

“A damn miracle if there ever was one,” Anderson agrees. “I don’t much believe in those sorts of things, but Shepard…Shepard, I do believe in.”

He always did, this much is true.

She is fully face down in the dirt now, grounding herself to it. The earth grows softer underneath her, some of it slightly muddying just beneath her eyes. She must be crying. She feels sticky and uncomfortable, but she runs her fingers through it, leaving little trails as they pass back and forth.

Anderson, Ashley, Thane, Legion, Mordin, Jenkins, Pressley, and Rila each place a stone atop her back, as though she is her own gravestone.

Udina, the Illusive Man, Henry Lawson, Kai Leng, Saren, Wreav, Nyreen, and Morinth hang back in the distance, glowering, and then disappearing behind the fire.

A little further back, Matriarch Benezia, Captain Kirrahe, and Tarquin Victus are present, but they appear statuesque and entirely devoid of emotion. They, too, linger for only seconds before fading away.

The countless faceless shadows around her make way, as well, as those fires rage on. The flames are coming for her, and she won’t move.

She feels the way it burns, how it feels so much like it did on the Citadel. Burning and bruising, skinned arms, blood everywhere.

She’d told Ashley she’d be back for her, she’d begged Anderson to stay with her, but this…this is only a dream. She can let whatever it is take her this time.

“Shepard,” Anderson calls for her. The smoke mixes into the fog and clouds her vision all but completely. She closes her eyes.

Someone approaches from behind, attempts to lift her from the ground, and Shepard puts all of her energy into holding herself down, trying to make herself heavier.

She receives a mouthful of dirt when someone starts to drag her by her legs and she instantly begins to scream.

“Let me go,” she shouts. She tries so hard to kick herself free, but there is nothing she can do. “Fuck, stop, let me go…”

She doesn’t even know who she’s screaming at, or how to decipher who’s who from the multitude of disembodied voices which roar back, “No.”

“I was right about you, Shepard,” the Illusive Man taunts. “But you—you were never supposed to surpass me. Who gave you the right? Everything you are today, you are because of me. You owe everything to me, Shepard. I was the one with the vision—I was the only one whose eyes were truly open! So, I should have been the one to win, I should have been the one to make it out, to make the call, I should have been—”

“Fuck you,” Shepard shrieks. “Fuck you for everything you’ve done, you—”

“Quiet now, Shepard,” he seethes. “You always were so…difficult to control. Your purpose has been served. We no longer need you.”

She continues to shout expletives as her body is lifted, as the teeth of a thresher maw greet her and prepare to accept her as an offering, and she screams louder and louder as she is dropped down through it.

She is still screaming when she wakes up, shocked upright by the sound of her own voice.

Kaidan stirs beside her. “Carrie, hey, what…”

She looks at the time. It’s 0300—it’s 3:00am. That’s how she needs to learn to start seeing it.

“Go back to sleep, Kaidan,” she whispers. She intends to sound reassuring, tender even, but she doesn’t think it came out right.

But they are both too groggy for conversation, both still half-asleep, so maybe it’s alright.

It’s pitch black in there with all the lights out. Kaidan had claimed a bedroom with no windows for the sake of his migraines when he moved in, and right now Shepard is grateful for the darkness, as well.

He’s asked her a few times by now if she’d prefer to change rooms, that he would more than happily accommodate her (he doesn’t exactly need to sleep in a room with no natural light in it, but when presented with the option at a time when only he would be affected by this decision, it was the one he chose), and every time she has said no. It’s nothing to do with her, as she genuinely has no strong feelings on the subject either way, but right now…right now, this feels right.

“Come here,” he says, and she complies.

She lays back down and he stretches his arms around her, pulling her in towards him, and he gently kisses the back of her neck.

“Talk to me,” he tells her as his arms cross over her chest, he has her so close. He holds her so tight, like he’ll never let her go.

It’s because he never will let her go. Not ever again, not as long as he is living.

He doesn’t want to tell her how much that idea still scares him, how he isn’t sure he’ll ever stop panicking at the unprompted and unwanted thought of it, or how often that thought arises.

“Just bad dreams,” she replies. “Ash was there. She was there with Anderson…and Legion, Thane…”

She always feels very strange mentioning Thane in front of Kaidan. She knows that Kaidan bears no ill will towards him, that in fact he deeply respects Thane, and that Kaidan never faulted Thane for Shepard’s brief affair with him. She knows all the same, though, that said affair had hurt him deeply, even if he does take responsibility for what led her to that point, even if he does understand why it had happened. She isn’t sure it was necessarily fair of him to call it cheating, but she’s never argued it, either, since that is sure as fuck what it had felt like she was doing, even when she was in the midst of doing it.

As far as they are both concerned, though, they’ve been together since 2183, and it has simply been an absurdly turbulent journey so far.

She really doesn’t know if they can ever be normal, but fuck, how she longs for it.

Although, if they’ve stuck together this far, after all that’s happened…

Maybe they don’t need normal, whatever the hell that even means. Maybe they just need each other.

“Umm, my mother…I think,” she continues down her list, hoping to brush past her mention of Thane. “The Illusive Man…oh, uh, and a presumably Cerberus-sponsored thresher maw.”

She’s not sure she should have said that.

She’s not sure she should say much of anything anymore.

Kaidan remembers their first conversation after finding the beacon on Eden Prime—perhaps their first full conversation at all. After getting past how worried he’d been for her and the part about him blaming himself for her getting hurt, he’d mentioned his father and asked about her family in return. She gave him the vaguest possible summary and made sure to end on stating that she’d moved past that, so matter-of-factly. He knew, even then, that she was full of shit, that it wasn’t him she was trying to convince, but she was his superior officer and he didn’t know her well enough to call her on it.

They always could read each other, though.

“How can I help?” Kaidan asks directly, and she smiles despite herself.

“I…I really don’t know,” she admits. “You can’t bring back the dead, can you?”

“No, I can’t,” he shakes his head against her neck and sighs heavily. He doesn’t say his first thought, that at least she came back. He feels selfish even thinking it, and there are so many others he’d bring back with her if he could, just as she would, but…

Maybe he wants to be a little selfish with her. Maybe he thinks they’ve earned it.

It’s been quieter around the house over the past few days. People still linger, but there’s no longer a massive quantity of friends in one place at one time, haphazardly spread out across any and all open space to sleep because they can’t bring themselves to leave. They come and go yet, as they should, and it does get crowded, but it’s becoming easier to manage.

James won’t be going anywhere else between this visit and Rio de Janeiro, though, and both Shepard and Kaidan know that one for damn sure.

Joker and Edi are, naturally, the others least likely to exit this house before they absolutely have to. How long the Alliance will let them stay away is a mystery, as Joker wasn’t lying about their newfound leniency regarding leave when it comes to Shepard’s comrades. They’ll have to go eventually, too, though, as will everyone else.

And then it will just be Kaidan and Shepard. Neither of them know what exactly they’ll do, but…whatever it is, what matters most is that they do it together.

Kaidan isn’t yet sure how to proceed after his talk with Jack, isn’t yet sure how to talk to Shepard about it. He doesn’t know if it’s something he should relay to Shepard now or after they get that reprieve. He doesn’t know which is more appropriate, which one she’d prefer—or even his ideal scenario, if he’s being honest.

Kaidan tries not to think on it too hard, not to let himself get too anxious; like Garrus said, it’ll come up when it comes up. It just also happens to be one of the most important conversations he will ever have with anyone in his entire life, and made infinitely more profound by Jack’s involvement.

“I’m sorry, Carrie,” he whispers.

“Thank you,” she replies and shifts herself even closer into him, as though there was any space left to close. There wasn’t, but she can’t stand the idea of there being any room between them, can’t stand the idea of being any farther apart from him than need be.

Kaidan breathes her in, keeps his hold on her tight, still just so immeasurably happy to have her there beside him.

“I think I looked like her,” Shepard mumbles. She doesn’t know why she says it, or why she thinks it at all, but she lays it out regardless. “My mother, I…I don’t know, I just…I feel like I did—do. Do? I don’t know. Sorry, I…I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.”

“Hey,” Kaidan whispers. “Don’t apologize, okay? You can talk all night long if you need to, alright?”

“No, I can’t,” she shakes her head. “If you get into another migraine cycle because you’re staying up all night with me like this, Karin is going to murder us both.”

“Nah, she’s a good doctor,” Kaidan laughs quietly. “I’m sure that has to be against some oath or another…”

“You know what I mean, Kaidan,” Shepard sighs, although she can’t help but laugh, herself, at the same time.

She can’t keep laughing, though. Her mind is suddenly racing. “I think I have her face, but my father’s eyes and…and his hair? I don’t know, but…I don’t know. Fuck, why am I thinking about this now?”

“I don’t know, Carrie,” he answers delicately. “After everything you’ve been through…”

He trails off, but she knows what he’s thinking. It’s that tipping point, that end of the line, that break, that inevitable zero hour that has been such a long time coming.

“Yeah,” she mutters. “Yeah, I…I guess so.”

She doesn’t want to think about it, and she really doesn’t want to remember. Even more, though, she doesn’t want to not want to remember. But if given the choice, she genuinely isn’t sure she’d change it.

“I love you, Kaidan,” she says to keep herself closer in any way she can, to use his presence to drown out her own thoughts if she can manage it.

She’s sure she’ll never be able to say that enough, though, especially with how much they have been through, the both of them.

“I love you, too,” he whispers. He’ll never get tired of telling her, or of hearing her say it to him. It’s all he ever really wants to say most of the time since she’s been back, as there is nothing more important than having her alive by his side.

They lie in silence for some time, and before she knows it, she is running through exaggeratedly and surreally labyrinthian prefabs from a group of heavily armed batarians, desperately trying to harness her 16-year-old self’s untrained and unstable biotic abilities, but nothing comes. She looks back to see her family running behind her, but all of their faces have been badly burned, skin and muscle and sinew necrotic and peeling off, with nothing recognizable remaining.

She falls and freezes in place, and then she raises her hands above her head in surrender and lets the batarians bind her wrists and take her with them, leaving those charred figures behind. As she approaches a shuttle, she abruptly wakes up hyperventilating, but she is at least quiet and motionless enough this time that she does not disturb Kaidan again, and that is fine by her.

***

“I come bearing gifts,” Diana smiles and sets down a package in front of Shepard, sitting around the bar with Kaidan, Joker, Edi, James, and Steve while Samantha goes through the liquor cabinet.

Shepard smiles. She doesn’t need to ask what it is. She doesn’t need to open it. In fact, she would prefer to save that moment for later, to do it when she’s alone.

“I had to call in a few favors,” Diana continues. “Okay, a lot of favors. Turns out it was ANN putting all this together but…wow, Khalisah al-Jilani really hates you, Shepard, did you know that?”

“Yeah, little bit,” Shepard chuckles. “Wait, you didn’t tell anyone—”

“Don’t worry,” Diana assures. “Your story isn’t out and I’m sure as hell not gonna leak it. My ratings are already phenomenal, I definitely don’t need to sell out a friend to help them.”

“Thanks,” Shepard smirks, but then she places her hands on the box and shifts her tone. “I mean really, though, Diana…thank you.”

“I made some calls, too,” Diana adds. “Those audio logs are officially going to be compiled, edited, and published into a biography by the end of the solar year. It’s ostensibly in Admiral Anderson’s honor…and well, yours, too. Granting posthumous wishes to the galaxy’s greatest heroes and all, you know how it goes. I might have made an appeal on your behalf, actually—you know, how I was Shepard’s friend, and I knew that she and the Admiral were close, and it’s what she would have wanted…I really ran with the whole big sob story, but at least it worked.”

“Didn’t know you had it in you, Allers,” Shepard smiles. “I really can’t thank you enough…”

“Just keep pretending you’re dead for as long as you can and we’ll call it even,” Diana laughs, and she replies quickly enough to Shepard’s bemused look. “Oh, I am having way too much fun talking about my old buddy Shepard and all her grand heroics with al-Jilani and having to watch this bitch struggle so hard not to combust over not only having to acknowledge the absolutely irrefutable fact that you’re our goddamn savior, but then it’s even better because you sacrificed your life for it and that adds in a bit of a ‘can’t speak ill of the dead’ factor and…I’m sorry, Shepard, but it’s been a damn rough couple of years and you get your entertainment where you can.”

“I don’t blame you for a second,” Shepard chuckles. “I’d just punch her, though. In fact, I have. Multiple times.”

“So I’ve heard,” Diana replies. “To be fair, that might explain that seething rage of hers when it comes to you.”

“Hey, she started it,” Shepard retorts.

“Don’t worry, I believe you,” Diana easily concedes.

“Told you,” Kaidan adds with a smirk.

“Oh! Hey, is Miranda here?” Samantha asks, still headfirst in that cabinet. “I found strawberry liqueur!”

“I haven’t seen her,” James answers. “Doesn’t mean we won’t later, though.”

“Good call,” Samantha replies and sets a bottle down right on top of the bar. “I think I’ll put this right here, then. Just in case.”

It’s true, anyone could still show up at any time, and they still often do.

Shepard is coping, though. She’s struggling but she’s not doing much hiding lately.

Kaidan couldn’t be more thrilled, despite his ever-lingering anxiety over the crowds, as well as the ongoing occasional sensory overload. It’s worth it.

He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Still have any brandy back there?” Karin asks as she pulls a seat from a nearby table closer to the bar. She’s sitting much lower to the ground from everyone else, but she joins them, nonetheless.

There are a few beats where the only sound is of shifting bottles, and then Samantha sets another down beside the strawberry liqueur and moves to take a glass from another cabinet.

“Dr. Chakwas,” Samantha smiles and holds out a brandy. “Keeping it simple, I see.”

“What can I say?” Karin shrugs. “I’ve indulged very few luxuries throughout my life, but I do love a good brandy.”

“That Serrice Ice Brandy is fantastic, though,” Shepard nods. “You’ve got good taste, Mom.”

She doesn’t appear to realize what she'd just said, and Karin seems equally unfazed.

Judging by the latter’s reaction—in that she has literally no reaction whatsoever—this is not a first, whether Shepard notices or not.

“Drinks all around?” James eagerly suggests, and Samantha nods and takes out more glasses. He doesn’t know if maybe Kaidan or Joker were in on Shepard’s little slip there, or if they’re simply as unwilling to speak up about it as he is.

Everyone knows that the relationship between Shepard and Karin is unconventional, to say the least, but James is still oddly taken aback by this.

Kaidan has caught it before, although for some reason it has never been nearly as common with Karin as it was with Anderson. Shepard always seemed to catch herself with Anderson, though, while Kaidan isn’t sure she has ever once done so with Karin.

Karin, however, clearly does not mind, and that’s what matters most.

She never has minded, though, or ever so much as appeared to be even remotely jarred by it, so perhaps that is the difference. Karin has always said that the Alliance is her spouse and the soldiers under her care are her children, and it’s been clear since she first joined the crew of the Normandy that this would come to apply to Shepard more than anyone else.

Shepard really was never just a marine, or even just a commander. She was always going to be so much more than that. Not even only in regards to becoming a galactic savior, as Diana noted, but also in how she was never going to have just a crew. She was always going to lead them into becoming something greater, lead them into becoming a family, because that is who she is.

Kaidan does worry about Shepard referring to Karin that way now, after the night she’d had, but he opts to let it go. Shepard actually looks fairly content, and no one is going to do anything to risk changing that.

“Alright, so what’s everyone having?” Samantha asks enthusiastically.

Everyone’s requests are fairly mild, mostly beer, given that it’s only early afternoon yet, but it helps to relax the air around them.

Samantha is mildly disappointed that this means she doesn’t get to show off, but it makes sense. She understands. There’s always later.

She’s as grateful as anyone else that there can be a later.

“Hey, Shepard,” Jacob calls as he walks in.

He walks over to her and extends his hand, and he pulls her into a hug when she takes it.

“It’s been good, but it’s time I got going,” he tells her. “I can’t risk not being there…”

“I understand,” Shepard smiles. “And you just really miss her, don’t you?”

“I do,” he chuckles. “I’m gonna miss this, too, but…you know. There’s a lot to do on Horizon, and I’ve been away too long.”

“You’re a good man, Jacob,” Shepard tells him. “Go be with your family.”

“Thanks,” he replies. “And don’t worry, I know I’ve got family here, too. I’ll be in touch, Shepard.”

“You’d better,” she says with a grin. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, you bet,” he nods.

He says his goodbyes to everyone else present, as well, and with that he takes his leave.

Which marks the first of their friends to properly depart since all this began.

“You know, Kasumi’s gonna be real sad she missed that,” Joker teases.

They all pause and glance around the room for a moment, all of them at least somewhat expecting Kasumi to appear out of thin air as she so often does, but it seems she actually isn’t there this time.

“Yeah, you’ll all just have to make fun of her for it later,” James says once they’ve collectively decided the moment has passed.

“Yeah, that’s what we do,” Joker muses.

That’s what family does.

“Ah shit, what’d Shepard do now?” Garrus laughs, and Tali heads into the room right behind him.

“Shove it,” Shepard mocks.

“Hey, isn’t that supposed to be Sparks’s line?” James smirks.

“Bosh’tet,” Tali playfully retorts.

“Jacob’s on his way back to Horizon,” Steve explains.

“Aww, and Kasumi wasn’t here to watch him walk away?” Garrus jokes.

“There you go,” Shepard nods.

“Are you alright, Shepard?” Edi asks.

“Umm, yeah, I guess,” Shepard shrugs. “Why?”

“I did not know if perhaps Mr. Taylor’s departure might bring up a negative emotional response, that’s all,” Edi replies.

“It’s, ah, sad…yeah,” Shepard says awkwardly. “Well, not for him, he’s got big things ahead and I’m happy for him, but…”

“Don’t worry, we’re not leaving yet,” Joker interjects.

“I know you can’t stick around forever, either, though,” Shepard notes.

“Yeah, well,” Joker says nonchalantly. “We’re gonna milk this whole camaraderie with Shepard thing as long as we can. It’s working out well enough for us so far.”

“And all I had to do was get presumed dead after saving the fucking galaxy,” Shepard laughs sarcastically.

“Yeah, I know, right,” Joker responds in a similar tone. “Although, they’d better not fuck with the Normandy memorial wall before we get back. I want to be there when we take your name off of it, Shepard.”

“I mean, you could always leave it there,” Shepard tells him.

Joker is definitely uncomfortable with that suggestion, though, that much she can see, so she decides to change the subject.

“Tali, Garrus, you two haven’t filled me in on too many details lately,” Shepard says. “What’s new? How’s Rannoch? Or Palaven, for that matter? What have you been up to?”

“You mean in our spare time? You know, whenever we’re not in the middle of that oh so sexy Fleet and Flotilla roleplay you mentioned the other day?” Garrus chuckles.

“Keelah…” Tali sighs, but she’s laughing, too.

“Of course,” Shepard smiles.

“Palaven is…rebuilding,” Garrus says seriously. “Much like Earth. But we are seeing similar progress. For as strange a thing as this…synthesis has been, well, it’s made a hell of a lot of difference in moving this shit along, I have no doubt. It’s still hard to imagine ever getting used to saying it, but I don’t know how we’d do this without the Reapers.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to hearing it, either,” Shepard says softly. “I know that one falls on me and all, but…”

“It did ruffle a few feathers at first,” Garrus admits. “It’s a concept we all had to adjust to, that’s for damn sure, but that was the extent of it, really. But here we have it now, with the mass relays repaired and fully operational in an otherwise unimaginable time frame, and then this massive additional labor force made up of these infinitely intelligent beings also helping with any further necessary galactic rebuilding as time goes on, and we now have the collective knowledge of all the civilizations they’d destroyed before—which Liara’s been having a fucking field day with, let me tell you—”

“Oh shit, how pissed was Javik?” Shepard interrupts. He’s one of the people she’s had the least amount of time to talk with thus far. She feels a little guilty that she’s mostly been letting the same people take up all of her time, but she’s had to start somewhere.

It can come later, though. Now that there is a later.

“Oh, you know,” Garrus shakes his head. “Probably about what you’d expect. He’s adjusted, too, though. He keeps talking about setting up shop on Kahje and letting the hanar go nuts over him, but I suspect he’s been wanting to get a real chance to talk to you first. For someone who’s always been so damn cold and aspires to take advantage of an entire race’s misguided fascination with his species, I think that old fuck might just have a sentimental side to him, after all.”

“Good to know,” Shepard laughs. “Anyway, Tali…”

“Rannoch is…well, it’s just building, I suppose,” Tali answers. “We haven’t had much Reaper intervention, ourselves, since they’d actually had very little effect on the planet beforehand.”

“Except for that one time, you mean,” Shepard snickers.

“If you hadn’t come out of that alive, by the way, we were all going to murder you,” Joker remarks. “For all the dumb, reckless shit you’ve done, jumping out in front of a Reaper with a goddamn laser pointer has got to at least make the top ten.”

“Yes, there was that,” Tali nods. “Even then, though, there wasn’t really anything there for them to destroy. But most importantly, I think the quarians as a whole are preferring to keep Rannoch to ourselves right now, anyway. It’s our homeworld but it is still so new to us, so we aren’t really up for sharing it just yet.”

“Seems fair,” Shepard nods. “So, whenever you two go, where…”

She realizes just how much she really doesn’t like the thought of it as soon as she says it. She’s getting used to all this attention even more than she’d have guessed, it seems.

All the same, she knows she’ll see them all again even after they go. And she is looking forward to being alone there with Kaidan, to trying to figure out what a “normal” life with him might look like.

“I’m going back to Rannoch and Garrus is going back to Palaven,” Tali replies. “At least for a little while longer. We’ll simply go from there whenever the time is right.”

“Well, that’s good,” Shepard tells them. “I’m glad you’re got it all figured out.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Garrus laughs. “That might be giving us a bit too much credit, but I appreciate the thought…”

“We’ve come a damn long way since the Normandy, though,” Shepard says lightly.

“You have,” Karin agrees. She stands up and approaches the bar to hand Samantha her empty glass. “And I am so proud of all of you.”

“I do miss her, though,” Shepard sighs.

“You’ll just have to come visit sometime,” Joker grins. “I’ll be there, so will Traynor, Cortez, Adams, Daniels, Donnelly…Edi, I think, if we can talk them into keeping her on with some official loophole or another…I mean, there’s gotta be something…”

“We will worry about that whenever it becomes relevant, Jeff,” Edi responds. “I know you love your ship—”

“Do you ever,” Garrus laughs, and everyone else follows suit.

“But I’m not sure how much action she’ll be seeing anytime soon,” Steve finishes Edi’s thought.

“Oh, she’ll be seeing action,” James runs off of Garrus’s previous joke, and once again everyone reacts accordingly.

“Yes, and we can record audio logs for your enjoyment later on if you would like, Samantha,” Edi adds. “That was a joke.”

“Oh god, are we ever going to move past this?” Samantha blushes, and Diana gives her the most endearingly affectionate eyes.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Joker answers.

“It’s all a part of my charm,” Edi chuckles. “Isn’t that right, Jeff?”

“Damn right it is,” Joker affirms.

He really, really loves her.

“You just need to work your way into the Spectres, Joker,” Shepard smirks. “Then you can bring whoever the fuck you want along for the ride.”

She stops to wonder if she’s retained her Spectre status. She supposes she hasn’t, being officially dead and all, but she ponders whether or not the Council would uphold it if they knew.

She decides not to think about it. She isn’t thinking about it.

Shepard decides, too, that it’s time to take a moment for herself.

“Hey, umm, I’m just gonna…” She doesn’t bother to find an end to her sentence. She picks up the box Diana brought and makes her way to the bedroom with it close in hand. She carefully drags herself along the walls to try to contain how shakily she yet walks, and she nearly falls down onto the bed, but she keeps that box held tight, keeps it safe.

She crosses her legs and leans forward, making a very deliberate choice in picking up a log, and then setting it down on her lap to let it play.

“Sure, I can talk about Commander Shepard,” Anderson’s voice begins. Of course she’d go to the segment about herself first, but…she needs this. She needs to hear his reassurance, his kind words for her, and this allows her to have exactly that and have them based in reality. “Big topic. There’s been a lot written about the Commander, but most of it…isn’t true. People are quick to judge. They don’t know the whole story, I don’t even know the whole story.”

“You knew better than most,” she says affectionately. She knows she isn’t actually speaking to anyone, but at least this time the voice is coming from outside her head, and there is no visual hallucination to accompany it.

“But I know the woman,” Anderson’s recording continues. “Worked with her, fought with her, trust her with my life.”

That’s when the tears start. It’s alright, though; she knew they were coming.

“Shepard’s had some rough patches—who of us hasn’t? She’s been forced to fight a lot of battles alone. God only knows how she got out of some of that…makes your head spin.” She laughs when she hears that one. Even she can’t quite disagree on that count. “Thing is, you never heard a complaint. Never once got, ‘No, sir, I can’t do that.’ She never hesitated. Few people know what Shepard’s been through. I’d like to think I come pretty close.”

“You really did,” she reassures…herself? Maybe it just makes her feel better to know she truly had trusted him as much as he’d apparently hoped. She thinks that if there is any chance he’s looking down on her from some great beyond, he would appreciate knowing that.

“And I worry sometimes she forgets…” His tone had turned serious at this point, and it almost feels like he was actively trying to hold back his emotions as he spoke. “There’s a whole bunch of people who lose sleep over her getting back home.”

“Yeah, well,” she mumbles to herself. She closes her eyes and sighs heavily. “I know for damn sure people lost sleep over you, too. Fuck, I still do.”

“Maybe it doesn’t need to be said. Maybe we’re too dumb to say it,” Anderson’s voice sounds so caring, so…so fatherly. It’s exactly how she remembers him, how she’s sure she always will. “Soldiers like the Commander are rare. Women like Shepard…even more rare.”

“He wasn’t wrong, you know,” Kaidan says softly. He’s leaning against the door, which is closed behind him. She hadn’t even heard him come in.

“How long have you been standing there?” Shepard asks and wipes her eyes, oddly embarrassed. She doesn’t know why she would be, and she knows there’s no reason she should be, but…

“‘Worked with her, fought with her, trust her with my life,’” Kaidan replies. “He and a lot of other people, Carrie. Probably everyone you’ve ever worked with, honestly.”

“But we both know there were a lot of people who shouldn’t have,” she says solemnly.

“No, I don’t,” he responds quickly. “It’s been a hell of a last few years and yeah, a lot of it got bad, but you can’t keep blaming yourself for it. We all knew what we signed up for, we all knew the risks. There hadn’t been a war like that in 50,000 years, remember? You did everything you could, and no one else blames you for anything. What we do hold you accountable for, Carrie, is ending it. A lot of people didn’t think it could be done, but you did it. You did it. And that was never going to come without a cost, but we were all willing to do whatever needed to be done. So were you. So you know I’m right.”

“I want to believe that,” she says. “I really do, Kaidan, but…”

He sits down next to her and gets in close. “I know. But you’re not to blame for that, either. It’s been a long road, and longer than most for you. Anderson was right about that, too—it really does make your head spin to try to fathom all you’ve done, all you’ve been through, and…and you’re still here. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known, and I know we can get through anything, okay? Because you’ve gotten through so much already.”

“What did I do to deserve you, Kaidan?” She means it seriously and they both know, but she manages to smile and look at him as she asks the question, and he smiles back.

“I ask myself that about you all the damn time,” he says sincerely. “I’m the luckiest man alive, and there is nothing you can say to convince me otherwise.”

“Thanks,” she says as more tears fall.

She wants him to be right, though, that they absolutely will get through this. She wants nothing more than for him to be right.

But it helps to know that he believes it, because she believes in him.

She’s just not sure about believing in herself.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is essentially learning how to walk again, and she had no idea it could be this much work.

She is already convinced that this will prove to be one of the greatest endurance tests of her life, which is a truly remarkable claim for a fucking N7.

It doesn’t help that the nights are growing longer and the terrors more severe, but she is not alone.

She knows beyond all else that she is not alone.

And she has finally acquiesced to Karin’s suggestion of attempting mobility aids.

But she could not possibly have anticipated what a challenge this would be.

“Well, Shepard,” Karin tells her as she tries out a cane for the first time. Karin is trying to help. She is only trying to help. “The standard advice is to hold it on your ‘good’ side—”

“I don’t have a fucking ‘good side,’” Shepard snaps, but she quickly backs down. “Sorry, Karin, I…I’m sorry…”

“That’s quite alright, Shepard,” Karin replies patiently. “In your case, unless the pain is greater on that side on any given day, you should have it at your dominant side.”

“Thanks,” Shepard smiles weakly and grips it with her right hand. “Okay, I can do this, okay…”

“You’re damn right, you can,” Karin encourages. “You stopped the Reapers. This should be nothing to you.”

Shepard understands the thought behind it, but it legitimately bothers her that she doesn’t actually believe it.

“Now,” Karin continues. That patience does not wane, that almost maternal attention does not falter. That does help. “Step forward with your left leg, and move the cane forward at the same time, and lean your weight through your right arm as much as you need.”

Shepard takes her first full step with it, and there’s a strange ache in her shoulder and her arm feels much too tense.

“Is it supposed to hurt like this?” Shepard asks. She wouldn’t think something intended to help one move around would be meant to hurt like this.

“Not typically,” Karin admits. “But in your case, I can see how it might. It may not be feasible to use every day given the extent of the areas affected by your pain, but it will certainly help you get around more easily on the days that it can.”

“That’s comforting,” Shepard sighs.

“I know it isn’t,” Karin says gently. “But this is the least serious form of mobility assistance there is, and probably the easiest to use, so it should at least allow you freer reign of your own life on the better days.”

“Umm, thank you,” Shepard responds quietly. “This will just, umm…this will take a lot of getting used to.”

“It will,” Karin agrees. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

“Is it time for a drink yet?” Shepard laughs.

“That sounds fair,” Karin smirks. “If you can get yourself to the bar.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Karin,” Shepard shakes her head, but she doesn’t argue.

It isn’t far at all from the living room to the bar, and she knows it doesn’t really take her much time to get there, but her cane makes it feel like forever, and a disproportionately agonizing forever, at that.

“Please, god, don’t ever let Grunt see me like this,” Shepard half-jokes upon taking a seat and leaning her cane against it so it will be ready for her when she needs it again.

“Oh Shepard,” Karin muses. “Don’t worry, I’m sure all parents worry about disappointing their children, but I truly doubt that’s possible for you.”

“Remind me how the fuck I ended up adopting a damn krogan?” Shepard laughs. “I swear that wasn’t anywhere in the plan when we picked him up, but…”

“Kaidan has the right temperament for parenthood, at least,” Karin smiles. “Grunt’s in good hands with you two.”

“God, Kaidan really would be a great dad, wouldn’t he?” Shepard doesn’t so much ask as say, and she feels incredibly uncomfortable upon having done so. Obviously Karin was not even remotely serious in her commentary, but…

Shepard, herself, has never given much thought to having children—with the obvious exception of accidentally unofficially adopting Grunt—and ever since the Lazarus Project she had automatically come to assume that being reconstructed from the ground up after being spaced to death might have an effect on her ability to have children biologically, anyway (she saw the Shadow Broker’s files on Miranda, after all, and she’s always been under the impression that her rebirth likely at least somewhat mirrored Miranda’s origins). She’s never asked, either, but she isn’t sure it matters. Even aside from the fact that the Reaper War has left a lot of children without parents, the greater concern is that she finds it hard to believe she’d be any good at being a real mom.

She decides that they would adopt if it came down to it, regardless of whether or not she can conceive on her own, but a large part of her continues to doubt that it ever will. She’s never had a negative association with the idea of not having children before, and she realizes she actually doesn’t know where Kaidan stands on this, himself, but…

He would be an amazing father, she has no doubt whatsoever about that.

It’s not, however, the time to think about these things. It’s time to drink.

She momentarily thinks of being 23 years old at the prestigious Vila Militar, still fresh and reeling from Akuze and having no fucking clue what she’d gotten herself into. She remembers moving right into 20 hour days after her arrival, barely sleeping, hardly eating. She remembers knowing that was the easy part, and then finding out just how right she was after being invited back with an N1 designation, and how very few had made it with her. She thinks about how hard it was especially to manage her biotics in those conditions and how much strength she so often simply did not have left, how many times she didn’t think she could possibly make it through to the next day, or sometimes even the next hour. Yet she persisted, she worked harder, got stronger. She busted her ass and made it to N2, proving herself time and again through N6, until eventually she’d lasted long enough to graduate as an N7. She couldn’t possibly try to count how many times she’d nearly killed herself throughout that training, but that is precisely why she survived, and it is quite possibly her proudest achievement.

If she did that, she can do this.

She thinks. She hopes.

Karin, for her part, reads Shepard’s tone and the sudden morose expression she has no idea she’s wearing, and elects to change the subject.

“Read anything good lately?” She asks. She catches Shepard scrolling through datapads from time to time, and she always seems completely enthralled by whatever she’s looking at.

“More of the same,” Shepard answers honestly. She’s been memorizing all she can. She realizes it’s not really Ashley she’s been reading with, but keeping the words at hand makes Shepard feel closer to her somehow.

That, and it speaks to her, and it helps her makes sense of how she’s feeling in some weird way. Not that sense can be made of it, at least not at far as she can tell, but it helps. It feels right.

She doesn’t really care to talk about that, either, though.

Karin pours two glasses of brandy. That whole “once a year” thing has certainly become a concept of the past.

Everything’s different now. Maybe sometimes that’s okay.

“To accidental children,” Karin toasts. “Lord knows I’ve had my hands full with you over the years.”

This is a much better take on that subject, and Shepard can’t help but smile. At least Karin’s always been comfortable with the strange parent-child relationship they so easily developed.

Of course, there was never an issue of rank and all the regs that go along with appropriate behavior up and down the chain of command like there was with Anderson.

Not that Shepard ever seemed to have much luck with keeping her relationships protocol-compliant, or not since she came upon the Normandy.

She’s still smiling thinking about it.

“Maybe we should kick back a few and then give walking another go,” Shepard jokes.

“Or perhaps we can give it a rest for today,” Karin shakes her head with a laugh. “I’m just glad to see you trying, Shepard. I mean, to see you wanting to.”

Shepard knows what she means, knows that Karin isn’t being patronizing. She only wants the best for Shepard. Even Shepard knows that.

***

“Okay, so you can cook,” Shepard smiles at Kaidan. It’s just the two of them right now, sitting on the living room sofa. She doesn’t know where everyone else went. She doesn’t know where they ever go most of them time, except that—with the recent exception of Jacob—it definitely isn’t anywhere outside this city.

“Hey, I can’t help it if it’s hard to concentrate with you around,” he smirks back.

“Oh, but you can do it now?” She teases.

“I guess I really wanted to impress you this time,” he replies so endearingly, and he leans over to kiss her forehead.

“You know you don’t have to try, Kaidan,” she chuckles softly.

There’s a moment of silence, and Shepard decides to ask him something that’s suddenly been heavily on her mind. She doesn’t know why, but out of nowhere she needs to know.

“What’s wrong?” He asks before she can even start.

“Am I honestly that transparent now?” She shakes her head. Kaidan always did know her best, though, and he always could seem to pick up on the things she tried to hide.

He does not respond but kisses her forehead again, and she leans into him, deliberately sliding herself down to lie across the couch and rest her head in his lap.

“Carrie…”

“What was it like?” She starts. She doesn’t know how to phrase this, doesn’t know why she wants to so badly. “I mean, when you found out…when you heard I’d made it?”

He doesn’t question why she asks. He knows she’s struggling, and he knows she was more than willing to go out with the fight. He knows better than anyone else how much she’s been through, how hard it is for her. He knows that she was at peace with giving her life, but he also knows that this comes with a raging guilt.

She had, after all, promised him she’d make it.

And he is still so fucking glad she did.

He pauses. He isn’t sure exactly how to answer this.

She offers him her hand, and he takes it. She curls a little into herself where she is, and he runs his other hand up and down her back.

He isn’t sure exactly how to answer this, but he has to try. So he decides to go with his best option, to simply start speaking honestly and see where it goes.

“It was the most incredible moment of my life,” he tells her. “I was losing a fight with a migraine when I got the call from James, and…shit, it was weird. I snapped at him a little—I still feel pretty bad about that, actually—but I just…I couldn’t believe it. It had been about a month by then and I was only starting to settle in here, and I wasn’t ready to think about anything beyond that. When I put your name on that wall, it felt like I was leaving a piece of me with it. I couldn’t let myself fantasize about what-ifs, although god knows I wanted to, because I knew that would only make it worse when you didn’t come back this time. I didn’t think I was ever really going to be whole again after losing—it doesn’t matter now. I can admit that I cried pretty hard after you died during the Collector attack, and even harder after you activated the Crucible. After James called, though, well…I didn’t know a person could cry like that. I’m not sure I can truly adequately describe it, but…I have never experienced any other feeling like it.”

“But Kaidan,” her voice cracks. She’s crying now, at how fucking beautiful everything about him is, and how he has this much love to give, and how he has chosen to give it to her.

That and his sheer unbridled honesty, how easily he opens up to her and the confirmation of what losing her this time would have done to him.

Yet she can’t help finding it hard to believe that her news was the one that was so important.

“Kaidan, though…I mean, your dad,” she says hoarsely.

It’s okay, she’s allowed to be vulnerable in front of him. She is trying so hard to drill this into her head, to put it into practice.

And after the vulnerability he just showed her, right now it seems more than fair.

“Yeah, believe me, that was a huge relief,” he acknowledges. “But I’d had time to process that, at least as well as I could, I guess. And after losing you the first time, Carrie, I couldn’t…I couldn’t go through that again, I—I’m sorry…”

“Kaidan…hey, Kaidan…” She pulls back her hand and sits herself up, and this time she is the one who leans into him and kisses his forehead. She props herself up on her knees and brings him in, holds his head against her chest and kisses him again and again and again. “Kaidan, it’s okay. I told you that you’d never lose me again, alright. And you didn’t. I’m here.”

She knows it would have killed her if the roles her reversed, she can own that. It doesn’t have to matter that she’ll never understand why he feels so strongly for her; all that really matters is that he does, and that if she has to survive, he is worth living for.

She can’t even imagine having to mourn his death twice, as he did for her. He’d revealed to her once, too, that he’d also feared the worst about Saren, that he’d legitimately had a moment where he was truly afraid she wasn’t getting up, that she had gone down with him.

She tries to think about going through that much with Kaidan and she genuinely doesn’t feel like she can. Almost losing him on Mars was enough. That had kept her up for days, discomposed her so completely, and what sleep she did get after that was uneasy even by her standards. She was so fucking terrified to lose him, and at that point she didn’t even know who she was to him anymore. All she knew was that she loves him, and that it physically hurt to consider the worst case scenario.

“Please don’t leave me again,” he whispers despite himself and wraps his arms around her. He’s nervously rhythmically stretching out his fingers and pulling them back in, and he knows she notices but she doesn’t say anything.

“I won’t,” is what she does say, the only thing of any consequence.

He needs to hold her right now, to keep her close, to feel her there. He can touch her, he can embrace her warmth, he can hear her voice, he can hear her breathing, he can smell her. She is there, she is tangible, and she is alive.

This will eventually make that memorial statue they’re building downtown a bit awkward, but that’s okay.

“Do your parents know about me?” It seems an odd question, but she asks it, anyway. It matters, though, that much is for sure. It matters to her just as much as it matters to him.

“Yeah, they do,” he says softly. “They’re the only people I’ve told who don’t know you. Is that…is that okay?”

“Of course,” she reassures. “Your family is obviously important to you, and I—”

They both know what she intended to say next, that she wants to be a part of it. She isn’t sure why it feels so discomfiting to finish her thought, but he understands.

“Me, too,” he replies as though she had gotten it out.

It’s okay. This is okay.

She is compelled to ask if they know what she’s become: this disaster who does not believe in ghosts yet constantly speaks with the dead, this broken down war hero who can no longer so much as easily walk on her own, this obloquy who saved the galaxy yet cannot seem to save herself.

Maybe it isn’t important. Maybe it’s okay.

This will be okay. It has to be okay.

***

It’s raining. Her surroundings are unfamiliar. All she knows is that she is wet and cold and desperately searching for somewhere to hide but the area is barren.

She is alone.

“‘Once I was ordinary,’” she muses to herself upon finding a blanket amidst the wide open plain. It is not soft, but solid and dry. “‘When it thundered I hid under a flat stone.’”

She lays herself under it and the ground below gives way. She falls for what feels like an eternity before crashing onto hard pavement, taking in a harsh breath when she lands supine and unable to move.

“There’s no light,” Benezia’s voice proclaims. “They always said there would be light…”

“Did you see light?” Ashley asks. They’ve already had this conversation. Shepard really doesn’t care to have it again.

“I’m sorry, Ash,” she mutters. She still cannot move. “You deserve better. I hope you found better.”

“That’s why you left her to die, right?” Saren antagonizes.

“That was you,” Shepard hisses. She doesn’t believe it, though, and he knows.

The ground below shifts into the sparkling waters of Virmire. She remains trapped in this position, and the water begins to rise.

“Across the sea, siha,” Thane nods as the water covers her ears, threatening to engulf her.

Thane disappears and so does the water, shifting again into the Temple of Athame. Shepard remains still with her back to the ground, completely immobile.

“I’m so sorry, Liara,” Shepard sighs. Liara doesn’t blame Shepard for the fall of Thessia, she knows.

There’s no reason that should stop her from blaming herself.

“Goddess,” Benezia looks on in horror. “This is worse than the nothing. It is best that I missed this.”

The temple becomes Tuchanka, and the rubble she is inexplicably adhered to is jagged and painful.

Kalros sinks Wreav’s tomkah, and Shepard is indifferent. She’d only have cared if his death had upset Wrex, and even then it would only have been out of concern for her friend. Losing Wreav is not much of a loss, and she has enough to feel guilty about to think too much on that one.

Using Kalros, though…that is another matter. While the mother of all thresher maws might not have realized that for one important moment they were allies, Shepard is aware. It got them out of there, and it is almost certainly the only reason they left alive, but it feels so wrong.

Corporal Toombs is laughing at her. His eyes are wide, and he steps over to her side and points his pistol down towards her, aiming right between her eyes. “Cerberus bitch.”

She can’t move.

Toombs’s finger touches the trigger, but before he can pull, he flickers out of existence and she is suddenly lying on the ground on Aeia.

There is flora coming up all around her, wrapping around her limbs to bind her.

She doesn’t understand, she is already stationary.

Ronald Taylor is cackling, and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

“Holy shit,” Ashley says under her breath, observing the women all around.

“Ash, get out,” Shepard calls back. “You shouldn’t be here—Ash, get the fuck out, now!”

“Like you did on Virmire?” Udina taunts. “You had the quarian, the turian, the asari, and the damn krogan with you, but who do you let go? Who do you leave behind to die? One of our own, of course. One of the few humans you brought with you to fight our battles! This was the sacrifice you chose to make? You’re a—”

“A disgrace, yeah, I get it,” Shepard snaps. “Unhinged, a failure, an embarrassment to my kind, whatever, we’ve been over this.”

She’s so fucking tired of having the same conversations over and over in her head like this. Even her breakdowns are becoming boring.

Downtime does not suit her.

“‘This month is fit for little,’” Mordin quips from nowhere. “‘The dead ripen among the grapeleaves. A red tongue is among us.’ Would liked to have run tests on the seashells.”

“Bored, are we?” Kai Leng asks, and Thane reappears with Leng’s sword through his chest.

“Oh fuck you, we’ve done this one before, too,” Shepard shouts. It hurts every time she sees it, of course, but it’s also true. She dreams of this often, and with how far over the edge her head has been going lately, this now feels monotonous.

That toxic flora dissolves around her, as do all of the affected former crew of the Gernsback, and it is all replaced with a bright sky and those traditional human colony prefabs.

Using Aeia as a setting was at least a little creative for her mind this time, but now she’s really back to the frustratingly familiar.

She lays out on the ground, right outside a row of homes. She is flat on her back still, though, and as yet pinned in place, unable to break free.

There is shouting and gunfire long in the distance.

“‘Mother, keep out of the barnyard,’” a 16 year old Shepard screams. She erupts with biotic energy, such a blaring bright blue as her surroundings dim. “‘I am becoming another.’”

She looks down on 32 year old Shepard in terror. “What are you?”

Shepard cannot yet move.

Okay, this is actually a bit jarring.

“What are you?” Young Shepard yells again.

“She doesn’t remember,” Talitha cries.

“Oh god,” Shepard whispers. She wonders how Talitha is doing, if she survived the war. She feels like she should have found a way to check on her own. She wonders if she’ll later be able to find the courage to do it, now that she’s thought about it.

This scared young Shepard is a mess of tangled long hair flying every which way, shaking where she stands, so soft and innocent. She already had scars, both physical and emotional, the older and vastly more damaged Shepard remembers that much. But those were of her own creation, and this is the moment when that changed. She knows it’s not real, that none of this is real and that this was not at all what it would have looked like, but this moment happened in its own way and she knows, she knows that this is the crux. This is where it all went to hell.

“Some say I am broken,” Shepard had told Talitha on the Citadel. She didn’t say that she is one of them. Even with Talitha’s state being what it was, however, Shepard is not sure she’d needed to.

The Shepard of 2183 gently embraces Talitha and lies through her teeth when she wishes her warm dreams, while the Shepard of 2170 gazes on and only appears more and more terrified by the second.

The whole scene glitches and for a split second, the Shepard of 2186 is the one staring in horror as the gynoid then known as Eva Coré smashes Kaidan against a shuttle, assailing him until his broken body falls to the ground.

It freezes there for another moment, and there is an all-consuming static that envelops her and then disappears to unveil her return to this somehow almost more disturbing version of Mindoir.

And the Shepard of right now still can’t fucking move.

Someone kicks her in the side, and then someone extends a hand. Shepard is at last able to sit, to rise to meet them.

“‘Time unwinds from the great umbilicus of the sun, its endless glitter,’” a faceless woman pulls her up. It sounds like she’s smiling.

This stranger has the same haircut as Shepard, and it appears to be the same texture and volume, similar except in color: it is much darker than Shepard’s, a deep auburn. There is a red element to that shade, though, so perhaps Shepard’s thought that this attribute came solely from her father isn’t quite as accurate?

Not that she’ll ever know, not for sure, but this is as close as she gets, the closest she gets to answering the questions she actively does not want to ask. She doesn’t want them. She doesn’t want this.

Her faceless mother hands her a cane.

