The air was salty, with the familiar scent of the ocean waves confusingly reminding her of Earth. It was a case of almost, but not quite – the trees were a little bit too thick, too green in color, the sand an off-beige, the flowers similar in shape but not exactly right.
This wasn’t Earth, but at first glance it sure felt like it. It didn’t surprise her that this planet had developed into the wildly successful colony that it had – she could see the appeal, a home away from home.
Her parents had told her that it wasn’t always like this. When they had first come here, before the Reaper war, when they were still chasing an enemy not entirely understood, this planet had been caught in the Attican-Terminus crossfire – achingly beautiful, enticingly habitable to warrant interest in colonization, but too risky with its considerable distance from the Alliance and mercenary groups raiding nearby star systems.
It had been too risky for Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, too.
They’d landed in a seemingly remote clearing, with Garrus and James bickering over the best place to land whilst Tali studiously confirmed that this was, in fact, the right spot.
It had been time enough, now, that the lush greenery had come back to life, ridding this spot of it’s obvious cataclysm that had previously destroyed the surrounding nature. It formed an almost perfect circle, leading right up into the ocean up ahead. The flora and fauna were obviously younger than its surroundings, the foliage in this region much shorter than the towering limbs of trees that encircled them farther beyond.
This was where her father had set the nuke that would blow Saren’s base. She could see him now in her mind’s eye; younger, a head full of black hair, his brows furrowed in concentration as she had seen so many times before when he’d poured over his omni-tool.
“I was so in love with your mother and I didn’t even know it yet,” he’d told her once with a wistful smile. “Hell, I was ready to die that day, just to make sure she got out alright. But I’m eternally grateful that she didn’t leave me behind, or I’d have never had you.”
This was where her mother came back for her father. It was this spot that they boarded the Normandy SR-1 knowing that they were saying goodbye to a friend.
“It was the hardest command decision of my life,” her mother had told her, “and I’ve made a lot of difficult decisions over the years. So I had to stick to my training. Ultimately, Lieutenant Alenko was the higher ranking officer. It made sense on paper, but the reality is that I still beat myself up over it, wondering if she blamed me in those final moments. I know I made the right command call, but it’s hard not to feel that way when you lose someone you really care about.”
“You feel guilty, because you’re grateful that it was dad who was the logical choice to save.”
“That’s right. I can’t imagine…if he hadn’t been. I’m not certain I would have been able to make the right call if he wasn’t.”
This was where Ashley Williams died.
This was where her honor, her namesake, had been birthed.
Ashley Alenko crouched down and took off her shoes, feeling the grass between her toes, placing a worn hand on the ground in silent tribute. Her dark hair, streaked with grey just as her father’s had been, fell over her face, shielding her from the others as she was overcome with sudden emotion.
A hand on her shoulder woke her from her reverie. Liara’s blue eyes peered into her own, a look of abashed emotion evident on her face. “Shall we?” was all she said, and Ashley nodded. Despite being the youngest here, they all paled in comparison to the ageless asari. She stood, suddenly uncertain of where next to go.
“This is your gift, Ash. Your call to make. We’ll follow wherever you lead.” Garrus’ voice clipped over the sound of the waves, calming her. Right.
A booming chuckle erupted from behind her, causing her to spin her head with a smile.
“He’s right, you know. Even an old krogran such as myself knows to follow the offspring of Shepard and Alenko!” Wrex’s voice erupted from the shuttle, a smirk visible as he stepped out carefully with his arms full.
James followed suit, stubbornly carrying the other package despite earlier complaints of a sore back.
“You sure you don’t need help with that one, Jimmy?” Garrus teased, eyes alight with mirth as James struggled to keep himself upright.
“I may be old, Vakarian,” he said with a grin, wincing slightly as he shifted his weight on the soil, “but I’m still an N7. Besides, Shepard would’ve killed me if I let old age get the best of me on this one.”
“That she would have,” Ashley smiled. She returned her gaze back to the shore, where a familiar form was situated a few yards ahead, gazing upon the surroundings thoughtfully. “EDI – do you have sensor readings on the soil here? Is there a spot these trees would be best suited to grow?”