“Oh, what the hell is this?” Young Shepard seethes. “How the fuck are you supposed to get us out of here with that?”

Shepard panics at the thought. How is she supposed to protect herself, defend herself? Or worse yet, those she loves?

It doesn’t matter that this is the precise reason she will inevitably never be in a situation that would warrant such skills from her again.

All that matters is that she cannot fight and she absolutely cannot win. All that matters is that she is not safe.

She is not safe.

The batarians come again, only this time Shepard is stuck, her muscles and joints aching just as they do in the waking world, her mobility just as limited.

She is overpowered quickly, bracing herself against the cane as though she could possibly use it as some sort of barrier.

She can’t protect them. She can’t protect herself. She isn’t safe.

Young Shepard is blindsided and knocked to the ground. Talitha runs to take cover behind Shepard’s mother.

The ground beneath gives way once more, and Shepard is falling, falling far away from the colony, falling and feeling so defenseless.

“‘In this light the blood is black,’” her mother calls after her. “‘Tell me my name.’”

There is no light, there is only that black blood and death and missing faces of names long forgotten.

“I can’t,” Shepard calls back. “I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t…”

She can’t do anything, she can’t even walk by herself anymore. She can’t help anyone, can’t save anyone, least of all herself.

She isn’t safe.

“‘Tell me my name,’” echoes the shadows of her unit from Akuze, save for Corporal Toombs. He is at the forefront, laughing.

“This is how it feels,” he tells her. “They got you in the end, too, Commander!”

She sits up straight and gasps for breath, the sound of her struggle reverberating throughout the entire room. It’s so loud. She had no idea this kind of panic could be so loud.

It gets Kaidan up quickly enough, and he doesn’t even take the time to try to talk to her or bring her back down to him. He sits up with her and moves towards her slowly, tentatively. He is quiet and careful, but he is able to get an arm around her without disturbing her further, and he silently offers the invitation but waits to let her take it, waits for her to slink herself into him and rest her head against his shoulder.

Slowly yet, oh so slowly, he gently runs a hand into her hair and another up and down her back. Her arms, in turn, wrap tightly around him, and he feels how hard she’s shaking.

“Breathe, Carrie,” he whispers. “Carrie…Carrie, you’re okay, just try to breathe…”

He makes a point to repeat her name. He hopes it might help, knowing how disconnected she’s becoming from her own sense of self—from her own sense of reality.

Her breath is hot against his skin with each exhale, long and harsh, matching every panicked inhale it follows, and the way her body heaves with it. Hyperventilating with a loud and exaggerated wheeze, the sound of it is grating so close to his ear but he can’t bring himself to move away.

“Carrie…Carrie, shh, it’s okay, Carrie, breathe…”

Few know what Shepard’s been though, or that’s what Anderson had said. But Kaidan’s not sure anyone does. He knows that even she doesn’t have the whole picture, and that she may never get it. He wonders if that might be for the best.

This is hard enough.

Every night they run closer to the edge, to the end of the line, to the point of no return.

They both lie in wait for it, despite how much fear it brings them. They both anticipate it almost eagerly, caught in the urge to get this the fuck over with, to finally let go and move forward and maybe even try to learn to heal.

But first she has to let herself feel. She’s getting there, yes, but it’s been 16 years of shoving down anything and everything she can, and this is going to be difficult to move past.

She only hopes that when she reaches that cataclysmic zenith, she will know it when she gets there. She realizes by now that this will likely get worse before it gets better, but she hopes against hope that she will not be too far gone to see the light when it hits her.

“Carrie,” he says again, working so hard to bring her down. “Can you tell me where you are? Who? When?”

It’s a tactic Karin and Kelly had gotten her into during their tour of the Normandy under Cerberus, and Kaidan had easily taken to reminding her of it after he came aboard the Alliance’s SR-2.

It’s amazing to her how he knows, how he can somehow so plainly see that this is exactly the appropriate approach to this moment.

“This is, umm, fuck…Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Earth…I’m Carrie Shepard…it’s 2187 now, right? March?”

“Yeah, it is…okay, this is good…” He kisses her head, and she is nowhere near calm, but this is a start. “What else can you tell me?”

“You’re Kaidan Alenko…I love you…we live in your parents’ old house on the West Side, along English Bay…” It’s hard to speak, it’s hard to think, but they’re doing this. She takes her time between words, still struggling for air and for thought, but they’re doing this. She’s doing this. “We served together on the SSV Normandy…we met in 2183, and you never once wasted my time with personal debriefings…”

“I love you, too, Carrie,” he says tenderly. He smiles at her last point, but he needs to bring her focus to herself, he doesn’t want to let her get so caught up in him that she accidentally loses herself even more. “Okay. Alright, what year were you born?”

“I, uh…21—2154,” she manages. That was far more difficult than it should have been.

“Now give me the month and day, your favorite color…umm, your favorite holiday, and ah, the color of your eyes.” Kaidan is grasping for straws, and he thinks to himself that perhaps he should contemplate this harder later, that he’d like to write himself out a list of ideas for next time instead of having to pull them off the top of his head like this.

He will ride this out with her, but the rides are getting longer and more intense.

It’s hell, but he knows she needs it, to get all of this out. This is how she can start to heal, he’s sure.

He wants nothing more than for her to start to heal.

“Fuck, fuck,” she shakes her head. She hates how hard it is to concentrate on such simple questions, but she supposes that this is precisely why he asks them. “April 11th…red…Purim…green.”

It takes her a while to get the answers out, to form them in her head, but she gets them.

But it is still so hard to breathe.

“Your eyes are brown,” she adds without looking at him, and Kaidan does not say anything in direct response.

“Alright, Carrie,” he does say. “You’re here and you’re safe, Carrie…it’s okay…Carrie, it’s going to be okay…Carrie…”

She does not know how much time she takes holding onto Kaidan like this, using him as a shield, a crutch. She couldn’t keep track if she tried of how long she listens to him soothingly whisper her name over and over and over again, like he knows how much she needs it.

She knows that he knows how much she needs it.

She has no idea how much time passes between rapid breaths that make her chest burn and her head spin and finally breaking into desperate sobs with her arms vibrating from tensing so hard around Kaidan, and then at last laying back down with him, her head on his chest and her arm around his waist.

The nights are growing longer and the terrors more severe. She just has to remember that she is not alone. This night in particular has proven how very true that is.

She does not voice how bad this terror over her ability to fight has grown. She does not voice how lost she is. She does voice the fact that she no longer feels safe.

She knows that no matter how bad the nights get, she is not alone, that she is surrounded by support, that she is loved, and that she has many people she can turn to.

She knows that they are there so that she doesn’t have to be the strong one this time. She knows they’ll listen if she talks to them, that they will offer her that sense of safety she cannot provide herself, that they will do everything they can to give it to her as well as possible.

She knows that she is not alone.

Why does she feel so alone?

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is even more aware than ever of how poorly she has been handling life over the past 16 years.

It’s zero hour. It has to be. She can’t imagine it getting worse than this.

She is obsessively pouring over a datapad of Sylvia Plath’s collected works, and Ashley has been reading with her over her shoulder all morning, but even the hallucination of Shepard’s old friend seems to be growing concerned about this. Ashley has begun suggesting branching out in their newfound common interest: Yeats, Dickinson, Eliot, Whitman, Neruda, Frost, of course Tennyson…someone, something else to keep Shepard’s mind off of things.

No, though, that won’t do. Shepard has found what speaks to her, and she has no intention of moving beyond it.

She is Lady Lazarus, after all, and it was Ashley herself who started her on this trip (obviously on some level Shepard knows that she must have heard that poem elsewhere first, perhaps in school growing up, she can’t be sure—but she still knows, somewhere deep down, that Ashley could not have shared that with Shepard on her own when she did because Ashley was not really there, but the lines are blurring and Shepard is struggling to care).

Kaidan isn’t home. He’s meeting with Hackett at the Vancouver Alliance HQ. She isn’t sure why, and she didn’t ask. If he told her, she doesn’t recall. He probably did.

She hears it’s all up and running again, though, that it’s almost back to where it was before the Reapers landed in the city. So that’s nice.

Shepard knows damn well that she’s not alone in the house, but she doesn’t leave the bedroom. She sits there with Ashley and that fucking datapad and all those words she’s been committing to memory.

And unadulteratedly debilitating panic.

She doesn’t know where exactly it came from this time, but she doubts that matters any. She’s so overwhelmed, so full of pain and self-doubt and how fucking scared it all makes her.

She hates feeling so lost, so vulnerable. She hates how she has been waking up at night in a panic for days, and how it’s increasingly become more and more focused on safety.

She couldn’t protect those she loves before, and now she feels so fucking useless with her aching muscles and joints and her unstable walk and it’s so hard, everything is so hard, and she can’t. She can’t do anything. She sees so many faces, hears so many voices, those who’d once relied on her and were failed by her, and now she can’t even rely on herself.

It’s gotten to the point that she’s had trouble eating over the past few days, even though this only makes her feel all that much more helpless, that much more frail.

She can drink just fine, though.

This certainly does not help.

This is shaking her reality far too harshly. This is destroying her.

She tries to remember how to breathe, to remind herself of who and when and where she is, but she can’t figure out how to make it work.

She knows she shouldn’t be by herself, and she knows there will be someone there who she can talk to if she’d only bother to look, but…

She can’t. She can’t do it. She is stuck where she is and she is choking to death on her own thoughts and fears and memories and lapses.

The morning had started with Shepard and Ashley arguing, actually, shortly after Kaidan left.

“Anne Sexton was honestly kind of overrated,” Shepard had snapped at that particular recommendation. “And wasn’t she a goddamn child molester?”

“Oh, like Plath was such a saint,” Ashley had retorted. “Sure, what Sexton did was reprehensible, but Plath was problematic as hell, too, you know.”

“Yeah, well…” Shepard didn’t have an adequate response to that.

“How about Andrea Gibson?” Ashley had tried next. “They were absolutely one of the greatest and most powerful poetic voices who ever lived, and they didn’t have such shitty—”

“Shut up,” Shepard hissed back, although she’d immediately felt guilty about doing so, despite knowing that she was effectively talking to herself (who she has no issue speaking to that way). “I’m not disagreeing with you on that one, believe me, but…”

It’s no longer about who wrote what, not really. It’s about comfort and familiarity, and…control.

“Ah, now you see it,” the Illusive Man taunted when Shepard had that thought.

“It’s not the fucking same,” Shepard scowled.

It isn’t, though. This is about trying to rein herself in from unhinging anymore than she already has, and if this is what helps, then…

She won’t let anyone take it away, least of all those who aren’t really there to stop her. This is hers now, and she finds a strange sense of peace within it, even if it does originate from a place of such an utterly devastating mental break.

What affects her most about this in particular, too, is simply how very real that argument had felt.

Which surely does not help her now, while she is hyperventilating so severely that everything is beginning to close in on her.

She still has that call button. She knows that she could use it and that Karin would come running in a heartbeat.

She doesn’t touch it, doesn’t even reach for it.

She should have started working on things a long damn time ago. Maybe if she had, it wouldn’t be this bad now.

Oops.

She isn’t helped, either, by how she’s been seemingly so blatantly ungrateful for everyone’s best efforts—especially Kaidan, James, and Steve’s—in regards to eating almost as poorly as she’s been sleeping. She feels all that much more awful over it, but everything has started surfacing on overdrive for a few days now, and she isn’t dealing well at all. Her head is spinning and she feels like pure hell, but she can’t talk herself down.

“Okay, okay,” Ashley jumps in as Shepard’s vision starts to grey. “How about this one…”

Ashley looks down at the datapad contemplatively, and she finds one she likes.

“‘Old man, you surface seldom. Then you come in with the tide’s coming when the seas wash cold, foam— Capped: white hair, white beard, far-flung, a dragnet, rising, falling, as saves crest and trough. Miles long,’” Ashley reads. It’s one of the many Shepard has learned by heart.

Of course it is, it would have to be. Shepard is alone and she can’t see straight enough to read.

“‘Extend the radial sheaves of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins knotted, caught, survives the old myth of origins unimaginable,’” Ashley’s voice is calm and soothing. She laughs lightly when she adds, “Sound familiar, Skipper?”

Survival, origins unimaginable—yes, it does.

“‘You float near as kneeled ice-mountains of the north, to be steered clear of, not fathomed. All obscurity starts with a danger: your dangers are many,’” Ashley whispers then.

“Yes, they are,” Shepard manages through broken breath.

“Yes, they are,” Ashley agrees. “‘I cannot look much but your form suffers some strange injury and seems to die: so vapors ravel to clearness on the dawn sea.’”

“See…see what I mean?” Shepard almost cannot say, she is so far gone, but Ashley nods. It makes sense that Shepard would be so drawn to this content. It makes sense, or as much sense as she is any longer capable of making.

“‘The muddy rumors of your burial move me to half-believe: your reappearance proves rumors shallow, for the archaic trenched lines of your grained face shed time in runnels: ages beat like rains of the unbeaten channels of the ocean.’” Ashley chuckles softly once again, and Shepard gets why. “Damn, Skipper, fine.”

“Keep going,” Shepard insists. She’s not sure if she says it aloud, but that’s irrelevant. The words are from her mind, anyway, as is Ashley’s voice, but that is the voice from which she needs to hear them. “Don’t leave me…”

“‘Such sage humor and durance are whirlpools to make way with the ground-work of the earth and the sky’s ridgepole. Waist down, you may wind one labyrinthine tangle to root deep among knuckles, shinbones, skulls. Inscrutable, below shoulders not once seen by any man who kept his head, you defy questions; you defy godhood.’”

Ashley pauses there, the moment tense. Shepard doesn’t like the way the idea of defying questions and godhood resonates with her. It doesn’t feel right, but neither does it feel wrong.

She never wanted that. She doesn’t want that.

She can’t fucking breathe.

“It’s alright,” Ashley offers. “You’re okay, okay? ‘I walk on your kingdom’s border exiled to no good. Your shelled bed I remember. Father, this thick air is murderous. I would breathe water.’”

Ashley moves to Shepard’s back and wraps her arms around her from behind. This is not at all something she is sure the real Ashley would ever have done (she was a good friend who had cared deeply and shown it well, yes, but she was certainly never the touchy-feely type), but Shepard does not fight it. She’s not sure she has the strength to, anyway.

“Another one?” Ashley asks carefully, but Shepard shakes her head. It’s likely a simple matter of rapidly losing the focus to recall any more from memory, which is still what would need to be done. Were it really Ashley with the ability to recite one on her own, Shepard would surely have said yes, but it isn’t, and so she doesn’t.

“That’s okay, Skipper,” Ashley says. “Let it out.”

Shepard finds the will to reach for a pillow, and she pulls up her knees and rests it over them, holding her arms around it to bury her head into it in hopes of muffling the sound as she proceeds to scream bloody murder.

She doesn’t know where all this is coming from in this exact moment, so much she cannot name coming up all at once the way it is, and it makes her feel sick to try to think about it.

Of course she knows by now that her ever-deteriorating mental state is closely linked to her significantly compromised strength and mobility. How hard that has been, and how hard it will continue to be, to learn to live with this is hell, and all this free time is far more of a hindrance than a help. Yes, this she knows by now, and all too well.

And of course, as of late, things simply seem to happen now. All this free time with no work and so much room to think, and—for much as it hurts to contemplate—perhaps even having all of this emotional support?

But this moment brings forth the idea that she cannot even spend any real period of time alone without spiralling as she is, and that is nothing short of abhorrent.

She’d really thought she was starting to do better for a little while there, too.

There is a knock at the door, and she assumes she’s been heard. She doesn’t look up, though. She doesn’t stop howling into her pillow.

She isn’t sure if she’s closed her eyes or if she simply has the pillow close enough to completely obstruct her eyesight, but she can’t see a thing.

She hears another knock, louder this time.

So it isn’t Kaidan. Not that her mind can even seem to stretch towards such an obvious connection, regardless.

She ignores it.

The knock strikes again, and then again, and then again, but she does not respond. She can’t. She can only scream and paradoxically try to breathe.

She doesn’t know why she bothers.

Ashley’s hands rest firmly on Shepard’s shoulders, and she can feel them.

Oh, fuck.

And the pounding at the door is only making it that much harder to breathe, every harsh sound making her jump, shouting and practically smothering herself. She feels dizzy and nauseated from this panic, and she only wants to be left there to her solitary misery.

She is slipping, and every sound pierces through her, every one bringing her closer and closer to the edge.

Sharp sounds all of a sudden take her back to gunfire, to blasts and shots and even melee assaults left and right, to bodies falling and people shouting.

She hears the door begin to open, and something snaps. It seems her survival instincts still exist, because she immediately and unexpectedly perks up into a fight response.

She is no longer certain of where she is, and she definitely does not consider that this intruder could be on her side. Everything is dark and she can’t think straight, but in her head she is not in Vancouver with her loved ones. She is only lost in the abyss, and her mind can produce only thoughts of Cerberus, of husks, of raiders, of geth heretics—anyone but friendlies.

“Go get ‘em,” Ashley urges, and even once she throws aside that pillow, Shepard still cannot see whose presence it is, but she somehow finds the ability to lunge towards them.

She is just barely lucid enough to recognize that she is unarmed, and she therefore uses every last ounce of energy she can muster to come forward with a heavy biotic punch.

James’s reflexes are quick, and he jumps out of the way just in time and just far enough to dodge. This does not, however, give him enough time to get to her before she falls prostrate onto the floor when she passes out.

It strangely makes him think of that joking disagreement they’d gotten into during that party at her apartment, of biotics versus muscle. He had been vastly outnumbered and biotic strength was the clear winner in the end, but Shepard hadn’t been satisfied to leave it there. Later on she had dropped a datapad detailing the Alliance’s training requirements specifically for biotic soldiers, and he’d had to admit he was surprised looking them over. He genuinely hadn’t realized how much extra energy and willpower it takes to wield such abilities and how much harder they really do have to work, all the way down to factors such as an Alliance biotic’s daily calorie rations, and how physically exhaustive they truly are, before she’d laid it out for him that way. It had shut him up about it, though, that’s for damn sure.

At least he figures that’s what got to her in this instance. He knows that even though she has been getting much better with it over time, she still isn’t taking care of herself too well and she’s definitely begun to falter again, so she can’t possibly have had enough in her to adequately pull off that kind of attack right now.

It disturbs him even more that she had attempted it to begin with, but he pushes that away for the time being. Right now, he would rather focus on precisely what's in front of him.

He picks her up and lays her on the bed, resting her onto her side, instinctively checking her airways and locking her arms and legs. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t still in a constant state of terror over her well-being. She’s been through so much, and they all know that she’s going through a special kind of hell over it all now, but a part of him suspects he must simply have assumed it would have started getting better than it has after this much time. Instead, in some regards, it seems like it might be getting worse.

He knows she’s been fighting more of her inner demons lately. He’s heard the shouting at night. She’s even confided in him about how bad the post-traumatic stress is getting, and how the vulnerability of this ongoing chronic pain only makes her even more constantly panicked about the dangers that haunt her from her past, how it’s become so hard to feel safe when she has so much to battle from the inside and no strength to properly protect herself from the outside anymore.

“Estás a salvo, Shepard,” he looks down at her and mutters quietly, and he only looks back to double check that the door is open once he leaves the room.

“Hey, Dr. Chakwas?” James feels terribly intrusive when he finds Karin in the room she’s been sleeping in. Her door is open, but he isn’t sure it’s okay to let himself in, not that it stops him. He’s started to wonder if she just lives there now. He imagines he’s not the only one to have that thought. “You should, ah, probably go check in on Shepard.”

He briefly explains what little he can, telling her what he heard and the greeting he received, and Karin gets up and makes her way to where she needs to be without question.

He is pretty sure that if Karin ever did have any intention of leaving, she and Kaidan should probably reevaluate that plan.

But not Shepard, herself. He doesn’t like the idea of not allowing her a say in her own recovery, but neither does he think she should be given the option to protest given how bad the situation can get, and he thoroughly believes protest would be the only response she’d have.

He’s not sure it’s right, and he knows it sure as shit doesn’t feel like it, but he feels so damn lost.

He’s scared, that he is certain of. He is scared for his friend and he knows he can’t stay much longer, and he needs to know it will be okay.

It needs to be okay.

“Hey, Joker,” James nods to his friend at the bar. “Grab me some cerveza if you don’t mind.”

“You alright?” Joker asks and passes a bottle.

“No,” James admits. “I’m thinking I should try to delay my ICT enrollment. I’m not sure that’s an option, even with the whole Shepard thing, but…”

He doesn’t think his presence actually makes a difference, he’s sure there’s no way he can truly help, but he doesn’t feel right leaving her.

And sure, logically he’s known all along that there will be a five hour time difference and over 11,000 kilometers between them when he goes, but somehow Brazil had never felt so fucking far away.

“You know Shepard might literally murder you if you try that, right?” Joker shakes his head. “I feel you, though, yeah…”

“You know you two are her best friends, right?” Kelly looks up at them, taking them both by surprise.

“What makes you say that?” James asks, nonplused. He genuinely finds this impossibly hard to believe. He can’t imagine having already earned her trust so thoroughly that he and Joker could possibly be on par with each other.

“She’s most comfortable when she’s with one or both of you, except for when she’s with Kaidan,” Kelly notes. “She interacts the most easily with you, and her mannerisms and demeanor are the exact same between either of you. And you two are the only people after Kaidan who could ever possibly get away with seeing her when she doesn’t want to be seen. But that means Joker’s right. She loves you so much and she would hate to be the reason you put this off, especially if you ended up missing your shot at becoming an N7 on her account.”

“You’re good,” James shrugs. He neglects to mention that Shepard actually did just try to kill him already, but he knows that was neither her fault nor his, not really, and he is so profoundly taken aback by this. “So, uh, any insight on why the fuck things seem like they’re getting worse again?”

“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” Kelly answers easily. She clearly does already have thoughts about this. “There’s the obvious general factor of having too much time to think and a lot of repressed trauma and even more deeply repressed emotions, as well as the anxieties caused by the changes in her physical capabilities. But—and this is where that catch-22 comes in—there’s also the element that she has been surrounded by people she loves and who, in return, make her feel loved, and even safe. And when one has lived through and subsequently buried as much as Shepard has, the mind recognizes that safety and comfort, and this creates a sort of incongruous breeding ground for the worst of the worst to come forward. Because even though it’s hell, on a subconscious level the brain figures out that it's now in a safe place to bring it up and let it out.”

“So now it, what, just has to get worse before it can better? Because none of this has been fucked up enough?” Joker grabs himself a drink. It makes him every bit as nervous as it makes James, and they both realize that neither of them truly know exactly how bad it could get. They don’t think even Kaidan knows. It’s a horrifying thought to consider, to say the least.

“Yes, I think that might be the case,” Kelly admits. She isn’t any happier about it than they are.

“Well, fuck,” is all James can say.

“She knows she has a secure support system,” Kelly tries to sound reassuring. “She knows she has a lot of people who will be there for her no matter what, and she knows we’ll all drop everything for her if we have to, even if she doesn’t want us to, because she’s seen it happen. That has to help. I’m sure Dr. Chakwas will be here for as long as she needs, too, so that’s—”

“You should stay, too,” James interrupts. “Sorry, I mean, if you can…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Joker agrees quickly. “I mean, can you? Do you think you can help?”

“I’ll do whatever I can,” Kelly replies. “I work for Miranda, there’s no way I’d have any trouble getting a pass to stay here for as long as I’m needed. You are right, though, and you will need to get back to your own lives. This is what I’ve trained for. I’ll see what I can do, I promise.”

“You know she’s not gonna make it easy,” Joker deadpans.

“I do know, believe me,” Kelly tells him. “But I’m good at what I do, and I know that she does trust me. Not as much as some, but it’s there, and I can work with it. If nothing else, I have to try.”

“Gracias,” James sighs heavily.

“Yeah, uh, thanks,” Joker nods. “Need a drink?”

“Yes, please,” Kelly answers enthusiastically.

Joker grabs her a beer, and the three of them continue to drink in awkward silence.

***

“Shit,” Kaidan sighs in response to James recounting what he’d missed, and he eagerly joins them at the bar. Neither James, Joker, nor Kelly have moved much. Some others have come and gone throughout the day, but Shepard hasn’t been seeing anybody, so there’s mostly only really been some small talk before heading back out.

Kaidan, on the other hand, was out far later than he’d expected. His meeting ran several hours past time due to an obvious topic of conversation, the vast majority of it off the record (an event Hackett had evidently anticipated, as he’d also informed Kaidan that he’d cleared his schedule for the day otherwise), and then he got caught up with a call from his mother on the way home.

He spent most of that talking about Shepard, too.

Jack and Miranda have joined, though. They’ve been there for a few hours. Diana and Samantha were in for a good while earlier, and Samantha was thrilled about finally being able to make Miranda a proper Perfection cocktail, but Diana had to leave for something or another to do with her job, and Samantha left with her.

And now it’s just Kaidan, Joker, James, Kelly, Miranda, Jack, and a lot of beer.

A lot of beer.

“Yeah, we’ve just been leaving her alone,” James tells Kaidan. “Doc’s been sitting with her pretty much all day, says she hasn’t spoken a single fucking word the whole time. I don’t know, man, it sounds like shit’s finally hitting the fan and Shepard’s just scared…and, umm, so am I.”

“So are we,” Joker corrects quietly. “That’s why we, ah, maybe kind of overstepped our bounds talking to Kelly…”

“You know my background, Kaidan,” Kelly steps in. “Obviously I’m not here to do anything you’re not comfortable with, but—”

“But she’s free to stay for as long as you need her here,” Miranda interrupts. “You are a phenomenal asset to our team, Kelly, and maybe it’s a little selfish on my part to offer you this kind of leave, but…Kaidan, please.”

“I can’t force her into anything,” Kaidan replies. “I can’t, and I won’t. I see what you’re all getting at and I’m not saying it isn’t tempting, but I am not going to take away her agency in this, okay, no matter what. She’s had enough of her own life taken out of her hands, so whatever happens next is her call. If she can accept your help, Kelly, trust me, you are more than welcome here for as long as it takes. But it isn’t my decision.”

“I see why she likes you,” Jack tries to smirk, but it isn’t there. “No, really, that’s…that’s commendable, Kaidan.”

Even with all Jack herself has been through, and how greatly she knows she’d resist being forced into therapy, she can’t help wondering if she’d be as sympathetic in Kaidan’s shoes.

None of them truly believe they could be.

They’re all too scared.

Jack speaks up again, trying to find something to ease the tension. “I’m guessing you still haven’t…”

“No,” Kaidan shakes his head. “I’m trying to figure out how to bring it up, how to…you know, if there’s a moment, or…I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know when it’s there?”

“Her birthday’s coming up,” Joker manages to laugh. “I mean…”

“I’d like to be here,” James says rather self-consciously. “Not here here, but…you know, before I leave. Not that what I want really matters, but…”

“I understand, James,” Kaidan reassures him. “I’ll keep that in mind, really. I promise.”

“I just want to know she’s okay,” Jack mutters.

“Me, too,” Miranda tells her just as softly, resting a hand on her shoulder, and neither of them care that the rest of the group is staring.

“How the fuck do we make this better?” Joker looks directly at Kelly. He does not intend to sound so perturbed, so downright accusatory, but this is rough and they all understand. All the same, he tries to backtrack somewhat. “I know, I know, there’s no easy answer to that, is there?”

“No,” Kelly sighs.

“But you can help, right?” Jack asks with a disquieting desperation.

“If she’ll let me in,” Kelly nods. She agrees with Kaidan, of course, that this has to be Shepard’s decision, although she also recognizes the logic, that any help she can offer would easily be rendered moot by Shepard being unwilling to accept it. A part of her wishes she could force it, though, not that she’d ever admit it.

She supposes that this is why treating one’s friends is considered a conflict of interest, but she is still grateful no one’s going to stop her on those grounds in this case, that she can be the one to try to help Shepard.

“She’s saved all our lives a thousand times over,” James says, as though it needs saying.

Kaidan is glad he does, though. It makes him think of Anderson’s interview about Shepard. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be said. Maybe we’re too dumb to say it.”

And they haven’t stopped losing sleep over her safety, not one of them.

So maybe it does need saying, after all.

It certainly can’t hurt.

“To Shepard,” Miranda says and raises her bottle.

“To Shepard,” everyone echoes and does the same.

“How’d your meeting go, by the way?” Joker asks Kaidan, who shrugs.

“Exactly what you’d expect,” he says. “I’ll probably go back to work at some point and maybe I can even eventually get into another position like yours, Jack, with my record and experience, but it looks like I’m gonna spend some time as a desk jockey first to be safe, being an L2 and sustaining two critical injuries in one year.”

He hasn’t told Shepard how right she was to make him leave London like she did. It was nothing like Mars, of course, but he was lucky to have Karin right there or it could have gotten a lot closer.

He got a good, long scolding from Karin, too, about how badly he’d wanted to stay with Shepard after, about how he was in no condition to fight and doing so would have been tantamount to suicide. She’d told him to be grateful he’d survived the hit to begin with, and by that point he didn’t have the strength to argue. It must have been pure adrenaline that had gotten him that far, and then he remembers Karin forcing him into the med bay and informing him that she was getting a sedative when he broke into a panic attack, clutching Shepard’s tags tightly in his fist the whole time.

It doesn’t matter, though. They made it. They both did. So all that matters now is continuing to drag her ass out of the fire, just as she’d do for any of them—just as she has done for all of them.

James follows with the obvious question, lowering his voice, “Did he say anything about Shepard?”

“She came up, yeah,” Kaidan sighs. “He didn’t say anything clear cut, but we all know where this is heading. No one tell her I said this, please, but it’s probably for the best; I’m not sure she could handle as much as a bullshit paper pushing position, not where she is right now. She’s definitely getting nicely decorated if she decides to come back from the dead, but Vegas money’s on an honorable discharge to go with a bunch of fancy medals. Officially she’s still listed as KIA, though, he did say that much, and that the Alliance will keep it classified that she made it out until she’s ready, out of respect for everything she’s done…and how hard she had to fight them at times to be able to do it.”

“She is not going to take that well,” James shakes his head. He’s known longer than anyone that this is inevitable, but at the same time there’s been a part of him through all of this that’s hoped Shepard would pull out some miraculous recovery somehow, and that her worst fears wouldn’t have to come true, after all.

It’s of little consequence in reality, as everyone knows there’s very little for them to do for the time being, but they also all know it’s the principle of it. It’s the practice, too, yes, but with the current state of the galaxy it’s largely going to amount to theory. Shepard’s a soldier, in theory and in practice, but she’s already lost one simply by the nature of peacetime, and she’s not going to handle being stripped of the other very well. Being a soldier is what she knows, and given how little of her life she recalls from before she enlisted, it’s a core part of her very identity at the end of the day. No one’s sure how she’ll react to having it taken away, but they all know that it’s going to happen.

Just like everything else, though, they’ll simply have to be there for her when it does, however they can.

And they will be. They all will.

“No,” Kaidan says all the same. “No, she isn’t.”

“You’ll be here, though,” Joker adds. “That’ll help.”

“That’s for damn sure,” Kelly remarks, hoping her input will especially get through to him in the context of her profession.

Although she realizes she has no idea of whether or not Kaidan is aware of the fact that she’s slept with his girlfriend. She assumes he is, though. She assumes Shepard had told him everything after they reconciled, knowing how much all of it had eaten away at her.

“She’s been through hell and back already, Kaidan,” Miranda notes. “And it’s not hard to see how much easier you make it. I think she’ll be alright in the end. As much as she can be.”

Kaidan remains nervous about all of it. He’s sure he’s never going to stop regretting how he acted in regards to the Cerberus situation. She’s told him many times now that he shouldn’t, but it’s still raw and it feels so wrong. And to this day, he realizes he still has no clue how she even got there, how she’d gotten away, what exactly led her to an Alliance prison cell.

He wonders how much Miranda knows, or how much she knew at the time about Shepard’s preexisting history with Cerberus. He also wonders if it would have been taken into consideration. He likes Miranda, but he’s heard that she’s grown a lot since first meeting Shepard. He knows she’d had her reasons for being distant in the past, as well as for putting her faith in the Illusive Man, and he doesn’t fault her for any of it. Hell, regardless, Shepard would have stayed dead in 2183 without Miranda, and he is aware of the incredible debt of gratitude he owes her. Of course, he also knows she had no intention of making friends and that she was, in the beginning, only there to do a job, so he’ll never ask her how much she knew back then. In fact, he thinks he’d prefer it if she did remain blissfully unaware of what kind of emotional position Cerberus had put Shepard in, forcing her in the way they did. Thinking on it, he truly hopes Miranda doesn’t know how deep it goes, after all, for her sake.

Liara, on the other hand, would have to have known better, but he also knows Shepard’s processed her anger on that count and come to terms with Liara's involvement, and that means he can, too.

He’ll always wish it could have been anyone but Cerberus, but…

He also can’t say for sure that he would have acted any differently in Liara’s shoes. He’d like to imagine he would have, knowing what he knew and the obvious long term consequences involving Shepard in Cerberus would have, but he knows how damn hard it would have been and he genuinely isn’t sure he’d have had the strength.

He knows he actually is a fairly strong person. He knows he’s survived a lot and that he’s dealt with it all very well. That, though…that would likely have brought out a moment of weakness.

He can’t imagine ever telling her this, but it’s better not to think about it at all, anyway.

“She really has,” Kaidan agrees with Miranda. There’s no need for specifics. “And, uh, thanks.”

“How are you two?” Kelly turns towards Miranda and Jack, and Kaidan is a bit relieved. He was starting to feel like he had a damn spotlight on him, so a change of subject’s good for now.

“I haven’t had a chance to catch up with you, but…” Kelly continues with a smile. “I hear congratulations are in order.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Jack laughs. “It actually sort of turned out that we’d accidentally already been in a long distance relationship for months now, but of fucking course it took Shepard to pull our heads out of our asses.”

“I know how that one goes,” Joker nods.

“Yeah, but you were crazy enough to fuck the damn ship,” Jack teases. “Apples and oranges.”

“Fuck you,” Joker retorts with a laugh, and he knows Jack’s only joking when she lifts up her hand and starts manipulating the matter around it, encased in that piercing biotic blue, but he sure as hell backs down, anyway.

“Thought so,” Jack smiles.

“We do have all of the most powerful human biotics in the galaxy at one table right now, don’t we?” Miranda muses.

“Hey, I conceded, alright,” James laughs. “No need for any more fancy party tricks.”

“I’m pretty sure Shepard’s next in line, too,” Joker chimes in. “So with Kaidan and Shepard, and now with Jack and Miranda being a thing, you guys could potentially have the most terrifyingly lethal double date imaginable!”

“I can bring Eezo with me, too, for good measure,” Jack smiles.

“Don’t you just feel so great knowing all the ways your friends can kill you with minimal effort,” Joker shakes his head. “Even getting the fucking pets involved, shit.”

“By the way, where’s Edi?” Kaidan asks. It only now occurs to him that this is probably the longest Joker’s been there without her company yet.

“She’s out with Steve,” Joker replies. “I think they’ve been shopping or something, I don’t know. They’re doing something nice, I’m sure, because let’s face it, Cortez is basically the dad friend, and I think Edi wants some pointers.”

“Sounds about right,” James nods.

“So by morning your cabinets will all be fully restocked and your plants all watered?” Kelly smiles, and James can’t help but laugh.

“Oh yeah, he is definitely the dad friend,” Kelly adds, laughing a little, herself.

Kaidan realizes his bottle his empty, so he picks up another.

“Kaidan?” James looks at him, glancing down at Kaidan’s hands. One is on his fresh bottle of beer and the other is on the bar itself, and both sets of fingers are rapidly tapping against their respective surfaces.

Kaidan looks at James looking at him and does not respond, but takes a long drink.

“Hey,” Miranda looks to Jack. “Want to get going?”

“Come back tomorrow?” Jack looks to Kaidan, as though she needs to ask.

“Let Shepard know I’d like to talk to her whenever she feels up to it, too,” Miranda adds as she and Jack both stand up. “If it comes up, of course.”

“Yeah, sure,” Kaidan nods.

“Get some rest, Kaidan,” Miranda says firmly just before they turn to leave. “It’s going to be alright.”

It has to be.

Miranda and Jack head out hand in hand, and Kaidan can’t help but smile a little. Shepard’s thrilled that those two found each other, and that makes him happy, too.

Kelly decides to take her cue, as well. “Maybe I should…”

“Not yet,” Kaidan cuts in. “I mean, there’s plenty of spare rooms, if you’d like to stay, at least until we know what she wants to do.”

“Of course,” Kelly says.

Time is a strange thing lately. It’s evening, dark outside and all, but it somehow feels so much later and so much earlier all at once.

Kaidan probably does need to get working again. Even if he is afraid to leave Shepard alone like that. And even if he knows how greatly she feels the same about herself.

“Down that hall over there, first door on the right: that one’s Karin’s,” Kaidan tells Kelly, pointing to direct her attention. “Everything else is up for grabs.”

“Thank you,” Kelly replies. “This is a lovely home.”

“Thanks,” Kaidan tries.

He tries.

Kelly takes it upon herself to clean up all the empty bottles, and then she moves on to find herself a space to claim for her stay.

“Do you need us to go, too?” Joker asks, only him and James remaining.

“No, no, you’re good,” Kaidan answers. He pauses for a second, and then he looks up, trying to make direct contact with both of them. “You know you two are her best friends, right?”

“Yeah,” Joker says. “Yeah, we’ve gathered that.”

He doesn’t elaborate and Kaidan doesn’t question.

“Why?” James steps in with sincere curiosity. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know,” Kaidan shakes his head. “I guess…make sure you keep in touch, alright?”

“Kaidan,” James has the same thought he did earlier, and he knows Joker and Kelly were right to shut him down, but he needs Kaidan’s take on it, anyway. “I’m thinking maybe I should put off—”

“No,” Kaidan interrupts and then takes another drink. “You can’t do that, James, not for her. I don’t blame you for wanting to, but you have to leave because she cares about you too much. She’d never forgive herself otherwise.”

“She’s got enough to deal with,” James finally, officially concedes. “I’ll check in as much as I can, though, you know that.”

“She’s told me a little about the program and, well, I don’t think you’ll get too many chances for a while,” Kaidan notes, and he musters a small smile. “But she knows that, and she’ll understand. Whenever you can, though…”

“Of course,” James nods. “I won’t be a stranger, no doubt about that. Timing works out, too, though. I’m leaving April 14th, so…I can help you plan her birthday party.”

James takes on a lighter tone, trying so hard not to regret everything and not to keep wishing he could throw away the promise of such an important milestone in his career.

Kaidan tries not to think about the fact that, in a fairer universe where things had gone much differently, that same date would have been Ashley’s 29th birthday.

God, she was so young.

“Where’ve you guys been staying?” Kaidan asks, hoping to shift his focus.

“Found a nice hotel off of Robson Street,” Joker answers first. “Edi likes the view.”

“Real close, right along Kitsilano Beach,” James replies. “Same place as Steve…and Jack and Miranda, I think, or at least I’ve seen them around a bit whenever I’m over there.”

Which is an incredibly rare occurrence.

It’s a wonder James in particular has bothered at all to find lodging elsewhere, considering that he virtually never leaves this house. The only person there more often aside from Shepard and Kaidan themselves is Karin, and even that’s not by much.

“You’re both welcome to find rooms here, you know,” Kaidan offers. “Edi, too, of course. You two can explore the upper floors if she misses having a view.”

Kaidan chuckles lightly, doing his best to keep himself level. He’s kept everything to the first floor for the sake of some idea of keeping things in check, of knowing to some extent where everyone is and what everyone is doing while they’re there. Shepard, of course, still has yet to see any of the rest of the house, as well, and she’ll likely be keeping it that way for at least a while simply given how difficult it is for her to move around just the one storey, and how hard it’s been for her to acclimate to her new surroundings, so taking it slow is definitely for the best on that count.

The view of English Bay from some of the higher balconies really is astonishing, though.

“You can stay for as long as you’re able, if you want,” Kaidan continues. “Everyone else is welcome to come by and even stay a night or two whenever, but…you two can set up indefinitely.”

“Thanks, Kaidan,” Joker nods. “I’ll talk to Edi.”

“Yeah, thanks,” James adds. “I’ll do that.”

“There, all that did have a point,” Kaidan laughs a little at himself. “I think it might be time for me to call it a night.”

“I’ll be here,” James tells him.

“Me, too,” Joker says quickly.

Kaidan finishes his drink and can’t even be bothered to dispose of the bottle, not right now, and instead sets it down on the bar and says goodnight once more to Joker and James before walking away.

“Kaidan,” Karin says as he walks into the bedroom. Her voice is soft and shaken. She’s pulled up a chair beside the bed, and it looks like she’s simply been sitting there reading in all the hours she’s been in there.

Shepard, meanwhile, is curled up in her blankets, scowling and furrowing her brow, but she looks to him immediately upon hearing his name.

Kaidan nods to Karin, who stands up and nods back, and the door promptly closes behind her as she exits to leave the room to just the two of them.

Kaidan silently gets changed for the night, watching her out of the corner of his eye the whole time, but not delaying it because he has no intention of getting back up once he lays down with her. He wants to give her his full attention, and he doesn’t want anything to be able to get in the way, even something so simple as putting that off.

She doesn’t speak, either, but he wasn’t expecting her to.

“Carrie,” Kaidan finally whispers once he gets into bed beside her. He worries there will be some resistance, but he is pleasantly surprised when she moves in closer to him and melts into his arms when they wrap around her. They move around a little, readjusting blankets and bodies, until they are well covered and as close as they can possibly be.

It would be cute how she’s been using blankets as a fortress of sorts, or so it seems, the way she shields herself with the softness and warmth of them, which is absolutely never something she would have allowed herself to do before. It’s a small comfort, but it’s a comfort all the same, although it’s agonizingly overwhelmed by just how much she’s hiding from, from all of the terrible things raging inside her that cause her to so desperately require comforting.

She tries to speak but it’s a struggle. She hasn’t said a word all day, not to anyone who could actually hear her, and it’s been hours in any case. She wants to, though. She really wants to.

It’s zero hour. It’s the breaking point. It can’t get worse than this. It cannot.

It has to stop somewhere. She has to start somewhere.

And here she is.

“Kaidan,” she manages eventually. She doesn’t know how long it takes, and he offers no indication. Of course he doesn’t, he has the most incredible patience…

“Fuck,” she says hoarsely. “Kaidan, I can’t keep doing this.”

There feels like fire in her eyes and she doesn’t even care anymore. Hiding things like this is what’s led her to this point to begin with.

“It’s okay, Carrie,” he tells her. “I’m here, and we’ll get through this.”

He’s said it so many times now, even she is starting to think she could believe it.

“Talk to me,” he says, as he so often does.

He probably knows already that she hasn’t spoken today. He probably knows already that she hasn’t left the room, hasn’t looked anyone in the eye.

He probably knows already that she’d had such an extreme lapse in her sense of reality that she snapped and attacked one of her best friends.

She really can’t go on like this.

“I’m feeling, Kaidan,” she tries to explain. She has to start somewhere. “And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can do this, it’s all…”

“Hey,” he says tenderly and kisses the top of her head. “You’re safe now, Carrie. You’re surrounded by people who love you and who would do anything for you. We will never let anything happen to you, not ever again. You’ve been through so much and you’ve always taken on more whenever you had to, but now you don’t. You don’t have to sacrifice anymore, Carrie. You don’t have to put yourself last anymore. No one wants you to. We want to help, and we’ll do whatever’s needed. Any of us. Just say the word.”

“What is there to say?” She sighs. “Kaidan, I don’t know if I—”

“Of course you can,” he kisses her again. “You’re Carrie Shepard, there is nothing you can’t do.”

“Thanks, Kaidan,” she laughs softly. “I don’t know, though, I…I don’t even know where to start.”

Kaidan takes a deep breath and decides this is as good of a time as any to let her in on how he spent his evening.

“Carrie, we should talk,” he says.

“Is this about Jack?” She asks immediately, and he shakes his head.

“No, this is…this is about Kelly, actually,” he replies. “She wants to help, Carrie. And I know…I know but, yes, I mean help.”

“Fuck,” she groans. She takes a deep breath of her own. She wants to accept this. For the first time in her life, she acknowledges that she needs to accept this.

That zero hour, that breaking point. Now there is no turning back. From here, there can be only forward.

“Miranda’s giving her leave to stay, but we’re in agreement that this is only if you want her to,” Kaidan continues. “We’re not forcing you into anything—although watch out, Joker and James seem to have other ideas on that one…”

He chuckles softly to himself. He feels like she’ll appreciate the intention behind it, that unconditional love they have for her. He hopes she does.

She definitely appreciates the thought, on all counts. Of course Kaidan would leave this in her hands. Of course he’d allow her an out, even though she’s sure he’s terrified she’ll take it.

Joker and James, on the other hand, absolutely would want to hold her down kicking and screaming if they thought it would help her get better.

It’s all out of love, she knows. And she loves them, too. She loves them so fucking much, and she can use that as her motivation. At least it’s a place to start.

“How did you deal with Vyrnnus?” Shepard asks. She knows he’d gone through unspeakable abuse, himself, and that he’d seen and experienced absolutely horrific things during his time at BAaT, things no one—certainly no fucking teenager—should ever have to go through. “You went through hell at Jump Zero, but you turned out alright. How?”

“I had people I could talk to, who’d been through the same thing,” he says quietly. “I had my parents’ support. I had the knowledge that everything was shut down after that, that no other kids would go through what we had there. You never had that, Carrie. Any of that, not when you needed it most. That makes a difference.”

“Yeah,” she whispers. It makes sense.

She’s grateful he had all that, though. Fuck knows he deserves it.

“You deserve to have had that,” he says at the same moment she has that thought. “And I’m so sorry you didn’t. But we’re here now. You have a lot of people who want to give you the support you should’ve had a long damn time ago.”

“I guess,” she slips. She didn’t mean to say that, she really didn’t. But she said it. She did let out the hint of a feeling, as she has grown to do.

It’s a start.

“I…I want to try,” she says after a moment. “I do, Kaidan, I…I need to try.”

“Good,” he breathes out, relief evident in his voice. He kisses her yet again.

“I don’t want to let you down,” her voice cracks. That wasn’t supposed to come out, either. “Any of you.”

“Just a heads up, too, that James wants to throw you a birthday party before he goes,” Kaidan says to lighten the tension, and it makes her smile like he was hoping it would.

“Oh shit, that’s coming up soon,” she muses. Of course her friends—her family would want to do something for that. Not only has she not celebrated a birthday since Mindoir and everyone knows it, but she was so recently presumed dead for the second time in three years, and no one expected her to come back this time, not even after the last.

“Yeah,” he responds. “Yeah, it is.”

He doesn’t say how thankful he is for that, how unspeakably grateful he is that she’s alive another year, but he doesn’t need to.

She’s sure it doesn’t need saying.

He’s sure it does, but he worries he’s put enough pressure on her tonight. He doesn’t need to add to the weight of it by reminding her once again of how deeply her intended martyrdom had cut.

She waits another few moments of awkward silence before she speaks again. “What would I do without you, Kaidan?”

She knows what he’s going to say, what he always says, and that is the precise reason she asks. Because fuck, she needs to hear it.

“You’ll never find out,” he says softly, and it is every bit as satisfying as ever.

He’s so beautiful, so caring and kind, so…

So much. A good kind of so much, a rarity in her life, but so much, all the same.

“I love you so much,” she says.

So much, so much, so much.

“I love you, too,” he tells her. “So much.”

So much.

It’s all so much. And Kaidan’s right, too, that she’s been through so much.

It’s too much.

She’ll never understand why all of this was placed on her shoulders. She’ll never understand why the literal fate of the galaxy was given to her, especially after everything she’d already gone through and how very poorly she’d dealt with it. There had to have been someone better, someone who could have handled everything that was thrown at her, even considering how monumental some of that shit truly was.

Or maybe there’s another universe with another Shepard and something got crossed. Maybe all of this was meant for a better Shepard, a tougher Shepard, a Shepard who isn’t so afraid, a Shepard worthy of the position she’d been put in…

No, she can’t think like that. She can’t ruminate, can’t second guess, can’t let herself tumble any further down the rabbit hole than she already has.

Enough is enough.

She will get better, goddammit. She has to. If she’s going to live, it will not be like this.

She’s never been very good at accepting help, but if there has ever been a time for that to change…

She is here, and for the first time in a long time, she is determined to stay that way.

She is going to get better. She has no other choice.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is afraid.

It is not a first, not by a long shot, but it is certainly very new to be able to acknowledge it, to admit to it, to recognize it for what it is.

To deal with it.

“Where do I fucking start?” She asks Kelly when prompted. She doesn’t know on her own, though, she truly doesn’t. Half of her life has been consumed by everything she is now looking to process, and the half that came before is not something she knows well at all.

She doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t drowning somewhere in her mind, but it’s time to come up for air.

She’s just not sure she still knows how to breathe.

“I don’t even know where to start,” she quietly stresses, placing her head in her hands.

“I know,” Kelly says softly. “I know, but…what’s the first thing that comes to mind?”

This is slightly awkward, trying to feign some form of a professional air while sitting across from each other at the dining room table, two old friends who’d gone so far as to have had a brief fling once upon a time.

Shepard wants a drink, but she is trying to refrain. Her tolerance is far lower than it used to be, yes—far, far lower—but she can so easily see herself heading back towards that direction, back into the blatant alcohol abuse only she’d believed she had under control.

She won’t let this happen, she won’t do anything to jeopardize the progress she is determined to make. She wants to get better. She needs to get better.

“Fuck,” she hisses. She’s already so frustrated by this—so frustrated by herself. She doesn’t know how to proceed but she needs to do something.

“It’s alright, Shepard,” Kelly says calmly. “I know there must be a lot to process. You’ve been through hell and back, that’s no secret.”

“Everyone keeps saying that,” Shepard laughs softly. “Making comments about all I’ve ‘been through,’ that is. I guess I can’t exactly disagree, but it’s always strange to hear it.”

“Why?” Kelly asks in earnest.

“I…I think…shit,” Shepard pauses, trying to collect her words. “I think maybe it’s that I already get too damn much credit, so even hearing the simple facts—especially when I know they’re only coming up for the purpose of being complimentary—can get to be too much.”

“You do get a lot of credit,” Kelly acknowledges. “But all of it is due, and I don’t see anyone disagreeing with that.”

“How come no one ever mentions all the times it went wrong?” Shepard asks tersely. “Because it went wrong a lot, Kelly. People died. Too many people have died under my watch. Some of them I can’t remember, some I can still picture vividly. All of them haunt me. All of them have their place. ‘Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.’”

“What’s that, Shepard?” Kelly asks.

Shepard sighs. She knows it’s okay here, that Kelly won’t judge her, but she still feels strange when she catches herself thinking out loud like that. Of course she also realizes she’s pretty sure that everyone by now knows why these moments happen, and no one has shown her any form of judgment (only understandable concern), but she somehow isn’t sure if this makes her feel better or worse.

“I’m sure you’ve been briefed on my recent bonding experiences with the late Ashley Williams,” she vaguely explains.

Her wording feels so callous, but neither of them address it.

“Yes, you’ve told me,” Kelly notes. Shepard looks surprised, as though she’d expected Kelly to have learned of it through a third party. It had come up once very briefly in passing on a particularly bad day, though, so Kelly is not surprised, and she decides to simply brush right past that detail. “Why don’t we bring that into this? It’s grounding for you, right, being able to find yourself in these poems?”

“Yes,” Shepard nods. “It, umm…yes.”

“Then I see no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of it,” Kelly says, much to Shepard’s surprise.

Kelly, of course, would love to see Shepard get to a point where she is no longer plagued by such visits, but she has clearly taken to using this aspect of these conversations in her head as a coping mechanism, and likely by far the healthiest coping mechanism she has ever engaged in, so Kelly is by absolutely no means going to discourage her from it.

“‘The night is only a sort of carbon paper,’” Shepard starts from the beginning, reciting from memory as she can do more and more by the day. “‘Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars letting in the light, peephole after peephole… A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things. Under the eyes of stars and the moon’s rictus he suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.’”

Kelly looks to her with rapt attention, waiting several seconds for Shepard to add anything further before she speaks again.

“Any reason this piece in particular comes to mind?” Kelly asks, and Shepard shrugs.

“A lot of reasons, I guess,” Shepard says.

“Not sleeping?” Kelly asks, although they both know she doesn’t need to.

“No,” Shepard admits without hesitation.

That’s good. That’s a start.

“I imagine the imagery’s a lot more poignant when you’ve actually spent time in space, though,” Shepard adds with a laugh. “I don’t envy 20th century Earth, that’s for damn sure.”

She thinks in this moment of how she’s part of the first generation of humans with the potential to have been born off-world, and how her parents would obviously have been from Earth, themselves. She wonders where.

“Yes, I’d bet you’re right,” Kelly smiles. She sees something flash in Shepard’s eyes but she can’t place it, and she doesn’t mention it.

She isn’t here to push. She wants Shepard to accept what she can at her own pace and her own comfort level.

She wants to help, and she needs that help to be effective, for her dear friend to genuinely benefit from it. So nothing will be forced. Shepard will open up as she sees fit. Shepard will move only as fast as she can, no matter how slow that might come to feel to anyone else.

“‘A bonewhite light, like death,’” Shepard repeats. She sighs heavily, and Kelly can tell that she is deliberately brushing past whatever thought had just crossed her mind, but again she elects to allow for this. “‘Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars letting in the light,’ but…I, umm, maybe I don’t know why I thought of it, actually.”

“Why the change of heart?” Kelly asks.

“Dying didn’t come with any ‘bonewhite light,’ Kelly,” Shepard quietly replies. “It didn’t feel like anything.”

“But?” Kelly nudges, sensing that Shepard needs it.

“‘Under the eyes of stars and the moon’s rictus,’ and sleeplessness and…and even death behind everything, I…” Shepard looks down. She isn’t sure she’s ever admitted what she’s about to say out loud, at least not in so many words. “How do I know I’m not dead? How do I know that Cerberus and the Catalyst aren’t just some strange version of hell and I’m only here because I’m damned? How do I know that this isn’t hell or that I didn’t make it back? How the fuck do I know I’m alive, Kelly?”

“Shepard,” Kelly says softly, reaching across the table for her hand. Shepard takes it. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through and I won’t insult you by trying. I know you’re suffering, but I also find it hard to believe that you’d have so many people around you who love you as much as we all do if that’s where you were.”

“I don’t even believe in it,” Shepard reminds herself. “But I fucking died, Kelly, and before I came back there had been nothing. I don’t understand what that means or if it actually means anything, but sometimes I have to wonder if now I’ve stumbled into the something. I mean, fuck, it shouldn’t be possible for me to be here. So how the fuck do I know that I really am?”

“Have you expressed this to anyone else?” Kelly asks the obvious question, and what’s even more obvious is that she’s specifically wondering about Kaidan.

“Not exactly,” Shepard tells her. “‘Over and over the old, granular movie exposes embarrassments,’ umm…sorry.”

It seems she’s taking to Ashley’s tendency to revert to quotes when she doesn’t know how to express her feelings in her own words more and more often, too.

Ashley typically went Tennyson, but she and Ashley always were very different people.

“You’re fine, Shepard,” Kelly reassures.

“We were infiltrating Cerberus headquarters,” Shepard explains. “We saw surveillance logs while we were there, enough to make me wonder…I said something about how I couldn’t be sure if I was really me, or just a VI convinced it’s the real Carrie Shepard. Kaidan and Edi were the only ones there with me.”

“And how did Kaidan respond?” Kelly asks, keeping to the obvious.

“‘You’re real enough for me,’” Shepard recalls, and for one little second she can’t help but smile with it.

“And how does that make you feel?” Kelly presses on.

“I don’t know,” Shepard admits. “I love him so much and I want to believe him, but…I’m sure that if I am just a VI imitation, or if I am dead, or…I really don’t know. If I’m not real, though, I could’ve made that up, too. It sounds like Kaidan, that’s for damn sure, but maybe my memories of him from life, or my programming, or…whatever gave me the idea for him to respond that way.”

“I’m real, Shepard,” Kelly affirms. “I know that I am sitting at a table, here in this house. I know that it rained yesterday, and that I could feel every drop that hit me from the market back to the house as I walked through it. I know that I took a walk around English Bay Beach earlier this afternoon, and that the breeze was cool and the air smelled strongly of saltwater. I know that I had these experiences, and that now I am talking to you, and that I can see you and hear you and feel you. I know that my experiences were real, and that now I am sharing them with you, because you are also here and you are also real.”

Shepard nods along to every word while Kelly speaks and tries to drink them in. She keeps her hand over Kelly’s, and there is a physical sensation, one that a VI should not be able to experience, not even now (she isn’t actually entirely sure about that, but it is best not to dwell on such finer details). But she was able to experience touch and tactile feeling on Cerberus’s Normandy, as well, and while incarcerated before being reinstated, and more yet on the SSV Normandy SR-2. A VI definitely could not have done so back then, she tells herself.

A dead woman, however, is harder to be certain of.

Kelly, though, seems certain enough for the both of them, and Shepard tries to hold onto that. Kelly is firm in what she has described, and Shepard does not wish to invalidate even such mundane experiences by suggesting that she does not believe they happened.

“Thank you,” Shepard whispers, the best she can muster. She decides she will hold onto that, that she needs to hold onto that.

This is definitely a start.

“Cerberus really fucked me up,” Shepard adds with a mirthless laugh.

“Akuze,” Kelly nods in understanding. “Is this something you can talk about?”

“The memories get shakier as time passes,” Shepard says, looking down. “I met an admiral on the Citadel, too, back in the days of Saren, Admiral Kahoku. He was murdered by Cerberus because he knew they were into some shady shit and he was looking into it. That wasn’t too long after we’d gone to Ontarom to investigate a cell of Cerberus scientists who were involved in what happened on Akuze. That's how I’d found out about their involvement to begin with. There was a corporal from my unit there, who I thought I’d watched die. Like I said, the memories…but he told me what they’d done, and I knew then that Cerberus was evil, and that they needed to be stopped. But then I joined them. I didn’t want to, but…”

“The Illusive Man was an incredible manipulator,” Kelly says soothingly. “And I don’t know what he would have done to you if you’d tried to get out, but…I’m sure it wouldn’t have been good, and I know you know that, too.”

“He wouldn’t have killed me,” Shepard shrugs. “I know I was very expensive.”

“He could have hurt you in other ways,” Kelly says. “Or maybe he would have decided you were better off with a control chip, after all. Hell, he might even have gone so far as to go after those you love. He’d have found a way, though, I have no doubt about that. I still can’t believe I couldn’t recognize it at the time, but—”

“The Illusive Man was an incredible manipulator,” Shepard interrupts. “You’re right about that.”

“Thank you,” Kelly nods. “Sometimes I still don’t know how I could have been so fooled—I have impeccable observational skills, if I do say so, myself, but…well, yeah.”

Kelly smiles uncomfortably, but quickly moves on. “So you don’t remember Akuze?”

“Not much, anyway,” Shepard shakes her head. “I have flashes of images, and sometimes I can feel it like I’m there all over again, but that’s mostly the extent of it. Just like Mindoir.”

“I was under the impression that you’ve kept ties with Mindoir,” Kelly notes, and this is out of genuine curiosity as opposed to guiding Shepard through things that have happened in hopes of helping her heal.

“I have,” Shepard confirms. “I’m on their fucking colonial seal and everything, the homeland hero or whatever. I also did some hands-on charity work during the later stages of the initial rebuilds, in my very early days as a marine, before I was on active duty. I’ve contributed financially and through various donations here and there over the years, as well. It’s still home, I guess.”

“But you don’t remember it?” Kelly looks so sad, that empathy of hers that is only rivaled by Kaidan’s as far as Shepard can tell.

“Not really,” Shepard replies. “Only bits and pieces. I know I always had, umm…emotional problems, but that I wouldn’t do anything about it, even back then. Maybe I know that because it’s familiar, because it…because it didn’t really change, even when everything else did. I remember that my family were farmers, but I know that’s vague and I can’t elaborate. Sometimes I think I can picture my parents’ faces, but I’m never sure. ‘Over and over the old, granular movie exposes embarrassments—the mizzling days of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams, parental faces on tall stalks, alternatively stern and tearful, a garden of buggy rose that made him cry. His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks. Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.’”

Okay, so maybe Shepard does know better than she’d thought why this piece came to mind.

“I remember a little about holidays, but only in tiny flashes I can’t really place,” she continues. “My mother was an amazing cook, and just as good a baker. The very little things, but I suppose at least it’s mostly nice things.”

“Have you ever looked into it?” Kelly asks, catching Shepard off guard. “Are there no records of those who’d lived on Mindoir before…”

Kelly trails off, and Shepard is very uncomfortable. It’s so obvious it seems impossible that Shepard had never thought of this on her own.

The logical conclusion, then, is that she did not want to think of it.

“I never have, no,” she replies, sparing further detail.

Kelly sees what’s left unsaid, though, and once more she lets it rest.

“‘His head is a little interior of grey mirrors,’” Shepard recites numbly. She knows she’s skipped over a verse. She isn’t sure if there’s a reason why, neither is she sure it matters. “‘Each gesture flees immediately down an alley of diminishing perspectives, and its significance drains like water out of the hole at the far end. He lives without privacy in a lidless room, the bald slots of eyes stiffened wide-open on the incessant heat-lighting flicker of situations.’”

She is simply speaking as she feels she needs, even when the words are not her own.

It’s a start.

Briefly, however, her mind flashes to her favorite work, to cries of “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead (I think I made you up inside my head)” and “God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade: exit Seraphim and Satan’s men,” as yet drowning in her fears of unreality and such vicious self-doubt, but this she does not mention, deciding instead to at least attempt to keep herself to one such thought at a time.

She pushes it aside. Not today, no more of that today.

“I dream about it a lot, though,” Shepard continues. She feels like she has to say something, and she finds herself genuinely wanting to stay on-topic. She does need this to work, after all. She needs to finally do something about all this, and she knows that honesty and openness is the only way. “Mindoir and Akuze. It’s a lot of the same images, though, obnoxiously repetitive: batarians or thresher maws, waves of biotic blue, death, screaming victims whose faces I can’t see.”

“What do you think would happen if you could see them?” Kelly asks.

“Honestly? I’m afraid it might open up a whole new world of traumatic memories I’m not sure I can handle,” Shepard admits. “Akuze was a fucking mess, and sometimes I can’t help but regret being an N7. It’s an incredible accomplishment and I am extremely proud of it, but I know I was selected for ICT as a direct result of what happened there…as a direct result of making it out alive when no one else did. I went to Rio as soon as I fucking could after that, though. I figured going through that kind of training would keep me from thinking about it, and I was right. I buried it as deep as it would go during my time in the program. I didn’t have much choice while I was in it, and I know I did that intentionally. That one, though…I still remember how it felt. I don’t remember my unit, but I didn’t know any of them very well, either. I did know Corporal Toombs the moment I saw him on Ontarom, though. Shit, I don’t actually have any fucking clue what to make of that. But when it comes to Mindoir, I…I can’t, Kelly. I can’t fucking stand the thought of what remembering them might do to me. I remember that my parents were good people, or at least I think I do. I loved them, or it feels like I did. I don’t want to push that. I don’t want to know what made them good, if they really were, or what specifically I may have loved about them. It’s damn cold of me to see it this way, I know, but memories won’t bring them back and it scares the hell out of me to truly know what I’m missing by having lost them.”

“You feel what you feel about it,” Kelly responds. “You don’t need to judge it.”

“You do know who you’re talking to, right?” Shepard chuckles. A part of her wants to keep going, but she suddenly finds herself exhausted by moving even this far with it, and she feels she has nothing else to give at this time. She pauses and takes a deep breath, and she decides it’s for the best to quit while she’s ahead, to not risk forcing herself and having it backfire. “Is it okay if we stop here for now?”

“Of course,” Kelly nods. “This will only ever be what you’re comfortable with, Shepard. I know there’s a lot, and this probably is a good place to end it today.”

“Thanks,” Shepard says sincerely. “Can you get Kaidan for me?”

She still feels a hot shame in asking for assistance like this, but she is learning to let herself do it.

It’s a start.

“I’m on it,” Kelly smiles. She gently retracts the hand they’d both forgotten was still resting under Shepard’s, and she gets up to head out to the backyard.

“Hey,” Kaidan greets her when the back door opens. He’s been on the deck with Joker, Edi, James, and Karin while she and Shepard talked, all of them wanting to give Shepard and Kelly their privacy, to let things feel as professional as possible given the extremely unprofessional circumstance. “How’d it go?”

“It went well,” Kelly tells him. “It went really well. You know I can’t tell you anything, but we’ve made a great start.”

“Glad to hear it,” Kaidan says, relieved. A good start is all they can really ask for.

They’ve just needed a place to start.

“She asked for you,” Kelly notes to no one’s surprise.

“Thank you, Kelly,” Kaidan says, and he quickly turns towards everyone else present with a wave. “See you.”

Shepard is still sitting at the table, staring into it.

Kaidan pulls up the chair Kelly had just vacated, and looks to Shepard with a small smile. “Hey, Carrie.”

“Hey,” she says and looks up at him.

“How are you feeling?” He asks, and she immediately shakes her head.

“Fucking weird,” she answers. “Talking about shit, actually trying to fix it or, fuck, even acknowledge it…this is going to be a fucking trip, Kaidan.”

“I know it is,” he says. He meets her eyes, so full of love. “But I’m glad this is happening. And you know I’m here, no matter what.”

She believes him. She absolutely, unequivocally believes him.

This is an extraordinary start.

“So who’s all here?” She asks, genuinely curious.

“Just the regulars right now,” Kaidan grins.

She doesn’t know why, but she thinks on something Karin once said, discussing stability in their lives the first time they’d shared a bottle of ice brandy: “Shepard, our immovable center. A place to stop and catch one’s breath.”

Strange how some things really don’t change, it seems.

“I love you, Kaidan,” she says unprompted, the perfect way to break the short silence it followed.

“I love you, too, Carrie,” he says without missing a beat, gazing at her longingly. He has something on his mind, she can clearly see, but she doesn’t know what.

“‘Til the end of time?” She smiles.

“‘Til the end of time,” he says easily.

She realizes she hasn’t seen anyone who isn’t there since she and Kelly had begun talking. She doesn’t mention it, but…

Fuck, what an incredible start.

Kaidan, however, retains a serious look in his eyes, and she isn’t sure whether or not this should merit concern.

“What are you thinking about, Kaidan?” She decides to ask.

“I, umm,” he stumbles. He isn’t sure if this is that moment he’s been waiting for, but neither is he sure that moment will ever come, not if he keeps overthinking it.

What he does know is that he loves her so much, and that he is yet in absolute wonder of having her back, of having her with him, and that he will continue to do everything in his power to show her how important that is, how much this all means.

“Kaidan…”

“Give me a second, alright?” He says as he abruptly stands back up. He walks over to her side of the table and leans over to kiss her, holding her head in his hands and taking her all in. “Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” she replies.

“Okay,” he says nervously. “Okay. I’ll be right back.”

He makes his way to the backyard once again, and everyone turns to him inquisitively.

“Everything alright?” Joker wastes no time.

“Can one of you call Jack?” Kaidan asks. “I think she should know…that she should know I’m doing it.”

“Now?” James asks.

“Now,” Kaidan nods. “I don’t really know why, but…I guess I don’t feel like it can wait any longer, you know.”

He looks directly to Kelly, curious if she has any objection from a psychological standpoint, but she only smiles in silent approval.

“We will be here,” Edi grins.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Karin asks when Kaidan hesitates. “You know damn well you have nothing to worry about, go.”

“Have fun in there,” James smirks.

“But not too much fun,” Joker teases. “Ah hell, you’ve earned it. Go wild, kids, we won’t wait up.”

“Yeah, okay,” Kaidan shakes his head laughing, and he heads back inside and goes straight for the bedroom.

Shepard sees him fly by, in an obvious hurry, which only piques her curiosity all that much more.

He smiles as he walks back towards her, but instead of sitting down he extends his hand to help her up.

She takes it, and she can’t help but ask when he wraps his arm around her for support, “Where are you taking me, Kaidan?”

“We’re only going to the sofa,” he tells her. “I want to be closer to you, that’s all.”

He considers if they should actually go to their bedroom to keep this conversation entirely private, but he doesn’t want to risk putting too much physical strain on her right now and potentially souring this moment for her before it can even happen.

They sit down and she eagerly leans against him, her head on his shoulder, his hand in hers.

“I, umm…I know you’ve been curious about everything with Jack,” he starts, and she pulls away just enough to be able to look at him in nervous anticipation.

She has been very curious, of course, and the fact that he appears mildly anxious to continue would indicate that this is far more important than she’d guessed.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the right time to…to get into it,” he continues. “But I can’t take it anymore, so I guess this is as good a time as ever.”

He lets go of her hand and turns to the side, looking her right in the eyes while he reaches into a pocket.

“Kaidan,” she whispers heavily when he presents what was in it: a ring box.

He opens it and her eyes instantly begin to water.

The large round stone is a bright blue, reminiscent of biotic energy, but even more than that—it makes her think of Earth.

“Carrie,” he says tenderly, and she nods before he can say anything else, hastily and vigorously.

He kisses her again at that, deeply and longingly, both of them letting themselves get lost in each other before he breaks away so she can put it on.

“I, uh, imagine you’d have to come back from the dead if we ever wanted to make it legal,” Kaidan laughs a little. “But that’s up to you. I don’t care about that. What I care about is you—is us—and that I’ve never been so sure of anything as I am about this. After everything we’ve been through together, I know we can make it through anything. I love you, Carrie, and I need you to know how much I mean that.”

“God, Kaidan, what the fuck did I do to deserve you?” She smiles. “I love you so—”

She stops when the obvious question hits her, having been almost utterly forgotten, understandably so considering what has just occurred.

“Wait. What does…what does Jack have to do with this?”

“Carrie,” he takes a deep breath and takes both of her hands in his. Once more, he meets her eyes. “Jack’s the one who gave me the ring. It was found among Anderson’s belongings. He, umm…he was going to give it to Kahlee, and she passed it along to Jack because she, well…Kahlee wanted it to go to you, said that it’s what he would have wanted.”

Shepard feels her mouth fall open in awe as her eyes close. She actually was previously aware of Anderson’s intentions for if both he and Kahlee were to survive the war, but she certainly did not expect to be reminded of that fact by something like this. She moves forward and buries her head into the crook of Kaidan’s neck to let the tears fall in full force, and he takes back his hands so that he can wrap his arms tightly around her.

“How long have you known you were going to do this?” Shepard manages after an indeterminable period of time.

“Honestly, only really since talking to Jack,” Kaidan admits. “It’s not like I hadn’t ever given it any thought before, of course, but I knew this would mean that much more to you, so…”

“Yeah,” Shepard nods into his shoulder. “Yeah, if there’s anything that could…”

“Jack said that when Kahlee approached her about it, she was worried she was crossing a boundary or that she’d be putting undue pressure on me or something,” Kaidan laughs. “Oh, how did Jack word her response? She said she told Kahlee…I think it was something along the lines of, ‘Don’t worry, you’re good, if you’d ever seen these assholes together, you’d know.’”

“Glad we make such an impression,” Shepard laughs.

“Me, too,” Kaidan whispers sincerely.

His arms tense around her and he pulls her in closer. She hasn’t quite stopped crying and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t a little grateful she probably hasn’t noticed the welling in his own eyes.

“All of our current housemates know what you’re up to, I presume,” Shepard muses, and she feels Kaidan nod.

“Yeah, this was pretty damn spur of the moment, but I made sure to fill them in,” he replies. “Do you want to see anyone, or do you want it to be just us right now?”

He asks so gently, so attentively…so very Kaidan.

“Just us, I think,” she says and finally pulls her head up, and he loosens his grip a little so that she can move a bit more freely. She touches her forehead to his, closing her eyes and breathing him in, letting herself feel every single detail of this moment.

She thinks that if she can firmly commit this to memory, if she can set this in solid stone somewhere in her mind where she will always be able to find it, then perhaps it might serve as a barrier between the demons and her, perhaps it could muffle some of the screaming.

He runs his hand along her cheek, brushes back a bit of hair. The way he looks at her, eyes slightly glazed and pupils wide, the tiny curl of his lips as he seems almost as though he is carefully memorizing every detail of her face, and in the context of everything this moment means…

She leans in and kisses him softly, and he keeps his hand where it is, touching her face so tenderly, keeping her so close. She deepens the kiss and trails her hands over his cheeks and into his hair, and his fingers instinctively burrow into her hair in turn. She doesn’t stop, doesn’t stop escalating the intensity, the passion, the raw emotion behind it.

They haven’t been together since their strange little “sanity check” during that party, and for as good as that had felt, it was far from ideal and it’s left them both wanting so much more. Between Shepard’s struggles per her acquiescence to learning how to walk with assistance and her ongoing general physical state, paired with her mental state having grown so exigent (even in comparison to the break she had that led them to need that level of closeness before), it has not yet felt like a true option to pursue that more.

If there ever was a better moment than this, however, neither of them could name it.

“Carrie,” he sighs against her lips. “Do you—”

“Please.”

He fluidly slips off of the couch to stand, and in that same moment he scoops her up with him, letting his hands slide down to her ass and holding on tight as she wraps her legs around his waist.

That move will never get old.

Her arms swiftly wrap loosely around his neck over his shoulders, and her mouth claims his every bit as hungrily as before as he starts moving, eagerly making their way to their room and gently setting her down on her back once they reach the bed.

They need this, need each other, both already so profoundly teeming with pure want that Kaidan nearly neglects to turn on a light.

She can’t help pulling on his collar to bring him back in when he begins to pull away, and he smiles widely against her lips when she does.

He knows she won’t want him to be careful in this situation, that she won’t want him to be so gentle, but that is what he intends to give her, regardless. This is all too perfect, too beautiful, and he won’t do anything to waste it.

He intends to take his time.

Clothing, meanwhile, cannot come off quickly enough, but even in this they both move cautiously, both mindful of her limitations (no matter how sure she is that she will always absolutely fucking hate that this is her life now).

She again rests on her back and he stands over her, allowing himself a few seconds to stare in what seems like downright reverence at her bare body lying before him. He’s missed this every bit as much as she, although he has not once voiced it out of fear of sparking any sort of guilt on her end, out of not wanting to apply even the smallest amount of pressure.

But god, to look at her like this again…

Her eyes are desperate, looking up at him, utterly enraptured. It has been too damn long since they’ve done this, since they’ve done it right.

He moves on top of her, her legs instinctively parting for him as he surges forward, and he presses his lips to hers.

Her fingers brush through his hair and she holds on, and that little bit of static she feels is as comforting as ever.

“You okay?” He stops to ask, and her grip tightens in encouragement.

“I’m good, yeah,” she says after a beat, when it becomes clear he’s awaiting verbal confirmation.

“You’ll let me know if you’re not, though, right?” His question frustrates her to no end, this is obvious.

Of course she understands, and of course she appreciates him checking in like this, but…

“Fuck, Kaidan,” she sighs, and again he waits for a solid answer. “I will, I promise.”

He touches his forehead to hers and smiles, closing his eyes and running his hands along her body.

He has no idea how incredible he is, or how absolutely fucking gorgeous, and she longs to give him everything he deserves.

“Let me start with you,” she whispers, and he doesn’t fight her.

She nudges him to move over and onto his back, and she stations herself between his legs, doing her best to find a comfortable position to take him into her mouth.

She immediately realizes that this is not as easy as it used to be. Aside from the awkward contour of her body stretched along the bed and resting on her knees while he lies down beneath her (as well as her strong physical instinct that they are in the most comfortable position for this now), she also notes that her jaw won’t cooperate to allow her to take him as deep as she once could. She tries to push him towards her throat but her mouth won’t open wide enough for her to do so confidently, the very attempt leaving a strained ache in her neck somehow, and she decides to back down once she hears an ungodly crack resonating directly in her ear and accompanied by a searing pain that ripples towards the back of her head. Fortunately it does not linger for long, but it’s enough to persuade her to adjust her approach.

He can sense that she is having trouble and he thinks to say something, but he decides to give her a chance, decides not to immediately jump on her over it when she is already in the active process of trying, when she is already feeling like she has had so much of her own ability and general independence taken away.

She does her best to compensate by doing more with her tongue, and she works the base of his cock with her hand upon opting not to risk hurting herself by forcing her initial intentions.

It’s working, though, that’s for damn sure. He grips her hair and his hands quickly turn to fists, inadvertently pulling harder and harder as his breathing grows heavier.

“Oh god, Carrie,” he exhales, losing himself to how good this feels while also making a conscious point to vocalize how much he is enjoying this, having noticed that she has limits that weren’t present before, and needing her to know that these limits do not diminish how good she is at what she can do.

She concentrates on keeping her mouth and hand in time, on coordinating the rhythm at which she sets this dual effort.

She shifts so that her other hand can occupy his balls, holding onto them and gently massaging.

This causes him to moan and pull her hair sharply, so she keeps going, working to pick up her pace while maintaining synchronization and remembering to go easy on herself.

But she keeps her eyes on his no matter what she does, barely visible to each other in their current positions, but thanks to his head being propped up just far enough by his pillows, they can see as much as they need to.

He sees her dedication, her fervor, staring him down hard through oversized pupils and whites still bloodshot from moments before—so much feeling present at one time, so many stories to be told in this one glimpse.

She sees love and admiration, eyes opened so wide and pupils so large, so warm and alight despite the smallest flecks of red she did not notice earlier, and set intently on her, watching her carefully. She’s sure he noticed her minor struggle (and it is not lost on her that he trusted her enough not to stop her), and she knows him well enough to be fully aware of the fact that this is only urging him on further in its own right, that her showing him so clearly how much she wants to do this for him will only make it feel that much better for him.

Her breath catches at the sting of how much harder he pulls on her hair, and she hums softly and shakily over the head of his cock.

It has been so long, and they have both missed this so much.

“I’m—oh, oh, I…oh…” He tries to warn her, wrenching his fist in her hair.

She understands, of course, and it gives her hope that even now, even with everything and how much she has to physically hold herself back from her best possible performance, she is able to render him so blissfully unintelligible.

She swallows everything she can when he comes, and Kaidan shudders slightly at the sight of her eagerly licking up the little bit that she couldn’t catch at first.

She stretches upwards once she’s done, extending her hands towards the ceiling and inviting all of the rapid popping sounds and small twitches rolling all over that this brings.

He sits up and meets her when she lets her arms fall, holding her waist as they bring their lips together once again.

“Your turn,” he tells her in a husky voice once he pulls away, and he prompts her to follow him down to the edge of the bed while he sinks to his knees on the floor right in front of it.

He brings both of her legs up to rest over his shoulders and before anything else, he asks, “Is this okay?”

Once more she is fairly certain that this is the easiest possible position for her, the least likely to cause her any physical discomfort, and she swallows her pride to allow herself to be appreciative of the effort he’s putting into it.

“Yes,” she answers with a heavy tinge of desperation. “Kaidan…”

She doesn’t need to say anything more, and he swiftly opens her up with his thumbs and then lets his hands slide to her hips once his tongue grazes her clit, instantly sparking a deep and breathy, “Oh…”

Now she is the one clenching her fists in his hair, barely even noticing how that static shocks her when she pulls too hard.

It’s been too fucking long.

She is so wet and the heat practically radiates off of her, exacerbated by the way she presses into him with avid little shakes which increase at the same rate of the flicks of his tongue against her.

He feels her emit a telltale twitch and responds by ardently sucking on her clit and moving one of his hands to slip two fingers inside her, and she shivers almost violently with a harsh shout of his name.

Everyone outside had to have heard that.

Neither Shepard nor Kaidan could possibly bring themselves to care.

He teases a little further with his fingers and then pulls them back, voraciously burying his face into her with a heightened fervor instead, and he already does not need much additional assistance but he urges himself on by briefly running those wet fingers along his cock.

“Oh fuck,” she whimpers and her hips buck against her will.

She stretches her neck forward just slightly, wanting to look at him but not wishing to strain herself unnecessarily. It looks like his eyes are closed, that he is putting that much focus into what he’s doing (but god, how well that’s paying off), and the hand that had disappeared from her line of sight swiftly reemerges to help pin her in place when she aggressively thrusts up from the bed and she, too, has to close her eyes for a flash when she comes with a wordless moan.

“Kaidan,” she whispers between ragged breaths, and she opens her eyes again to see his look up towards her, and she nods to try to help convey her meaning as opposed to searching for coherent words.

He runs his tongue vertically once more for good measure, smiling at the way she jerks when he does, and she eases her hands off of him so that he can join her, and they can both move themselves to where they want to be.

They gravitate back towards the head of the bed, centering themselves and keeping each other close, surrounded by wide empty space of only rustled sheets and blankets.

She eagerly reaches for him and silently urges him to move overtop her, longing to feel his lips on hers again.

She reaches loosely around his waist with her right leg while allowing the other to rest splayed out on the bed, trying to keep as much of her body relaxed as possible, not wanting anything to get in the way of just fucking letting herself enjoy this.

His hands vigorously explore her body, his fingers running all along from her hips and up over her sides to her chest, and then to her cheeks as he leans in to kiss her. He lets go and takes one hand to help support the leg she has draped around him, and he puts all of his weight onto his knees to hold his position when he takes his cock into his other hand to guide himself in.

They both let out the softest but most sincere little moans at the contact, and Kaidan readjusts to lean over her, getting as close to her as he possibly can. The hand on her leg drifts towards her ass, keeping his forearm tucked under her thigh. He rocks slowly, carefully, so affectionately. This is partially about caution over hurting her, yes, but it is also so firmly about wanting to breathe her in, about wanting to stay like this with her for as long as they physically can, about attachment and sheer devotion.

She knows he is yet proceeding precariously, but the way he moves tells her it’s so much more than that: she feels his intensity, his longing, his adoration. They need this.

She feels so full, and so safe with his body overwhelming hers, so content to be taking him in and feeling him so profoundly.

She rests her hands on his shoulders for just a moment, but she has to pull them back when she quickly realizes she’s not going to be able to hold them in place right now. She doesn’t want to ruin this and that means she doesn’t want to think about anything except for Kaidan and how good he feels, but she has to take a second to let herself focus on what to do with her limbs. Kaidan’s support on her one leg is enough for it to be relatively comfortable, but the other feels as awkward as her displaced arms.

She is so afraid she’s going to ruin this.

This is not helped when she feels a strained stabbing pain pinging through her hip on the left side, and Kaidan stops without hesitation when she lets out a sound that clearly implies pain.

“Fuck,” she sighs and closes her eyes in frustration.

“What is it?” He asks her softly, and she shakes her head, both of them remaining otherwise motionless.

“I need to do something with…this,” she hisses and forces herself to move her left leg just enough that he’ll feel it and understand what she means.

“Okay,” he says without missing a beat, more than willing to accommodate her however she needs.

She looks defeated and he waits a moment for her to tell him what she needs, and he pulls back when she doesn’t.

“Kaidan,” she whispers, feeling the loss of him every bit as much as she feels annoyed with herself.

“Hey, here’s an idea,” he starts and reaches for a pillow. He prompts her to lift her hips and rests it underneath her, propping her up with it. “Alright?”

She nods, not finding it in her to vocalize a proper response, and she breathes a sigh of relief when he comes back to her, lifting both of her legs and supporting them both as he was before when he leans in to kiss her, only letting go of one just for the time to takes to guide himself back in.

This does help, and it provides an advantageous angle, as well.

“Oh fuck,” she finds her voice when he thrusts in deeper, and he picks up his pace the smallest bit.

She hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her arms yet, but this is making it easier not to focus on such matters.

It takes only a few moments before she comes with a shout and her whole body tenses, and she involuntarily kicks her legs out of place.

“Dammit,” she quietly seethes, and she knows Kaidan hears it, but he says nothing. She takes a deep breath and tries not to let this throw them off too much. She’s already tired of doing all of this starting and stopping, and she tries her best to consider the best course of action.

She feels her back want to stretch and decides she is in need of further support, explaining what she wants by saying only, “Shoulders.”

She hopes it doesn’t come out at terse as it sounded in her head, as that is absolutely not how she meant it, but…

She will not fucking ruin this.

Kaidan complies, and her hips pop at the change in position, alleviating some of the tension they’d been holding and letting her better relax her upper body. His hands grip her calves and she is able to rest her hands over his wrists.

This is it now. They’ve got this.

It doesn’t take long for her to start yelling again, and she is able to start pushing back into him, matching his rhythm and urging him to move faster.

He is reluctant to do so, but he sees the pleading in her eyes which accompanies the way she moves—her gestures are delicate, as careful as they need to be for her own sake, but the way she angles herself to drive him deeper while she snaps her body into his faster and faster is certainly not subtle.

She has also shown him now that she won’t simply hide it if something does cause her pain. He was more than a little worried that he might accidentally hurt her and she simply wouldn’t say; an understandable concern given her history.

This is good, though. This is needed.

They’ve missed this so much.

He moves faster and slams into her harder, and the sounds and curses this causes are the kind he wants to hear.

“Fuck, Kaidan…”

Her eyes appear unfocused but they don’t leave his face, and she is breathing so heavily. She looks so beautiful.

She is having trouble keeping eye contact, but she can’t stand the thought of looking away or closing her eyes, of missing a single second of the concentrated affection and determination in his eyes, of the warmth that shines off of them, and this contented little smile she doubts he notices, that he virtually always wears during sex. He is so fucking beautiful.

It is, unfortunately, already becoming difficult for her to move with him, and she can’t bring herself to try to readjust again—not even out of her typical stubborn need to repress everything, but more out of the concern that this is the best it’s going to get, at least this time, and that she should therefore simply let herself enjoy it as much as she can.

“Kaidan…harder, please…”

Even that little bit of begging gets the better of him, complying before he can so much as think about it, moving faster and rougher and taking in the resulting change in the pitch of her shouts.

“Carrie,” he says heavily, as much love as there is pure lust pounding through even just those two syllables. “Oh, fuck…”

There isn’t much in this galaxy that Shepard appreciates more than hearing Kaidan talk like that in these moments.

She can’t keep her hands up anymore and so they fall to her sides, and she swiftly runs them over his thighs, not meaning to dig her nails into his skin when she makes contact.

That’s when they both notice the soft build of static surrounding them and small flickers of blue dancing around them. It’s nothing to worry about and far from the most notable biotic interference they’ve experienced, but their energies are certainly in tune with the sheer force of vibrance and will they are each expending.

“Oh…oh god, Carrie, I…I’m close,” he tells her between harsh breaths. “I want you to come with me.”

“Oh fuck, yes,” she replies, her voice husky and strained.

To be fair, she typically does, anyway, but there’s something about hearing him say it.

“I—fuck,” Kaidan exclaims, and Shepard does not need any further prompting, giving herself over to him completely with a cry of his name and a rough arch of her hips.

Once they’ve both finished, they stay in place for a solid few seconds, only staring into each other’s eyes, letting all of these rampant endorphins consume them.

Every hair on either of their bodies stands on end as their vigor dies down, and they ease into each other’s arms.

“How are you feeling?” He asks once she sinks into his arms, wrapping around her from behind.

Her body is mildly sore in the aftermath, although she is certainly no worse for the wear in the grand scheme of things. Everything causes additional pain now, after all, and she adamantly will not let that stop her from enjoying this. It’s not really too bad, and definitely not bad enough to warrant complaint in this context.

And no matter what, it was absolutely fucking worth it.

“I’m alright, Kaidan,” she replies. Her tone is laced with equal parts euphoria and exhaustion, and the latter is the most welcome it’s ever been. “I don’t know if this will ever be the same, but…”

She sighs dejectedly, and she isn’t sure that she meant to say it quite like that, but she did mean to say it. She's trying to let him in, to offer him honesty with no attempt to minimize or sugarcoat. It’s the least he deserves.

“But we’ll make it work,” she adds, trying for a little optimism, just as much for herself as for him.

“We will,” he says softly, the cadence of his voice almost perfectly mimicking hers.

It’s not as though this is entirely one-sided, and he’s sure she has to realize that. Migraines can last for days at a time, and while he’s read the studies that sex can actually help with them, he’s only ever found it to make them worse, and it can sometimes even take a full day or so of recovery before he can handle so much as the thought of it after one has passed. Which means, of course, that she has more than once gone without on account of his physical health, as well.

They’ve always been able to make it work. There are more variables now, and that will surely make it harder, but it is doable.

“Fuck, I hope they’re not all still standing around outside,” Shepard laughs, deliberately changing the subject. “We probably should have told them to come back in as long as they leave us alone.”

“Moment got the best of us,” Kaidan smiles. “I’m sure they’ll understand. Besides, they’ve probably figured it out by now. I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood could hear what was going on.”

“Yeah, well,” Shepard chuckles. “It’s your fault.”

“And I will proudly accept that blame,” he laughs softly and kisses her head.

“I love you so much, Kaidan,” she whispers, and he pulls her in closer.

“I love you, too, Carrie,” he says just as delicately. “I love you, too.”

Kaidan shifts to pull a blanket over them, and his eyes are suddenly hot with all of the emotions this evening has entailed. He covers them both and rolls back over, taking her in as close as she can get, not yet past his sheer awe over her being here, over this beautiful pipe dream he’d never have allowed himself to entertain had it not become real.

And for the first time in at least as long as she can remember, Shepard falls asleep easily and genuinely rests through the night.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard had no idea it was possible to be so happy about being so nervous.

She’s still fumbling when it comes to using her cane, which adds an unfriendly extra tint of frustration to the scenario, heightened further by the weather slowly but surely shifting towards consistently higher temperatures, revealing that heat is also apparently a large trigger for new waves of pain and difficulty moving.

However, she is also smiling all the while, despite her awkward posture and strained gait, despite how her whole body feels like it’s burning when it isn’t even that warm outside, despite the way it all makes her head spin slightly.

Yet the hand that is not busy attempting to wield a cane is held firmly by Kaidan, although it is also shaking somewhat as they ascend upon the walkway towards the door of his parents’ home.

“I do not expect a miracle or an accident to set the sight on fire in my eye, nor seek any more in the desultory weather some design, but let spotted leaves fall as they fall without ceremony, or portent.”

Ashley’s voice echoes faintly in her ears, but she and Kaidan are otherwise, thankfully, making this journey on their own.

Ashley would try to follow them in this, though, and Shepard almost smiles to herself at the thought. The real Ashley knew better than most about how Shepard and Kaidan felt about each other back on the SR-1 (better than they did half of the time, in honesty), and she’d always championed them all along the way. She would have absolutely loved to see how far they’ve come.

Shepard is most grateful that’s the worst of it, yet she cannot help in glancing around uncomfortably as they go. There is no one nearby, but she finds herself afraid of being seen, of being recognized and therefore forced into publicly acknowledging that she’s alive.

“Although, I admit, I desire, occasionally, some backtalk from the mute sky, I honestly can’t complain: a certain minor light may still lean incandescent out of kitchen table or chair as if a celestial burning took possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—”

She still doesn’t particularly want that day to ever come, but if it does it will be on her terms, and it will not begin with some stranger seeing her like this.

But she hasn’t stopped smiling. That’s something.

It’s a very good place to start.

“Thus hallowing an interval otherwise inconsequent by bestowing largesse, honor, one might say love. At any rate, I now walk wary (for it could happen even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical yet politic, ignorant of whatever angel may choose to flare suddenly at my elbow.”

She’s stalling, though, she realizes. She is moving more slowly than she actually needs to, and even stopping every few steps in her anxious need to assess her surroundings.

Kaidan notices, of course, and not only due to his adamance in not letting go of her hand, which forces him to keep stopping along with her.

He catches the way her eyes dart around, and the tiniest shake of her hand in his, which he squeezes in an attempt at quiet reassurance.

He is also taking in his surroundings in his own way, though. He hasn’t been to Maple Ridge since he was a very small child, from which he has several pleasant but understandably faded memories of visits to his paternal grandparents’ house, which he’s pretty sure was not too far from this one. They’re long gone, and years before their passing they’d moved further out to live full-time at their orchard in Peace River Block (what an ironic name for the place where his parents had initially fled during wartime), but he imagines that same kind of nostalgia is what led his parents to decide to settle here.

He smiles a little at the thought of it, at the distant smells of pyrohy and roast meat and fried fish and potato pancakes, as well as similarly strong recollections of honey and berry preserves and almond cakes, even though he knows it’s coming only from his own mind.

But it’s comforting to think on all the same, and he tries to focus on it (idly recalling Christmas mornings, all the way down to such details as his childhood wonder and downright fascination at hearing his grandparents slip into Ukrainian with each other—although he never did learn to speak it, himself, like he’d once upon a time planned to do when he grew up), as he is astutely aware of the fact that he is going to need to take on the full weight of both his anxiety and Shepard’s.