EDI’s contemplative hum resonated in response, her metallic body turning to meet her eyes. An old and well-weathered Normandy SR-2 hat rested upon her head. “Yes, Ashley. The soil seems to have been rendered healthy from the organic life processes that have occurred here since the nuclear explosion of 2183. The DNA structure of these asari lifeforms require minimal nutrients to flourish for a relatively long botanical lifetime.”
“So you’re saying anywhere will work?” Ashley said, grinning.
EDI met her eyes, providing her with a friendly wink. “Yes. Anywhere will work.”
She scanned the area again, taking a deep breath as a warm breeze washed over them. “Then let’s go.”
Her feet led her with more intention than her mind did, as though they knew where to go. She heard the footsteps trailing behind her – Wrex’s booming footfalls, Garrus and Tali holding hands as they walked in line beside her. She couldn’t help but wonder what her parents would think of this moment, of her being here with their oldest friends. The thought made her smile.
A small clearing came before them, rich in grassy green hues but devoid of any obvious shrubbery growth. It was in the center of the void, and this spot called to her. “Liara?”
Liara stepped forward with a nod, raising a hand unquestioningly. Her fingers wrapped in a sudden glow of blue, a familiar swirling of unseen energy prickling Ashley’s skin. It felt homely, the tingle of biotics. It reminded her of her father. She felt a sudden twinge of sadness when she realized how long it had been since she’d last felt that. With a twist of her hand, the soil in front of her cracked and rose into the air, depositing neatly in a pile beside the now carefully constructed hole in the dirt.
Wrex and James stepped forward, dropping their boxes to the ground. Ashley laid a hand on each of them in thanks, proceeding to open the lids with care.
James peered in curiously, his dog tags clinking. “So you’re certain these will last for a long time, little Loco?”
“I’m certain.” Ashley said, smiling both at the familiar nickname and at the contents inside. Inside each box was a tree, fledgling and ready to be planted, the limbs young but sturdy.
“These are ancient asari foliage, and this is an ancient asari tradition, James.” Liara spoke softly, a wistful smile on her lips as she watched her remove one from the box. “These trees will outlive me, outlive my own children, too. They are known as lovers’ trees back on Thessia, although they are not planted much anymore.”
“How come?” James asked, reaching in to pull the second one from its box, carefully extracting the roots from its carrier soil.
“They simply live too long. They can outlive many asari generations, let alone humans.” Liara grasped a branch between her fingers, touching a leaf with reverent care. “The branches are known to intertwine with one another, making it difficult to extract them apart. The roots can burrow deep underground, making it almost impossible to remove them. Their strength and durability, the way the vines wrap around the others’ trunk…they are an ancient symbol of love, in my culture.”
“They’re perfect, Liara.” Ashley said softly, gazing at the little trees longingly. “I couldn’t have done this without you, without any of you. So thank you.”
“It’s an honor, Ashley, that we can be here with you. They…would have loved this. I can think of no better tribute.” Liara spoke carefully, eyes glassy. Beside her, Tali reached out to slip her hand into Liara’s, who squeezed it gratefully.
As Ashley carefully planted the roots and patted the soil down around each trunk, Garrus crouched to touch the leaves in contemplative wonder.
“It’s incredible, really.” He said, his mandibles flaring slightly. “After all this time, the three of them are finally together again. Knowing that these trees will grow in her ashes…thank you. This means a lot, to all of us who knew them. And I know it would mean a lot to Ashley, too.”
His words finally cracked the seal she’d been keeping in. She grasped the turian’s hand tightly, a tear trailing down her cheek with a smile. “Thank you, Garrus. It means a lot to me, to know that you feel that way.”
They straightened, and she found their group was content to encircle the little fledglings silently, contemplating their significance. The sun was beginning to set, the first streaks of pink stretching across the sky. It was warm, and the breeze of the trees ran over them like a comforting touch.
“Shepard was a krogan sister, the first human to ever obtain that honor.” Wrex’s voice broke through the air, all eyes suddenly rapt on his worn and weary face. “She gave my species a future again, and her name will be passed down for many generations to come as a savior to my people.”