He knows, too, that there is nothing to be anxious about, and it isn’t actually too difficult to remind himself of this, but she has yet to stop overthinking and second guessing and generally panicking on some level or another (all of which are feelings he is personally all too well-versed in to start with), and he can’t help his tendency towards having these kinds of experiences rub off on him. Regardless, he is not really so much taking on her nerves, but is more…excited, in a way, for what’s about to come—leading to an interesting array of emotions which present similarly despite their inherently contradictory natures.

“You okay?” Kaidan asks once they reach the doorstep. He knows that the answer is simultaneously a yes and a no, and she looks to him with wide eyes that clearly confirm this thought.

“I think so,” Shepard answers after a beat.

“I only know that a rook ordering its black feathers can so shine as to seize my senses, haul my eyelids up and grant a brief respite from fear of total neutrality. With luck, trekking stubborn through this season of fatigue, I shall patch together a content of sorts. Miracles occur.”

“Hey,” he takes the smallest step back, not interfering with her stance at all but making a strong point to physically indicate that they are not entering this house until she is ready. “What’s on your mind?”

She finds herself hoping that they won’t be heard this close to the door, even though she isn’t sure how much it matters. She still has no idea what all Kaidan has actually told his parents about her, and she’s been too afraid to ask. She knows, of course, that whatever he has relayed has been all good things—perhaps that, in itself, is the greater problem: how very nervous she is going right alongside the fact that she cannot think of a single nice thing to say about herself.

“With luck, trekking stubborn through this season of fatigue, I shall patch together a content of sorts. Miracles occur. If you call those spasmodic tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again, the long wait for the angel, for that rare, random descent.”

She has no doubt they’ve heard her name and seen her face all over the vids. She knows she’s remained among the biggest news out there ever since the Battle for Earth, and that’s with the vast majority of the galaxy still believing she’s dead.

She can’t imagine, though, how Kaidan could possibly have added anything to that. She knows him, and so she knows he has been, but in her mind, there is no information that possibly can add to the infamy and stature of the great Commander Shepard. No, as far as she is concerned, the reality before her can only take away.

“I don’t know, Kaidan,” she shakes her head. “I never thought I…I don’t know, fuck, I guess I’ve never really been afraid to make an impression before. First time standing before the Council has nothing on this.”

She laughs a little at herself, and Kaidan lets go of her hand so that he can turn to face her.

“Carrie,” he says quietly and looks into her eyes. “You’re here to be you, okay? This isn’t a mission, and no one’s looking for a soldier here. This isn’t the Council or even the Alliance—just the Alenkos. Not nearly as exciting, I know, but…”

He smiles softly and kisses her forehead.

She tries to appreciate his intention, and not to focus on her fears that she will never truly learn how to not be a soldier, as that is irrelevant to this and she knows it.

Kaidan’s right, she isn’t a marine or a Spectre in this moment (regardless of whether or not she is any longer either one outside of it); she is there because of Kaidan, because of their relationship, and to be introduced into yet another new family.

“They’re going to love you, Carrie,” Kaidan tells her, and it’s so incredibly blatant on his face and in his tone that he sincerely believes it. “I promise.”

“Okay,” Shepard nods, still smiling anxiously. “Alright, let’s do this.”

She takes a deep breath as Kaidan knocks on the door (at which Shepard chuckles almost inaudibly, for she knows his parents are expecting them and that he absolutely could simply walk right in—especially noting the green sensor on the door clearly indicating that it has been left unlocked, presumably in anticipation of their arrival—and she assumes that his apparent refusal to do so must come from that old Canadian stereotype of exorbitant politeness).

And she reaches for his hand again without even thinking when that door opens, rapidly lacing her fingers into his. He offers her a firm and reassuring grip, and that brings her enough solace that she can bring herself to pull it away so that they may more easily move forward.

“Hello, come on in!” They are eagerly greeted by an older man with a full head of light grey hair and a wide smile, and a notable resemblance to Kaidan.

Kaidan’s father steps aside to usher them into the house, and Shepard can’t help but look down when her cane first makes contact with the floor of the foyer.

Kaidan greets his father with a long embrace once the door closes behind them. It hasn’t been that long since they last saw each other (Kaidan had gone home as soon as he possibly could, and he and his family were thankfully able to find each other quickly enough, due largely in part to Kaidan’s name becoming almost as big as Shepard’s), but it’s still so damn good to be able to meet like this on the other side of the war, for each to have the reminder that they know that the other has made it.

Shepard looks around, and she finds herself enthralled by what she sees. The first thing she notices is that there are images of Kaidan everywhere, with pictures scattered all across the walls. There is all of one photo among the whole lot that does not have Kaidan in it somewhere, a photo in the center of the first wall one can see upon entering the house, which depicts a young and very happy couple at what is clearly their wedding, ornately labelled on the bottom of the frame in large and flourished script with “14.02.2145.” Otherwise, Kaidan is featured in every last one of the plethora of others, and there is a wide array of time periods and ages represented in each picture all along the walls, as well as several which appear at a glance to be various news reports where he is featured. It is plain to see how much his parents love him, and that they are so incredibly proud of him.

She wonders if this is normal, if this what good parents are supposed to do. She wonders if her own parents had been the same way about her upbringing, or if they would have been the same about her career.

She thinks of Anderson and Karin, of how they have been the only parental figures she’s had around to be proud of her, as well as the only such figures in her life whose voices she’s sure she recalls, and therefore the only ones she knows for a fact have ever expressed it.

For the very first time, she does not know what hurts more more: missing Anderson and all that should have been, or her birth family and all she doesn’t know about what she’s lost.

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how grateful she is that the members of this family did not have to lose one another.

“Dad, this is Carrie,” Kaidan’s voice catches her attention, and she turns to take his father’s extended hand. She is relieved that he’s offered her his left hand, and she wonders if he deliberately accounted for the fact that her right hand is already preoccupied with her cane.

She imagines that he did, if for no other reason than that it seems exactly like what Kaidan would do.

“Sir,” Shepard says instantly, automatically assuming deference on the sole basis that Kaidan had occasionally mentioned his father’s service, even though she knows almost nothing about it.

“Please,” he laughs a little and releases her hand. “Yevheniy. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Carrie.”

She appreciates that he does not come even close to dancing around titles, going straight from casually insisting upon his first name to just as casually using hers. She hadn’t realized how nervous she’d been about greeting another soldier, and she was even more nervous than she’d thought about the added context of how far her name has spread into the galactic zeitgeist, absolutely always stressing her role as “Commander,” and almost as frequently seeming to forget that there was an actual person behind the position.

She has to remind herself in this moment to think in present tense. The press believes that “was” is proper for her, yes, but she knows that’s not actually why she’d just thought of it that way.

No, she is an actual person, although she has yet to stop doubting if she will ever not have to force herself to remember it, if it will ever feel natural.

This is nice, though. This could help.

This is a start.

And Kaidan’s father is the very first new person she has met since London, making this all that much more monumental, and all that much more striking of a new beginning.

He looks damn good for someone who’d been severely injured during the war, though.

Of course, she imagines that this new synthesized DNA all life now shares means this is probably true of everyone…or everyone who isn’t her, apparently.

She finds herself again looking anxiously down towards her right hand, and in an instant, Kaidan gently brushes one of his hands over it.

“Why don’t we move into the living room?” Kaidan’s father asks barely a second later. “Have a seat, get comfortable.”

“Sounds great, Dad,” Kaidan says, and Shepard looks back up to see him smiling at her, and they exchange quick nods before following his father’s lead.

“Oh, Kaidan,” his mother exclaims when they enter the room, hastily rising from her chair to greet him with a long hug. “It’s so good to see you.”

When she and Kaidan break away, Shepard immediately notices how much Kaidan looks like her, as well. He appears to bear the most perfect possible amalgamation of his parents’ features, taking the slightest bit more in facial structure as well as far more in overall build from his father, while taking more from his mother in terms of his hair, eyes, and complexion—the exact opposite of what she thinks might be the case for her own physical appearance.

She pushes that thought aside.

Which is helped by the fact that almost as soon as she lets go of Kaidan, his mother swiftly takes Shepard into her arms in the exact same way.

“It’s so good to finally meet you,” she says warmly, but she backs off quickly, presumably upon realizing why Shepard has only used one arm in her reciprocation.

“Sorry, I should have asked,” Kaidan’s mother smiles at her sincerely. “Please, sit.”

“Thank you,” Shepard replies and takes a seat on the sofa beside Kaidan. “I’m Carrie…”

She feels a bit awkward starting her own introduction, as though there is any chance in hell that this woman does not know exactly who she is, regardless of either of their relationships to Kaidan.

“Yes, I know,” Kaidan’s mother grins affectionately. “I’ve heard so much about you. It’s wonderful to finally have you here. I’m Vanessa.”

Shepard smiles to herself thinking on how it seems Kaidan certainly comes by his personality honestly.

“I should’ve warned you, they’re big huggers,” Kaidan laughs softly.

“I’m not exactly shocked by this revelation, Kaidan,” Shepard laughs in turn.

There is a vast expanse of pictures hanging all over the walls in this room, as well. More yet of just Kaidan across the years, as well as images of all three of them, and some of Kaidan with one of two sets of older couples who Shepard can only assume to be Kaidan’s grandparents on either side.

There is a much larger screen looming over them, however: a vid screen along the back wall of the living room, where the news is streaming at low volume.

“Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani reporting live from Earth for an exclusive interview with Admiral Steven Hackett, head of the Alliance Navy. We’re here in Downtown Vancouver, only meters away from the ongoing construction of the first official Commander Shepard memorial site, set to be unveiled on the 11th of April, what would have been the Commander’s 33rd birthday…”

While al-Jilani’s words are professional and civil, her tone of voice betrays her completely. She really must be bitter over having to talk about Shepard.

That, however, is not what Shepard fixes on.

“Wait, what?” Shepard looks to Kaidan. “Why is there…Kaidan, was this you?”

“Oh, so no one told you,” Kaidan laughs despite himself. “Yeah, it…ah, it seemed appropriate at the time.”

“I only heard of what Joker told us about Mindoir, Akuze, and Alchera,” Shepard sighs. “Like that wasn’t enough. And really, though, how the hell does anyone visit Alchera? I don’t care what they’re travelling for, don’t they know how cold that planet is?”

“Weren’t you the one who went down there to place the Normandy monument to begin with?” Kaidan teases.

“Yeah, but we can’t exactly use whether or not I’ve done something as a basis for whether or not it’s a terrible idea,” Shepard muses. She speaks far more quietly and seriously, though, when she adds, “Besides, I had to go through the wreckage there. There were a lot of families that needed a lot of closure.”

She remembers walking around that absolutely fucking freezing planet for what felt like eons, searching for as long as it took until she recovered every last tag from every last member of the crew who’d been lost when the Collectors attacked the original Normandy.

“They’re trying to turn it into a resort planet,” Kaidan’s father interjects. “ExoGeni’s been there for months working on the project. A few hotels are already up and running, but they’re trying to work out some sort of climate barrier or something, find a way to fabricate some little controlled warm zone around the area since they haven’t been able to find anyone willing to stay longer than a night or two, memorial visit or no.”

“Of course it would be ExoGeni,” Shepard laughs dryly. “Although I suppose it is a step up from running a colony just to have people to test their giant mind-control tree on.”

“Don’t ask,” Kaidan notes to his parents with a chuckle.

“It’s been a weird few years, yeah,” Shepard shrugs.

“I am so glad all of that is over,” Kaidan’s mother says heavily.

Not that anyone could blame her. She did, after all, nearly lose both her son and her husband.

And she probably knows just how damn easy she got off in not actually losing either of them, which would have to make that strange luck sting a bit in its own way.

Or so Shepard would imagine. After all, she knows all about how much guilt survival can cause, and she isn’t sure how much different it would be even when the primary source of such potential guilt would be the survival of someone’s loved ones after countless others lost all of theirs.

Thinking on how many of her family of friends she still has, she realizes that—at least for her—that guilt might actually be worse.

“Admiral, do you have any comment on the increasing number of recent sightings of multiple former members of Commander Shepard’s crew—both Alliance and Cerberus—throughout the city?” Khalisah al-Jilani asks Hackett in the vid, drawing Shepard’s attention once more. “Or how, according to reports, these sightings appear to be specific to the West End?”

“I have no comment on this subject, no,” Hackett answers, and he sounds every bit as annoyed by the question as Shepard feels.

“This doesn’t seem…suspicious to you, Admiral?” She presses, that bitter tone of hers markedly more pronounced.

“I’m not sure what it is you’re trying to imply, Ms. al-Jilani, but all I can say is that Shepard and her crew were very close, and I believe that those she led have remained so in her absence,” Hackett appeases, agitation rising in his voice. “Her relationship to Major Alenko in particular is no secret, neither is the fact that he calls this city home. Add that to the upcoming memorial services, and there are some very easy conclusions one could draw. What conclusions you may have come to, however, are based in no more than rumors and speculation.”

“Nicely done,” Shepard smirks, making a conscious effort to ignore that she knows exactly what al-Jilani was trying to imply, and how much she does not like where this is heading.

“Guai Lan doesn’t even know the difference between the West Side and the West End,” Kaidan’s mother mocks. “Carrie, I’m so sorry, would you prefer it if we turned this off?”

“That’s alright, Vanessa, thank you,” Shepard answers, amazed by how easily she’s already adjusting to being there, at how comfortable it felt to call Kaidan’s mother by name. “To be fair, these probably are things I should know…”

She wonders how long it’s going to take before Diana starts sending frantic emails, since she knows that neither Shepard nor Kaidan are home to readily be told about al-Jilani’s bullshit in person.

“We’ve honestly had it on non-stop for as long as we’ve been here,” Kaidan’s father adds. “It’s been interesting to watch all the post-war progress…and well, you know, I’d be lying if I said we weren’t always so proud whenever they talk about Kaidan.”

“Dad,” Kaidan shakes his head, looking mildly embarrassed.

“That’s really nice,” Shepard smiles in earnest, and that thoroughly reminds Kaidan of how appreciative he truly is for what he has.

Kaidan looks up towards his father, who looks back with understanding eyes and then leans forward to ask, “Anyone want beer? I hear you can’t find any good lager off-world anymore.”

Everyone speaks up to take him up on his offer, and he gets up to head into the kitchen.

“So,” Shepard starts, crawling over nerves about this meeting that have somehow not yet quite subsided even though she’s far enough into it that she feels they should. “What was Kaidan like growing up?”

A simple question, entirely innocuous, but she hopes she’ll get some interesting answers.

Kaidan laughs quietly, pleased that Shepard is getting herself over the emotional hurdle he can plainly see continues to sit in her way. At least he’s sure he doesn’t have much to worry about; aside from some childhood biotic mishaps, there aren’t exactly any particularly damning stories from his youth.

After all, she does already know about the aspects of himself of which he is the most secretive, about all of his neurodivergent traits, and he knows that her having more than enough of her own leads her not to judge.

“He was a great kid,” his mother beams. “He had a nasty habit of making a mess of things with his biotics, which was always…an experience, but…”

Kaidan’s father returns with four open bottles, which are quickly passed around.

“We weren’t exactly going to complain,” Kaidan’s father continues where his mother had left off. “We had no idea what to expect after being so close to that eezo crash, and we could never have guessed that we were going to end up having one of the first human biotics. There were so many worst case scenarios…”

“I know we’re among the luckier parents,” Kaidan’s mother nods. “Even the doctors wouldn’t give us any straight answers about anything we asked in regards to what the exposure could mean, and they probably didn’t know at the time, themselves. But I’ve heard some absolute horror stories, honestly…”

She shakes her head softly, and it seems the thought of it still weighs heavily on her.

Kaidan really does come by this honestly.

“We were visiting my parents,” she explains further. “We’d just found out I was pregnant and we took the trip because we wanted to tell them in person. We were absolutely terrified for a while, having to wonder if such a simple thing could have turned out to be so life-changing. Although I suppose it still was, really, in a way.”

“I get it,” Shepard says and takes a drink.

Life changing completely in the blink of an eye? Yes, she absolutely gets it.

“We ended up treating him like a miracle from day one, I guess,” Kaidan’s father notes.

She tries not to wonder how her parents would speak of her if they were around, or even how she’d come about her biotics, if that had been as terrifying an event with her as it had been with Kaidan.

“Seems like he turned out alright,” Shepard laughs.

Kaidan takes a drink and watches her carefully. He can see how much she wants this, how much she needs his parents to like her, how much she needs to feel like she belongs there.

That, and how distant her eyes appear the more his parents talk about how much they love him.

He’s always known he was fortunate to have such a close and supportive family, and he’s known since very early on how much she’s lost, but somehow in this moment, presented with this precise dynamic, it makes his chest ache even more than he’d have ever thought possible.

“I didn’t always make it easy, though,” Kaidan says without thinking. He isn’t sure why he chimes in with this, but perhaps he simply doesn’t want to risk Shepard getting too lost in what he imagines she’s picturing as this idea of the most perfectly idyllic possible family, an extra way for her to idealize all that she doesn’t have.

“Everything around BAaT was a nightmare, true,” Kaidan’s mother admits.

“I’ve heard,” Shepard says. Her eyes keep wandering around the room, taking in its décor.

“Believe it or not, Carrie, I had quite the temper once upon a time,” Kaidan laughs quietly. He’s not sure why.

His parents seem to have forgotten over the years that it wasn’t always easy before he was taken to Jump Zero, either. He doesn’t think they’ve done it on purpose, or if they even realize they’ve gradually rewritten history in their personal narratives. Maybe it has something to do with what they were saying about all of their fears before his birth. Maybe it’s influenced at least in part by the complications they couldn’t have expected: a “gift” humans weren’t intended to have leading him to a lifetime of chronic pain. Regardless, the more time passes the less it seems to matter that he was always isolated, that he’d always had difficulty socializing and was less of the loner he’d considered himself and more of an all-out recluse. He’d been angry and anxious and alone, and often downright unstable, but he’d kept it to himself.

Maybe the answer is in the question.

If anything, though, it was Brain Camp that brought him out of his shell, that forced him to open up. Because there was no lying and saying he was okay after that, he knows.

He tried to, he really did, but of course no one had believed him, neither should they have.

He has a moment where it is so hard to keep a straight face looking at Shepard when this crosses his mind, when thinking for the first time in a long time about how he knows about hiding feelings and everyone else calling bullshit almost as well as she does.

It was different for him, sure—his parents desperately attempting to get him to talk to someone about post-traumatic stress, going so far as to bring a therapist into the house he never left, also came with first hearing terms like autistic and generalized anxiety disorder being directly applied to him, replacing the previous oversimplified idea of “moody teenager.” They called him agoraphobic then, too, although that hasn’t quite applied in the long term. It isn’t something he talks much about, however, even after all of this time. He hasn’t exactly hidden any of this from her, of course, but he and Shepard do have more in common on that front than he tends to let on.

“That is hard to believe,” Shepard mimics his awkward laugh almost perfectly.

“Vanessa’s right, everything around BAaT was a nightmare,” Kaidan’s father acknowledges. “And you definitely don’t come back from an experience like that without picking up some extra baggage along the way.”

“No,” Shepard says morosely. “You don’t.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kaidan’s father replies empathetically, as though he has made the assumption that Shepard’s biotic training was a similar experience.

“Oh no, no, it’s fine,” Shepard quickly offers. “I know BAaT was hell, but I didn’t…well, I didn’t go through that. But, umm, thank you.”

There is an uncomfortable pause wherein everyone seems to move all of their focus to their drinks, and Kaidan’s father breaks the silence.

“It was about three years or so that you stayed here between training and joining up, though, Kaidan, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Kaidan nods. “I didn’t really go outside once in all that time, though. It wasn’t so much coming home as it was hiding. But after that, I didn’t know what my other options were, or if I even really had any. So I took my time and trained in some new skills, but I knew my biotics guided me towards a particular path—it just took a little while to accept it.”

He never received any further biotic training, though. After Brain Camp—after Vyrnnus, after Rahna—he couldn’t bring himself to enter into another program. It didn’t matter how different from BAaT anything else might have been, by that time the very thought of it was enough to send him into a panic.

“There’s always biotiball,” Shepard teases. “You know, for options.”

“Yeah, well, you know, I never did have much of an interest in sports, but…competitive biotic fields aren’t very welcoming to L2s, anyway,” Kaidan smirks at Shepard with a quiet laugh. “What?”

“Is that what brought you to the Alliance, Carrie?” Kaidan’s father asks with a smile. “Biotic inevitability?”

“Not exactly,” Shepard answers tentatively. She takes a breath and decides to explain in full. She wants these people to like her, but if she is going to ask for that, then it’s only right that she lets them know her. “I began my training a little later and a little younger than Kaidan—2170, when I was 16. I didn’t go through an official program or anything like that, though, I…I was trained in private by a handful of Alliance ops who’d sort of, I guess, taken pity—umm, taken me under their wing. They said they saw a lot of potential in me when they’d picked me up from Mindoir. I quietly spent around two years in Rhode Island, and after that…I’d developed some real skill and by that point it was all I knew, so I enlisted.”

Quietly, however, only actually refers to her relationship with the Alliance and training during her time in Rhode Island. She, as her own person, was at times anything but quiet, being an emotional wreck of a recently traumatized teenager and finding relief whenever and wherever she could beneath drugs and alcohol and whoever she might meet on those binges, as often as possible when she found such free time in her off days, which makes her use of that descriptor feel almost comical.

But she never did get too far out of control. How hard she’d worked to keep herself presentable to her trainers during those times, as well as how hard she had to work simply to keep herself in good enough shape to even physically be able to train at all, and how much she had to hold herself back as a result is probably all that kept her alive in those years. God knows she’d often tried her best to self-destruct at every opportunity she could find, but she’d somehow found the will time and time again to not blow the real opportunity she was being given by the Alliance, and she’d always managed to pull herself through, no matter how lost she was at risk of becoming.

But that probably did a good job of helping to prime her for a future of frequently leading life or death missions across the galaxy only hours after drinking so much that she’d woken up on Aria’s couch with no idea of anything that had happened between her last round and then.

Kaidan’s parents don’t need to know her that well, though.

But she does assume that she genuinely doesn’t have to elaborate in regards to Mindoir. Despite its best efforts at rebuilding, that colony’s very name is still synonymous with that brutal raid, as it very well may always be.

And of course, with how public of a figure Shepard is, she imagines most people already know those sorts of details about her life.

“I was fortunate in that, I guess,” she adds after a pause. Public figure relaying public knowledge or not, and for as little as she actually divulged, she suddenly feels rather uncomfortable after having spoken so candidly.

The silence draws Shepard’s ear back to the news, to a voice she doesn’t recognize but who speaks a name that is so fresh even after all the time that has passed.

“…On Sirona in honor of Alliance Navy Gunnery Chief Ashley Madeline Williams, only three days later. Williams, who served under and was reportedly close friends with Commander Shepard, is also notable for being the first ever human recipient of both the Silver Star and the Nova Cluster…”

It’s going on four years now since losing Ashley, although Shepard herself was lost for over two of them, so it still feels far more recent to her.

She can’t imagine it really matters, though. Time can only heal so much, and there is no amount of time that can wash away the guilt and regret of leaving Ashley behind.

Kaidan doesn’t even notice that he grips Shepard’s hand at the vid’s mention of Ashley until Shepard squeezes his back.

It’s going on four years, and Ashley’s been gone far longer than he ever knew her, but that doesn’t stop him from missing her every day.

That doesn’t make losing her any less of a tragedy.

“Makes you wonder what she’d think of all this,” Shepard says without thinking.

“She’d probably hate it,” Kaidan smiles. “But at the same time, she’d probably love it. She wouldn’t tell you that part, though.”

“Yeah,” Shepard agrees. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

After all, Ashley always did deserve much more credit than she’d ever received in life, and she damn well knew it.

Shepard and Kaidan both take a drink, and Shepard chuckles a little to herself at the thought of why the news is always on in this house to begin with.

“Any fun interviews with you on backlog for anything?” Shepard asks Kaidan, who only shakes his head.

“No, I haven’t spoken to the press in a while,” he smiles. “Not since…you know.”

“So,” Shepard turns awkwardly back towards Kaidan’s father, not forgetting her efforts towards keeping herself where she is. “What’s your training, Yevheniy?”

She was trying to stay away from military discussion, but it’s familiar, when so little else is.

“Engineer,” he answers with a smile. “I like to tell myself that’s where Kaidan gets his interest in tech. Don’t correct me if I’m wrong.”

Shepard laughs unreasonably hard at his response, and is quick to apologize.

“I’m so sorry,” she tells him. She’s a little uncomfortable, even embarrassed. “I, umm…I really do see where Kaidan gets it, yes.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Kaidan’s father follows easily. “I’m glad to hear it.”

It’s okay, she’s okay. She’s in a good space, surrounded by good people. She is more than welcome, she is wanted, and she has not once been judged for undoubtedly falling far below their expectations.

She really wants to make a good impression, though.

Ashley would be laughing her ass off at this, both Shepard and Kaidan are sure of that.

She’d fucking love it.

“Mostly, I think, I just wanted to see space,” Kaidan’s father continues wistfully. “I remember the news when we found the Prothean archives. I remember what that meant to humanity, finally knowing we weren’t alone, that there was so much to explore, and then discovering the Charon relay, being able to…”

“‘Everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives,’” Kaidan’s mother recites. “‘The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and religious doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’ Carl Sagan. But that’s not true anymore, is it? Now there are plenty of human beings spread out all across the stars, some who’ve never even seen the ‘pale blue dot.’ It’s been absolutely amazing to see that change in my lifetime.”

“I wasn’t kidding about that off-world vacation, by the way,” Kaidan notes. “You should see it out there, Mom, really.”

“‘From this vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different,’” Kaidan’s mother quotes, and Shepard is grateful to learn that she is not the only one so easily lost to words of the past. “‘Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.’ But that vantage point must be amazing.”

“‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,’” Kaidan adds heavily. “Yeah, I still remember, ‘to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot.’”

Kaidan turns to Shepard to offer some explanation, “Mom would read it out loud or play vids of Sagan’s speeches a lot after I’d come out of Brain Camp. It was always…comforting, somehow. Remembering where we come from, and how incredible that makes the scope of everything else in perspective, you know?”

“I moved to Vancouver for the university,” Kaidan’s mother goes on. “I got my doctorate in cosmology and stayed on to teach. Of course I referenced Sagan’s work frequently, and how very ahead of his time he was and how often we still look to him today, so that’s where that originates. That’s also where I met Yevheniy. This was before the Alliance had formed, of course, but back then UBC’s Point Grey campus had its own military training faculties.”

“I was considering a degree somewhere in the engineering field at the same time, but I hadn’t made up my mind yet and I thought joining the military could help with that later on,” Kaidan’s father elaborates. “And then one day, trying to figure out my future, I was poking around the student resources office and…”

“And I caught you staring, is what happened,” Kaidan’s mother laughed. “But I liked his smile, and I think it went well from there in the long run.”

Both Shepard and Kaidan laugh a little, taking in the similarities. Having been so captivated by one another as instantly as they were, they’d each caught the other staring more than once before they’d ever dared to talk about it.

“So we’ll be invited if anything ever comes of it, right?” Kaidan’s mother is not subtle in looking towards Shepard’s ring—what should have been Kahlee’s ring.

“It’s been hard not to notice that the news still thinks you’re…ah…” Kaidan’s father seems unable to find the obvious word he needs to end this thought. It breaks Shepard’s heart a little to hear him struggle with it, to think of what that must mean for how Kaidan had dealt with believing her dead, as though she doesn’t already know by now how hard that had been on him.

For a moment she loses herself to remembering catching up to him while looking around for Anderson in London, and the way he couldn’t let her go without what they both feared was a true goodbye kiss. She thinks on the way his eyes glazed and his voice cracked through that heart-wrenchingly choked and desperate, “I can’t lose you again.”

It makes sense that he’d have turned to his parents after that, and that his parents would therefore have strongly felt her loss by proxy, and so it makes further sense that the words are hard to come by for them. Despite the threatening burn in her eyes at this particular moment, however, it makes her so happy to see what a close and supportive family Kaidan really has.

“Yeah, it’s…complicated,” Shepard tries. She instantly hates her response and wishes she could take it back, not wanting to explain any more than that, but she keeps talking. “It sounds like it might not matter much longer, anyway. But I…I think I just need some time. Recovery has been…it hasn’t been easy.”

Her eyes move to her cane, and everyone else’s follow. Both she and Kaidan know that’s not all she means, but they both keep it to themselves.

This is a start.

“It’s just nice to have you here,” Kaidan’s father smiles. “You mean so much to Kaidan, and we’ve been looking forward to getting a chance to meet the woman behind the name.”

And she knows without having to think too hard on it this time that he is referring only to hearing her name through Kaidan talking about her and not from hearing it in all of the endless vids, that he means the name of the person and not the infamous war hero, not her name as the very big name that it is.

She once more reminds herself that she isn’t Commander Shepard of the Normandy here. Here, she is with Kaidan, she is with family, and that’s what’s most important.

“Are the rumors true, though, of all of your friends being in Vancouver right now? Does that mean you’re actually filling the place?” Kaidan’s mother laughs quietly.

“Yeah, we’ve had our hands full with everyone,” Kaidan smiles. “Our hands and our house.”

Shepard is aware of the fact that the house is much bigger than she’s seen, but she knows enough that she cannot imagine it was ever meant to be a single-family home.

And she still hasn’t quite gotten used to the thought of it as “our house,” although she’s slowly getting better at it. But it does make her smile a little to hear it right then, yet catching her off guard as always.

“Good,” Kaidan’s mother follows. “I don’t know what we were thinking with that thing. We couldn’t ever have actually believed we were ever going to need all of that space.”

“No, but we weren’t really thinking. What happened was that I had wonderful but occasionally overbearing parents who were convinced we were going to have a small army of children and wanted to make sure we could take advantage of our proximity to English Bay,” Kaidan’s father chuckles. “Zhovkva is much smaller than Vancouver, so they were accustomed to a little more room where they grew up. Things are still tight there, just like anywhere, but they were used to larger living spaces than you typically see in bigger cities, and they wanted Kaidan to have that.”

“The views really are beautiful, though,” Kaidan muses. He has very fond memories of sitting out on the balconies and taking in all that he could see, usually with more than a few beers to help him with that after coming back from BAaT. It was, after all, the farthest outside he ever got before he finally left again and joined the Alliance.

Kaidan remembers that whole house fondly, though, and he loves that he now gets to share it with Shepard. He remembers how his maternal grandparents would sleep on the upper floors whenever they visited, how they said it reminded them of their top-storey apartment back home. Although he never did get to visit them there like he’d always wanted to, neither did he ever learn to speak Mandarin or Malay or Tamil, just like with Ukrainian. His mother to this day recalls her childhood in Bishan with love, but life seems to have gotten in the way far too often for Kaidan to have much experience travelling outside of wherever the Alliance sent him, which has left so much of Earth he's yet to see.

Which still includes London, as far as he’s concerned.

He also remembers, especially importantly, how his parents had made damn sure to renovate multiple rooms throughout multiple floors to remove the windows after seeing him with a migraine for the first time, seeing how painful light could be. He never asked, never said a word, never would have expected it. He doesn’t believe he’d even have thought of doing such a thing, himself. But that’s simply the kind of people his parents are, and he’s grateful for that. Messed up kid that he was, he isn’t sure where he’d be otherwise.

He just really wishes he wasn’t the only person he knows who was so fortunate in terms of birth family.

Well, the only person except for Ashley.

God, that hurts.

“Next up, a replay of a very special edition of Battlespace while Diana Allers is away, showcasing her striking footage of the Battle for Earth, straight from the scene. Viewer discretion is advised…”

Shepard does not recognize this reporter, either, but her tone says she has the exact same suspicions that al-Jilani had implied earlier.

“How are you feeling?” Kaidan asks in a whisper, although they both realize his parents must notice.

“Tired,” she admits. She’d wanted to be able to stay longer, but all of a sudden she is rapidly burning out despite how pleasant this visit has been.

And now she desperately wants to get home, to get away from any more risk of being caught in the public eye, at least for the day.

“You do have a decent drive ahead of you,” Kaidan’s mother says sympathetically. “We won’t be offended if you want to get going.”

“Thank you,” Shepard responds, and no one misses the tinge of sadness in her voice.

“We’ll have to have you over for dinner next time,” Kaidan’s father adds with a smile.

“Yes, I’d like that,” Shepard nods.

All four of them stand at that, and Kaidan moves to hug each of his parents goodbye.

Both of them smile widely when Shepard follows suit, however awkward her attempts at doing so are, as she does her best to limit her movement in her approaches and still only uses one arm.

It’s plain to see that they understand, though.

She’s so happy that Kaidan has this.

She walks much faster, though, as fast as she can getting back to the car.

Time is moving too quickly. She doesn’t want things to change again. She doesn’t want her friends to have to leave as time will eventually beckon them all to do, and she definitely does not want to face the fact that she is now sure there is a time limit on how much longer she can successfully play dead.

“Fuck, I’m sorry,” she sighs as they begin to drive away, and she leans forward to bury her head in her hands.

“What for?” Kaidan asks sincerely. He looks to her but she does not look up, so he speaks up again. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” she replies. “I didn’t want to rush this, though, I wanted to be able to stay, I tried to be okay…”

“It’s alright, Carrie, there’s nothing to apologize for,” he says softly. “That was fine, I promise. And they definitely liked you, you don’t have to worry about that.”

“That’s…that’s good,” she says and uncovers her face. “They’re great, Kaidan.”

“I know,” his voice cracks the slightest bit.

“Oh fuck,” Shepard laughs when she sees that her omni-tool has missed notifications, and they both know she’s distracting herself on purpose. “From Diana…from Diana…from Diana…”

“Oh god,” Kaidan laughs a little, himself. “What do they say?”

“What you’d expect,” Shepard shrugs. “‘I’m so sorry,’ ‘no one told me,’ ‘a little warning would have been nice,’ ‘I am going to murder al-Jilani.’ The basics.”

“Yeah, that sounds right,” Kaidan smiles. “Whatever comes, though…I’m here, and we’ll deal with it, whatever it is.”

Of course that would be his response. The basics.

“I know,” she tells him easily. “I’m just…I’m not fucking ready.”

She’s not sure that matters, though. She’s not sure if she ever will be. So maybe it’s for the best that it looks like it might be taken out of her hands, or at least that she might want to consider coming forward sooner than later, while she can still control it.

“I know,” he echoes. “We’ll figure it out, okay? And I can lie to the press if you need me to. Diana’s said that I interview very well, so maybe that’d be convincing enough.”

“No, Kaidan, I’m not going to ask you to do that,” Shepard replies quickly. “Like you said, we’ll figure it out.”

Kaidan is honestly a little relieved. While it’s nothing at all like Shepard’s history with her, he’s built some bad blood with al-Jilani after the war, as well, and has generally preferred to stay away from the news as much as he’s been able to. But she’d caught him off guard while he was simply trying to make a grocery run about a week or so after returning home, which was made worse by the fact that he was only out because he was doing his damnedest not to revert to the way he’d dealt with coming home from BAaT, and that temptation was painfully difficult to fight. He wasn’t speaking publicly yet then, neither was he ready to so much as think about doing such a thing. But she’d cornered him and he’d done his best not to make a scene. He’d held his hands up in front of his face when he saw the camera, and kept his tone civil and even apologetic when he’d refused an interview. She’d pushed, though, had followed him down the street and insisted on speaking to him regarding his pivotal role in the greatest battle of their time, if not ever (but she was only doing anything she could to get the hottest exclusive out there by phrasing it as she did, with such out of character flattery that was surely fueled solely by desperation, he has no doubt). Everything was still so fresh, though, so raw, and all of his emotions had been on extreme overload ever since leaving the ground in London. And of course she’d had to go so far as to invoke Shepard’s name in trying to get his attention, to refer to him as one of her crew and pretend that she cared at all about the woman he’d thought he lost. So he does not feel bad about the fact that he’d snapped and told her to go fuck herself, but that is also why he has not spoken to anyone but Diana when dealing with reporters ever since.

“Diana says to expect to walk in to a small crowd, too,” Shepard adds. “I hope no one expects me to be too social when we get home, though.”

Kaidan smiles at the fact that she said “home” so naturally, as though she’s growing accustomed to it being as much hers as it is his.

“I’m sure they’ll understand,” Kaidan replies.

“They always do, yeah,” Shepard agrees.

It’s only been a few days since the proposal and she seems to keep missing Jack every time she’s been over since, though, which she feels especially bad about.

There is definitely some time left with everyone, though, no matter how unclear that is with so many of them, and no matter how fast it’s moving.

“Oh wow,” Shepard exclaims with another glance at her omni-tool. “Brynn had the baby.”

She opens up the email, and attached is a photo of Brynn and Jacob together with their newborn, who is referred to in the text portion of the message as Nesiah Rila Cole-Taylor.

Shepard has no doubt that Samara more than happily gave her blessing on that one.

Jacob and Brynn both look so happy, themselves, so content—so much so that Shepard wonders if one day they will have a house that looks like Kaidan’s parents’.

Time is moving, and things are changing with it, whether Shepard is ready for it or not.

They’ll deal with it as it comes, though, just like Kaidan says.

But for now, she cannot fucking wait to go home and go to bed.

She doesn’t want to stop hiding. She adamantly wants to keep herself in seclusion for as long as she can, turning away from everything in the galaxy aside from the people she loves and who she therefore cannot keep close enough.

It’s a damn shame it won’t work that way.

She looks at her left hand, at that fucking beautiful ring she still hates is hers, but that she loves all the same. She believes that Kaidan doesn’t care about making anything official on a legal scale, but she wonders if perhaps she does.

It’d probably be a fucking spectacle if they went through with it, for as famous as they both are. There’d probably be no way to keep the press away, no way that everyone in the galaxy wouldn’t receive the news in some form or another. But she almost likes the idea of putting how she feels about Kaidan on full display in such a manner, for as anxious as it also makes her, and for as anxious as framing it that way would most definitely make him.

“You can handle it, Skipper,” Ashley’s disembodied voice tells her, and she closes her eyes and tries to tell herself that didn’t just happen.

They’ll deal with it, though. Whatever it is, they’ll deal with it.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard extends her hand to that lost little kid who won’t come out of hiding, and Anderson tells her to get moving.

She looks back and there’s no one there. There never was.

She follows Anderson through the door and when she crosses through, she is alone inside a virtual reality hellscape, surrounded by the most desperately visceral screaming, ringing through her ears and twisting in her chest. At first it sounds like geth, but it quickly twists into the abjectly horrified wailing behind it, just wanting this nightmare to end.

“Make it stop…”

David Archer is held up by tubes and wires and metal, trapped and tortured and begging for her help. She looks around for his brother, to get David the fuck out of there and maybe while they’re at it to shoot that asshole in the face like she should have done in real life, but no one comes.

Another door opens and she runs, runs like her life depends on it, and she stops in her tracks when she nearly bumps into someone who appears to be a doctor, whose face is covered completely. They are holding an infant, who is shouting and crying intensely, and there is a thin blue haze surrounding the child.

“The family has been dealt with,” the masked figure says in a voice that sounds like it’s being fed into a distorter. “Send a team from Pragia ASAP.”

Shepard follows them to a cell, where there is no longer a baby but a little girl who looks like she’s just about old enough to be starting school. Instead, however, she is tied to a chair while that same masked figure injects something into her arm, and she is quietly crying.

Shepard has to look away, and when she turns she is facing another door. She crosses through it, and pummels dramatically over a hillside she did not anticipate. She does not look up after landing, but can hear Legion and Jenkins conversing.

“We wish to understand, not incite.”

“And I wish to not die by fucking drone on a damn shakedown run, but here we are.”

“We do not understand. You expressed desire to see ‘real action.’”

“Action doesn’t have to mean dying, and besides, dying made me miss all of the good stuff! How the hell did you end up on the Normandy, anyway?”

“Shepard-Commander welcomed us.”

“Bullshit.”

“Shepard-Commander trusted us.”

“No. No. After Eden Prime…”

“Shepard-Commander murdered us.”

“Good.”

“We do not understand. This is not justice.”

“Oh yes, it is.”

“We were not responsible for your death. We accompanied Shepard-Commander on many missions. We opposed the heretics. We opposed the Old Machines. We tried to help her.”

“I would have thrown you out of the airlock.”

“The Prothean would have valued your input.”

“Wait, did you just say Prothean?”

“This is not justice. This unit has a soul. Shepard-Commander acknowledges. Creator Zorah acknowledges. We could have helped. We would have helped.”

Shepard forces herself to stand, and she is met with that same fucking forest she has seen far too much of, wrought with fog and shadows as always.

“I wished to help,” Legion’s voice follows. “I.”

“That is what we all wanted,” Thane’s voice shouts back. “Every one of us would have died for Shepard in an instant. It so happens that some of us did. It was a good end. It was an honor, siha.”

Shepard realizes she never did have Thane use her first name, as she began insisting upon with Kaidan before Ilos, when they finally stopped kidding themselves about the nature of their relationship.

She and Thane, however, did not do that dance. They accepted what they wanted from each other fairly early on and acted accordingly. But he never once used her given name, and she never once mentioned it.

That seems telling.

“Yeah, some of us died for something, I guess,” Commander Bailey says, walking towards Shepard. “Bet you forgot about me, didn’t you?”

“No,” Shepard whispers. “No, I…”

“It’s alright, Commander,” Bailey smiles. “I’m sure you’ve got bigger things on your mind, coming back from the dead and all. Again.”

“Maybe you made it, too,” Shepard replies quietly. “I don’t know what happened, maybe—”

“There’s a reason you haven’t looked,” Bailey shakes his head. “You know how many people died on the Citadel that day. You know how little chance any of us had after the Reapers took it. And you know damn well that I wouldn’t ever have abandoned my post with all that going on. You know I would have stayed to the last man, long after that last man was me.”

“I know,” Shepard says softly. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“You do have a bad habit of bringing death down on the people you deal with, though, don’t you?” Bailey asks her.

“I do,” Shepard agrees. “I know.”

“It should be you,” Maya Brooks, or whatever her real name might have been, adds with disdain. “Everyone around you dies, but it’s never you, is it? Not really. No matter how hard anyone tries, even yourself. Pathetic. Cerberus could have saved itself so much trouble…”

“We do miss you, Skipper,” Ashley smiles.

“Yes, we do,” Anderson agrees. “Come up and see us sometime.”

She shakes her head and her surroundings shift. Now she is at the Vancouver base, lying in the brig and trying not to think.

“Commander,” James addresses her, walking into her cell for the first time, and she doesn’t look at him.

This is different. This isn’t one of her usual faux hauntings, this is an actual memory.

“Lieutenant James Vega. It’s an honor, ma’am.” He sounds like he’s in awe, and she wonders how long he’s been following her career.

“You’re not supposed to call me that,” she says for the first time, but certainly not the last.

“All due respect, ma’am…” James starts speaking, but trails off when she turns over, when she goes from not looking at him to deliberately looking away from him.

She’s certain she just broke this poor kid’s heart a little, but she can’t talk to him. He looks up to her, she can tell, but he has to know why he’s there with her. He has to know how low she’s sunk.

“For what it’s worth, I believe you about the Reapers,” James adds after a moment, and he retains that tone. It isn’t fair to compare him to that creepy Conrad Verner, as this lieutenant seems to be a lot less…overtly fanatical, but it is the first thing that comes to Shepard’s mind. No, though, this does not sound like obsession, but sincerely high esteem. “Commander.”

She doesn’t want to hear it, though. She doesn’t want his respect. She doesn’t deserve it.

She’s a traitor to the Alliance. She’s a traitor to those who gave their lives on the SR-1. She’s a traitor to her unit on Akuze. She’s a traitor to herself. She’s thrown away everything she stands for, and she has probably lost Kaidan over it, but that is the least of what she has earned. She is there in this fucking cell for one purpose and one purpose only: to get what she deserves. But even after all she’s done, they somehow can’t seem to give it to her.

That is why she wanted to take matters into her own hands. That is why she tried to pay her price even when, for whatever fucking reason, apparently no one wants to take it from her. Not enough, at least.

But she couldn’t even get that right.

Maybe this is the punishment.

Shame. Survival.

Shiny objects encased in such finely tuned precision biotics she’d never have guessed any human capable of, likely concentrated entirely through regret and sheer desperation in a feat she doubts she could ever repeat, do not leave one with much dignity to spare in the aftermath.

“The smell of iceboxes annihilates me. Such blue currents in the veins of my loved one!”

One discarded biotically charged kitchen utensil and a profound sense of failure later, and here she is on fucking suicide watch, with a babysitter who obviously idolizes her. She feels sorry for him.

“It is Monday in her mind: morals launder and present themselves. What am I to make of these contradictions?”

She closes her eyes.

She wonders where Ashley and Anderson went, where they wanted her to follow. It is irrelevant that neither of them would ever beckon her like this, neither of them would ever want her to follow them through death even if it were possible to actually speak to them. What matters is that right now, wherever she is, those visages she can engage with do want her to join them, and that’s what she wants, too.

She wants to follow.

“I miss you both, too,” she mutters. “Fuck, I miss you so much.”

“Commander,” Ashley and Anderson call.

“I’m not fucking ‘Commander’ anymore,” she seethes. “I’m not…I’m not…”

“Siha,” Thane reaches out to her, his hand extended towards her and her eyes suddenly open.

“No,” she looks down. “I’m not that, either.”

“Carrie,” a woman’s voice whispers. She is blurred from a distance, but she is definitely smiling. “Sweetheart, come here.”

“Is this love then, this red material issuing from a steel needle that flies so blindingly?”

Shepard thinks she can almost see her face, but it’s so hard to tell. She gets further and further away every day, it seems.

The woman disappears, and then reappears right there, her arms around Shepard, pulling her in closer and closer.

“It will cover a dynasty, how her body opens and shuts—”

“I’m so sorry, dear, but it can’t get better,” she whispers to Shepard, whose eyes begin to burn. “All that’s left of me is ashes, darling. You weren’t fast enough.”

She lowers her voice when she speaks again, as quietly as possible, and it makes Shepard cringe. “I had a name once. You know it, don’t you?”

“O heart, such disorganization! The stars are flashing like terrible numerals. ABC, her eyelids say.”

“No, I…I don’t…I’m sorry,” Shepard chokes, but suddenly she does. She isn’t sure how long it’s been creeping up on her, but now it’s sitting on the tip of her tongue, and it is bitter and wrong.

This is from a life that was never hers to lead. This is from a life that should have been but wasn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Shepard says again, and she can’t hold it back. She starts to cry, keeping it down as well as she can, but she can’t maintain her desperate attempt at silence for long, rapidly spiraling from uncomfortably tearing up into ungodly howling.

Before she knows it she feels another set of arms envelop her, Kaidan pulling her in close as his lips softly brush against the top of her head while she weeps, her face buried into his chest.

Her hands are balled into fists at her sides and her thighs are sore. She must have been punching herself in her sleep. She’s pretty sure that despite everything as of late, she hasn’t actually done that since the Normandy.

“Hey,” Kaidan whispers, and it is legitimately soothing. “I’ve got you.”

She thinks to ask if she woke him, but she already knows the answer.

Just like she already knows that she knows what became of Commander Bailey.

Just like she knows—

“My mother,” she whimpers, and she can barely speak through her sobbing. She hopes she isn’t being as loud as she fears. For as much as she loves them all, there are too many fucking people there at night now, too many people to be disturbed by this.

She keeps crying, though, and she keeps trying to find words through it. “I remembered…I remember…fuck…”

“What do you need?” Kaidan asks instantly, hoping there’s a way to help. “Talk to me. Do you know where you are?”

“Yeah, yeah, I…it’s not like that,” she answers with continued difficulty. “I…”

It’s on the tip of her tongue but it feels impossible to say it. She still can’t help trying to forget it again. She doesn’t think she can handle it any other way.

She wants to bury it, needs to bury it.

It can be the proper burial her mother surely never received.

“Carrie,” Kaidan whispers her name so warmly, so full of love and how badly he wishes he could make this all go away. “Please. Talk to me.”

“My mother,” she repeats, and her voice cracks before she breaks even further. Maybe it’s best if this simply keeps going until it can’t anymore, until Shepard falls asleep again with his arms tight around her. He wants her to feel safe, to feel loved, every bit as much as she is.

Perhaps he also just needs to give her time, to give her room to say what she needs to say whenever she can say it, and not to push her into anything beforehand.

So he does not plead with her to talk again, allowing her that time and trusting her to do so when she is able. Instead he quietly repeats, “I’ve got you.”

He pulls her in as close as he can, and her sobbing is muffled against his skin, for which she is grateful.

“I’ve got you,” he says again. “I promise. I always will.”

She believes him.

He rests his head against the top of hers, sporadically trailing small kisses. This is his reassurance, the best he can offer. But there’s a long journey like this ahead yet, no matter how much time they’ve already spent trekking down this path, and he knows that what he gives her is appreciated.

He hopes that as it progresses, this will get easier. But for right now, he will more than happily take feeling the shake of her body become less harsh in return for his best efforts.

This is a start.

Her breathing eventually begins to slow and her limbs eventually begin to still as she becomes quieter and quieter. Kaidan wonders if perhaps she has gone back to sleep until she speaks up again, trying to push out her words like she needs to get them outside her own mind, as though perhaps she hopes this will unburden her.

She doesn’t know why this matters. It feels like such a small and insignificant detail now that it’s surfaced, and she cannot explain to herself why it hurts so much. At the same time, though, she feels sick having this inside her, and it needs to be purged.

Shepard’s voice is so hoarse that Kaidan almost can’t understand her, but all the same she forces out a rough and despondent, “Her name…her name was Hannah.”

***

“I’ll talk to Kelly tomorrow,” Shepard tells Kaidan over coffee in bed. It’s early afternoon and she does not want to get up, so they’ve found this compromise. After coffee, she will face the world. After coffee, she will not let herself hide.

Especially since learning how much better Kaidan understands this than she’d ever have guessed. It makes her that much more determined to fight the temptation, to pull herself out of this hole before it becomes an unending chasm, just as he has done for himself.

Together, they’ve got this.

“I promise,” she adds.

He believes her. He knows that meeting his parents has had some cruel repercussions for her emotional state, for her own sense of perpetual mourning. But he also knows that hearing him talk about coming home from Jump Zero had its own impact. She hadn’t previously realized just how similar the two of them could be when it comes to pushing down trauma, and his getting past it as well as he has appears to have sparked a fervor in her to be able to do the same.

Of course, their lives have been so different and he knows that she isn’t being fair to herself in trying to compare their experiences, but it seems to be helping.

“Dammit,” she mutters quietly, staring into her mug. She’s out of coffee.

But she does as she said she would, and he follows her into the living room without either of them saying a word on their way out.

They are greeted by James, Joker, Edi, Kelly, Karin, Steve, Diana, Samantha, Jack, Miranda, and Liara, who are all attentively watching the news.

“They are family,” Tali says from the vid. “Kaidan and I have been good friends for years—I’ve known him as long as I have Shepard. I would have died on my pilgrimage were it not for them, and the rest of Shepard’s team throughout the years have always treated me as one of their own, and I owe my life to all of them too many times to count. Things have been hard on all of us, and taking time away from home for Kaidan, for everyone, is a very small sacrifice to make after all they’ve done for me.”

“Is that the answer you were looking for?” Garrus follows impatiently. “Now, if you’ll excuse us…”

“I swear, if Shepard doesn’t kill her, I will,” Diana sighs.

“Let me guess: al-Jilani?” Shepard asks in a strained voice.

“No, this was a new guy,” Diana replies. “But yes, because we do all know who started this shit.”

Shepard thinks on Hackett quasi-reprimanding her on behalf of the Alliance brass after her first interview with al-Jilani, and how even when he was supposed to be telling her that her behavior was frowned upon, he couldn’t help but admit that it had been deeply satisfying to watch.

She almost smiles at the thought, but she can’t quite bring herself to in this moment.

“We’re just biding time before the inevitable now, aren’t we,” Shepard does not actually ask, but drawls out in a long and exasperated breath.

“Unless you were planning on never leaving the house again, although even then it seems unlikely that your story will be kept secret for much longer,” Edi says.

“Don’t fucking tempt me,” Shepard responds to the first part of Edi’s statement.

“Really, please don’t,” Kaidan adds promptly.

“I’m going to put these in the sink,” Shepard says quietly, taking their empty mugs from Kaidan, who does not argue.

She’s walking on her own so far today, but she also tries to keep relying on her cane to a minimum when she isn’t moving around too much, since she has learned that Karin was quite right about its potential to hurt more than help on some of the higher pain days when her upper body is in worse shape than her gait.

She leans over the kitchen counter upon setting down the mugs, and the slight stretch of her back feels somehow better and worse at the same time.

Just one of the reasons she isn’t ready to face the public yet, one of the reasons she’s still not sure she ever will be.

“Shepard?” Jack appears behind her.

It’s the first time they’ve really gotten to see each other since Kaidan gave Shepard the ring, and they both find themselves turning to sit before either thinks about it.

“It’s beautiful,” Jack notes, looking down towards Shepard’s hands.

“Thanks,” Shepard smiles. “And…thank you.”

“I know Kaidan told you it wasn’t my idea,” Jack smiles in return. “It was the right one, though. Kahlee didn’t know you two well enough to be sure, but…”

“I know,” Shepard nods. “He told me that, too. Thank you.”

“Drink?” Jack asks after a moment’s silence, and Shepard shakes her head.

“It’s early yet,” she laughs softly. “You go ahead, though.”

“You okay?” Jack asks, and Shepard isn’t sure how to take that being the natural response to her turning down liquor at this time of day.

No, that’s a lie. She knows exactly how to take that.

“By whose standards?” Shepard chuckles. “No, I…I guess I’m trying to take this whole ‘getting better’ thing seriously, you know? I’m not giving it up if I don’t have to, believe me, but I know how out of hand things have gotten…”

“Like when you got banned from the Dark Star?” Jack smirks, having decided not to grab a drink for herself, either.

“Jack,” Shepard laughs despite herself, “I got banned from fucking Chora’s Den.”

“Oh shit,” Jack replies in genuine astonishment. “If that place was anything like what I’ve heard…”

“Probably worse,” Shepard interjects. “Come to think of it, how the fuck did Purgatory keep letting me back in?”

Purgatory was, after all, where the worst of it took place. That one turian bartender at the Dark Star Lounge who seemed endlessly amused by pushing the limits of what she could handle, and the fact that she so often begged him to push harder, made for an interesting ride there before she was informed that she was no longer welcome inside their establishment. At Purgatory, though…she’d spent a lot of time at Purgatory. Time she does not remember, time she’ll never get back. Time she also did not have to spare considering that she didn’t start frequenting that club until after Earth fell, but somehow she worked it into her schedule, and she doesn’t need to have many memories of the place to know that it was bad. There were enough times she found herself being babysat by Aria (of all fucking people), or waking up in different parts of the Citadel and no idea how she’d ended up there, or finding out from Karin when she unexpectedly found herself in the med bay that Edi or Steve or James or someone had been forced to carry her sorry ass back to the Normandy.

Fortunately, all kinds of powerful implants meant she was never down for long after those benders, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad path. Abnormally fast health regen meant she could decently manage juggling going out like that with active duty, but the most dangerous part about it is that she wanted to to begin with, and that she has no doubt in her mind that she would have tried to make it work even if she couldn’t.

So it is probably best not to tempt that road again.

“Morale,” Jack shrugs. “It was considered encouraging to the other soldiers and…well, everyone, to see the great Commander Shepard down there with them, having fun and blowing off steam like everyone else, and Aria T’Loak volunteered herself for cleanup crew for whenever you got too out of hand.”

Shepard stares blankly at Jack for a moment, unsure of whether or not there’s a joke in there that she must be missing.

“You’re kidding,” Shepard says dryly after a moment.

“Nope,” Jack replies. “Sorry, but…believe me, I asked.”

“Worried about me, Jack?” Shepard teases.

“Fuck off,” Jack answers instantly.

“But if I remember correctly—which I damn well know I don’t, but you know what I mean—Aria could only do so much,” Shepard notes.

“Yeah, well, fuck if I know,” Jack shrugs again. “Some kind of arrangement or another’d been worked out and Aria had her hands in it, that’s all I’ve got. I’m sure I don’t want to know what the hell goes on inside that woman’s head, but she was definitely looking out for you more than she let on, so she must have had her reasons. I guess after your little re-takeover of Omega, maybe she just wanted to let you have your fun or…whatever.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Shepard says awkwardly. “She always did like me more than she wanted to admit.”

Shepard waits for a second, hoping this conversation will not continue, and after another brief silence, she is glad to be able to change the subject and ask, “So, how’s things with Miranda?”

She realizes this was not actually the question for Jack that she had on her mind, but she decides that anything else can wait. She’s still too raw from the night before, and she has now already had too damn much of baring her heart.

“Fuck, Shepard,” Jack sneers, and Shepard is immediately taken aback.

Jack takes a deep breath and folds her hands over the kitchen table, and she clenches them tight.

“Sorry, it’s just…I’ve been thinking,” Jack starts again. “I mean, I know you’ve fucking seen her but…look at her, Shepard. Fucking look at her. She’s gorgeous—not even, no, she’s perfect. She has the most beautiful smile, but it’s…it’s more than that, it’s…those tits, that ass, those fucking curves and contours you just want to grip tight and dig your fingers into, but…”

“But I assume you’re not seriously getting this angry about complimenting your girlfriend?” Shepard chimes in whenever Jack trails off, her eyes on fire.

Jack’s knuckles are turning white, and her eyes move to stare at her hands. “Shit, no, I…I can’t help it, though, you know? I try not to think about it, but it’s fucked. She looks like that because she was made to. By some fucked up piece of shit who was supposed to be her goddamn father. There was once an actual, living ‘person’ who wanted a daughter, and he decided that she—that his fucking daughter should be the most fuckable piece of ass imaginable? And to make it better, he did this more than once? That doesn’t make your fucking skin crawl, Shepard?”

“I was very happy to see him die,” Shepard replies, not sure what else to say. “Miranda was worried I’d judge her for being glad he’s gone, but…I’d have been more concerned if she wasn’t, honestly. The only shame is that he didn’t really suffer.”

Shepard stops herself from any further rambling and she isn’t sure she should have said let it go that far, but she remains at a loss for what she should say, and it isn’t as though she doesn’t mean it.

“Yeah,” Jack whispers. “Yeah, I wish I could’ve been there.”

Shepard wonders if Miranda knows she’d never actually have let Henry walk out of there alive, that she was only saying that so he’d let go of Oriana. Shepard was more than ready to take the shot, but she could never have risked Miranda’s sister like that, and she’s even more glad she played it the way she did because Miranda deserved to be the one to kill him herself.

Miranda has to realize it, though, Shepard’s sure. Maybe later she’ll ask, but…

Jack unclenches her fingers and puts her hands over her face, clearly with more on her mind.

“Jack?” Shepard asks tentatively.

“Fuck,” Jack lets out. “I didn’t want to say anything because it’s not exactly mine to say anything about, and I know Miranda’s been wanting to get your advice, herself, but…I need you to talk some fucking sense into her, Shepard.”

“What about?” Shepard meets Jack’s eyes, and they look so tired.

“If things had worked out with Thane, how do you think his kid would’ve factored into it?” Jack asks, and Shepard has to take a second to process the very unexpected question.

“I can’t really answer that,” Shepard replies sadly. “Things were never going to work out with Thane, Jack. That’s…”

That’s why she became involved with him. A relationship with Thane was always going to end in devastation, no matter what happened between them, and that is why she went for it. She cared about Thane in her own way, but she can’t say she ever loved him, at least not the way he’d loved her. She did what she did so that she could hurt for it later. She’s just glad that it was good for Thane, that at least he was able to enjoy their time together, and she hopes he’d remained blissfully unaware of her underlying intentions (she realizes he probably knew on some level, but she tries to find her own solace in the peace he’d found with her all the same).

She doesn’t know if she can bring herself to say all of that out loud, though, and it would get them too off-track, anyway.

“Why? What’s going on?” Shepard turns her attention back to Jack.

“Someone tracked down Miranda about…about adoptions, Shepard,” Jack explains. “I guess it’s something she’d looked into before everything had gone too far to shit, and now fuck only knows how many kids need parents, so someone got in touch and she…we talked about it, but I think she’s going to put it off, and that’s bullshit.”

Shepard is not surprised that this is something Miranda would have been pursuing, but she once again does not know how to react to what Jack is telling her, and Jack does not look like she’s finished speaking, in any case.

“She doesn’t want to complicate shit with us, I get it, but I can just be ‘Mom’s girlfriend’ until enough time’s passed or whatever, you know?” Jack continues. “She wants this bad, Shepard, I know she does, and she’d be fucking amazing at it.”

“She would,” Shepard agrees. “You both would.”

“Shit,” Jack laughs a little. “I don’t want to put myself in there like that yet, just in case…in case…you know. But any kid would be damn lucky to have her for a mother, and it isn’t fucking fair to anyone if she turns this down because of me.”

Shepard agrees, although she can see why Miranda might be cautious when things are so new between the two of them from an official standpoint. She has no doubt that Miranda’s concern is with the wellbeing of the child that might be involved, but she also can’t help but believe that they can do this. She isn’t sure if it’s her place to say something like that with so much certainty, but she knows what both Miranda and Jack have been through, and she knows that the both of them would charge right into fucking full scale war if anyone ever hurt any child in their care.

“What did you tell her when you talked about it?” Shepard asks, going towards a safer direction.

“Not as much as I should have,” Jack says softly. “It was a lot to think about and I told her she should do it, but we didn’t get too into it and I didn’t push, and we haven’t talked about it again.”

“What do you want to tell her?” Shepard tries, and Jack’s eyes light up.

“That it isn’t only fucked up that she might not take this opportunity for herself, but that it’s fucked up for her to blow the chance for some poor fucking orphan to be raised by one of the most badass biotic bitches in the galaxy,” Jack smiles a little. “Fuck knows that kid would never have to worry about anyone ever hurting them. Miranda would fucking kill anyone who tried. And…shit, you know what, Shepard? So would I.”

“There you go,” Shepard smiles back, and Jack gets up and walks away without another word.

Shepard waits a few moments and walks back out into the living room, just in time to see Jack and Miranda heading towards the back door.

She finds a seat on the couch next to Kaidan and tries not to pay any mind to the continued streaming of the vid.

She had somehow completely managed to avoid paying attention to the news before going to Kaidan’s parents’ house, but over the course of the week that’s followed, it has become a source of non-stop anxiety.

“I’m sorry, Shepard, I should never have taken a leave of absence,” Diana says. “I’m sure there was suspicion before, but that might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“It’s alright, Allers,” Shepard replies. “You don’t know that, and hiding for the rest of my life was bound to be a fucking pipe dream, anyway. What did you tell them, though? I know you were busy…”

“I told them I had important family business to tend to,” Diana laughs at herself. “What the hell was I thinking? As far as most people are concerned, no one else in my family ever left Bekenstein. And this comes after digging around for those audio logs, and it’s not like no one at ANN knows I’ve been spending so much time around here…”

“So you told them the truth,” Steve smiles.

“I’m sure this couldn’t have lasted forever,” Shepard sighs. “I need to figure out what exactly I’m gonna do, but…I promise, Diana, that first interview goes to you.”

“I know,” Diana smiles.

“Do it on your birthday,” Joker laughs. “Your face is gonna be all the fuck over the vids all day, anyway. Just pop in there like, ‘surprise, bitch!’”

“Sorry, Joker, but I’m told James has other plans already,” Shepard tries to take on a lighter tone.

“Hey now, Lola,” James chuckles. “If you thought for a single fucking second that we weren’t gonna celebrate…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shepard shakes her head.

She still remembers the sound of his voice when he found her in London, though. Everything else about it has already become so blurred and faded in her memory that it hardly lingers at all, but that stands out to her like it was yesterday.

James still remembers finding her in London like it just fucking happened. He’d volunteered to go back there, to be as hands-on as he could where the final fight had gone down, even in the dawn of the Reapers as allies and the fact that they’ve taken on repairing most of the damage they caused, themselves.

Losing Shepard was even harder than he could have expected, though. “Lola the hot older sister” had stopped being a cute little joke a long damn time ago. There is nothing humorous about it, no, it is simply who she has become to him, through and through. He’d had no idea then that she sees him as a brother in return, but she’s family. This whole crew is family, but it was Shepard who’d brought them together, Shepard who led them, Shepard who was always there for all of them, no matter fucking what, even at the cost of her own well-being.

So when everyone went their separate ways with promises to keep in touch they all knew they’d hold to, James went back to London. That was where he expected most of the real work to be, and when he made his request, it was every bit as much because he wanted to do good work as it was that he needed to be as heavily distracted as possible.

And when he was summoned to see to an injured Jane Doe believed to be Alliance, he couldn’t have imagined what he was walking into. The MIA count remains astronomical, so it could have been anyone. That long after the war was over and everyone who’d never reported back was officially listed among the dead, and any time someone on that list is found to be alive, it’s a damn good day. So it was a summons he was happy to follow, but he’d never have guessed just how happy he was about to be. Well, happy might not be quite the right word, given the state he found her in, but…in retrospect, happy is still the most appropriate word he can come up with.

She’d looked so broken and sickly when he saw her that at first glance he was terrified he’d gotten there too late: so pale and thin, with her face bruised and stitched together and swollen almost beyond recognition. But despite it all, he knew her the second he laid eyes on her. He isn’t even entirely sure how, but he knew without question, without the slightest pause for doubt.

And now they’re all here, everyone coming and going as often as they can, and she’s there with them.

Shepard is there, and that makes it home.

For as hard as it’s going to be to leave this place, there is plenty of solace to be found in knowing where to return, and what there is to return to.

“It’ll be fun, Lola,” James smirks. “Promise.”

“I believe you, Vega,” Shepard shakes her head. “Just nothing too crazy, alright? I really can’t dance now, you know.”

“So, uh, how’s that any different from before?” Samantha teases.

“It isn’t,” Liara says.

And Shepard only laughs, grateful to have these people with her.

She now definitely feels like a special kind of asshole for talking Joker into dancing with Edi at that big party at her old apartment, though.

She looks down and her eyes catch on the sparkle of that ring in the light (a sight by which she is often distracted), and for a split second her mind wanders to the idea of doing this right, of having the kind of big, fancy wedding Kaidan won’t admit he’s also been picturing.

She thinks of how she’d have asked Anderson to walk her down the aisle if he were here. She has yet to truly try to deal with the inevitability of her discharge, but that would have left them open to stop dancing around rank and finally genuinely acknowledge the clear father-daughter dynamic they always had, even if they’d both stopped putting that much effort into hiding it after he’d helped them steal the Normandy SR-1. Of course, the ring will keep him with her in its own way, but he should still fucking be there.

She also thinks, however, of the very idea of walking down the aisle, humiliation preemptively falling down over her at the thought of having to use a cane on such an occasion, or of how well she’d fare if she let her own stubbornness win out and neglected to even bother with it.

She hasn’t said anything to Kaidan about how much she genuinely enjoys the fantasy of making it into a ridiculously grand affair (fuck knows they’ve earned themselves an endless amount of giant parties, after all, and she can’t think of a better excuse for one), and she’s almost embarrassed by it. But the facts remain that she wants it more than she can bring herself to say, and that she is equally terrified of it.

And there is still the issue of how publicized she knows it would be. There is almost no way around that, and the more the press questions the validity of her death, the more obvious this becomes.

But everything about her will likely be publicized soon, anyway. Sooner rather than later, she’s sure, just as she is sure that the longer she puts this off, the harder it will be.

She isn’t ready, though. She isn’t fucking ready.

But then again, she is every bit as doubtful as she has been that this will ever change, and she knows damn well that she needs to be.

More things to talk to Kelly about, perhaps.

“I hear her great heart purr. From her lips ampersands and percent signs exit like kisses.”

Her mind flashes back to her mother’s face—almost, almost.

Last night’s dreams have especially stuck with her.

She wants them out of her head, she wants it gone.

At the same time, however, she does not.

She sees her parents in vague flashes, never clear, but now more than ever.

She hadn’t realized how much meeting Kaidan’s was going to hurt.

“What am I to make of these contradictions?”

“Carrie,” Kaidan’s voice takes her away from the spiral in her mind, pulls her back to reality.

She looks at him and knows without needing to ask that this was not the first time he, or someone, had called her name.

Kelly calls it “dissociation.” Shepard had previously thought of it simply as “losing time,” the only readily available words at her disposal to describe the sensation. All she knows for sure is that she is there and then she isn’t. Sometimes she is somewhere else entirely, sometimes she is nowhere. But no matter the case, hours can pass without her noticing, without her knowing where they went. Because they went by without her. Because she wasn’t there.

Right now, she is there. But right now, she isn’t.

“Huh?” Shepard tries to focus her eyes on Kaidan, tries her damnedest not to slip away.

Fuck, she doesn’t know what to do. She isn’t ready for the galaxy.

And the galaxy isn’t ready for her. They idolize her, almost as much as James did when they first met. They call her a hero, they light candles in her name, they build monuments, they lay stones in her memory, they pray for her soul. And it’s because she means something to them, to everyone, and has become more than she is or ever was. She was over glorified in life, yes, but now? Now she’s practically a fucking saint.

People say she brought the galaxy salvation. Now she will only bring them disappointment.

It isn’t only that she doesn’t want them to see her like this. It is also that they won’t want to see it.

“I’m heading out, Shepard,” Liara says. “Do you need anything?”

“No, ah…I’m good, thanks,” Shepard answers quietly.

“Alright, I’ll see you later,” Liara replies. She is obviously concerned, but she doesn’t bring it up.

Everyone is used to this by now. As much as one can be, at least.

“I’ll say hello to Feron for you,” Liara adds with a smile.

“Thanks,” Shepard responds with a smile of her own, and in that second she doesn’t have to force it.

“You okay?” Kaidan whispers after Liara leaves, and Shepard shakes her head.

At the same time, however, she can’t help but say, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Carrie…”

“No, but…but I’m trying,” she admits. As surrounded by other people as they are, there is only so quiet they can be, but no one interjects.

He wraps an arm around her and she sinks into him, and that is a feeling he is certain he will never take for granted.

He isn’t sure why it comes to mind, but he finds himself thinking back on the first time he saw her again after London.

James had managed to pull some strings with the Alliance to get her there as fast as possible, and it was only a matter of hours before they’d brought her home.

He remembers the way James had looked at him when he first saw him, a glance of pity which could only be read as, “Yes, you really do look as bad as you feel.”

He’s sure he did, though, as he was caught up in a migraine that was made even worse by the fact that he’d only managed to force himself to stop sobbing a few minutes prior, in accordance with the ETA that James had provided.

But he knew James felt it, too, that James had his own brand of emotional overload sitting heavily atop his shoulders following the news he’d delivered.

Getting her back like this…no one could fault them the effect it had.

And then in came Shepard, along with some Alliance personnel—a medic accompanied by a few soldiers—that James had managed to borrow for assistance, brought in bound to a bed and barely responsive. Kaidan had gotten in touch with Karin as soon as he’d disconnected from James’s first call, and he was not surprised that she dropped everything at the news and started on her way as soon as possible, and so her arrival was already imminent. But seeing Shepard—Karin couldn’t get there fast enough. He remembers struggling to breathe, rendered completely unable to speak at the sight of her. He isn’t sure what he could have expected, but it wasn’t that.

James had explained what little he could from the conversations he’d had with the doctor who’d cared for Shepard in London. He’d relayed to Kaidan about when they were preparing for the trip to Vancouver, what she’d told him about how strangely she was healing. Some of her injuries had been properly dealt with by then—there’d been several broken bones which were no longer an issue, along with some of the internal bleeding—but what was left, what was visible, was unnerving to say the least.

She’d been torn up so badly that she was covered in actual stitches, that medi-gel alone hadn’t been enough, and some were so fresh when she was brought to him because wounds kept opening back up and needing to be sewn together again, because her body had repeatedly been working to reject her sutures. Her Cerberus scars hadn’t (and still haven’t) gone away, and perhaps it was something about them that railed so hard against all of the facial reconstruction those who’d treated her in London had fought so hard to provide her.

That, coupled with the roller coaster of inconsistent physical reactions that could only be blamed on her Cerberus implants, left her in dire shape. Her internal temperature shifted by the hour, seeming to switch between fighting for her and fighting against her, bruises lingered for unnaturally long periods of time, and her flesh actively tried not to mend, but her muscles never atrophied despite all that time confined to a bed. Her insides could not seem to decide if they were failing or hyperfunctioning, but that didn’t stop the constant rebuilding that was charging on beneath her skin.

She was a mess of contradictions, and the most likely theory remains Miranda’s comment about her implants possibly clashing with everyone’s new DNA, overloading to fight each other rather than work together, and perhaps this is why time has not fixed everything…why no matter how much time passes, she may never be the same.

Her head rests against his shoulder and takes his hand loosely into hers, and he breathes her in, trying to shake out those images, those memories.

He can’t lose her again. He won’t.

And he didn’t.

And now it at least seems safe to say that the days of not knowing if either of them will live to see tomorrow are over.

“Hey,” Garrus and Tali say one right after the other as they enter the room.

Jack and Miranda have been gone a while.

“So, you saw?” Garrus asks with obvious contempt when he sees that the news is on.

“Yes,” Diana replies through gritted teeth.

“Maybe we should put something else on?” Samantha suggests lightly, looking at Diana.

“Not Fleet and Flotilla,” Joker says quickly. “Not again.”

“Are you feeling alright, Shepard?” Edi asks abruptly.

Shepard assumes by this that she must look as bad as she feels.

“Am I ever?” Shepard chuckles quietly, and she turns her head and leans further into Kaidan in an effort to hide her face against his shoulder.

“You will be,” Karin offers. “Give it time.”

She’s sure Karin believes it, and fuck knows how much she wants to, but she’s come out of the war even more broken than she was when she went in, and that is astounding.

She knows Karin believes she can adjust, that she doesn’t have to heal completely to get better. She wants to believe it.

Karin is being a good mother in saying it. That’s being honest about the bond they share.

She once again remembers what Karin said about Shepard as their immovable center, about constants and stability. She thinks on Karin noting that Joker will always need her help because he will always have Vrolik’s Syndrome—except that this is no longer true.

Shepard, however, is fully aware by this point that she will more than likely always have…this, whatever exactly this is.

She will always have this new damage to contrast everyone else’s strengthened physicalities.

Kaidan, of course, still has his migraines, and she does not exactly understand the logic behind that. Her implants that kept her together had fried and tried to tear her apart, but at the same time, they did keep her together once again at the end of the day, so they did still serve their original purpose. Kaidan’s chronic pain is also the result of an implant, but she doesn’t understand how that did not synthesize, how that did not fix itself. Perhaps it is as simple as the differences in starting from organic and starting from synthetic. Maybe this will change as the lines continue to blur.

She wonders what Kaidan’s biotics would look like now, though, how powerful they might be. She wonders if that might be the difference, that perhaps what he did not lose in downsides is what he’s gained in biotic strength, but she doubts she’ll get to find out anytime soon.

She shouldn’t be thinking of peace in a negative light, but…

War is familiar. Fighting is all she knows.

What is peace, truly?

And how does she learn to live with it?

“Shepard…” Steve sounds worried. She wonders how long she’s been silent, how much time has elapsed in reality while her mind wandered.

Jack and Miranda are back. That’s probably noteworthy in this context.

“Yeah, I’m…I’m something,” Shepard sighs.

She doesn’t say “fine” again, though. She nearly lets herself, but she is able to fight her natural inclination to do so.

She wants this to be okay. She wants to enjoy this time with her loved ones. She doesn’t want to hide. She wants…

She wants to be 16 again, and she wants to be faster—to be fast enough.

She wants to know her parents. She wants to see them glow over her accomplishments, she wants to introduce them to Kaidan, she wants to go back and fucking fix this so something can be normal.

She supposes that’s what everything around her now is for, though. This is her normal. This is as normal as it is ever going to be.

And it should be enough. She wants it to be enough.

James says something about ordering pizza, and she only nods. She barely even hears him.

She refuses to leave this spot, though. Not now.

She wants to socialize. She wants to be there.

She thinks back to how mortified she’d been by James’s obvious reverence for her when they first met. It was downright embarrassing, and she had absolutely pitied him for it. But she thinks about where they are now…

She feels Kaidan’s lips against her forehead. She doesn’t know if he’s aware of what exactly her mind is doing, but she’s sure he knows it’s doing something. And there he is, by her side and giving her whatever he can, just as he has a thousand times.

Diana and Samantha’s voices sound far more distant than they are, but they’re definitely arguing over pineapple’s validity as a pizza topping.

Edi is clearly becoming fascinated with this discussion, but Shepard continues to only catch little bits here and there, and it all feels so far away.

She is there, but she isn’t.

And she is terrified of the ghosts that might follow her to wherever she’s gone.

That much is beginning to improve, especially since she’s begun talking about things, but they haven’t yet left her, and a part of her is no longer sure she wants them to.

She has her father’s eyes and her mother’s smile.

Or so she thinks. Or so she feels. Maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s found in the deepest roots of lost memories. She doesn’t know, and she is more afraid than ever to find out.

She can’t place why her mother’s name scares her so much. She doesn’t understand why it only makes her want to push it all down further.

She looks forward to spending more time with Kaidan’s parents. She wonders if maybe that might dull the ache, even if it’s apparently only going to make it worse at first.

“Wrex had good things to say about that krogan Macbeth,” Garrus laughs, and Shepard realizes they’re still trying to get away from the news.

“Oh, that came out?” Shepard asks, surprising herself.

How much time she’s lost through everything.

Time has no meaning.

With all this talk of hers, she realizes she’s pretty sure she missed Kaidan’s birthday. If she remembers correctly. She also realizes that she doesn’t know anyone else’s.

“Rose garden stuff,” Udina had called it, but even he seemed to know on some level that it matters.

But she can’t say she isn’t pleased that he didn’t make it to see a time where such things could become real priorities again.

“I want to watch that with Grunt, though,” Shepard follows with a smile.

“Aww, I’m sure your son will appreciate the thought,” Garrus chuckles.

“Hey, Kaidan,” Shepard starts softly. “You should find some of those old vids you and your mom were talking about…you know, that scientist she likes.”

“Yeah, okay,” Kaidan replies, and she’s sure without looking that she can hear him smile. “I’ve got to warn you, though, this stuff’s from the 1980s, so things might not look or sound too great.”

It feels strangely appropriate to her, that she would want to reach back over 200 years, to an era so far behind that she cannot even imagine, in order to find something to distract from the realities of the here and now.

Time has no meaning.

“Go ahead,” Shepard urges, and Kaidan pulls up his omni-tool in accordance with her request.

“Hey, calm down now, we can be civil about this, no?” James teases, reacting to the ongoing pineapple debate.

“I had no idea this was a topic that could cause humans such distress,” Edi muses.

“You have a lot to learn, Edi,” Kelly chuckles.

“You probably could have done without this lesson, though,” Steve adds with a laugh.

“Oh, you weren’t kidding, Kaidan,” Tali notes about the quality of the vid.

“Yeah, sorry,” Kaidan responds. “It’s pretty amazing, though, to be able to watch this stuff. Space exploration was in its infancy and we had no idea about what was ahead of us, if there was anything worthwhile at all. But here we were, trying to figure it all out, so full of hope.”

“You humans really are big on that whole hope thing, aren’t you?” Garrus laughs.

“Hey, don’t forget who the goddamn face of hope for the whole fucking galaxy is, alright,” Joker retorts.

“Please,” Shepard sighs, and the subject is dropped.

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” The words from the vid pull everyone’s attention, and all other chatter ceases. “Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young and curious and brave…”

“See, we’ve always been like this,” Karin smiles.

Shepard is unreasonably comforted by Karin having input on this. Much like Kaidan’s, Karin is a good mother.

She tries not to think about it.

She’ll talk to Kelly tomorrow, though. She’ll keep her promise.

“I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky…”

But for the time being, she is too afraid of her own mind, of all the ways it can haunt her. So for the time being, she is simply going to try not to think.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is remembering.

Not much, but it’s something, and she does not know how to handle it.

She only knows that she needs to.

She and Kelly are seated across from each other in the kitchen once again. There is laughter coming from the backyard, where everyone else is congregated over drinks.

This is how it goes now. This is becoming routine.

“Hannah,” Shepard says quietly. “I remembered that and…I thought about what you said, about how there’d be records. So I…I tried, Kelly. I found her. Hannah Tavora Kaufman Shepard, an early settler to Mindoir from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. And that’s as far as I got. I think I caught her birthdate, but I’m not even sure about that. And I didn’t try to find anything else about her, or about anyone. I…I just couldn’t.”

“It’s okay,” Kelly says softly to the burning in Shepard’s glazed and bloodshot eyes.

“I had her right there, but I just stopped,” Shepard chastises herself. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh a little when I found out she was from Canada, but…”

She shakes her head and shuts her eyes tight for just a moment, and tears rapidly start streaming down her face the exact second she opens them.

“But that’s where I stopped,” she continues. “It almost became real, getting that far. And it hurt. So I put it away.”

She sounds as numb as she wishes to feel, her voice painfully hollow and distant.

“Did that make it stop hurting?” Kelly asks patiently. She already knows the answer, of course, but the important part of getting Shepard to recognize it, to acknowledge it. Shepard has to be the one to say it, and she will not yet do so on her own.

“No,” Shepard admits. “I kept it from being too real, but…it’s becoming too real. It’s getting too hard to bury, but a part of me still wants so fucking badly to try…”

She thinks again of further conversations she needs to have with Jack.

It’s comforting, though, that Jack has become such an integral part of ongoing events surrounding her. Jack had wanted to make nice with her, or with anyone, even less than Miranda had in the beginning, and it’s incredible to look at where the both of them are now. Both of their personal lives are flourishing outside of their relationship to Shepard, and both of them are putting those flourishing lives on hold to be there for their friends for as long as they can.

It’s a strange thought, and stranger yet for Shepard to know that she is the common denominator, that none of her self-doubt and hatred can take away from the evidence at hand: she can, it seems, bring out the very best in everyone she cares about, and make friends in the most unexpected places.

Not many others could pick up people like a krogan mercenary, a disgruntled C-Sec officer, a master thief, a justicar, the founder of the Blue Suns, and one of the galaxy’s most dangerous convicts—for only a few examples—and come out of it all with the most true and loyal friends she can possibly imagine, who’d all become not only a team but a family, and to each other just as much as to her.

Not many people could engineer a scenario where a salarian scientist who’d once worked on keeping the genophage effective would end up having a krogan child named after him.

That’s Shepard’s gift, though, for whatever exactly it’s worth.

She supposes at least some of these people whose lives she’s touched truly are better off for it. Jack and Miranda both could claim as much, for sure. Tali would probably say so, as well. Wrex, too…but not Mordin. Samara is alive because of her, she knows, but with the vast amount of blood on her hands at the same time, from Akuze to Ashley to Anderson and with how many in between, it doesn’t exactly balance out.

“Shepard…Shepard?” Kelly’s voice is far away but slowly growing nearer, laden with worry.

“Sorry, I…” Shepard starts, but does not know how to finish. She wasn’t there. She’s having trouble staying. She wants to hide, wants to run away. She doesn’t want to talk about anything, she doesn’t want to feel anything.

“‘I shall never get you put together entirely, pieced, glued, and properly jointed,’” Shepard starts, easing her way back with words that are not her own. “I don’t even know which one of us I’m thinking of now, honestly. I’ll never get my mother back at all, but I’ll never get me back whole, will I? I’ll never be put back together, glued and jointed. I’ll never be back in one piece, there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But this one still comes to mind thinking of her? She’ll never be pieced back together, either, but it’s because she’ll never again be. She’s gone and I can’t even remember how exactly it happened. It was loud, I remember that. I don’t know much else, but it was chaos, and it was so fucking loud. ‘Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles proceed from your great lips. It’s worse than a barnyard.’”

She remembers Talitha referring to herself as an animal, how everyone who’d been taken that day had gone on to be both treated like and called animals.

She remembers that she’s “lucky.” She couldn’t blame someone like Talitha for seeing her that way, at least.

Of course, some news reports she’s seen in passing over the years have referred to people like her family as lucky, as well, for not ending up like Talitha.

Shepard herself might have come the closest out of everyone on the colony to walking out of that raid alive, but how much of her actually survived it is absolutely still up for debate.

She has looked for Talitha, though. Unfortunately, nothing has turned up based on only a first name and place of birth. So she may be okay, at least relatively speaking, but Shepard isn’t sure she’ll ever find out for certain.

“Where are you right now?” Kelly asks sympathetically. She doubts Shepard is aware of how lost she looks or long she’s taking to speak. She doubts Shepard realizes how still she is or how airy and disconnected her voice sounds. There are tears steadily continuing to stream down her face and, at a quick glance, that might be the only thing that differentiates her between an actual person and a museum-quality replica.

“Not real,” Shepard utters. “I don’t know, but it’s…it isn’t Mindoir, not really. But it is. But I know it isn’t. It’s not real. It’s just not here.”

She thinks of Talitha talking about herself in third-person, of how much trouble she had connecting herself to the hell she’d been through, and how she’d spoken of it like it had happened to someone else, because that was the only way she could speak of it…to speak of the unspeakable.

Shepard has never been so outwardly obvious about her own version of this sort of disconnect, neither has hers ever been so severe, but she definitely understands it.

“‘I shall never get you put together entirely,’” Shepard repeats. “‘Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.’ Maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe I can’t be. Maybe I died with my family on Mindoir. Maybe I died with my unit on Akuze. Maybe I died with Ash and the salarian team on Virmire. Maybe I died with Saren on the Citadel. Maybe I died with Anderson there, too. I like that one. I think it might be my favorite. It’s the only one that’s even better than dying floating out in space after watching your crew escape with their lives. It was painful, I think, but there’s a peace in dying with that. You know, the only one that isn’t a ‘maybe.’”

“That really haunts you,” Kelly notes.

“Would you be any different?” Shepard snaps. She doesn’t mean to, but neither does she back down. “All the times I nearly died, all the times it was like a piece of me died and was left wherever I was, and then the time I did, honest-to-god, legitimately die. I’m not always sure I’m convinced that it was either the first time or the last time, but it’s the one no one can fucking argue. So yeah, it fucking haunts me. That time I literally fucking died, and then two years later I have to try to explain where I’ve been in all this time I’ve lost without being able to bring myself to say what really happened, and I’m at the mercy of an organization that two years before I was desperately trying to uncover and take down, and who was responsible for one of the most traumatic experiences of my whole fucked up life. There’s a lot of shit wrong with me, Kelly, but I don’t think being haunted by that really counts.”

“I wasn’t judging it, only observing,” Kelly replies calmly. “It absolutely would haunt me, too, you’re right about that. It’s not wrong, I didn’t mean to imply that. But it needs to be dealt with, just like everything else.”

Shepard bursts out laughing, and Kelly sits back and waits patiently for her to finish. She would be lying, after all, if she had not begun anticipating such a response from the moment the words formed in her mind, just before they were spoken.

“I wasn’t planning to come back from the Collector base, you know,” Shepard says hesitantly after a brief but tense silence. “Everyone called it a suicide mission, and for as much as I talked it up that I was going for the exact opposite, I intended to prove them right. And please don’t misunderstand me here, everyone else’s survival was always of utmost importance. I wasn’t looking to get the rest of my team killed. I was always going to prioritize getting everyone else out alive for as long as I was still kicking, but I had absolutely no intention of following them out.”

“So why did you?” Kelly asks in earnest. “What changed your mind?”

“Joker’s face, looking down at me from the Normandy,” Shepard sighs. “He looked…desperate, to put it lightly. It was just like before, when I saw with my own damn eyes that everyone else was where they needed to be, that everyone else was as safe as I could possibly ensure, and that was fine. I could stay behind from there. I’d done all I could. But there was Joker, calling for me and extending his hand, even though we both know I’d probably break his fucking arm if I took it. And I realized—what if Ash had come back after Virmire? What if I had a second chance to save her, but I had to leave her to die again? And I knew that’s what it would have been like for Joker. So I couldn’t stay behind, not on his watch. I couldn’t do that to him.”

“You know, Shepard, your profile from that time is…interesting,” Kelly says. “In comparison to the rest of your time on the Normandy, any iteration of it. Of course, I only have my interactions with you on the Citadel and rumor to go by about after your reinstatement, but the Illusive Man was able to get me records of previous psych evals—”

“I never submitted to anything like that,” Shepard interrupts.

“I know, that’s in there, too,” Kelly replies. “And while it makes sense and I doubt anyone would blame you, there was certainly a significant change from the Alliance to Cerberus. You had a reputation before, but it mostly had to do with telling off the Council when they wouldn’t listen to you about the Reapers. Punching reporters and such came into play, too, but you were known as a problem-solver, and with a temper that typically only came out when provoked or as a means to an end. With Cerberus, though, you could be so…forgive me, but…ruthless. The way you cared for your crew matched perfectly with what I’d previously read about you, but beyond that, well…”

“Are you sure you’re not blaming me?” Shepard asks gently. She is aware of how different she became with Cerberus, and how distanced from her very self she was with them. It was the only way she could carry on, the only way she could complete the mission without the guilt surrounding her newfound “allegiance” destroying her.

Not that it didn’t in its own way. But it didn’t incapacitate her, it only ate away at her from the inside and caused her to desperately work to sever ties between her own mind and body, to try to turn herself into a soulless machine whose only purpose was to get the job done. Which she did, so as far as she’s concerned, this is fine.

Thane had wanted to save her from that fate. He never said so outright, but the more disconnected she became, the more he seemed to open up about his years of “battle sleep.” She’d thought at first that he genuinely just needed someone to talk to about it, and perhaps that was partially true all the same, but time and slowly coming back to herself have warranted further reflection, and have opened her eyes on the subject.

Just like Thane would have wanted.

“I was a bit of a hard ass with the Alliance, but a merciful hard ass—that sound about right?” Shepard laughs dryly.

“That would be a decent summary of those reports, yes,” Kelly smiles.

“Everyone judges you by the things you do, not the things you don’t,” Shepard replies flatly.

She’s never told anyone what she’s about to admit to Kelly, not even Thane, even though it was his influence that prevented her from following through on the action she had so longed to take.

Because there may have been no turning back from ever keeping her mind and body even remotely intact if she had.

“My greatest mercy when I was with Cerberus…fuck,” Shepard struggles to say it, although she no longer feels as though she has any choice but to do so.

“Take your time,” Kelly says softly. Somehow that only makes Shepard feel worse.

“I didn’t kill Liara,” Shepard chokes out through gritted teeth.

Hearing the words…for as much as she’d thought about it, hearing herself say it is oddly jarring.

There’s that disconnect again.

But it had been so long since she’s so much as thought of this at all, and it had taken significant effort to bury it enough to move forward.

All she wanted was to bury it, like everything else.

“I can’t even tell you how close I came after she told me that she’d been the one who gave my body to Cerberus,” Shepard forces out in almost a whisper. “She knew about my history with them, she fucking knew better, but she…well. And she told me, and then she just…turned away, and I remember feeling myself start to reach for my gun. I could have shot her in the back right then and there, and I wanted to. And I know I could never have forgiven myself if I’d done it, but…I pictured it so vividly. I love Liara, I really do, and I’ve come to terms with what she did and why she did it, but in that moment it took everything in my power to not fucking murder her in cold blood and just walk away. But no one cares that I didn’t. No one judges you on that kind of shit. She doesn’t know. No one knows. Except, well, now you.”

Almost a full minute passes without either of them speaking after that. Shepard does not know what to say, and Kelly does not believe Shepard to be finished getting all of this out. She is about to break the silence to say as much, but Shepard speaks again first.

“So yeah, maybe I was merciless…cold, callous, even heartless, however you want to call it,” Shepard continues. “I was, but I…I wasn’t me. I was…it was sort of like I was playing a character. What would Carrie Shepard do if she were somehow suddenly to become a Cerberus sympathizer? How would she justify that? How would her personality have to change to allow for it? What would she do if she was no longer loyal to the Alliance, or any of her old crew? How careless would she have to be to stop caring about that? How hardened would she need to be to let the line between right and wrong become so blurred the way she did? I had to become numb, I had to distance myself from myself. Because I could never have worked with Cerberus, and that simply meant that I couldn’t be me.”

She thinks on everyone being so unnerved by her saving the Collector base for the Illusive Man. She is almost certain that she would not have done that, but it felt right for the version of herself who could work with him to begin with. The same version of herself who could watch some poor lost teenager sign up to be cannon fodder for a band of mercs on Omega without saying a single word, the same version of herself who could lie to Tali’s face about allowing Legion to send classified information about the Migrant Fleet to the geth, the same version of herself who could so easily let that “biotic god” volus lead the way on Illium, the same version…

It doesn’t matter. She could be cruel back then, she knows. How many times could she have offered a spare medi-gel to a sick or injured civilian who obviously needed help, or even simply not punched or shot someone just to get them out of her way? It’s a shame, but it wasn’t her. None of it was her.

“I can’t say I blame you,” Kelly says sadly. “We all wanted to believe we were doing the right thing…hell, most of us did believe it for a while, but…I can’t imagine how hard that would have been for you, Shepard.”

“No, you can’t,” Shepard replies quickly. She follows with a deep breath and a shake of her head. “And I’m glad for that. No one else should have to understand that.”

Her eyes hurt. She doesn’t know how she’s still crying like this. It’s so quiet it’s barely an issue, but it burns like hell and it just won’t fucking stop.

“Thane kept me from hurting Liara,” Shepard decides to confess. “Not directly. Fuck, he wasn’t even there. But I think a part of what drew me to him, aside from…umm, I think it had a lot to do with the way he spoke of his body as a tool. How he didn’t assassinate his targets, but his body did. I think I envied that. And I think it might even have been what drew him to me. I think he knew what I was doing, and that he wanted to stop it before it was too late. And for as close as it got, I think I wanted to let him. ‘Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other. Thirty years now I have labored to dredge the silt from your throat. I am none the wiser.’”

“He did,” Kelly admits.

“Oh,” Shepard breathes out. She feels her hands start to shake, although she isn’t entirely sure why. “He talked…of course he talked to you.”

“He knew what I really do, and he knew we’d been…close,” Kelly explains. “So yes, he talked to me. He didn’t want to see you get lost like that when he’d only just been found—when you had just found him.”

“Why?” Shepard asks. It’s been one thing to ruminate over and perhaps to a point even romanticize what she’d meant to Thane, but receiving confirmation hurts more profoundly somehow. But of course her question is rhetorical, and this is obvious enough that Kelly does not offer an answer.

“Why the fuck would he do that?” Shepard continues. “He had to know…on some level he had to know that I was only using him to hurt myself, he had to kn—oh, fuck.”

She involuntarily stops and brings her hands up over her mouth, her eyes wide in horror.

She doesn’t think she’s ever said this aloud before. She’s thought it, but even that was a fairly recent realization. Because it’s just like her to do something that objectively awful without understanding why she’s doing it.

Kelly looks on with nothing but warmth and compassion and patience, silently waiting for Shepard to collect herself enough to keep going.

“Why the fuck are you looking at me like that?” Shepard is not angry, not at Kelly, but she knows well that that’s how it came out. She can’t pull it back, though. She can’t. She lets her hands fall, and that is the biggest step she can take right now. “Stop. Tell me it’s wrong. Tell me how fucked up it is. Tell me I’m a fucking monster, Kelly, please.”

“Shepard—”

“Don’t ‘Shepard’ me!” For a second her mind flashes to Mars, to Kaidan responding to his name the same way. “I am, though, I’m…I’m a monster who colludes with terrorists. I’m a monster who lets people die, who gets people killed. I’m a monster who fucks with other people’s emotions when I can’t get a grip on my own. Dammit, Kelly, I’m a monster who can hardly speak my own mother’s name.”

“Shepard…Shepard, breathe…”

She’s trying. Sort of.

“Make me,” Shepard laughs. It isn’t funny. “‘Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol, I crawl like an ant in mourning over the weedy acres of your brow to mend the immense skull plates and clear the bald, white tumuli of your eyes.’”

She carefully enunciates her words as she forces them out, giving herself something to focus on.

So she is trying.

“Why that one?” Kelly asks after a beat. She usually gets to that question sooner, but this session has been even more intense so far than usual.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Shepard sighs. “So much broken. So much loud. So much chaos. So much dirty. ‘A blue sky out of the Oresteia arches above us. O father, all by yourself you are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum. I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress. Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered in their old anarchy to the horizon-line.’”

Of course, such a question still isn’t usually about Kelly’s understanding of the subject, but about making Shepard acknowledge what she’s feeling, and Shepard is aware of this but has somehow not yet once allowed herself to fight it.

This is, as ever, a start.

“How’s your pain?” Kelly asks after another pause. She tries to bring that one up as much as she can, as well, to do her best to help Shepard cope with the one problem that truly throws her for a loop, even amidst all the others.

“It is,” Shepard shrugs. “I keep trying to tell myself it’s getting better. Maybe I’m just hoping that’ll somehow help me get used to it. You’d think it would matter as much, not with…”

She closes her eyes and presses two fingers against her left temple, and Kelly understands what she is trying to say, that Shepard is also so concerned with the state of her mind.

This, too, however, is progress, as she has previously tried much too hard to tell herself she is more okay than she is, but she has now begun listening to others’ concerns that burying her feelings as she always has will get her nowhere.

As it always has.

“‘It would take more than a lightning-stroke to create such a ruin,’” Shepard goes on. “‘Nights, I squat in the cornucopia of your left ear, out of the wind, counting the red stars and those of plum-color.’”

“You see yourself as a ruin?” Kelly presses. Again, the answer is obvious, but…

“Don’t you?” Shepard tries to laugh.

Fuck, her eyes hurt so much.

“I wonder what my parents would think of me,” Shepard muses, and her voice cracks. “I wonder how much different things would be if they were still here. I probably would have still joined the Alliance eventually…biotics and all, it’s an easy career choice. If you can even quite call it a choice, really. So…I would still have gone through what happened on Akuze, right? And I would still have died in the Collector attack? And if that’s all the same, then Akuze would still have been because of Cerberus but I still would have worked with them after that. And I would still have fallen for Kaidan, and Horizon would have still hurt that badly no matter how right he was. And then there still would have been what I did to you, and what I did to Thane…I guess at least everything that’s happened means I still get to joke about breaking the one rule of Omega, though, right?”

She genuinely laughs at herself ever so slightly at the thought of that. It doesn’t really matter, but it happened and it’s always oddly amusing to her to think about.

“What did happen there, anyway?” Kelly inquires. “If you can talk about it.”

“Got shitfaced at Afterlife, got into a fistfight with…someone, for no discernible reason other than just because, and it got bad enough that Aria got involved somehow. I don’t quite remember, but I know I tried to fight her, too, and then it turned into…what it turned into,” Shepard answers matter-of-factly. “It’s fuzzy, I don’t know for sure. I know I started it, although I can’t say how or why. I had fun, though, I can tell you that much. For as much as everyone goes on about Sha’ira—and don’t get me wrong, she is amazing—I have to say, Aria’s a lot more of an adventure.”

What’s on her mind and what she’s felt the need to express have jumped around in a million different directions this evening, and she can’t seem to keep herself on track. Her mind has so much at once, and she knows neither how to truly begin nor how or where to end.

“Anyway,” Shepard shrugs. She takes in a heavy breath, and slowly lets it out. “So then I’d still have done…what I did when I was detained by the Alliance, right? And I’d still have sacrificed the geth, when they didn’t deserve it. And I’d still have lost Anderson on the Citadel. And I’d still have sacrificed myself, whatever that exactly even means now, and I’d still have become this. That stands to reason, yeah?”

Kelly looks on momentarily, and Shepard picks it back up quickly enough.

“Sorry, I guess that’s rhetorical,” she sighs. “Just like the question of what any of that would mean if my birth family had been around to see it. Would my mother—would Hannah Shepard be proud of me? Or would she be horrified by all the things that I’ve done, relation or no? Samara struggled with the fact that even after everything, Morinth was her daughter, but when it came down to it, that didn’t exempt Morinth from Samara’s judgment. And it shouldn’t have. But would I have been any different? Would they have supported me, anyway? Is the question even relevant when I don’t even know for sure how they did treat me in life?”

“Were they like Kaidan’s parents?” Kelly nods, not actually asking but bringing Shepard’s own questions out into the open. “And would they be now?”

“Yeah,” Shepard admits. “Exactly.”

“You know there’s no comparison between you and Morinth, though,” Kelly says and Shepard is ready to offer something contradictory from the endless depths of her self-loathing, which Kelly swiftly fields by asking, “Do you think that’s why the memory came up?”

“Yes,” Shepard whispers without missing a beat.

If her eyes could just stop…

“‘The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue,’” she recites as she hangs her head and pinches the bridge of her nose. She’s out of her own words by now. She has nothing else left. “‘My hours are married to shadow. No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel on the blank stones of the landing.’”

Her voice breaks. It is no longer just her eyes.

“Do we need to stop for now?” Kelly asks, her voice full of compassion, and Shepard hastily nods.

She leans forward. It hurts, but she doesn’t care. She crosses her arms over the table and presses her head into them.

It hurts, but she doesn’t care.

Everything hurts, inside and out.

“Come back into your body, siha,” Thane’s voice wills her.

“Carrie, come back to me…hey, come on, come on,” Kaidan’s voice begs her.

She isn’t sure how she feels knowing how easily it seems he’s learned to recognize exactly what this is. She only knows how much she hates that he’s had to.

She doesn’t know how much times has passed. She has no interest in finding out.

It feels like she might finally have run out of tears, though. So that’s nice.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpers in response. She isn’t sure what else to say.

“Tell me where you are,” he pleads.

“Vancouver,” she tells him, and even that little bit brings her back to herself just enough that she can feel the sting in her eyes again. “Your parents’ old house. Overlooking English Bay.”

“When,” he continues, sounding far less panicked than before.

“2187,” she answers more easily. “It’s the end of March already, shit. I can’t hide much longer.”

“Hey, look at me,” Kaidan says lightly, and his cadence sounds extremely controlled, as though he is very closely and carefully monitoring his tone for her sake.

Because of course he is.

Slowly but surely, she is able to make herself do as he requests, and she tries her best to meet his eyes.

Hers look absolutely painful, so bloodshot red and wide as they are. The discoloration around them is far from the worst he’s seen on her, but it is yet striking, and it looks all that much more so as they frame her eyes the way they do in this moment.

“Carrie,” he says as they stare into each other, as they hold each other’s gaze so intently it’s almost like they believe the other will disappear if they so much as blink. “Whatever you want to do…however you want to do it, I’ll be with you every step of the way, alright? But I don’t think this is a good time to think too much about it. Tell me what you need right now.”

“I don’t know,” she answers honestly. Her voice is harsh and scratchy, her volume involuntarily low. “Still got drinks outside?”

“Yeah, we do,” he smiles warmly. “Is that what you want?”

“Wait, fuck,” she stops herself, realizing that for as raw as she feels, she needs to ask. “Who’s here?”

“Everyone who’s staying, plus Steve,” Kaidan replies without question.

So not Liara. That’s okay, then.

“Edi’s insisted the back yard needs a fire pit,” Kaidan laughs a little. “She saw it in a vid somewhere, so she and Joker have been setting one up. It is a nice night for it, but if you’re feeling up for it then maybe we should go make sure they don’t burn the whole house down.”

“Yeah, good call,” Shepard nods, and she gets out the slightest smile.

The fact that Joker is now mobile enough to do such a thing, though…that will never not make her happy.

Which is only mildly tainted by how much she struggles when she begins to stand, and how quick Kaidan is to offer, “Do you need me to get your—”

“No,” she interrupts. “Sorry, I…I honestly don’t think I can use it right now.”

Her whole upper body is killing her. She shouldn’t have let herself sit like that.

Now she cares.

Kaidan promptly extends both of his hands to her so that she may distribute her weight evenly and lessen the risk of hurting herself further when she takes them, which she does, accepting his help in getting up without a word.

That’s something.

She realizes Joker has no idea that he single-handedly saved her life on the Collector base. She’s sure it’s something she should tell him. Maybe it will make up for how much he’d beaten himself up about her death.

It will have to wait for later, though. She doesn’t have the strength to bring it up again tonight.

There are a lot of things she needs to be ready to talk about later.

Kaidan’s right, though, this isn’t the best time to worry.

Like that’s ever stopped her before.

She’s not sure who she should talk to first, Diana or Hackett. Because she knows it’s coming, knows what has to happen, and while no part of her is even remotely ready, some part of her is growing eager to simply get it the fuck over with.

She can always just record an interview with Diana so that that’s out of the way, and then figure out the rest from there. It doesn’t have to air immediately.

She should probably start figuring out how she’s going to explain herself, what she wants to say.

She knows he was kidding, but she could go with what Joker was saying, about coming forward on her birthday just for the extra kicks. Although that would mean Diana going back to work before then, and that would mean more people beginning to leave.

She’ll probably have Diana interview her sooner than later, but she’ll also have Diana save it for…well, later. Whatever that means.

One step at a time.

Everyone looks happy to see her when she and Kaidan make their way outside, save for Kelly, who does not seem in any way unhappy but instead more surprised, and understandably so.

Shepard is sure her face is still a mess. She also does not want to know how long it’s been since Kelly came out, or since Kaidan went in to check on her.

Karin gladly hands her a beer, and Joker and Edi both look up from the freshly kindled fire.

There is something nice, even something comforting about sitting by a fire when it isn’t there solely as a result of violence and death.

When it isn’t a side effect of war.

Although Shepard will probably always be at war, no matter what the state of the rest of the galaxy.

And for as pleased as everyone generally seems to be upon seeing her, there is also the stark silence that typically indicates everyone struggling to come up with conversation after the person they were just talking about has unexpectedly joined them.

Not that she can fault them.

She knows that these people love her, and she knows how worried she’d be for any one of them were they to be slipping the way she has since the war, and she knows she’d be every bit as involved in discussions about it as they surely are.

None of them feel like they’re asking for much in their concerns, though, and all of their goals for her are simply enough: keep her talking, help her start processing, make her feel safe, show her she’s loved…and maybe eventually get a little bit of weight back into her face.

Shepard sits herself down in the nearest chair, leaning back into it and feeling the way muscles twitch and joints crack from only that kind of minimal effort. She takes a drink and thinks on how much she’d love to get all-out wasted right now, but she will refrain.

She wants to spend more time with James in particular, as his stay is the one with a solid expiration date, and one that is approaching much too quickly.

James has to go to Rio and he has to go soon, but he hasn’t been the first to depart and everyone else will have to follow in time. She thinks about this a lot, but she’s yet to do too much about it.

She should probably work on that.

Sitting by the fire now with those present now seems like a good place to start, though.

She realizes she’s actually looking forward to her birthday, and she doesn’t recall ever having done so before. But she knows that everyone who can be there will be there, and for as overwhelming as that can be, she cannot deny how badly she needs it.

She needs to ask Kaidan how he really feels about their future, too. She needs to know what he wants, regardless of what he thinks she can handle, although she cannot imagine actually being able to get that kind of answer out of him.

She thinks, however, that if he can tell her that much honestly, it might give her a better idea of what it is exactly that she wants, herself.

It’s absurd for her to feel this way, having always been so independent and self-assured, but…

She never has been when it comes to Kaidan, though, in reality. He brings out a different side of her, and he has since the beginning. It’s a softer side, although one that it also as fiercely dedicated as she ever is, but it also best brings out how much of a heart she genuinely has, no matter how much she doesn’t always want it.

Kaidan has drastically changed her, in a way. Not who she is as a whole person, but her outlook and her presentation, for sure. And he’s been everything to her since they met, has left such a positive mark on her, such that she never could have believed another person capable of leaving.

She really was being grossly unfair to Kelly, and outright horrible to Thane. They both forgave her, and the latter made it quite clear that she’d affected him much the same as Kaidan affects her, but he really did deserve better. She might not have loved him, but she had certainly loved him, and she still does. He was one of the most incredible people she’s ever had the pleasure of knowing, and she truly wishes he could have found the happiness she’d brought him with literally anyone else.

She hopes Kelly finds that kind of happiness, as well. She definitely deserves it.

It seems everyone has been finding love in often unexpected places since the end of the war. People probably take a lot less for granted these days, and it would make sense that following one’s heart would become more commonplace, at least for a little while.

But she still finds it difficult to stomach how many children of the recent (and entirely understandable) baby boom are being named after her.

Kaidan looks on at her while she starts trying to engage with James. She is struggling just to make small talk, but it’s clear how badly she wants to be here.

That much is improving all the time. That much is a good start.

It really is sad to think of everyone having to leave eventually. He’s gotten used to having them around, and has even grown to genuinely enjoy it.

And it's been so damn good for her.

He can’t help but wonder if she’s picturing their future at all in her preparations for coming back from the dead. He meant it when he said that he doesn’t care about legality, neither does he particularly care about ceremony. What’s important is knowing where they stand, and they have that. Where they stand is all he ever could have wanted, and more than he’d ever be willing to admit he’d fantasized about from all the way back to their earlier days aboard the SR-1.

But he sees the way she stares at that ring, and the looks she’ll sometimes absent-mindedly flash him while she does. He’ll never get over how much she loves him, how lucky that makes him.

He’d be lying if he said he didn’t think about what it would look like if they were to have some sort of ceremony, and even if they were to go big. He has no doubt that it it’d be deemed newsworthy and treated accordingly, more than likely generating an amount of press he can only think to describe as obscene, and he isn’t any fonder of that prospect than she would be. At the same time, though, he can’t help but wonder if it would be worth it.

He doesn’t want to say anything to her, and to a point he’s almost embarrassed by simply thinking about it, but he wonders all the same.

It really doesn’t matter, though. They have this, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

She’s begun smiling and laughing, and that makes him so happy. He doesn’t even follow what anyone’s talking about, he is still so taken by her.

But she always did have that effect on him. He’d never have dreamed it could be like this.

She looks like she’s losing weight, though, and that scares him. For someone who’s so afraid of being helpless, she appears more and more fragile all the time.

Not that he’s blaming her for it, because he absolutely isn’t. But he is worried, and he doesn’t want to see her sink as far as this trajectory threatens.

She’s working on it now, he has to remember that. She’s never done that before, and results will take time. There is hope. He needs to be patient.

But that can be so hard when he looks at her.

He remembers seeing her on Horizon, how visibly broken she was. Maybe that’s part of why he reacted the way he did, maybe the second of panic he feels in his chest at just the thought of it even now could have contributed to letting out his temper like that. He wasn’t sure how she was even standing, much less fighting. He still dreams about going back for her that day, about taking her with him and trying to fix it.

She doesn’t know. No one knows. And that’s fine.

She looks even worse now than she did then. She’s been on a steady decline ever since she worked with Cerberus, not looking any better even after he came back to the Normandy.

At least she stopped regularly causing scenes at Purgatory after he returned, though. It still happened from time to time. but the stories he’s heard from before, and the frequency…

He hates how much she’s hurting, how much she’s been hurting for so long now.

He likes to imagine he makes it easier. From what he’s heard about her drunken escapades around the Citadel and the occasional rumors he’d caught talking about some of her visits to Omega (as well as what she’s admitted to him since), it sounds like that might truly be the case. He hopes it is, though, that he does help just by being there. Because that is one thing he knows he can do for her, is to be there. He’s never leaving. He refuses to lose her again.

He looks like he’s lost somewhere deep in thought, but not in the same way that she gets, not the same way it happens to her so often anymore. He is staring at her, and he looks like he is somewhere else, but he is smiling.

She will never get over how much he loves her, how lucky that makes her.

She wonders if he knows how much easier he makes all of this, if he knows how much she doubts she could get through this without him. She knows that isn’t at all a healthy approach, but what about anything with her is ever healthy? It helps, and that’s something, so it will have to do.

If nothing else, it’s a place to start, and surely a much better place than she would have otherwise.

She should tell him. It’d probably be good for him to hear it, but more than that, she should be able to say it. She should express these things, she should tell the people she loves how much she loves them, how much she appreciates all they do.

She needs to tell every one of them how much she needs them, but Kaidan most of all.

She decides that she needs to make it into a show, to proclaim to the entire fucking galaxy what he means to her, all of the things it took her too long to say, all of the feelings she still has to work harder to properly express.

She won’t do anything he’s not comfortable with, and she acknowledges the strong possibility that this idea will qualify, but she has to mention it if nothing else.

Ashley is beaming, she is so proud of her. Shepard doesn’t acknowledge that, she doesn’t say a word about that.

She’s promised to get better, and talking about this feels like a step.

For as hard as it is to take steps in the literal sense now, she is trying to follow all of the metaphorical ones she can down a better path.

She thinks she wants this.

That sounds like a good thing to want, a good place to be.

It’s something.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is planning.

Or she’s trying to. She wants to become more proactive. She wants to play a greater role in her own future, now that it’s looking like she has one.

She wants things to be different.

She needs things to get better.

But that means she has to be there. She is trying so very hard to be there.

Kaidan and Hackett have been emailing, at her request. She can’t bring herself to talk to him just yet, herself, but she has started to accept that this will eventually need to be done, and for his part Hackett has apparently been incredibly understanding.

It’s the first day of April. Time is moving much too fast.

Things will be changing soon, and she isn’t ready.

But that is all the more reason to stay present as it unfolds. She doesn’t want to miss a single moment.

She is trying very hard to be there.

She’s sitting with a glass of whiskey on the back deck. She’s pacing herself, but it isn’t her first drink of the day.

She almost misses her old tolerance. It made nights last much longer, and it took far more credits to get the job done, but she isn’t sure how to navigate a body that can actually get drunk like normal people.

She isn’t too sure how to navigate a body at all these days, though, so…

It’s damn good whiskey, at least.

“I don’t want to go, Lola,” James tells her, his voice low and soft, vulnerable.

“I don’t want you to, either,” she admits. “We’ll have to compare stories when you come back, though.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll have some good ones,” he laughs, but he’s clearly forcing it.

Only two weeks left to go.

“How about this,” Shepard smiles, looking up at him after another taste of whiskey. “You graduate, you come back here, and I’ll take you up on getting that matching tattoo.”

“You’re fucking with me, right?” James laughs, and Shepard shakes her head.

“No, I’m game,” she says. “For fuck’s sake, I might as well have one already, all the shit I own with N7 emblems sewn in…”

“You’re really proud of it, aren’t you?” James asks seriously. She doesn’t actually talk about it much, despite how often she really does flaunt it.

“I am,” she nods. “Arcturus officially trained me, but N-school made me. I’m not sure I really wanted to be there, or that I did it for the right reasons, and believe me, it was hell. But that kind of training prepares you for the worst—especially to be able to fucking lead through some of the messes we’ve been in. I honestly doubt I’d even have made it to Ilos if I hadn’t done it.”

“What do you mean, ‘right reasons’?” James is hesitant to ask, but he can’t stop himself, either. Thanks to Kelly and Kaidan, though, he knows he has her trust, knows what high regard Shepard holds him in. It’s still a strange idea to accept, but it makes things a little easier.

“Shit, Vega,” she sighs before she empties her glass.

“What,” he replies flatly, finding himself as nervous about prying as he had been before the revelation that he and Shepard are of equal importance to one another.

“You really didn’t know?” She shakes her head and tries to force herself to keep looking at him. She’s been thinking about this a lot lately, though, about how they met.

She is trying so very hard to be there.

James looks puzzled, so she continues.

“I was selected for ICT after what happened on Akuze,” she says. She’s going to need more to drink. “And I hauled ass at the first opportunity I had to take it. I wanted to use it to not have time to think, which is probably a bad enough reason to accept, but it’s more than that, it’s…”

James still isn’t following what exactly it is he didn’t know, and she can see that.

“It’s that I would come out N7—you know, one of the best damn soldiers humanity can produce…and probably one who’s a lot less likely to lead a whole fucking unit of marines to their deaths,” she goes on. “Or…or maybe I wouldn’t come out at all.”

“Lol—Shepard…”

“You’ll have to let me know how they do N6 training now, since we seem to be lacking in active conflict zones,” she muses. But she sees the stern look that James is giving her, and she gets back on topic. “It’s incredible that with how much has tried to kill me, myself included, here I am. It isn’t usually like that, I mean it was…it was in things like training, in being careless in combat. But you really…you really didn’t know why we met?”

“No, there’s no reason for me to lie about that,” James shrugs. “All I knew was that I was in a bad spot and I don’t know if I was picked because of that or because I’d been, ah, pretty vocal in defending you, or maybe both, but…I was ordered to guard Commander Shepard, and I sure as fuck wasn’t gonna question it.”

“‘Guard,’ huh?” Shepard smirks. “I guess that’s one way to phrase it.”

“You did come out N7, though,” James backtracks. That might be best for her right now. “How’d it feel?”

“Damn good, not gonna lie,” Shepard chuckles.

“I thought so,” James smiles back.

“I should make sure to get an N7 embroidered into my wedding dress,” Shepard laughs, and James follows suit.

“Dress, huh?” James cocks his head. “Going all fancy, are you? You’ve been holding out on me, Lola.”

“We haven’t talked much about it yet,” Shepard admits. “But I…I want to, yeah.”

“You know it’s gonna be a shitshow,” James adds, and there is something very brotherly to how he says it.

“I know,” Shepard nods. “This is all gonna be a shitshow, though, isn’t it? Showing my face in public again?”

She isn’t even sure what her face looks like anymore. She’s avoided mirrors as much as possible, as though she is almost afraid of what she’ll see.

And it occurs to her that she has absolutely no idea when the last time she showered was.

Fuck, she’s a mess.

This is all going to be a mess.

“Yeah, probably,” James acknowledges. “You’re not alone in this, though, you know that.”

“I do,” Shepard smiles softly. “Thanks, James.”

“Shit, I’m gonna miss being here, Lola,” James says after a pause. His voice is as soft as before, as serious. It’s nice to be this open with her, though, nice to know that he can be.

“You get a few weeks off after the first round of training, you know,” Shepard offers. “After you’ve received an N1 designation—which we both know you will—you get a brief respite before you have to return. Use it wisely because you won’t be getting another for a while, but…”

“But I know where to go,” James nods.

There’s a bit of a lull between them after that, a comfortable silence, and James is debating whether or not to offer to get another drink, but she speaks up from nowhere before he can decide.

“I want you to be here, you know,” she says quietly. “For me and Kaidan. I can’t imagine doing this without you. Any of this.”

“I’d like that, too,” he tells her. “I wasn’t gonna say anything, but it’d mean a lot to be there for real, even though I know I’ll catch it on a vid…”

“Fuck, don’t remind me,” she shakes her head. “But James, I’m…I’m glad it was you. In London.”

“Me, too,” he smiles, and then prepares to speak unexpectedly sincerely. “You know, Shepard, that might have been the greatest privilege of my life.”

There’s a beat, and she looks him in the eyes. She didn’t expect that. She knows she should have, but perhaps it’s simply that she’d never have imagined him saying it out loud.

“Wait until you get that N7,” she chuckles.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he replies. “Then it’ll be having matching tattoos with the biggest legend in the whole goddamn galaxy.”

“You’re the worst, Vega,” she teases.

“Don’t make me blush,” he laughs, and he makes up his mind. “Want more to drink? Something a little lighter, maybe?”

He’s getting used to knowing he’s allowed to say things like this. He likes it.

“Yeah, sounds good,” she answers reluctantly. She knows it’s for the best, though, that he’s only looking out for her.

And she’s glad to see that he’s learning not to hold back with her, on what their relationship really is.

“Thanks, James.”

“Hey there,” Kaidan says, sitting down beside her.

“Hey,” Shepard responds. “Where’ve you been?”

“Talking to Hackett,” he says. “We’re still trying to figure out…where we go from here.”

“Yeah, same,” she sighs. “You know…is it just me, or would Ash and James have worked really well together?”

“Huh,” Kaidan replies. “Yeah, I…I can’t place what it is, but it’s definitely there.”

“Damn shame,” Shepard says heavily.

“Yeah,” Kaidan sighs. “Yeah, it is. I miss her, too. But have you been…”

“Not as much lately,” Shepard answers without him needing to finish the question. “I miss her, though.”

For as scary as she still can’t deny it’s been to disconnect so drastically from reality, it’s been so good to talk to Ashley again. Shepard understands that she isn’t really Ashley, and that nothing she can do will bring back her friend, but it has also become a comfort in its own way to see her again, even when it’s like this, and one that she should not have grown so reluctant to give up.

She isn’t sure how to say that, though. But she also doesn’t believe she actually has to, not with Kaidan. He knows. She isn’t sure how, but she has no doubt that he knows.

They always did have that kind of bond.

“I hate having feelings sometimes,” is what she does say.

He’s as glad as ever, though, that she’s burying less and less, that she’s letting out more and more of all of the terrible things she’s always felt but would previously deny.

But that makes him think…

It makes him think of when they first spoke after Mars, in Huerta Memorial, when he’d just come back from the brink and was trying to process that on top of what his relationship with Shepard was, along with the war at hand, worrying about his parents, wondering what had happened to his students, and Udina breathing down his neck.

So when they talked about Horizon then, he’d been in a rush to get it over with, to call the air cleared when there was still too much dust left to truly ignore. He’d agreed that they should bury it. He thinks on how he should have known never to encourage her to do something like that. Furthermore, he realizes they’ve never talked about it since.

And he doesn’t want to discuss it again any more than she will, but he’s going to need to fix that.

It’s the right thing to do, he decides.

Acting with integrity. That matters, they’ve agreed on that before.

And at this level of commitment, there isn’t any room for things left unsaid.

Not that there is any doubt. But they both owe it to themselves to finally have an honest conversation about the things they’ve most wanted to bury.

And neither of them should be burying their feelings, anyway. They know that now.

“I know,” Kaidan whispers.

“So, uh, I might have just promised James I’d get a tattoo,” Shepard laughs quietly, changing the subject.

“Oh yeah?” Kaidan looks to her. “You know, now that you mention it, I’m a little surprised you don’t have any already.”

“Yeah, that does seem like me,” she smiles. “Maybe it really is time to change that. New beginnings or something.”

“Oh, now this conversation is getting good,” James exclaims when he sits back down across from them, drinks in hand.

“I mentioned our deal,” she smirks and accepts a bottle of beer. “So now I’ll have to do it.”

“Why wait, though?” James asks seriously.

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” she says honestly. “What about you, James? How’d you get going?”

“I always liked ink,” he shrugs. “That was enough for me. I have a few that I got for sentimental reasons, but most are just because I wanted them. I do have a few that cover up old scars, though. Practical.”

“That…that’s an idea,” she says, and she is entirely sincere. “I do have plenty of those…”

“New beginnings or something, right?” Kaidan notes. He is, of course, quite familiar with all of her scars, and with his training it’s impossible to miss the ones that are almost definitely self-inflicted, which are also the ones he can immediately tell were never properly attended to (namely in that they have visibly never been touched by medi-gel).

He, for one, genuinely likes this idea. He thinks it would be good for her, and he’s certain Kelly would agree.

“Okay, Vega, I’m in,” she says after catching the way Kaidan’s looking at her, and she doesn’t have to wonder what’s on his mind. He knows the scars she’s thinking of. She’s never told him what they are, but he knows. Even if he didn’t know her well enough to figure it out, he’s too well trained of a field medic to have missed how sloppy they are and that they’d never been treated. “Know any good artists?”

“I can see if my one old buddy in San Diego is still operating,” James replies. “Or if he’s, ah…alive.”

Ever since leaving London, it’s like the whole galaxy outside of Vancouver stopped existing. And now there’s hardly so much as a city around them anymore, only this house.

He’s talked to his uncle, though. Getting in touch with him after the war ended was probably the only moment in whole his life that was more emotional than finding Shepard.

James is definitely going to need to take a day or two down in Escondido before he leaves for Rio.

“We’ll figure it out,” Kaidan adds, hoping to ease any undue pressure James may be feeling.

“I bet Jack could do it,” James suggests, letting the previous moment blow over. “Covered like she is when you’ve spent most of your life on the run? No way she didn’t do at least some of her own work.”

“That’s a good point,” Shepard tells him. “I’ll have to ask her.”

That, she will.

There’s a lot of things she has to ask her.

“I’ll still have to think on where to start,” Shepard follows. “But yeah, I…I will.”

Kaidan won’t tell her how glad he is that she might use something like this as part of her healing.

Kaidan can’t tell her how much seeing those scars eats away at him, when he knows damn well that they are not the same scars she had before she died.

They need to have that talk.

Even what little they discussed after he learned why James had been assigned to her…that had felt like enough at the time, but it isn’t any longer. There’s too much, and it’s too important to let linger any more than it already has.

“‘The woman is perfected,’” Shepard mutters under her breath with an odd smile. “‘Her dead body wears…’”

She trails off once she realizes she is speaking out loud, and neither Kaidan nor James indicate that they heard her.

It’s simply a piece she was reading with her coffee that morning, and one that is easily brought to mind by the conversation at hand.

Tattoos to hide the scars. Tattoos to cover the past. On top of the promise of a tattoo to honor a friend’s accomplishments. She likes this.

“The woman is perfected. Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment, the illusion of a Greek necessity flows in the scrolls of her toga, her bare feet seem to be saying: we have come so far, it is over.”

Her mind fixes on it, and it feels right.

She does so often hate having feelings, true, but this is an interesting array of them.

“Each dead child coiled, a white serpent, one at each little pitcher of milk, now empty.”

Maybe her first tattoo will be for Ashley.

The very thought of it is emotionally exhausting, but that somehow only solidifies this decision.

She doesn’t yet know what exactly she’ll get or where she’ll get it, but she knows that her first tattoo will have to be for Ashley.

“She has folded them back into her body as petals of a rose close when the garden stiffens and odors bleed from the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.”

She’ll bring that in particular up to Kaidan later on, though, in private.

She should be taking advantage of all possible private time while she still has any.

She needs to talk to Diana. She needs to prepare.

“Oh hey, I’ll be back in a little while,” James says after a glance at his omni-tool, just before he stands up. “Wrex invited me out to a shooting range, and I’m not sure I know how to say ‘no’ to a krogan.”

All three of them laugh at that statement, which Shepard follows by teasing, “Come on, Vega, you’ll be fine. You’re basically a human krogan, yourself. And besides, Wrex wouldn’t do too much damage, you’re family.”

James shakes his head, taking in the sentiment, but he responds honestly and almost a little nervously, “Well, you know, figure I shouldn’t let myself get too out of practice, anyway…”

“Fair enough,” Shepard smiles. “Have fun.”

“Yeah, you too,” James nods.

Shepard finishes her drink a little more quickly than she intended to, and then she turns to Kaidan.

“I think I want to go inside,” she tells him. “I’ve had enough sunshine for now.”

She knows James likes the warmer days, the sunnier days, that these are the days that remind him of home. She knows he likes this area, too, that he likes the beaches nearby, even if it isn’t quite what he’s used to.

For her, though…for her, weather still only hurts, and the sun and warmth are making themselves known as her greatest adversaries in that regard.

And that much can only get worse. After all, it’s only April.

It’s only April. It’s already April.

Time has no meaning.

She stubbornly insists on heading in without any kind of help, and she is just tipsy enough that it’s almost effortless.

Almost.

The buzz hits a little harder once she stands up, making her movements more fluid, less noticeably painful.

She easily follows Kaidan into the living room, and she slinks into the sofa when they reach it. It’s every bit as nice to be out of the sun as she’d anticipated, and something about how dim Kaidan likes to keep the lights inside makes her feel all that much better about being indoors.

“Kaidan,” Shepard has just enough inhibition lowered to start, “I think I want to do something crazy.”

“Oh yeah?” Kaidan laughs. “Like what?”

“Marry you,” she says in an unusually cheerful tone, and she doesn’t stop when he prepares to interject. “I mean, really…do it right, you know? Make it big, make it fancy. If I’ve got to come back from the dead, anyway, hey…why not shove what I’m staying for in the whole damn galaxy’s face?”

“Carrie,” he sighs, noting her subtle inflections, the wording she runs together without quite realizing how it sounds, the quiet desperation behind all of it. “Had a little too much?”

He isn’t being condescending—or that is not his intention. He is only trying to gauge where she is, how serious about anything she might be…how serious of a conversation they’d be able to have right now.

He can’t imagine that this is the right time, but this is going to be one of those thoughts, the kind that persist and nag and eat away until they’re attended to.

Which isn’t helped by the fact that, somehow always with her and only with her, he has such a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve.

“Kaidan?” Shepard’s voice drops in pitch, her brow furrows. “What’s wrong?”

He always does bare his heart to her, whether he intends to or not. She’d once referred to it as having a little black raincloud sitting over his head. For some reason, for as contradictory as it may be, it still makes him smile to think about.

If there were ever the option to go back in time to as early of a point in their lives aboard the SR-1 as possible, entirely to yell at their past selves to just fucking kiss already, both of them would take it in a heartbeat.

“Don’t worry about me,” he tries, but it’s easy to see that that’s as likely to work as he could have expected.

“Hey, Kaidan,” she stands again, picking up a fierce tension from him that she wants to fix. “Come on, let’s find some privacy.”

“The moon has nothing to be sad about, staring from her hood of bone. She is used to this sort of thing. Her blacks crackle and drag.”

One thing that might be nice about the dreaded near-future when everyone leaves will be not having to retreat to ensure a conversation will remain between the two of them.

Well, that future might not truly be so near. Everyone filtering out is inevitable with the notable exceptions of Karin and Kelly, and Shepard’s guess on how far away their departures are is as good as anyone’s.

But she remembers seeing Kelly on the Citadel docks, remembers how much she helped there. She is sure that Kelly in action with the Antigone Project must be just as good if not better, and she knows that Kelly is needed there, with them, and she hates the idea of keeping her from such work.

She thinks about how Karin needs to fly, how her longing for constant space travel is in her very bones. She’d probably give up everything to stay on Earth now, though, to keep close to Shepard. Shepard doesn’t know how she feels about that one.

But Kaidan…Kaidan will be there, and she will be with him. In this city, in this house, where what was once his now becomes theirs.

“Talk to me,” she tells him, sitting down at the edge of the bed. He’s got that lost look in his eyes, and she doesn’t know what he might be thinking of or why. She only knows that she wants to make it go away.

He sits down beside her, turning to look at her. She probably shouldn’t be sitting up without back support like this. Even if she can take it for the time being, she’ll certainly be feeling it later.

He doesn’t know what to tell her. He can’t blame her for wanting to push, and god knows he would do—and has done—the same in her position. But he looks at her posture, and the way she holds herself up without flinching, and these days that is enough to know that she’s feeling that she’s been drinking.

He hates so much that she has to hurt like that.

He's gotten used to the everyday pain his L2 implant comes with, at least as much as someone can, and he almost has to hope that she doesn’t grow as accustomed to it as he has. He’s never let her—or anyone—in on how bad it can get, or how persistent it is, and she probably has no clue that it’s still affecting him (which he can only assume is a result of the L2, that his specific wiring wouldn’t adapt to the synthesis like an L3 or higher might—his “flawed implant,” as James had so aptly put it, making itself almost as difficult as Shepard’s unique implants have for her, despite hers also being responsible for keeping her alive). No, he doesn’t want that for her at all. He wants her to ask for help, he wants to know when she's struggling so that he can be there. He, on the other hand, only lets it show when his migraines no longer give him a say in the matter, and he wouldn’t even know how to start trying to express it on the “normal” days at this point.

They really are quite the pair.

“Kaidan…”

He must really be letting it show.

“I’ve got a little black raincloud over my head, right?” Kaidan actually says out loud, with the slightest chuckle under his breath, and it’s obvious he’s thinking of something in particular when he says it.

“That’s…when you were jealous of Liara,” Shepard recalls, taking a second to let herself smile. Of course something like that would stick with him.

Of course, because she lingers on those old chats similarly. As tangled and blurred as her head can get, especially in terms of memory, she remembers her moments with Kaidan.

He is her immovable center. He is her place to stop and catch her breath.

“I wasn’t jealous,” he lies, and he shakes his head in the vain hope that this sidetrack will be enough of a distraction, that he can change subjects from here. “I was just…I couldn’t assume anything about whether or not Liara’s feelings were mutual, and I only wanted to know where I stood. And to make sure I hadn’t been making a total ass out of myself up to that point. Can you even imagine how nerve-wracking that conversation was?”

“I’ll never forget the first time you opened up to me about Brain Camp,” she says at the same time that she lies back onto the bed, still hanging her legs off of the end and letting her feet touch the floor. “And then when you asked if I make a habit of getting that personal with everyone. I almost panicked for a second there and told you I did, because I didn’t know…I didn’t know if it was okay to answer honestly, how you’d react. I was your commanding officer, for fuck’s sake—if my feelings weren’t reciprocated, that was so inappropriate of me, and I…”

She genuinely sounds nervous just thinking about it, even now.

It’s cute, in a way.

“You really mean to tell me you had doubts?” He’s laughing perhaps a little too hard, looking down at her. “I was worried that I’d all but gotten ‘Shepard, I’m into you’ tattooed on my forehead by then.”

“And that was so early yet,” she smiles. “It’s amazing Ash didn’t just lock us up in the briefing room and refuse to let us out until we really talked to each other.”

“Only talked? Come on, she wouldn’t have let us go that easily,” he laughs harder. “She’d probably have tossed you some lipstick or something before she sealed the door so she wouldn’t have had to just take us at our word.”

“Yeah, that sounds more like it,” Shepard sighs. “Good to know she gave you a hard time about us, too.”

“Oh god, did she ever,” Kaidan muses wistfully. “She liked being the pesky younger sister for a change. It was good, too, being the older brother…no matter how well I learned to understand the whole thing people with siblings always seem to have, where they want to kill them half the time.”

“She always saw right through us and all of the bullshit we told ourselves,” Shepard chuckles. “Fuck, I wish she could have been there when we finally got our shit together.”

“Me, too,” Kaidan sighs, and he decides to take a risk, to test the waters, to maybe get out what’s on his mind and get this conversation over with, after all. “Although she’d probably have killed us both on…when we met up during…on…”

This is going to be even harder than he thought.

“Horizon?” Shepard starts to sit back up, and Kaidan decides to lie down with her before she can force herself all the way upright. He has to follow through now, so they might as well be comfortable.

“Kaidan,” she breathes his name heavily. “You don’t honestly still believe we share the blame for that?”

“Of course I do,” he answers quickly. “Even before I knew how much working for Cerberus on its own hurt you, I’ll admit that I never really processed what went down there, and…and we’ve never actually talked about it, Carrie.”

“No, we buried it, remember?” Shepard scowls a little, but she hasn’t wanted to talk about it since. She tried to when she spoke to him at Huerta Memorial that first time, but it wasn’t hard to see that it wasn’t the most appropriate opportunity. She remembers the swelling and bruises, how visibly beaten he still was. She remembers walking in there and almost crying at the sight of him, at his open eyes watching her—it was one thing to receive his message, but another to see him after that, to be able to touch and talk to him, to know that he was going to pull through. He’d nearly died, though, and she’d had to watch; neither of them were quite ready to talk the way they’ve needed to, even for how much they both tried, and so much has happened to get in the way of it since then.

“Sorry,” she follows. “That wasn’t fair…”

From what little they have discussed since she’s been here, she should have known that he thinks of this often, and that this talk was coming.

“Fuck, I never even replied to your email,” Shepard sighs. “I’m sorry. I tried, I really fucking tried, but nothing I typed out ever sounded right. I didn’t know how to apologize for all of that, how to explain any of it, and…I’m not sure I really wanted to, at the end of the day. I didn’t want you to forgive me. I don’t deserve it.”

She didn’t mean to use present tense.

But she’s opening up so much more easily now.

These talks she’s been having with Kelly really have been making a difference.

“I didn’t know what to say, either…when I wrote that, I mean,” Kaidan admits. “But I had to. I couldn’t leave it like that. And I knew nothing I’d say would make up for what happened, but I needed to…I needed you to know…”

“I know,” she whispers. “Kaidan, I…I know. I should have done the same. It was selfish of me not to, to leave you with that if I didn’t come back. I know you, Kaidan, I know how much that would have weighed on you. I’m sorry.”

“Shit,” he takes a deep breath. “When I first heard you were going through the Omega 4 relay—”

“Anderson tell you?”

“Anderson told me.”

Shepard laughs. Anderson would.

After all, she wasn’t working with the Alliance, and he was under no obligation to keep what she was doing classified for any reason. But he did, anyway, as it was the best he could do to look out for her at the time, to keep the brass off her back. It makes sense to her that he’d have told Kaidan, though, that he probably figured that if there was anyone who could get through to her, it would be him.

But they were too far apart, and the connection was never made.

And oh, how that’s been gnawing away at Kaidan.

“I should have—”

“You shouldn’t have done a damn thing,” she stops him. “There’s no reason we both had to sell our souls. The Alliance needs you. You’re a damn good soldier, and an incredible man. You’re loyal, and you follow your gut. That’s what a soldier should be. You couldn’t have gotten me out of the mess I was in, but you could have gotten yourself into a hell of a mess, too, and I’m glad you didn’t.”

“I think that’s what Anderson wanted,” Kaidan unknowingly agrees. “I’m not sure what he thought I’d do, or what he thought I could do, and he obviously couldn’t give me any orders about it, but…I think he wanted me to reach out, to give you some ground, maybe even talk you out of going on a damn suicide mission.”

“You could never have talked me out of that and you know it,” Shepard reassures. “And Anderson didn’t agree with what I was doing or who I was doing it with, but he understood why. I owe a lot to the Alliance and I’m one of theirs to the end, but they weren’t willing to do what needed to be done. And I know a lot of that’s on the Council, too, but it still stands that Cerberus took the initiative no one else would, and…fuck…and that I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t cooperate. But I knew that if I did, if I worked with them and did what the Illusive Man asked of me, that we could take out the Collectors, and that…and that maybe I’d just go down fighting.”

“Carrie…come on,” Kaidan’s voice cracks. “That is exactly what I was so scared of. The Omega 4 relay, for god’s sake? I couldn’t believe it when Anderson told me—I didn’t want to believe it, at least. I’d already lost you once, and for two years I’d had to live with that, to live with leaving you behind, to live with…to live with how much I missed you, how empty everything felt with you gone. And then I see you again—I see you, and all these feelings come up at once. You’re alive, but I don’t know where the hell you’ve been. And I feel betrayed, yeah, because I don’t know what happened, I don’t know that you were actually dead because I have no clue that any of this is even possible. And sure, because you’re with Cerberus. But that’s not for me, not really. That’s more for you, for what they put you through on Akuze, for how badly you’d wanted to take them down when we worked together before. I see you and it’s a mess, and I don’t know how to pick it up. And then Anderson tells me that, that you’re going on what anyone betting would stake as a one way trip, the last course you’ll ever plot, and I…I don’t know. I don’t know, Carrie. I can’t tell you how that felt, I don’t have the right words for it. I’m not sure there are the right words for it. I was terrified, and that fear sank into my bones, and it paralyzed me. I didn’t know what to do. I can’t tell you how many more emails I typed out and never sent. Nothing was good enough. Nothing got it right. Dammit, Carrie, if you’d died on that mission…”

“Nothing about that would have been on you, Kaidan,” Shepard insists. “Absolutely nothing, okay. You wouldn’t have stopped me, and I wouldn’t have wanted you to follow me. I know what I said on Horizon, but that was wrong of me to ask. You were right not to go with me, and I’d have hated myself even more if you had. But fuck also knows I wouldn’t have stopped you, and it’s for the best that you didn’t. I missed you so fucking much, though, but we were so far apart and there was nothing I could do…”

Shepard’s voice breaks and she has to stop for a moment, to try to swallow down what’s coming. She rolls over to look at Kaidan, though, and he’s beaten her to the punch, tears streaming down his face as he just stares at her. He looks so fucking sad, and her eyes sting in response.

This is all rather sobering.

“I was such a fucking disaster,” she tries to laugh, but she can’t. “I couldn’t have been the woman you loved, then, either. It was for the best that we kept our distance, believe me. I should have replied, I should have made damn sure you knew how fucking much I love you, but I didn’t know how. And that’s bullshit, and it isn’t fair. I was just saying to Kelly how I wasn’t me when I was with Cerberus because I would never work for them, but that’s just fucking shirking responsibility, isn’t it? My actions still had fucking consequences, dammit, and my actions hurt people. Real people, who matter. But it was like I somehow just fucking forgot that dying in the galactic core where no one would ever find me wouldn’t make anything better for the people I’d hurt beforehand. All I cared about was killing Collectors and…and not sticking around long enough for consequences.”

“Thank god that didn’t go according to plan,” Kaidan says, and she moves over to rest her head on his chest. “I honestly don’t know how I could have lived with myself if…”

“I know,” she whispers again, and she realizes she’s crying, too.

“Losing you to the war was different,” he tells her. “It was hell, but it was different. I hated that I wasn’t there with you, and I had a lot of guilt about that, but…we got to say goodbye. We both knew the score, what we could lose. We could tell ourselves otherwise all we wanted, but we knew what a long shot it was that we were making it out of there alive. That didn’t make it okay—it didn’t make me okay—but it was…it was different. I can’t say I could have lived with it, not really, but I hadn’t let you down. You knew that you are loved.”

“On Mars, when…I really thought I was gonna lose you, Kaidan,” she follows. “And I didn’t know who I was to you, or how you felt about me anymore, but I knew damn well what I felt and that I hadn’t told you in three fucking years—”

“Hey, you couldn’t for two of those,” he reminds her.

“But it doesn’t matter when you didn’t fucking know that,” she retorts. “Or at least I wasn’t sure you did, or if you understood it. Fuck, I didn’t even understand it yet, really. I’m not quite sure I do even now. But I knew that I might have just fought by your side for the very last time, and that I didn’t take a single fucking opportunity to tell you what I needed to say, and I almost lost the chance to ever make that right, to tell you how loved you are.”

“We didn’t have time, Carrie,” he says as he wraps an arm around her. “We didn’t know what would happen, and there…there was no time. I understand, though, I really do. Shit, how many times have I nearly lost you?”

“Let’s not try to even the score, alright,” she still cannot force herself to laugh. She takes a deep breath, and her tone is much more serious when she speaks again. “And I’m sorry about…about Thane, about Kelly, about all of that. I know I’ve said that before, but I…Kaidan, I’m—”

“It’s alright, I promise,” he tells her softly. “I’m so sorry I pushed you away on Horizon like that. I’m not sure what the hell else I could have expected. I’ve been so lucky to have you, and I should have known I wouldn’t be the only one out there who sees you the way I do.”

“Dammit, Kaidan,” she sighs. “Why the fuck do people forgive me for this shit? Why do I constantly get away with hurting people?”

“Circumstance,” he doesn’t miss a beat. “It hurt when I heard you’d found someone else, of course it did, but I get why it happened, and I own that.”

“That’s not entirely fair,” she replies. “For you to own all of it. I should have written you back. I should have tried to talk to you. I understand why you reacted the way you did on Horizon. I don’t blame you for that, and I never have. And I should have found some way to tell you that. I should have tried to start a conversation.”

“It was…hard,” he says softly. “For both of us, I guess. There was a lot to deal with. Too many hypotheticals. So much to lose, even more to find.”

They are a truly incredible pair.

“But we did, didn’t we?” She does laugh a little, a few short hums under her breath with the just the right amount of just the right kind of cadence and intonation to come across as such. “We found each other again. And again. And again.”

“Yeah,” he smiles. “Yeah, we did. We always do.”

“Yeah, at this point it looks like you’re just gonna be stuck with me,” she says.

“Good,” he responds, tightening his hold on her for good measure. “Don’t ever leave me again.”

“I don’t think I can,” she places an arm around him, holding onto him as hard as she is physically able to, and pretending she didn’t just say that. “Kaidan, I…I didn’t want to be here this long. I didn’t intend to be. But if I am, if I’m going to stay, then I…I like where I am. Who I’m with. I could never have dreamed of this. And if you don’t want to make it into a big thing, we won’t. I’d never have thought I’d want it, either. But for you…Kaidan, I want to. I want the whole fucking galaxy to see it, I want them all to know. I love you. And I always have. No matter how much I’ve fucked it up, it’s…it’s you, Kaidan. It’s always been you. You’ve always been it for me.”

“I think I’d like that,” Kaidan says quietly, contemplatively. He’s thought about this a lot, ever since Jack first spoke to him, he’s thought about what exactly he and Shepard would want, how they would play this. He didn’t know if anything would even move at all beyond the symbolism; he has no idea how long she really could successfully play dead if she still intended to keep things that way, but he’d anticipated her trying for much longer than she’s now planning. And while the thought of risking the publicity is nerve-wracking, he feels what she’s saying, and he deeply understands wishing to share this with as many people as they can. This is what they want. This is right.

And he feels like they have finally truly cleared the air, that all of their grievances have come forward, and that they may now move on from them as best they can.

Except for one thought that lingers ever, scratching away, refusing to let this rest. He doesn’t want to bring it up, he doesn’t know how doing so could affect her, where it might lead. But it isn’t letting him go, and in these cases it’s only ever a matter of time before she notices, anyway.

So he opts to get it the hell over with.

“Carrie, I…I have to…what was it like? When you…while you were detained, and…I can’t even imagine how you must have felt…shit.”

It’s too much to say, too much to find the words. His voice cracks as they wander and struggle for coherence. It’s so much.

It isn’t even necessarily that he can’t imagine what could lead someone to such a place. He has never seriously considered ending his own life, but he’s been low enough to have an idea of how one gets to that point. Going so far as to actually try, though, is where his mind blocks him, and it overwhelms him to think of her being there, to think of how hopeless she must have been, how desperate, how morose—how alone.

“I’m sorry,” he starts again. He closes his eyes because they hurt too damn much, and he makes an extra point to focus on her physical presence, of the weight of the parts of her body that rest over his, the shape of what he can reach of what doesn’t. She’s there and she’s not exactly in one piece, but she’s beaten a lot of odds to get this far, and that’s hope. “But I…I can’t think about Horizon and Mars and all of it without thinking of…Carrie, I’m sorry.”

It doesn’t matter that they’ve already had this conversation. Now they need it in context, to put it behind them with Horizon and Mars where it belongs.

He only wants for this all to be behind them, but he has to do it the right way.

He wants things to be different.

He needs things to get better.

“It’s like I already told you, Kaidan,” Shepard sighs. “I was too fucked up over working with Cerberus and it hit a point where I couldn’t handle it, and it got the best of me. It’s that simple.”

“How can something like that be simple, Carrie?” Kaidan asks heavily.

“It just was,” she replies. “I damn well expected to be court-martialed and sentenced for all the shit I’ve done. Punished. I thought that—I guess once it hit me that I was still here to see them—my actions would have consequences. But I wasn’t, and they still didn’t, even after everything. It wasn’t right. I wasn’t right. I had to try to make it right.”

“Carrie…”

“Maybe it’s harder to be afraid of dying after you’ve done it,” she adds. “You’d think it would make death feel like a greater threat, that it would make it feel more real, but it really did the opposite. When we were chasing the Collectors, I remember Garrus joking that they’d killed me once before and all it did was piss me off. Anderson made a similar joke, too, after I was reinstated but before you’d come back to the Normandy. His was that dying didn’t slow me down, and he did follow by saying we shouldn’t tempt fate, but…I think actually dying somehow made the idea of it more abstract. I know I did want to die when I did what I did in that cell, but I also think that might not matter. It doesn’t make sense, but…”

“Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

But she is Lady Lazarus, just as the haunting vision of her memories of Ashley knows.

She should probably brush up on her Tennyson for Ashley now, though. That could be an idea for something to get for her, at least.

“I wasn’t thinking of anybody, either, I guess,” she continues. “I was so far apart from everyone while I was in there, and I didn’t…I don’t want to say that didn’t care, but I don’t think I did. I went in there expecting to never really have a chance to see anyone again. I don’t know how long they would have kept me there if the Reapers hadn’t hit Earth. Maybe if they hadn’t, eventually I would have started facing repercussions. But for the entirety of those six months, it felt like my incarceration was little more than a formality. Maybe I shouldn’t have turned myself in, maybe they would have been harder on me if I hadn’t gone so willingly. But I almost forgot there was a war on outside while I was in there. I almost forgot about anything and anyone that wasn’t Cerberus and the people they’ve hurt.”

“I’ve wondered how the Alliance had caught up to you,” Kaidan admits. “I had no idea…”

“Yep,” Shepard nods. “We made history when we came back through the Omega 4 relay, and then I got the fuck off of that sad imitation of the Normandy as soon as I could. You would have hated it, Kaidan, really. The lighting, of all things, was so wrong. For some ungodly reason, it was always so fucking bright in there. That would have been hell on your head.”

She’s getting off-track, and she is very much doing it on purpose.

They’d never have made it this far without Kelly’s help, though. Shepard is raw and ready to retreat, ready to stop talking and to collapse in on herself and push down everything still screaming within her, but she hasn’t done so yet and she doesn’t intend to. They need this, both of them. And that’s okay.

“How’d you end up in Vancouver, though?” Kaidan asks after a second. “Why here?”

“You know why,” she answers. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again, even there, but…”

“Maybe if I’d known how you’d left Cerberus,” he sighs. “Oh, the Illusive Man must have been pissed. And maybe I would’ve treated you better on Mars, and maybe I wouldn’t even have flinched when Udina…oh, shit.”

They haven’t talked about staring down each other’s guns during the Citadel coup, either, save for when Kaidan spoke to her right after, about him coming back to the Normandy. That was hardly a real conversation, either, although it also made sense for the time and place.

Now, though…

“It doesn’t matter now, Kaidan,” she says quietly. “I still don’t blame you for any of it. Just like I’ve told you before that I have never blamed you. It took a lot of fucking nerve to ever ask you to trust me after what I’d done, and it’s more than fair that it couldn’t have been easy. You don’t owe me any explanations or apologies, alright?”

“I’m not sure it is alright,” he responds. “How was that the time to start considering trusting Udina? We’ve known what a bastard he is for a long time, Carrie. I’ll admit that I would never have guessed he was capable of that, but I should always have known better than to put his word over yours.”

“How should you have known that?” She retorts quickly. “We’d only seen each other a few times since Mars by then, and putting me and Cerberus together in your head must have still been pretty fresh. Fuck, Udina was damn quick to say it, and I get why he thought that would work. But I need you to know, Kaidan, that I could never have taken that shot. Garrus actually asked me, after it was all over, if I’d have been able to do it if I had to. And I told him, I told him I wouldn’t have. I don’t know if it was the answer he’d expected, but I know it’s the right one. If it really had come down to it, I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe someone else would have done it for me, but…I couldn’t. It would never have been me.”

She remembers the way Ashley had her pistol ready when Shepard was going to talk Wrex down on Virmire. She has no doubt that if she and Wrex didn’t have such camaraderie, that if she hadn’t been able to make him understand why Saren’s genophage cure needed to be destroyed, at the slightest sign of retaliation Ashley would have taken her shot. She’d been ready and willing to jump to Shepard’s defense if the need had arisen, just like James and even Garrus would likely have been on the Citadel.

But it could never have been her. Never.

She remembers that talk with Garrus, where for as taken aback by the whole situation as he was, he’d still sounded legitimately relieved when he’d added, “At least Kaidan didn’t have to join Ash.”

She remembers her eyes instantly darting towards Ashley’s name on the wall, and just as quickly down to the floor (all the while casually trying not to look at Thane’s newly added memorial plaque), and telling Garrus that this had been Ashley’s fight, too.

That, it was.

And that had been one hell of a day.

It’s difficult to keep it all straight, and details and timelines have come to blur together and fall apart in her head. She finds it downright impossible to believe that everything happened as quickly as she remembers it, but she knows too well by now that what happened and what she recalls are not necessarily the same thing.

Storming C-Sec, meeting Kai Leng, all that running and searching before finally finding Kaidan with the Council, so much arguing before Udina showed his hand and Kaidan put him down, and then checking on Bailey once that part of the mess was over, rushing to what she’d hoped in vain wouldn’t be Thane’s death bed, and then bringing Kaidan back to the Normandy—could all of that really have happened in one day? It doesn’t make sense to her that it could all actually have blown by as quickly as it feels like it did, but she has no memory of any obvious indications of more time passing.

She does, however, remember being thrilled to see that even all of that apparently couldn’t affect Purgatory, and she stopped by for more than a few drinks after leaving the hospital. She’s not a hundred percent sure of just how sober she even was when she caught up to Kaidan after that, but she can guarantee that it wasn’t entirely.

She really did get damn good at faking it, though.

“I know,” Kaidan breathes out. “Neither could I, at least I don’t think…”

He remembers talking to her at the Normandy’s assigned docking bay, worrying about how that had all played out, if he’d done his best. He thinks on guns drawn, about staring down the barrel of hers while he held his towards her just the same. Even after Horizon, that was something else, and he is grateful that he’ll never have to go through anything like that again. He lingers on the way Joker wouldn’t engage with or even look at him for weeks after he’d been back. He recalls how quickly he could see how close Shepard and James had become, and how protective of each other they are, by how apprehensive he was of having Kaidan aboard at first. Garrus and Karin were probably the only people who’d offered him a genuinely warm welcome, at least in the very beginning. Everyone got over it after a little while, and Tali coming back and shifting the crew’s dynamic again probably worked in his favor, despite what a clusterfuck that became.

But Shepard made him feel wanted. She’d tried so hard to act like nothing had happened, that there had never been any bad blood between them, and she was so good at it that sometimes even he almost forgot.

James ended up taking to him quickly enough, too, further drawing attention to James and Shepard’s odd relationship, and Edi was unexpectedly eager to make up for what her body had put him through, despite how awkward things initially were between he and Joker. And Kaidan would share more than a few coffees and sad stories at ungodly hours with Steve (who’d never seemed to judge Kaidan even through his own closeness and dedication to Shepard), although neither of them would ever speak of it after. It was a good crew, even when things got tough between them. But Shepard was there, and after the first night that Kaidan fell asleep in her cabin after all that time, no one else’s opinions mattered. Everyone else could go to hell.

She’s it for him, always has been, and nothing’s been able to stand in their way (although god knows it’s not for lack of trying).

And these people have become as close to him as they are to her. They are his dearest friends, as well, and they are all there for each other, the way family should be.

He likes where they are, who they’re with. He’d never have dreamed of this.

“You were only trying to do the right thing, Kaidan,” Shepard tells him. “And you did. You got there, and I knew you would. That had to be overwhelming as hell, but I’ve seen you assess overwhelming situations more times than I can count. I’ve seen the way you focus, how well you read a room. You figure it out, you always do. And you did then, too. But that really was…a lot. It was personal, and that makes it harder. But it’s over. You kept the Council safe, you did what you were there to do. And Udina’s dead, which everyone is better off for, let’s be honest.”

“It’s pretty hard to disagree with that, yeah,” Kaidan shakes his head.

He doesn’t have anything more to add, though, it seems.

Ashley really would have had so many words for them over the past couple of years.

The idea of that lost time between them makes him think again, though…

“Carrie,” he says quietly, a long and heavy breath bridging the interstice between speaking her name and his willing himself to continue. “Your scars, the ones you want to cover…are they…”

He’s wondering how recent they are, she can hear it in the crack of his voice and the palpable tension lying beneath his every syllable.

“Yeah,” she sighs. “Yeah, they’re…they’re still me, and Cerberus didn’t rebuild me to that level of exact detail.”

“Shit, Carrie…”

He can’t help trying to picture her at her lowest with Cerberus, to picture her alone when she’d needed someone most—and to silently castigate himself for not being that someone back then.

He believes her that she’s grateful he didn’t follow her into that mess, and he wants that to help. He and Adams had their fair share of talks on the Alliance’s SR-2, though, commiserating about their guilt over abandoning Shepard when she was with Cerberus (no matter how many times Karin had to step in and use her mom voice to shut them up).

Not that he’d held up too well, himself, during that time period, but his being so much more quiet and reserved and generally unassuming than she has ever been made it easier. He could simply go through the motions without most people catching that anything was off, and there was a lot that kept him up at night but it didn’t typically get in his way.

Shepard, on the other hand, is fucking chaos personified when things get bad enough. She pushes and pushes and pushes down all she can, she hides and lies and hopes someone will fall for it and leave her be, but everyone knows she’s doing it. They might not know what’s wrong, but it’s plain as day that it’s there, underneath the surface, desperate to be unleashed. And it manifests loudly, in such instances as going past her limit in some shady bar or getting into fistfights with strangers for no reason. But even when it shows itself in such a way, it also presents quietly—too quietly—while simultaneously just as violently. It’s been some time now since she last gave in, and with the older she's gotten and the more responsibility she’s taken on over the years, she’s more and more often had to be at least a little drunk to allow herself such indulgences. Which also explains why the scars get rougher and messier as they get newer, as the farther she has to go not to stop herself from destructing.

And oh, how rarely she was truly sober when she was with Cerberus, and oh how far she could go.

“It happens, Kaidan,” she tells him, unsure of quite what that’s worth. “You know me, and you know…well, me. Nothing and no one could have gotten me through that time entirely in one piece. It got bad, yeah, and I’m not sure if any of that was preventable. It was Cerberus and we were on a suicide mission. Gives you a different perspective, when you’re certain you’re running to your death, and you’re running side by side with the enemy. Nothing really matters, not in the long term, because there isn’t going to be a long term. And yeah, sure, you believe in what you’re doing, and that helps get you through pushing to be able to complete your mission, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with who you’re doing it with. Short term self-destruction is a fair compromise in the interim. Because it has to be. Because you can’t do anything else but you can’t stop yourself.”

She thinks on broken bottles of liquor on a bender, all alone in her cabin; her memories of those times are far from intact, more like incoherent fragments that barely blur together. She thinks on waking up without a hangover thanks to her new implants, but all the advanced tech inside her making some of those injuries of which she implicitly knew the origins all that much more (for lack of a better term) impressive.

She thinks of good places to start, of clusters of scars she’d spent too much time tracing with her fingertips after being reinstated, the best she could do to not give into the temptation of adding more (albeit not always successfully). But she was impeccably skilled at keeping them to places that were typically covered by clothing, having to thank even the blackout drunk version of herself for such foresight. She’s fine with her future tattoos not having much of an audience, though; after all, they are for her, and for her best attempts at coping, far more than they are for showing off.

“Kaidan, look at me,” she whispers, shifting just enough and turning up her chin, hoping to make eye contact.

She thinks about the first time he fell asleep in her cabin on the SR-2. They’d simply been talking, she can’t even remember what about, and they’d ended up lying together almost exactly as they are now. She thinks on being with him there, long into the night, and revelling in just that, simply in that being with him and how intimate that was all on its own. She thinks on how she’d put all of her focus into the gentle rise and fall of his chest beneath her head, the way she’d fumbled for his hand, lacing their fingers together to feel as much of him as she could manage, needing this to be tangible. She thinks of his arm around her, silence falling over them, but that being okay. She didn’t sleep much that night, though; unfortunately, not even his newly reestablished presence could do much for that. But she thinks on how she’d watched him sleep when she couldn’t, on how she’d wanted to capture that moment forever, on how she had previously tried so hard not to need it as much as she does, but that it was alright to need it after that, because that was when it felt real that she had it back.

And now, here like this, he opens his eyes and looks towards hers, and she can’t help but smile.

Both of their eyes are flecked with red, both of them physically wearing their emotional exhaustion.

“Kaidan…I know what I want. What do you want?”

Her pupils dilate, her lips curl, and she contentedly breathes him in.

All that’s happened between them, and at the end of the day it’s only brought them closer.

He blames himself for so much, despite being unexpectedly hurdled so disastrously into such extreme circumstances, and despite his responses being objectively justified every time, regardless of how harrowing she’d found them. And she vitally needs to get it through to him that she understands, that she more than forgives him, and that she is so extraordinarily thankful he’s absolved her of her wrongdoings, that he has come to understand the uncontrollable cataclysms that led them to where they’d been. She’ll never accept that she could deserve it, she’ll never feel worthy and a part of her will always wish for his sake that he hadn’t. Because to her, he is perfect—and she unequivocally cannot bear any ill will towards him for how he’d once hurt her, not when it came as a result of her actions, and especially not when those actions had left him hurting, too.

And she knows what she wants, and she thinks he’s accepting it: accepting that she is certain, accepting that how she feels has never changed no matter what’s gone down between them, accepting that her love for him is absolute and that she has no doubts about where to go from here, not when it comes to him.

“You,” he whispers. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, for so damn long. I want you, Carrie, and I want that to mean something.”

“That means everything, Kaidan,” she responds quickly. “No matter what, that means more than anything.”

“You know what I mean,” he smiles. “I want things to be…to be special. Not that it’s not special no matter what we do, but…I never thought I’d want a big thing, either. I also never thought we’d be household names and that that would factor into the scale of it, but…I do, Carrie, I do want to go crazy. It feels crazy, but it feels right at the same time, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” she laughs lightly under her breath. She follows with a heavy sigh, though, the weight of the inevitable more burdensome than before, in spite of how happy all of this makes her. “Fuck…I really can’t put this off much longer, huh? I really have to talk to Diana, don’t I?”

He knows how much she’s dreading this, knows how terrified she is to come forward. At the same time, though, he’s encouraged by her getting to this point largely on her own. He hasn’t wanted to push but he knows it isn’t healthy for her to hide forever, and he’s grateful that she’s working her way out of it, and that it’s mostly voluntary. So he smiles to himself, and he closes his eyes and kisses her forehead before replying. “Yeah…yeah, I guess this means you do.”

There is a strained pause, both of them yet fervently needing to feel the warmth of the other around them, both of them so raw and so vulnerable.

“When you’re ready,” Kaidan whispers after an indeterminable passage of time. “It’s alright, Carrie. She’ll be here—we’ll all be here whenever you’re ready.”

She reminds herself that Diana’s breaking interview doesn’t need to hit the vids right away. She reminds herself that no one is pushing, and that everyone will do whatever they can to suppress the media’s suspicions for as long as she needs them to. She reminds herself that, in the meantime, Diana would undoubtedly hold back on anything Shepard gives her until told otherwise, even if that meant never going forward with the story. She reminds herself that she is surrounded by love and support, and that even after her survival goes public, no one she doesn’t want around will be able to get anywhere near her.

“When I’m ready,” Shepard repeats.

When she’s ready, they will be there. When she’s ready, it will be okay.

“I think…Kaidan, I think I’m gonna talk her today,” Shepard continues, doing her best to find her grounding, to sound even a little confident.

“Carrie—”

“Not to do anything just yet,” she cuts him off. “But to…to prepare, I guess. If I’m ever going to do this, I can’t keep sitting on it, and I know it can’t wait forever. I think I’ll call her, maybe see about bouncing around ideas, get a feel for what I’m walking into.”

That seems like a good place to start.

“Okay,” Kaidan replies. “But that can wait. I want you all to myself a little longer.”

He can’t help thinking about all the places he’d love to take her, and how he’d never previously realized how much he’s looking forward to being able to. This city is his home and he loves it, and he’s excited to share it with her, for it to become her home, too.

After all, he knows how much she needs that, to have a place to call home. He isn’t sure she’d ever admit it, but he’s seen it clear as day on the rare occasion she says much of anything about Mindoir, and even in the way she can talk about the Normandy.

She needs this, and she has it now, but soon enough she’ll be able to experience it.

They’re home. His home is hers now. They have this. This is good.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says with a grin. Not yet, at least. She is more than content to stay like this for a little while longer, but after this she will make herself push forward. She’ll talk to Jack, she’ll talk to Diana. She’ll work on finding where she’s going, what she’s doing.

New beginnings or something.

It’s a start.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is smiling and laughing, as surprised as anyone.

This post-war galaxy is full of surprises, and she can’t help feeling a little guilty huddled into a small cluster with Kaidan, Joker, Edi, Steve, Garrus, Tali, and Kasumi. Jack, Miranda, Samantha, Diana, Wrex, Liara, and Karin are all there, too, but they’ve kept to the bar rather than join this wildly inappropriate congregation. Which is fine. The hallway is far too crowded in this moment, anyway.

They all know they shouldn’t be doing this, but Steve didn’t mean to overhear what be did, and he just had to tell Shepard. The chain reaction that ensued could likely have been prevented by refraining from saying anything until Joker was no longer within earshot, but…well…

They can’t help themselves now. They’re all too invested.

James and Kelly are outside, likely under the impression that they are speaking in private.

In fairness, however, no one could say why anyone would think it a good idea to converse in such a public space for the house if they did not want their conversation to be heard, but that also opens up the possibility that the two of them were as taken by surprise as everyone listening in.

That’s even better.

“Tú con tantas curvas y yo sin frenos,” James says to Kelly in a low voice.

“Vega, you smooth son of a bitch,” Steve whispers with a smirk. “I knew there was something going on there. I knew it.”

“If you want to take a ride, James, I can think of worse things than crashing together,” Kelly replies in a tone with which Shepard was once quite familiar.

“Oh, shit,” Joker can barely contain his volume. “I didn’t know Chambers had it in her.”

“Did you ever actually speak to her?” Shepard asks as quietly as she can. “Like, at all? I mean, really, even once?”

“She almost even had me tempted,” Kasumi adds. “Ah, maybe in another life.”

“Damn, it wasn’t nearly often enough, apparently,” Joker teases, and then flinches slightly in response to Edi playfully elbowing him.

“I could always cloak to get in a little closer,” Kasumi offers. They’re all positioned in such a way that they can’t see anything that’s going on, hovering around the back door as carefully as they can.

“Please, no,” Tali says hastily. “I think this is already bad enough.”

“It is,” Edi nods. “Can we genuinely make it worse? Or are we simply hoping to make ourselves feel better by not doing what we would falsely consider as such?”

“Uh, yeah,” Garrus replies. “That one. Thanks, Edi, that’s very helpful.”

“James and Kelly, though,” Kaidan muses. He’s hanging back the farthest of everyone there, the most actively uncomfortable with this blatant invasion of privacy, but he can’t ever bring himself to turn away from Shepard when she’s smiling the way she is over this. “Can’t say I ever saw that one coming.”

“Oh, Shep, that reminds me,” Kasumi interjects, “I’ve seen Daniels and Donnelly around here and there, and they’re looking good. I have to ask, did they ever…”

“Yeah,” Shepard replies. “Yeah, you called that one.”

“Yes,” Kasumi says triumphantly. “Although they did have me fooled: I wasn’t joking when I said it was a shame they’d never figure it out. I really didn’t think they would. I’m glad I was wrong about that one. I’m sure they’re cute.”

“Oh my god, shut the hell up,” Joker interjects. “This is a seriously dick move on all our parts, and so some of us would like to make the inevitable post-privacy violation guilt worthwhile.”

“He makes a good point,” Garrus follows.

“Not helping,” Joker retorts, punctuating with a harsh “shh” sound.

“Fuck, Kelly, you are…damn…but I don’t usually do this kind of thing and I…I’m not sure about what happens next,” James says seriously.

“I know you’re leaving soon,” Kelly reassures. “I helped insist on it, remember? But I…I’m okay with that. I really like you, James. I haven’t liked anyone this much in a long time, and I’m willing to…I’ll, you know…I’ll be waiting. If you’re okay with that, of course.”

Shepard tries not to let it show how concerned she is that Kelly’s “long time” is in reference to her. Especially since it probably is.

“Oh,” James sounds sincerely surprised by Kelly’s willingness to commit. “Yeah, I…yeah.”

“Now say the line in Spanish again,” Kelly’s volume drops to the point that she is just barely audible, but they all still catch it.

“Tú con tantas curvas y yo sin frenos,” James repeats, and they can all hear Kelly laughing.

“Maybe we should take this inside, find some privacy,” Kelly responds, and Shepard clearly remembers that voice. “You know someone’s got to be listening in on this by now, anyway…”

“Ah shit,” Joker speaks up immediately. “Scatter, everyone scatter…”

“Fuck,” Shepard mutters. “Not all of us can scatter…”

Kaidan waits for her, because of course he does, even though everyone else disappears impressively promptly.

Kaidan takes her hand, embarrassed as he may be over the prospect of being among the only ones Kelly and James catch when he didn’t quite want be a part of the eavesdropping party to start with, but he can’t turn away from Shepard when she so clearly needs help as she does right now.

“To the bar?” Kaidan asks her, gently nudging as well as he can. If there’s anyone who they won’t be too upset with for prying, it’d be Shepard, but he’s sure she’d rather clear the way before that back door opens in any case.

“Yeah,” she replies gratefully. “Yeah, I should…”

She hasn’t actually spoken to either Diana or Jack yet. After their long talk, she and Kaidan had decided instead to spend the remainder of the day letting themselves recover from how much it took out of them, keeping to themselves as much as they could. They’d spent hours discussing tattoos and their wildest possible fantasies about wedding plans…as well as poetry.

It’s very, very obvious that Shepard’s first tattoo goes to Ashley. It’s very, very obvious how much Shepard wishes she was here, and how damn much it pains her that she isn’t.

Just like it pains him, too. Just like it always will.

It makes sense, though. For as little time as they actually had with Ashley, she’d been so close with both of them, and in hindsight she was essentially the fulcrum in defining the dynamic for which Shepard’s crews would become nigh-infamous: family.

Ashley, the quintessential little sister, a relationship neither Shepard nor Kaidan thought they wanted, but what they both sorely needed.

Ashley, the foundation.

“Perspective betrays with its dichotomy: train tracks always meet, not here, but only in the impossible mind’s eye; horizons beat a retreat as we embark on sophist seas to overtake that mark where wave pretends to drench real sky.”

Ashley really would have been a great match for James, too, even if neither Shepard nor Kaidan can place why they feel that way.

James and Kelly, though, Shepard is actually a little surprised she’d never thought of before. Maybe it has something to do with James’s prior aversion to fraternization, but in this post-war galaxy, it makes sense that people are finding each other in often unexpected places, that following one’s heart has become so commonplace. It’s beautiful, in a way. Liberating, even.

And she gets it. Kelly’s flirtatious tendencies are right on par with James’s when she’s in the right mood, once she’s comfortable. Kelly is confident, but she is also laid back and unpretentious, and she is overflowing with such pure and genuine care and compassion for everyone she meets. She understands how that might draw in James, how that might make him feel safe enough to let down his guard. And James has a heart of gold under all his many layers of insecurity and doubt and regret hidden beneath the obvious façade he presents of unabashedly boundless ego. Kelly would find that, though, she’d hone right in on it, helped more than a little by his legitimately enticing charm.

And for as uncomfortable as it would be to admit it, Shepard remembers the curves of Kelly’s body, the way she melted into her grip with everything she had, how good she felt to hold.

This makes sense. This is a very good thing.

An even better thing, almost, is that when Kelly and James do walk through that backdoor before Shepard and Kaidan have cleared enough distance to be entirely inconspicuous, they aren’t paying any attention at all to anyone aside from each other. The way they both move quickly towards the hall leading to either of their rooms without any apparent awareness of their surroundings is not even remotely subtle, and that would make Shepard happy enough without the bonus of avoiding a potentially awkward encounter.

Which leaves Shepard and Kaidan able to take their time in walking to their destination. And from the sound of it, the bar is where everyone else ended up, too.

“Hey, sorry, that was…” Steve starts awkwardly when they’re only a few steps out, evidently having stayed behind, as well. “Not one of my finer moments.”

“Ah come on, live a little,” Shepard chuckles when she and Kaidan stop moving. “I know you just want James to be happy.”

“Yeah, but that got pretty carried away,” he shakes his head and crosses his arms.

“It wasn’t so bad,” Shepard smiles. “Okay fine, yeah it was, but…we’re all happy for them, that’s what’s important, right? It’s really just a shame I don’t have a body built for stealth anymore.”

“Well then, if we agree, it is not odd that one man’s devil is another’s god or that the solar spectrum is a multitude of shaded greys; suspense on the quicksands of ambivalence is our life’s whole nemesis.”

“Wait, you? Use stealth? Ever?” Steve laughs.

“What,” Shepard smiles, and the three of them decide all at once to start walking again. “I could be covert when I needed to be.”

“Hard to picture, that's for sure,” Steve responds. “You can’t tell me you don’t have a preference for the directly aggressive route, at least. I distinctly recall James once telling you on the shuttle back after a mission that you can’t just punch an Atlas mech, and you only responding with, and I quote, ‘not with that attitude.’”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, this again?” Shepard sighs. “Exactly how often did I do that?”

“Too often,” Kaidan answers quickly.

He’ll never forget the way his heart dropped when he first saw her in action again on Mars, how drastically her combat style had changed. It was appalling, really, watching her be so blithe in maneuvering life or death. What they were doing was dangerous, but what she was doing was acting on a death wish.

Which makes sense in retrospect, knowing what he knows now. Either way, though, he thinks about feeling his skin crawl when they first met hostiles outside the archives, when he first noticed how little concern she had for details such as range and cover. No, she barely so much as bothered to even try shielding herself, instead charging in guns blazing, throwing out biotic attacks left and right with no apparent consideration for the physical toll their overuse could cause, and deploying more melee attacks in their first encounter there alone than she ever had in all their time on the SR-1 put together. He’d never seen anyone that reckless, and his head spun with all the things he’d wished he could tell her. He didn’t know how to express how much she scared him, though, and it’s not like there’d been any time, just like he’s told her about all she’d wished she could have said to him while they were there.

He’s glad they finally had that talk, that they’ve finally aired it all out. He’s not sure he’ll ever stop being haunted by those memories, by how hard it was to watch her hold such blatant disregard for her own life, but those days are over.

For some reason he thinks on meeting Jonah Ashland at the Silver Coast Casino, on his musings about the potential for post-war life: “No one’s afraid of each other anymore. If we win this thing, the galaxy’s going to be a pretty great place.”

That’s hard to argue, as far as Kaidan is concerned. It sure as hell is a lot different, and while it doesn’t take away from all of the loss and utter devastation, in a lot of ways that’s been a damn good thing.

Ashland likely never would have factored in the prospect of Reapers joining in on this newfound galactic peace, but…

“Last year was a fucking weird ride, that’s for sure,” Shepard shrugs after a few beats.

“We’re just happy you made it out in one piece, Shepard,” Steve responds affectionately.

He really is the dad friend.

“Shepard!” Wrex calls upon their approach to the bar.

“Wrex,” Shepard laughs, and she shows no reluctance whenever Miranda stands to offer her seat.

“Nice to finally see a friendly face after the day I’ve had,” Wrex chuckles and then looks around the packed room. “Um, no offense.”

“Um, yes offense,” Joker retorts.

“Nah, we’re good,” Jack adds with a smirk, which Miranda mimics with a nod.

“So, what’s up?” Shepard asks, eagerly accepting the garishly colorful cocktail Samantha silently offers at the same time.

“Been on vid comm with the damn asari Councilor all day,” Wrex sighs.

“Oh shit, I’d kind of forgotten about them,” Shepard notes uneasily. She’s given thought to her Spectre status, yes, but she hadn’t given much consideration to those in charge of it.

“Let’s be honest, they’re really only figureheads now,” Garrus interjects. “It isn’t like there’s actually anything for them to do, so the Council’s very existence is pretty much purely symbolic at this point.”

“Probably more for the sake of tradition than anything else,” Tali suggests.

“Well, they’re gonna have to shove some of their precious traditions straight up their asses when I’m through,” Wrex laughs.

“Wait,” Shepard cuts in. “Where the hell is the Council even based out of? The Citadel isn’t habitable again yet, is it?”

“Repairs are coming along remarkably fast, actually,” Samantha says. “The wards aren’t open yet and there still aren’t any residents, but parts of the presidium are now open to the public.”

“Oh, fuck,” Shepard whispers. Even now, she can’t help but missing out on everything.

She really needs to break her isolation, really needs to figure out her own shit.

Good thing Diana’s there.

“So, who made it?” Shepard asks next. “From the Council, I mean? Did anyone? And, uh, how?”

“Councilor Tevos was on Illium when the Citadel fell,” Liara explains. “She left the Citadel after…after Thessia. It is a useful world to visit if one needs to rally a large population of asari—notably well-off asari, at that—in one place.”

“She did mention needing to attend to the continuation of the asari race,” Shepard mumbles.

The mention of Thessia burns like too much ryncol in her throat. She was there when Earth fell, sure, but even she knows that she was powerless to do anything that mattered when it happened. Thessia, though…Thessia’s on her head. It doesn’t matter that the galaxy is practically in a perfect state of anarchism these days, that everyone including the fucking Reapers is reaching out and lending a hand and supporting one another throughout world after world being actively rebuilt from almost the ground up. It doesn’t matter that this means Thessia will survive. What matters to her is that it nearly didn’t, and that far too many asari lost their lives trying to ensure it wouldn’t reach that point. What matters to her is that she had a chance to at least make their sacrifices mean something, but it took how much extra time and how many further needless deaths before she was able to fulfill the mission that took her there only to watch it burn.

“Councilor Valern, believe it or not, actually went to the Crucible after Cerberus’ coup, to offer resources and moral support to the salarian teams working there,” Liara continues.

“Otherwise known as finally seeing the writing on the wall and getting the hell out of dodge,” Shepard snaps.

“No, that would actually be Councilor Sparatus,” Liara acknowledges. “I believe Councilor Valern was genuinely trying to express his gratitude for his life…and, as rumor has it, scouting for additions to the science team he was sponsoring on Kahje to work towards a cure for Kepral’s Syndrome, which was to be a massive undertaking, from the sounds of it.”

“Was?” Shepard asks on behalf of the creeping annoyance of missing how much more important news. “Wait, why isn’t it now? What changed?”

“Shepard,” Edi says delicately. “Kepral’s Syndrome no longer exists. It has been eradicated by the synthesis, much like Vrolik’s Syndrome.”

“Oh,” is all Shepard can say, and even that is less of a word and more of a barely audible breath that catches and claws at her halfway out.

She supposes it makes sense in context, and it’s an amazing thing that’s come of all this. She wonders how many drell have had how many years added to their lives. She wonders how much more harmonious the relationship between the drell and the hanar have become, how at ease all of Kahje must be about the subject.

Even though it twists in her chest at the same time, the realization that this means that if Thane had lived, then…Thane would have lived.

She can’t think about that. She won’t think about that. Not right here, not right now.

“After Councilors Valern and Tevos took their leave, however,” Liara continues, brushing over the vaguely palpable discomfort of the moment, “Councilor Sparatus took refuge on Digeris. Ostensibly to offer moral support to the turians holding the colony, of course, but it was an, ah, interesting choice to go a world so out of the way that also happened to have some of the least amount of Reaper presence in turian space.”

“Interesting, indeed,” Garrus sneers. “He would cut and run to save his own ass. Better than admit he should have been better prepared after first receiving warning three whole fucking years ahead of time, right? I’d always thought Tevos was the Council’s biggest pain in the ass, but she at least had the decency to acknowledge she’d been wrong about mistrusting Shepard, for whatever that’s worth.”

“So, what’s your deal, Wrex?” Shepard turns her attention back to what brought them to this subject to start with.

“It’s about damn time the krogan were given a seat, Shepard,” he replies with an aggression that everyone understands is not directed at anyone present. “I don’t give a shit if the Council doesn’t hold much real power in the galaxy anymore. We’ll take the fucking symbolism for what it is. Now that the genophage is cured and my people have hope for the first time in nearly 1,500 years, we have to keep that hope alive. A krogan seat would show everyone back on Tuchanka that we are finally being taken seriously as a race, and that we are being given the respect we deserve. We helped save all of your asses in this war just as much as the damn turians or humans did, and we have more than earned the right to be treated as equals.”

“Damn right, you have,” Shepard agrees.

“Yeah, and I’ll crack ‘em eventually, don’t worry,” Wrex laughs smugly. “And it’s not just the krogan vying for recognition, either. I, umm…I’ve also started a petition to offer a seat to the quarians.”

“Wait, what? Wrex, are you kidding me?” Tali asks in genuine surprise, laced with an obvious gratitude.

“Fuck no, I’m not,” Wrex responds seriously. “Your kind’s barely been tolerated over the centuries, too, and that didn’t stop you from stepping up to the plate when the galaxy needed you most, either.”

“Well, I’m be damned, Wrex, you really have gone full diplomat,” Garrus teases. “It suits you, strangely enough.”

“Yeah, well, don’t thank me yet,” Wrex shakes his head. “Normandy crew’s word carries a lot of weight these days, Tali, so don’t be surprised if they want your recommendation when the day comes. Which it will. Hell, your name’ll probably be tossed into the running.”

“Keelah,” Tali groans. “I…I, ah, anyway. What about humanity’s seat? Last I heard, that’s still vacant.”

“Yes, it is,” Liara confirms. “There are names being put into consideration, but no official decisions are anywhere near being finalized.”

“Anyone we know?” Joker laughs.

“Yes, actually,” Liara begins oddly diffidently. “I probably shouldn’t say anything, but intel has it that Kaidan is being discussed as a frontrunner.”

“What?” Kaidan responds in horror. “No, I…no. I’m no politician, why would they…no.”

“You’re a high ranking military officer who was on the ground during the Battle for Earth,” Liara explains. “You are already being considered one of humanity’s greatest heroes, at this point probably second only to Shepard. You’re well respected, you’re noted as a leader, and you have the prestige of being only the second human Spectre—and the only surviving human Spectre as far as most people are aware.”

“It would be a fitting tribute to Admiral Anderson, and a far better follow up to the Admiral’s time on the Council than Udina could ever have been,” Karin chimes in. “Hell, maybe Shepard’s name will end up being thrown into the ring.”

“What?” Shepard’s tone is almost identical to Kaidan’s. “No, that’s…no. No. All we ever did was butt heads, anyway, they wouldn’t want me.”

“It is likely you would be named as a candidate for the position, Shepard,” Liara follows. “Surely this doesn’t surprise you. You do know who you are, after all.”

“Kaidan, I love you, but the wedding’s off,” Shepard stares into the dauntingly tall glass she has yet to brave. “Resuming Plan A: hiding forever.”

“Carrie,” Kaidan exhales softly, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Anderson would love the prospect of Shepard on the Council, though. He’d laugh his ass off at the mere mention, but he would love it.

And for as much as neither she nor Kaidan care to openly admit it, they both know that either of them would make a far better replacement than another Udina-type politician, regardless of how meaningless the position may or may not be.

“Shepard,” Diana says flatly. “I’m sorry, but…I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, but we both know that’s not an option. The press is all over the city right now. For the memorial, and for you. People are starting to really wonder. I’ll give it to al-Jilani: I may not agree with her methods or her motives, but she is very good at her job.”

“Fuck, Traynor, what the hell is in this?” Shepard enthusiastically sidetracks after finally tasting Samantha’s vibrant (and surprisingly strong) concoction.

“Three shots asari honey mead, two shots akantha, one shot elasa, one shot ice brandy, half a cup strawberry liqueur, and tupo berry juice to fill,” Samantha rattles off proudly. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah,” Shepard nods. “Yeah, that’s damn good, but…”

“But maybe let’s take it slow, alright?” Kaidan says with marked concern in his voice.

“Yeah, good call,” Shepard agrees without hesitation, catching everyone off guard, herself included.

“So we could rave on, darling, you and I, until the stars tick out a lullaby about each cosmic pro and con; nothing changes, for all the blazing of our drastic jargon, but clock hands that move implacably from twelve to one.”

“Especially since we…fuck,” Shepard tries her best to continue, and Kaidan rests his other hand over her other shoulder, providing her grounding through tangible support and encouragement.

“Especially since we really need to talk,” Shepard gets all the way out. “To figure out…all of this, whatever the fuck this is.”

“I’m not trying to push you, Shepard,” Diana assures. “I’m only worried about this news moving forward with or without you, and I know you’d rather have it in your control.”

“Damn,” Shepard sighs. “Damn, yeah, you’re right about that. And I mean, better you get the credit and the ratings, right?”

She tries to laugh. She really tries.

“Yeah, sure, but…” Diana takes a breath, choosing her words carefully. “But that’s not what this is about. You guys are all I’ve got left, so I just want to…”

“I understand, Diana,” Shepard smiles. “Really, thank you.”

Bekenstein is gone and the Normandy is currently vacant, but the latter is hardly a physical entity anymore. It’s a ship, sure, but it’s more than that. For anyone who’d ever travelled on it with Shepard, the Normandy is its people, and these people are what’s become home.

“Any suggestions?” Shepard asks after a beat.

She sounds so fucking tired all of a sudden. She feels so fucking tired all of a sudden.

But she is trying very hard to be there.

“We raise our arguments like sitting ducks to knock them down with logic or with luck and contradict ourselves for fun; the waitress holds our coats and we put on the raw wind like a scarf; love is a faun who insists his playmates run.”

“You could do a living statue sort of thing,” Kasumi jokes. “You know, pose yourself somewhere near the memorial like you’re simply another part of it, and then once you get bored—bam, ‘I’m alive!’”

“As much fun as that sounds, Kasumi…” Shepard smiles and takes another short sip of her drink.

She doesn’t finish her thought, though. She opts to let the “I physically can’t stand around that long” remain unsaid.

This drink feels nice.

Although she still needs a shower, and desperately.

And maybe to force herself to take a proper look into a mirror, to take a real look at what she’s become.

“I still stand by popping up on your birthday,” Joker chuckles. “‘Hey, happy my birthday, everyone, I got you all a present: me!’”

“I wouldn’t actually do that, Shepard; it might come across as self-indulgent, and viewers would probably assume you were holding out specifically to come forward that day, which would then be interpreted as gimmicky and could have a drastic impact on your respectability,” Diana counters. “Just a professional’s opinion.”

Shepard is trying so hard to be careful, trying so very hard to be there.

But this all scares the hell out of her still, and that leaves her feeling much too sober for the situation.

Old habits die hard.

“So kiss: the drunks upon the curb and dames in dubious doorways forget their Monday names, caper with candles in their heads; the leaves applaud, and Santa Claus flies in scattering candy from a zeppelin, playing his prodigal charades.”

Broken former commanders, on the other hand, simply won’t die.

Almost 33 years, and for what.

Almost 33 years, half of that time lost to the ruins of trauma, with whatever time remaining being inarguably past her expiration date.

Almost 33 years, and she’s gone bad. She’s rotting.

Almost 33 years, with barely over a week to go.

She takes another drink. Slow and steady, slowly but surely.

“The moon leans down to took; the tilting fish in the rare river wink and laugh; we lavish blessings right and left and cry hello, and then hello again in deaf churchyard ears until the starlit stiff graves all carol in reply.”

“There won’t be any easy way to do this,” Diana goes on. “I think the best advice I can offer is to start preparing your story ASAP, and then to put on your best and bravest face and just get it out of the way.”

“Do I have to be sober?” Shepard laughs. She isn’t joking.

“That would be ideal, yes,” Diana replies.

Shepard decides not to tell Diana that interviewing with her sans intoxication will be a first.

“Tell now, we taunt where black or white begins and separate the flutes from violins: the algebra of absolutes explodes in a kaleidoscope of shapes that jar…”

Words and thoughts and fears dance behind Shepard’s eyes, filling her head with noise but also simultaneously soothing.

There’s poetry back there, as always anymore. She still has to believe that Ashley would appreciate this. That belief helps keep her ‘sane’…or likely as sane as she is going to get.

“Ashley,” she says out loud without intending to. “I don’t know, maybe this is awful but…Ash’s birthday was three days after mine, and fuck knows how much she’d hate to see me hiding like this…”

“That’s James’s last day, too,” Kaidan reminds her, thinking on her support system, mindful of how much she loves and relies on James, who is also the only person he fears might not be able to stay long enough for the potential fallout. “Maybe find out what time he has to go, figure out who all—”

“We’ll be here,” Joker eagerly interrupts, and Edi nods to agree. There’s no way he could leave her before this, and of course Edi would feel the same.

Although, eventually he needs to talk to Hackett about what comes next for the Normandy, for his station, for when he’ll inevitably be beckoned to return. He wonders if they’ll do a bullshit victory tour deal like the Destiny Ascension did after Shepard and her squad took down Saren. He almost hopes they will, for as tacky as he finds it. Because fuck if he doesn’t miss flying.

“I know,” Shepard acknowledges. She absolutely fucking hates this being her best bet, but it is, and she can’t unsay it, can’t unmake her own terrible suggestion. “Yeah.”

“The paradox is that ‘the play’s the thing’: though prima donna pouts and critic stings, there burns throughout the line of words, the cultivated act, a fierce brief fusion which dreamers call real, and realists, illusion…”

It’ll be okay. She’ll be okay. This is going to get better. She is working towards getting better. It has to. She has to.

“That…that makes a lot of sense, Shepard,” Diana confirms. “And don’t forget that we can always record the interview whenever you want ahead of time. And I’ll start figuring out how to sneak it in without giving myself away, being on ‘sabbatical’ and all.”

“I think that’s best, anyway, yeah,” Shepard says. “Give it some room for error, maybe even help give me a little extra room to catch my breath, having it not be quite all at once.”

She’s oddly surprised at her own words when she says that. It’s a good call and it may genuinely help keep her from getting any more overwhelmed than she needs to be, but it’s interesting to fathom that she could think of something like that on her own, or even want to give herself such an option.

These talks with Kelly are making a world of difference.

“An insight like the flight of birds: arrows that lacerate the sky, while knowing the secret of their ecstasy’s in going; some day, moving, one will drop, and, dropping, die, to trace a wound that heals only to reopen as flesh congeals: cycling phoenix never stops.”

“Not today,” Shepard adds. “But…soon, yeah. In the next few days. That should be good.”

Kaidan tightens his grip on her, and he briefly leans forward to kiss the top of her head.

His presence over her is warm and weighted, like a safety blanket.

“So we shall walk barefoot on walnut shells of withered worlds, and stamp out puny hells and heavens ‘til the spirits squeak surrender: to build our bed as high as jack's bold beanstalk; lie and love ‘til sharp scythe hacks away our rationed days and weeks.”

“What’s it like?” Shepard asks unexpectedly. “I mean…outside. You said the presidium’s open, and that’s…that’s incredible, but…”

“It depends on where you are,” Steve replies. “The Reapers’ help has made one hell of a difference; it’s honestly remarkable. The relays were the first priority, but with all their forces concentrated on getting them back in working order, well…”

“There are more than a few systems that aren’t exactly worth visiting anymore,” Kasumi notes. “But you can visit them, if you are truly so inclined.”

“A lot of the Traverse and the Terminus haven’t been touched yet,” Samantha says. “World rebuilding is being largely focused on the ‘major’ planets affected: Earth, Palaven, and Thessia mainly. Colony worlds aren’t being made a priority. Not yet, anyway. Well, aside from Horizon, but that’s…”

“It made sense to set up there,” Miranda offers. “There are also a good few colonies that don’t need much help, too. Like Mindoir, actually.”

“And there are others where there’s nothing left to save,” Diana says forlornly, but she is determined not to let herself dwell. Not right now. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Samantha whispers.

“It’s not like it’s just Bekenstein,” Diana shakes her head. “So much is lost, like…fuck.”

“Like Tiptree,” Joker offers.

Shepard looks over to him at that, sympathetically sighing, “Oh shit, Joker, I’m…”

“The world itself is still in one piece…sort of,” Joker shrugs. “But everything on it was…fuck, it was decimated. The whole planet’s been razed, and everyone…it’s all gone, Shepard. For all intents and purposes, it’s gone. There’s no rebuilding after that. I don’t see how. I don’t see how anyone would even want to.”

“Joker, I’m…I’m sorry,” Shepard finishes.

“Much of Earth has been lost, as well,” Edi notes. “London is recuperating, but it will likely be years before it’s nearly back to what it was. There are several areas of this city, as well, which have remained in a state of ruin. The majority of Australia is no more, as with some of the more populated regions of Russia and east Asia.”

“I never did see my mom’s hometown,” Kaidan adds. “Pretty sure my dad’s is gone, too.”

“There are reports from all over the place,” Joker says. “Major cities, small towns…”

“Too many to name,” Edi interjects. “Too many at all.”

“A lot of them are salvageable, though,” Jack adds. “Not all of them, but…”

“I’m not even going to fucking start on the damage to Palaven,” Garrus says tersely, and then glances towards Liara. “Or Thessia, for that matter.”

“Before all of this, I never thought I’d say the quarians have been fortunate with Rannoch,” Tali looks down as she speaks. “But I suppose, in this case…”

“Oh, so,” Shepard readies herself to move off topic. It’s abrupt and insensitive, but this conversation is bringing everyone down, and moving away from it might actually be for the best, as opposed to simply coming from her typical reluctance to feel. “Whenever we start sending out formal invitations, do we address yours to Tali’Zorah vas Rannoch?”

“No,” Tali smiles, confirming Shepard’s thought. “I’m Tali’Zorah vas Normandy for life, Shepard. And for once, not one of the other admirals argued.”

“That reminds me, Shepard, I think you’ll get a kick out of this one…I might have gotten an Alliance Normandy permanently engraved on my body,” Jack chuckles. “I know, I know, I never spent any time on that one, but it seemed right, you know? The Normandy and the Alliance have given me a life, so…”

“That is sentimental as fuck, Jack,” Joker teases. “The galaxy is just full of surprises.”

“Yeah, it’s all Shepard’s fault,” Jack replies. “But fuck you.”

“That’s more like it,” Joker grins.

“Actually, hey, Jack,” Shepard takes a deep breath and another drink. “That reminds me, I…I wanted to talk to you. In private, if we can.”

“That’s not exactly a fair request at the moment, is it?” Kasumi laughs.

“Got to give them credit, though,” Wrex laughs much harder. “Those humans have some stamina. Don’t remember you two taking this long.”

Wrex is obviously referring to Shepard and Kaidan, and the former bursts into loud cackling while the latter silently longs for something to hide behind.

“And Kaidan,” Shepard amends, knowing full well how mortified he must be by Wrex’s teasing. “Kaidan’s part of this, too.”

For a moment, though, Shepard lets herself remember that first night with Kaidan. She’s not going to tell Wrex that it was not an encounter meant to last, though. It was too wrought with emotion, the two of them tearing into each other, desperate and longing. She could have savored that forever if it had been possible, but there was no way for them to draw it out, it was too far out of their own hands. It was raw and passionate and oh so much, and it was perfect as exactly what it was.

For a moment, too, Kaidan lets himself linger on that first night with Shepard. He almost wishes he could bring himself to explain that there were too many reasons for it not to last as long as he’d wished it could. He’d have savored that forever it it had been possible, but there was simply no way. It was so surreal, finally being with her that way. He recalls speaking her first name for the first time, recalls the way they fit together so perfectly. He doesn’t know how to explain that he hadn’t truly felt a strong sexual attraction to anyone since Rahna, since he was a damn teenager. He’d tried, but nothing ever felt right, not before Shepard. He didn’t tell her until after the mess with Saren was over that not only had she been his first in several years, but that she was the first person he’d ever been with who he genuinely felt he should be, that it was the first time he’d ever slept with someone without feeling like he was pretending to be someone he’s not.

For a moment, they both let themselves remember everything falling into place, how in awe of it they were, how beautiful that night was, in spite of the insidious dread that accompanied them.

For only a moment do they linger, though, as there are pressing matters at hand.

“Now?” Jack asks. She finds herself a little worried, having no idea what Shepard might need from her.

Because she worries about people now. Because she cares about people now (certain people, at least). Because people can rely on her, just like she can rely on them.

This really is all Shepard’s fault.

“If that’s alright,” Shepard answers.

“Yeah, sure, let’s talk,” Jack stands instantly. “Not sure where to go where privacy’s guaranteed anymore, though, that’s a good fucking point…”

“There is nowhere,” Edi chuckles.

“I’ll watch your drink for you,” Steve says, implications obvious.

She’s pacing herself, though. She’s trying. She’s doing better.

“Come on,” Kaidan offers Shepard his hands when she begins to get up, which she takes.

Fuck, how she hates this. It’s getting easier to accept such gestures, although she still finds it nearly impossible to ask for this kind of help.

She’ll get there. If she has to be like this, then she has to get there. That’s what she keeps telling herself, anyway.

“Then jet the blue tent topple, stars rain down, and god or void appall us ‘til we drown in our own tears: today we start to pay the piper with each breath, yet love knows not of death nor calculus above the simple sum of heart plus heart.”

Words, words, so many words to express so many feelings she would once only have repressed.

She has so many things she wants to discuss with Jack especially. She has so many things to ask her about who she has become.

Shepard knows Jack credits her for bringing her to this point, but she doesn’t know how she can take that credit when she wants so much for herself now to be more like Jack.

They find themselves a vacant room and make a point to lock the door behind them.

“What’s up?” Jack asks once Shepard is seated.

These chairs are familiar, in a way that makes Shepard uncomfortable to make contact with one (although the actual physical chair itself, in fact, is quite comfortable, and an incredible relief on her back and her hips).

“Can you tattoo?” Shepard asks. It feels awkward, and she knows there’s no reason for her to be nervous. “James wondered, if at some point you’d picked it up, yourself, to do your own work, or…”

“Yeah, I learned how to do it on my own during a run through the Terminus Systems,” Jack nods.

Of course she did, though. Jack’s learned to do a lot of things on her own.

Jack’s a survivor.

“Why, is Lieutenant Beefcake looking for a quick fix on the cheap?” Jack smirks. “Or, you know, family discount. Which is free, by the way.”

“Actually, no,” Kaidan laughs.

“Well, who knows, he might be interested, but…in any case, I’m not asking for him,” Shepard follows. “I’m asking for me. I have some things I need to remember, and some things I need to forget. Can you help?”

“Of course,” Jack responds hastily. Because yes, of course, it’s not even a question. She’d do anything for Shepard. Any of them would. “Any idea what you want?”

“I’m working out ideas for a starting point, yeah,” Shepard tells her. “It’ll be my first, but I can guarantee it won’t be the last.”

“You can’t get just one, trust me,” Jack smiles. “I don’t have equipment here, but I’ll see what I can pick up. And then you let me know when you’re ready and we’ll do this.”

“Great,” Shepard says sincerely. “Thank you.”

“Check around Gastown,” Kaidan suggests. “Haven’t been down there in a while so I’m not sure what all’s left, but if enough of it’s intact, that area is probably your best bet.”

“I’ll head that way tomorrow,” Jack says. “Maybe I’ll treat myself to something new for warmup.”

“How do you have any room left?” Shepard asks in earnest.

“I’ll just have to see what I can find,” Jack laughs.

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” Shepard smiles.

“And you know, sometimes a little cover up here and there can be good for you,” Jack muses. “Some things you need to remember, some things you need to forget, yeah?”

Shepard realizes what’s so off to her about the chairs.

This was her quarantine room upon arrival.

She doesn’t recall much of anything about the time she’d spent in it, but there’s a feeling, and enough she was present for even if she wasn’t aware, that she doubts Javik could read this room so well.

She knows how much Kaidan and Karin argued in this room. She knows how much they cried there. She knows how much fear and anticipation it had held, how many sleepless nights, how much aimless and uncertain praying.

So much she doesn’t quite remember, so much she’d rather forget.

She needs to think a lot harder on tracing old scars now, though.

“Yeah,” Shepard echoes. “So, I guess we should…”

They unlock the door and exit the room, quietly but comfortably.

A peek over towards the crowd, and there’s no sign of Kelly or James’s return.

That feels like a good thing.

They head back to where they were, where even amidst such a crowd, no one has taken Shepard’s seat.

She is there. She is planning. She is trying her best, she is working towards…more.

She’ll ask Diana to work up some questions, give her something to practice with. It’ll help to have a better idea of what she’s doing, to make it more real so that she can try to begin to really process it.

Steve hands her drink back to her when she sits down, and she decides to offer to split it with Kaidan, who accepts.

She wants to be there. She will mingle for a little while longer, keeping as level of a head as she can. She will continue to engage. She will continue to progress.

And maybe in a little while, once this glass is empty and her socialization reserves have been emptied, she will finally drag her ass into the shower.

Amidst these new developments, that would be the place to start.

Chapter Text

Carrie Shepard is counting down.

Her birthday is in two days. James leaves in five.

Jacob’s been gone for weeks, and some others’ appearances have become less and less frequent.

It’s not personal, it’s just…life.

For as much as life inside these walls is cherished, and for as much as it will never be taken for granted, that does not take away from all the life outside. A life full of resurgence, of solidarity, of peace, of treating every day like a miracle.

Shepard will see this life soon, herself. Shepard will climb out from her hole to peek over these walls, to touch the air beyond them, to stare down the sky without being shielded by doors and fences.

“Make it all normal again, right?” Shepard asks Diana, feigning laughter.

“Yes,” Diana answers seriously, seated in a chair directly facing Shepard’s. She knows that Shepard is trying to hide behind this awkward fake smile, but Diana can’t let her have it. Because this will. Having Shepard back will make it normal, as normal as anything can ever be. The war is over but not everyone’s been able to find their peace through the wreckage.

But that’s what Shepard’s for. She is both the eye of the hurricane and the recovery that follows the storm. She is a symbol, a beacon. She is hope and salvation. And even now, when the galaxy needs it less so than likely ever in its entire history, this status will not change.

And she needs to see that. She is the one in need of hope, in need of recovery and salvation. And maybe this will help find some of that—maybe showing her how fucking much she means to everyone will bring her some peace of her own.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Shepard admits meekly. She’s done her best to make herself look some version of presentable, deciding that that’s the best she can hope for. She let Samantha do her makeup and told her to have fun with it, to maybe try to brighten up her face, make her look somewhat more alive to announce that she has, in fact, survived.

She’s seen her own face, has taken a good, long look at herself, and she is disgusted by what stared back at her when she finally dared.

She hadn’t realized she could fall any lower than she did with Cerberus. She knew she never quite looked truly alive again after she died, but her appearance from there had remained fairly stagnant. Which was fine by her, as she didn’t believe there was ever going to be any progress and was therefore content in her seemingly fixed state of disrepair, simply deeming it preferable to further retrograde.

Where she is now, however…

Samantha tried her best, but there was only so much that could be done.

She looks like a fucking corpse, and she vehemently hates what she sees. This is not a new sensation for her, but the reasons…the reasons are drastically different.

There were many times during either stint aboard the SR-2 where she would catch a glimpse of herself and be taken aback by the wraithlike shell reflected in the glass. And she fucking despised it, every time—she hated what she saw because it should never have been; she hated it solely for existing, she hated it because it was wrong. What she hates now, however, is how empty she appears, how cold. N7 graduate, famous war hero, inarguably one of the best soldiers humanity has ever produced: now degraded to a desolate waif, weak and hollow. It doesn’t help that it’s true, that all that strength and fortitude she once possessed are as far behind her as it looks, but this is not how she wants to be perceived. Kelly wants her to get past the shame she carries over her condition, and the burden that shame leaves her with is so fucking difficult to bear, and really seeing herself like this felt like a knife twisting.

But it’s more than that, it’s also a fear of disappointing others. Not so much Diana’s galactic audience, although the prospect of her interview being broadcast is still terrifying. No, however, it goes back to the fallen, as it so often does. Anderson, Ashley, and Thane in particular stick out in her mind—they’d each had so much love for her in their very different ways, and she’s not sure any of them would know what to make of this.

Although, she supposes, if everyone who’s survived this far with her has been able to cope, has been able to help, then…

Maybe she can do this.

“Fuck, I don’t know if I can,” she starts again, anyway, nerves getting the better of her.

“Hey, Shepard,” Diana says gently. “Cameras are off. We can take our time. You can take your time. You’ll be fine. And you’re not alone here, alright?”

Kaidan is sitting a little off to the side, watching but not interfering. And while neither Joker nor James are in the room with them, they made it no secret that they’re keeping close, and that they will be ready for whatever she needs once this is all said and done.

Shepard isn’t aware of how much she means to people, but they are. The war wasn’t the end, and there are still so many new beginnings ahead of them.

Things to celebrate, reasons to laugh.

The laughing part is important.

“Nothing until you’re ready, Shepard,” Diana affirms. “Alright?”

“Alright,” Shepard echoes numbly. She looks over towards Kaidan, and he flashes her a warm and encouraging smile.

This can just be practice if she needs it to be, too, they’ve discussed this. No matter what, she has five days before this airs. This first take doesn’t necessarily have to be the final cut. She has room. This will be okay.

“I…I think I’m ready?” She sounds every bit as confident as she feels.

“The winter landscape hangs in the balance now, transfixed by glare of blue from gorgon’s eye; the skaters freese in stone tableau.”

“Or as ready as I’ll ever be, I guess,” she mumbles her continuation to no one.

“I’m right here if you need me, Carrie,” Kaidan speaks up, his eyes alight looking over at her.

“I’m just going to get right into the interview,” Diana explains. “I’ll cut in an intro for the segment later, we don’t need to worry about wasting time on that right now.”

“What are you going to say?” Shepard asks out of genuine curiosity.

“I have no idea,” Diana answers honestly. “I did have a thought about getting this out there, though. But I didn’t want to move on it until I ran it past you.”

“What’s that?”

“Emily Wong—”

“She’s alive?” Shepard interrupts in her surprise. For as out of it as she’s been, she could have sworn she’d caught some rumor or another from someone that Emily died on Earth.

“Yeah, she is,” Diana replies, and she can see how relieved Shepard is to hear it. “I’d heard you two got along. She actually did have a close call with a Reaper on Earth, but she…she managed to stick it out long enough for the Catalyst to activate, and that’s that.”

“Oh wow, that’s…good, yeah, that’s good,” Shepard takes a second to catch her breath. “So, you want to give the footage to her?”

“Yeah, she came back to work a couple of weeks ago, so I figure I hand the story over to her, and…” Diana shrugs, both of them knowing the rest.

“I like it,” Shepard says. And it’s true, she does. “Okay.”

“Alright,” Diana says and activates her omni-tool to turn on her cameras. “You say the word at any time and we turn these off, okay? Veto power still stands.”

Shepard only nods, and Diana silently continues to tinker with her omni-tool until the cameras are positioned exactly how she wants them.

Diana offers Shepard a soft smile to indicate that they’re about to begin, and Shepard swallows down all the fear threatening to combust inside her.

“Air alters into glass and the whole sky grows bitter and tilted as a golden china bowl; hill and valley stiffen row by row.”

“Shepard, you were presumed dead after the Battle for Earth and the activation of what is now publicly known as the Crucible,” Diana starts right in. “For months now, most of the galaxy, including official Alliance records, have declared you KIA. Which begs the most obvious question to start with: where have you been all this time?”

She knows it will almost certainly come up in the introduction to the actual segment, which she wants to tell herself she’ll never have to see, but in this moment Shepard is so terribly grateful that Diana does not default to calling her “Commander.”

“That’s…well, I guess it depends on when exactly you’re asking about,” Shepard tries her best to sound light and casual, readying herself for the stranger recollections. “I…I was in London. I don’t know how. All I know is that when I woke up, the doctor who attended to me there said I’d been there for a while…a few weeks, I think. I don’t remember much else about that. Since then, I have…I’ve been with my loved ones, taking care of things with people I know and trust.”

“Anything you care to share?” Diana asks because the audience will have expected her to, and as she warned Shepard she would.

She tried her best to practice this one, poring over it with Kaidan, but they couldn’t settle on anything that truly felt like the right answer. She’s found herself surprised by her unwillingness to lie about what she’s been dealing with if she can avoid it, but she would also quite predictably prefer not to tell the truth.

“Stopping the Reapers from wiping out the whole of civilization as we know it was a hell of a thing,” Shepard laughs a little. “And recovery’s been a bit of a bitch.”

Vague and grossly oversimplified…but accurate.

“Shepard, you’re a hero to everyone in the galaxy,” Diana firmly stresses, and when they were going over their practice questions, she had neglected such fervor, such intensity. Shepard remembers the email she received from Diana just before Hackett came aboard to make the final preparations for their return to Earth, and she remembers how hard that had hit her. Yet she somehow hadn’t expected that to carry over into this interview, she hadn’t expected someone as professional as Diana to let her personal feelings seep through like this, and Diana herself is surprised by having done so, but they continue. “I am confident in saying that, from a purely objective standpoint, news of your survival will be met with widespread relief, and even celebration. So, why hide?”

Shepard is so fucking glad she knew these questions were coming.

But that does not make them much easier to answer now that the cameras are on her, regardless of the bit of comfort that comes with knowing that this is not a livestream.

She’s given a lot of thought to this one, and asked for suggestions from Kaidan, Joker, James, Karin, and Kelly, as well as Diana. The general consensus has been to admit to dealing with injuries from battle without getting into detail, but now that the moment has come, deflecting the question even that much doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel appropriate.

She has no idea what the hell she’s doing, and she only hopes she won’t regret it when she begins to speak.

“I was afraid,” she answers, and both Diana and Kaidan visibly hold themselves back from interjecting. “I didn’t know—I don’t know if the galaxy, all these people you say I’m such a hero to, really want to know what’s happened in the aftermath. I…”

Her voice cracks and her eyes are hot.

“Shepard,” Diana says quietly, gently. As a friend, not a journalist. “We can—“

“No, no,” Shepard replies quickly, trying not to think on how she knows she’s already starting to ruin Samantha’s pristine makeup application. “Don’t cut, I can…I can do this.”

She swallows hard and takes a deep breath.

She’s fought fucking Reapers and won, but evidently it’s telling a camera that she’s in pain that’s the real challenge.

“Each fallen leaf is trapped by spell of steel, crimped like fern in the quartz atmosphere; repose of sculpture holds the country still.”

“I’ve led some incredible missions,” Shepard goes on, trying to bolster her own courage, or what’s left of it. “I can acknowledge that. I’ve seen and done some truly amazing things. I led a team that helped take down the first Reaper our cycle had ever seen. I was the first human Spectre and my word elected the first human Councilor. I oversaw a krogan-turian alliance and the curing of the genophage. I led the team on the first non-Collector ship in history to return through the Omega 4 relay. My squad helped the quarians reclaim Rannoch. And we exterminated the geth, despite those who had chosen to follow me. Geth, Diana. Geth allied with us under my leadership. And all of us, together, races who had previously despised each other, fought as one to end the Reaper harvests once and for all. My actions saw the end of countless cycles of mass extinction, and those same actions have saved even more lives through consequences I’d never anticipated. But everyone forgets two very important things, things that should never, ever go without saying. One is that I was never alone, that I always had good people at my side who helped me at every turn, and who are every bit as responsible for my successes as I am. Too many of those people gave up their lives for me to make it as far as I did, for any of us to reach this point. Admiral David Anderson, Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, Thane Krios, Mordin Solus, a geth called Legion—they all played a part through their service on the Normandy and on the ground, and each and every one of us owe our lives to their sacrifices. They were invaluable as teammates, and as friends, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of them, that I don’t miss the living hell out of them.”

She’s properly crying now. She is not so far gone that it’s too difficult to speak clearly, but her voice is breaking in and out, tears falling uncontrollably. But she is oddly unashamed. This is what needs saying, this is what the galaxy needs to hear.

“What’s the second thing?” Diana asks after a respectful pause.

“That I’m only human,” Shepard tells her—tells everyone. “And I have never felt more human than I do now. I’m just one person, I’m not special. Sure, I’m biotic and sure, I’ve had some pretty unique experiences and sure, I’ve received the best damn training a human soldier can get, and this has carried me through a lot. But I’m nothing without my people behind me, and I…I need them now more than ever. My actions on the Citadel have improved quality of life for so many, but it’s destroy—it’s altered mine significantly. What I went through up there, Diana, it’s changed everything. For everyone, I know, but for me…I’ve had a hard time accepting my new life. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop having trouble adjusting to it. It broke me, I guess you could say. I am in constant pain, to the point that I struggle to walk without assistance. I’m no good as a soldier now. I’m not this strong and heroic idealized Shepard everyone sees. I never was, but now? Now I’m nothing. So that is why I’ve been hiding. I never wanted to be thought of as the savior of the galaxy, and I’m okay without the praise I don’t deserve. But I know people look up to me, and I’ve been afraid to let them down.”

“What countermagic can undo the snare which has stopped the season in its tracks and suspended all that might occur?”

She doesn’t go as far as to mention how her grasp on reality has suffered, on her newfound trivial obsessions that give her ground, the only other thing aside from the people in her life who she often worries she relies on too much. But she knows she wouldn’t be here without them, and in more ways than she will admit to the galaxy at large.

Just as she would die for anyone she loves, she is every bit as certain that she would die without them.

Not everything is for public consumption.

“Shepard,” Diana sighs, summoning every ounce of willpower she possesses to keep a straight face, and Shepard understands. This is her job, and they have been concerned enough as it is for the risk of repercussion over deliberately sitting on a story this big, deliberately shirking the responsibility of journalistic integrity expected of her for the sake of friendship, such a clear conflict of interest.

Shepard seems to be absolutely fucking phenomenal at bringing those out in others.

Some fucking savior.

Lady Lazarus, Mad Girl, Insomniac, Colossus—no savior, nothing worthy of hero worship.

“Locked in crystal caskets…”

“What’s changed your mind?” Diana asks, reeling herself back towards composure. “Why come forward now?”

“Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams,” Shepard sounds so numb when she says, despite the emotion inherent in her tone by sole merit of the fact that she can’t stop crying, even if she doing an incredible job of maintaining her own composure throughout this. “She gave her life on Virmire so that the rest of my crew and I could have a fighting chance of escape. We owe everything to her. More than that, though, she was…to say Ash was a friend wouldn’t honestly be fair to her. She was a sister to me, and to everyone she’d worked with on the Normandy. And that’s how I know how hard of a time she’d give me for secluding myself like this. I know I developed a bit of a reputation for building attachments to my crew that weren’t always compliant to Alliance regs, but I have no regrets about that, even when it’s hurt. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, leaving Ash behind, and I still love her dearly. So I’m doing this for her. She should be 29 today. She should be celebrating with her family. She should have gotten to see the end of the hell that was this war. But she’s not and she didn’t, and I will never forgive myself for that. And I don’t know where she is or if she’s watching, but…this is what she’d want, so I can’t put it off any longer. I owe her something, god knows, and this is the best I can give her right now.”

“Thanks, Skipper,” Ashley’s voice whispers. It sounds distant, but it’s there, and Shepard can only hope she doesn’t have any sort of noticeable reaction to it. “Love you, too.”

“One last question,” Diana starts, and she sounds so solemn when she speaks. It’s good that this was always going to be a short interview, as it has been so much more gutting than anyone had expected it to be. “What’s next for you?”

“I don’t know,” Shepard responds. She’s already drained, and it shows. This, however, is the question that she is genuinely eager to answer, and she sees Kaidan’s face light up in anticipation out of the corner of her eye. “In regards to my position with the Alliance or any of that, I mean. Acknowledging that I’m still here is a big step, but my professional life is uncertain at best for the time being. My personal life, on the other hand…I’m happy with where I am with that, and I have a lot to look forward to. Major Kaidan Alenko and I are…we’re very happy together. Both of us making it here is a damn miracle, and we’re not taking it for granted. We are living together, and we’re currently working on planning a wedding. I only wish Ashley and Admiral Anderson—well, and a lot of others, but those two in particular—had gotten to see it…to know how much they’ve done, and how we’re making the most of it. I had pretty controversial relationships with both of them, and I know how happy they’d be to know what’s happening. But we won’t ever forget them, and I beg everyone watching this to remember them, too. If I’ve disappointed you, and even if I haven’t, remember who really deserves all the honors I’ve received. And that goes just as much for everyone in my crew who is still here. There’s a lot of credit to go around, and not nearly enough of it has been distributed appropriately.”

“Thank you for your time, Shepard,” Diana closes unceremoniously, but no one’s sure what other kind of outro there could have been. The content Shepard has provided will be more than enough, and Diana’s intro will likely be every bit as simple and pointless, added only for the sake of the format.

She pulls up her omni-tool again, ending the recording, and as soon as she does, Shepard covers her face with her hands and lets go completely.

Kaidan rushes to her, amazed by her bravery, by how little credit she gives herself when she is so much more remarkable than she will likely ever be able to recognize. No one expected her to be so candid, and no one blamed her for being so reluctant. But she just bared her soul to millions of strangers, when it wasn’t too long ago that she still struggled to do so with him, and he was the one she could best let go in front of.

“Shepard,” Diana says softly. “It’s your call on whether or not we use that footage, okay. I know that got rough and I don’t want to do anything you’re not comfortable wi—”

“Keep it,” Shepard forces out. “That sucked, but it was…it was real. It was right.”

“Okay,” Diana nods. “I’ll start editing tonight. But if you change your mind at any point between now and when we plan to air…”

“I know,” Shepard says hoarsely. “I know. Thank you.”

“I’m proud of you,” Anderson’s voice reverberates in her head, and she is legitimately unsure if it’s a lapse in reality or simply the memory of his last words. So she silently tells herself it’s the latter, and that will have to be enough.

“I’ll be around here for a little while longer,” Diana adds as she moves to leave the room, her intention of looking to give them space to themselves without being rude clear to them. “Shepard. Kaidan.”

She collects her equipment and Kaidan takes the chair she’d been sitting in, bringing it closer to Shepard and then taking it for himself.

“What the fuck is wrong with me, Kaidan?” Shepard does not look up, her hands still covering her face, making it all that much more difficult to understand her on top of how rough and low her voice has become.

“Hey, Carrie,” he speaks her name gently and reaches for her, leaning forward and resting his hands over her knees when she doesn’t look at him. “Hey, you’re okay. That went really well.”

“I think so, too, yeah,” she admits. “But why does it feel so fucked?”

“You did good, child,” Anderson’s voice repeats.

No, not this, not now.

She has to face the galaxy again. The galaxy has to face her.

None of them are ready for this. None of them will be okay once it all comes out.

And it’s only a matter of days.

Her heart beats faster, panic suddenly overcoming her, but she won’t take it back. She’s said what she said and she doesn’t care that Diana’s left the door open for her; there is no turning back as far as she sees it, for if she does walk back through that door she does not trust herself not to lock it behind her.

She’s done now, it’s over. This is where she needs to be, no matter how hard it is to breathe.

“Carrie,” Kaidan whispers carefully, watching her shoulders heave and listening anxiously to the sound of her breath, honing in on the shake of her whole body. “Look at me. Carrie, please.”

“I can’t lose you again,” he remembers telling her in London, taking in the lingering warmth of her lips left on his, as well as his fear that it would be the last time he would ever feel it. He barely remembers stumbling out of the escape pod from the Normandy SR-1, and he doesn’t even remember where he was when he did. He only remembers not knowing where she was, screaming for her and being asked to calm down by faces and voices he can no longer pinpoint. He doesn’t remember where he was or what he was doing when it was officially confirmed that she hadn’t made it, but he does remember shutting down, going numb. He couldn’t feel, was sure this couldn’t be real. He didn’t speak a single word for days after. He couldn’t. And for as little of that as he can recall, he remembers how he remembered, how he took all he had of that with him to the Battle for Earth, how it had guided his every move.

And then he remembers the declaration of victory, placing her name on the Normandy’s memorial wall and standing tall, putting on his bravest face.

He remembers days after, when they held Shepard’s funeral. Her first had been a small and personal gathering held privately on Arcturus Station, but her post-war funeral was actually on Mindoir, whose government had reached out to the Alliance over it, and the turnout had been astronomical. He’s sure she would have hated it, such a long and solemn affair attended largely by strangers on the birthplace she barely knew and could never bring herself to look too far back on. But he remembers the way everyone had stared at him when he tried to speak, and once again found himself silenced by her absence. The rest of their crew had such beautiful words to memorialize her, while he’d had nothing. It hardly even helped that everyone got absolutely shitfaced after, per Diana’s request and her insistence that they were honoring a promise she’d made to Shepard, and not a one of them could bring themselves to turn that down.

He remembers Joker finding him during what Diana called a “Bekenstein wake,” after he’d excused himself to the bathroom and proceeded to lock himself in an empty stall to cry and scream at nothing and no one, desperate for the closest he could get to privacy while being unwilling to leave. They’d both been too drunk, but Joker had gotten him back on his feet, Kaidan fighting him all the way, and somehow it was Steve who left early to get Kaidan out of there, to make sure he got to where he was staying safely.

Steve had stayed the night with him, apparently afraid to leave him alone. He’d told Kaidan more stories about Robert, further expressed how well he knew what Kaidan was going through, and Kaidan sort of remembers comforting Steve in return. Too much elasa (which he had favored heavily that evening based solely on how appropriate he’d deemed “sorrow’s companion” getting him through the night) and the pure emptiness no amount of liquor in the galaxy could ever fill led Kaidan to make a careless move on Steve, and he was barely coherent enough by then to take in Steve telling him he wasn’t in a good space and that he shouldn’t do anything he might regret. Steve was right, of course, and he doubts he could have followed through on it, anyway, but he’d needed something to forget, just for one night.

He’d wanted so badly simply to be someone else, someone who could be so casual and unconcerned in his despondent need for distraction (and it goes without saying that Steve deserves far better than to be a drunken rebound, in any case, which would have made such an action all that much more regrettable, although that would also have made it all that much more distracting), someone who wasn’t being ripped apart from the inside out over losing the love of his life for the second time, with no reason to hope that he would ever see her again (but evidently taking his cues from his memories of her bad habits and harmful coping mechanisms, without even realizing at first what he was doing).

And now here he is, watching her fall apart from working so hard to pull herself together. He wonders how much footage from the press’s most unwelcome presence at her funeral will be played in juxtaposition to the news that she’s lived after all. He wonders how people will take it, if she will be judged.

He knows how popular her unfinished memorial downtown already is, though. He’s seen so many interviews with people of all races from all across the galaxy, people who’d never met her but still singled her out to express their gratitude for all she’s done, to offer their best to Kaidan and their friends, to emphatically call out the Normandy crew past and present for saving their lives, but always to particularly stress their thanks for Shepard. She means so much to so many, a part of her has to realize that.

She means everything, and nothing would ever have been the same without her.

“Sorry,” she unnecessarily whimpers at him in response. “Sorry, I…”

“Hey, hey, no,” he offers softly. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. You’re okay, Carrie. Look at me, alright? It’s okay.”

She lets her hands slide down a bit so that they are no longer covering her eyes, which are oversized and bloodshot when they meet his.

It is not a sight he imagines he can get used to seeing. It is good that she’s learning to be vulnerable, but hell if it doesn’t hurt to watch her go like this.

But he’s said his final goodbyes to her twice. He’s attended two separate funerals for her in the past four years. Nothing can hurt more than that.

And now it doesn’t have to.

She is the only one who doesn’t understand how good this news is. She is the only one who could ever disagree.

Ashley would be so proud of her for this, he just knows it.

Anderson, too.

He knows how much she still wishes she could join them. He’s woken up more than once to her calling out for them in her sleep. It’s haunted him, too, too many times to count, and he never tells her about it after, never tells her how impossible it is to rest when the fear of losing her yet again is the only thing he can focus on.

She doesn’t need to have scars from her incarceration. She has enough already that he doesn’t need to think too hard about how far she’s been willing to go to try to drown her demons, and how much that terrifies him whenever she lays beside him shaking and pleading for the dead.

Maybe one day he’ll take his own advice and start learning to unravel everything about the mess BAaT made of him. In fairness, he has dealt with the what of everything that happened there, but he’s learning more and more that he hasn’t put the more emotional repercussions behind him nearly as well as he’d once thought. Maybe one day he’ll lower his guard and learn to speak honestly about his feelings like he’s been praying to no one for so long now that she would, and like she has.

Ashley and Anderson would be so proud of her, yes, but everyone there with them will be proud, too. Perhaps that can be enough.

She uncovers her face completely, and she reaches her hands out to his.

She pulls on him when he takes them, surprising him with how much strength she is able to summon to force him forward, to nearly pummel his body into hers.

She runs her hands over him and digs her nails into his shoulders. She doesn’t understand how she can feel so raw over how little she really gave Diana, but she is overwhelmed and finds herself desperate for a diversion. She kisses him long and hard, needing to feel him so she doesn’t have to feel anything else. She needs a break from herself. She longs to forget.

She wants him to make her forget, at least for a little while.

“Carrie…” Kaidan’s voice is harsh and low, already fully invested in her intentions.

He can’t ever get enough of this, not after everything.

He could never take for granted the sensation of her hair in his hands, of the weight of her body consuming is, of the taste of her lips and the way she shivers when he runs his teeth along her neck.

Every single moment like this between them is priceless, just like every single moment between them at all. But it is difficult sometimes, in the heat of it, not to try to imagine what it was like to die. It is difficult, even now, not to get caught up in the memory of learning they’d found a body, or what was left of it, although no one would say any more about it than that at the time.

He’d thought their long talk would help keep these thoughts at bay.

If anything it’s only made them worse.

“Kaidan,” Shepard whispers softly, running her fingers through his hair.

There was no way they were going to be able to do this without hurting her where they are, anyway, she should have known that much.

She doesn’t know what’s come over him now, however. She only knows that he needs her.

She can feel his heart pounding, and he’s started breathing much too rapidly. His hands are balled into fists at her back, and she is awkwardly positioned over his lap, neither of them sure how exactly they ended up like this with how haphazardly they were moving only moments before.

He doesn’t know what’s come over him, why he can’t get these thoughts out of his head all of a sudden.

But he knows he still needs her to himself.

They manage to get themselves up and out of there, slinking away to their bedroom without disturbance.

“Kaidan,” she whispers his name again when she’s lying on the bed, his lips trailing across her collarbones.

She runs a hand along his jawline and pulls his chin up to meet her eyes.

He looks tired.

He looks, too, like he has been deep in thought, and there is a sorrow in his empathetic gaze that she cannot place.

“Are you okay?” She wonders if she asks him that enough. She worries she doesn’t ask him that enough.

Some of her makeup has smeared across his face. She wants to tell him that he should see it, that it might make him smile, but she somehow cannot find the words.

He looks at her, takes in her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, magnificently highlighted by the way her makeup’s been smudged all over, ultimately bringing more attention to all it had been intended to hide.

More and more, his gaze focuses on the way she wears what she’s been through. Scarred and gaunt, but here. He has to remember that part. She’s here.

It may never stop seeming so surreal.

He doesn’t wake her when he dreams of her deaths. He doesn’t tell her how often that happens. And he does not want to know the answer to the one question he has thought to ask but could never bear: how did it feel? He had given more thought than he’d like to admit into Shepard’s last moments with the original Normandy. For two years, it was nearly all he could think about. He doesn’t know much detail, only that exposure had been ruled as her official cause of death. But he’s gotten so lost in picturing where she’d ended up, how alone she must have felt, what she experienced when she started running out of air, how long it took.

He doesn’t know if he can ever ask that much, though, for as much as it plagues him. He doesn’t know if he can take it.

“Kaidan…”

“Yeah, I’m…” He wants to lie, to tell her he’s fine. Watching her progress is leaving him with a lot to process about his own emotions.

He closes his eyes and tries to focus. This is good, where they’re going. This is the right direction.

And he is not going to lose her again.

“Sometimes it’s still so hard to believe you’re really here,” he confesses.

She moves to press her lips against his, and they let this speak for itself.

She misses some of the times they’d had on the Alliance SR-2, when he’d “pull rank” and they would refer to each by title—fuck, how she loved taking orders from him like that. She hasn’t been ready to try it again yet, though. She’ll probably need a lot more time, a lot more distance.

Maybe someday. She’s made so much progress already.

And this is good for now. They ease off clothing with every breath they break away to catch.

“Oh fuck, please,” she begs him when he gently bites down on the tip of her ear at the same time a hand gently grazes her throat.

He brings her legs up over his shoulders and drives into her, grounding himself to her, to this.

She is there, she is alive, she is real, and she isn’t going anywhere this time.

And she is already shouting his name.

He will never get enough of this.

There is no greater reassurance in the galaxy than to be inside her, than to so literally connect with her, to physically become a part of her.

Losing her to the war was different, he wasn’t lying when he told her that.

But neither was he lying when he admitted that this fact was never going to make it okay.

It’s overpowering in this moment, feeling this closeness with her. Right now it isn’t even so much about sex as it is the intimacy, about simply being with her.

But god, does she make the most beautiful faces when she comes.

Before she knew Kaidan, Shepard had never imagined that she could revel in this level of intimacy, that she could ever care any more about sex than getting off and getting out. But with him, everything is different. It’s about his presence, that closeness and connection. His weight on top of her is sanative, every bit as much as the neurons firing in her brain easing her into unadulterated bliss, the likes of which she has only ever known with him.

This is everything, for both of them.

This is when they feel most alive. This is when they feel most human.

Kaidan’s pupils are so wide it almost distracts from how he’s visibly blinking back tears. Shepard almost says something but she doesn’t want to taint this, seeing clearly that he may need it even more than she does.

“Fuck,” is all she can say, overcome by cathexis and overwhelmed by every corporeal sensation of Kaidan driving deeper and harder.

She is able to grasp his hair, to dig her fingers into his scalp, the static shock she has grown to love drawing attention away from the strain on her body this reach causes.

She pulls him towards her like this and kisses him roughly, teasing his bottom lip with her teeth before lightly flicking her tongue against his.

She eagerly swallows the sounds he makes as he gets closer and closer, and she does not let him go, does not let him pull away.

Her legs shake and her body twitches, and the shout of her name is muffled by her mouth when he comes with her, heaving and desperate.

“Are you okay?” Shepard asks delicately after a few moments, her head on his chest and his arms enveloping her while they take the time to collect themselves.

“Yeah, I’m…I think so, yeah,” Kaidan replies, and it is not exactly inaccurate.

They’re okay. They have each other. She is safe in his arms, and they are home.

And now it’s on the damn record that he is going to spend the rest of his life with this woman.

And now it’s okay to believe that they really can have that.

“I love you so much,” he whispers, needing another minute to breathe her in, to remember that this is real and that he is hers.

“I love you, too,” she responds instantly, kissing his skin wherever her lips happen to rest. “I love you so fucking much, Kaidan, you know that, right?”

“Of course,” he answers. “I do, Carrie.”

“Please,” she follows, “Kaidan…please, talk to me.”

He brings her in closer, and his fingers brush along the ridges of her spine. He knows she isn’t, not really, but her body feels so fucking fragile in his hold.

For someone who’s so afraid of being helpless…

“I love you,” is the only answer he can offer. “I love you, and I…Carrie…”

“I’m here,” she utters, understanding. “I’m here, Kaidan. And I’m not leaving you again, I promise.”

“Thank god,” he slips out almost inaudibly. A part of him feels ridiculous, focusing so heavily on losing her in the past when he’s holding onto her so tight in the present, but losing her before had downright traumatized him, and he knows such lingering experiences do not generally adhere to logic.

She’s never had the heart to ask him about what happened after the Collectors attacked the Normandy. She’s never had the heart to ask him about how it felt to come back from that, and to hear the news that she didn’t.

Just as he has never had the heart to ask her about what dying felt like. She’s been questioned plenty about what it was like to be dead, but no one’s ever wanted the gruesome details of how she got there, or what it was like to come back.

It would seem that long talk of theirs from the other day neither answered nor even asked all of the questions they’ve needed to get out of the way, so much more than either of them apparently realized.

That’s okay, though. They have the entire rest of their lives for that.

“Want to head back out?” Kaidan asks after a few more minutes spent in silence, quietly finding all the comfort they need in simply laying together like this. “See who’s here, be social for a little while?”

He also hopes he can get her to eat something while they’re at it.

“Yeah…I’d like that,” Shepard says reluctantly at first, but she knows she means it.

After all, time is counting down, and she wants to enjoy every moment she has with her family while she can.

She and Kaidan have all the time in the world, though. And nothing will ever fucking take that from them again.