“Alenko had to work a little harder to earn that right,” he continued with a chuckle. Beside him, Ashley saw Garrus roll his eyes with a knowing smirk. “Learning that Shepard had taken a mate brought my people into a huff. Only the most worthy of warrior would be good enough for the savior of the krogan, and many doubted that another human would be strong enough.”
“I remember that day on Tuchanka. Three of your clansmen attempted to kidnap Shepard, thinking that they would use her as a lure for her unworthy mate to step into a krogan trap, where they could challenge his position.” Garrus’ dry drawl interjected, and Tali burst into giggles beside him.
“Yup, and wouldn’t you know it? Alenko walked right up, headbutted my tallest warrior, and lifted all three of them to the ceiling. Lifted three 800-pound krograns!” Wrex boomed out a roaring laugh, and Ashley couldn’t help but join in. “Then he just casually grabbed Shepard, did that human mating ritual you call kissing, and they strolled on out of there like nothing happened. Now that takes some quads!”
“Wish I could’ve been there to see that. I loved when the Major got angry, he could kick some serious ass.” James said wistfully with a chuckle.
“You want to see angry, you should have seen Kaidan’s face when Shepard killed the Reaper on Rannoch!” Tali cut in with a laugh. Her eyes were alight, hair billowing softly in the breeze. Ashley had only ever seen Tali with her mask off, but was used to quarian history being riddled with pictures of their enviro-suits.
She knew Tali had her mother to thank for that.
“Oh, man. I saw them when they got back to the Normandy. He was none too pleased with her after that loco move.”
“On the shuttle, while Shepard and I celebrated, he glared at her the whole way back. Never said a word, just stared at her with this angry scowl the entire time. I’d never seen him get so mad before. I should have taken a holo-image, it would have made a good postcard to send to people!”
“In his defense, she did go head to head with a Reaper with only a targeting laser.” Garrus cut in amidst easy laughter.
“She fought like a true krogan. She made me a proud blood-brother.” Wrex said with finality.
“And she made me proud to be her best friend.” Garrus added, mandibles flaring again. Tali touched his arm sympathetically; while a common facial reaction from the turian, Ashley had never seen him do so as often. She wondered if it was the turian equivalent to keeping in tears.
“I remember, Shepard, when you and I got drunk off our asses when a certain human reamed you out for working with Cerberus. You were so worried that he hated you. It took us an awfully large amount of brandy to convince you that he was as madly in love with you as ever.” Garrus paused, smiling. “I may not remember much from the rest of that evening, but I do remember the look on your face when that same human sent you an apology letter not too long after. That was the best ‘I told you so’ moment that we’ve ever had, and there were a lot of those, Shepard.”
“Ha! As if she could ever seriously doubt Alenko.” Wrex cut in with a snort. “You humans are lucky you don’t have krogan senses, or you’d be as sick as I was whenever they were in the same room together. Their pheromones always stunk up the place.”
They all laughed at that, James wrinkling his nose a little in mock disgust.
“It was an honor to stand with you, every step of the way Shepard. We went to hell and back in a thousand different ways, and I couldn’t imagine a better friend to have by my side…even if I did have the better shot. Now you…you better be up there, waiting for me at the bar, just like we talked about. And have some whiskey with Kaidan while you wait for us, something tells me that he’s probably missed you.”
“It will be one hell of a party, Shepard.” Tali cut in. “I hope your dance moves improve when we meet again. Kaidan’s too; perhaps you two should practice together. Otherwise Garrus and I will waltz our way into turian heaven and you won’t stand a chance.”
Ashley laughed loudly at that, sending Tali a warm smile. “They really were terrible dancers, weren’t they?”
“The absolute worst. We should have had them dance for the Reapers, that would have scared them off real quick.” Garrus rolled his eyes as Tali slipped her arm through his, head resting on his shoulder.
“Keelah se’lai, Shepard. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for saving my people. Thank you for giving me back our home.” Tali stuttered, sucking in a deep breath. “It brings me peace…knowing that you are back with Kaidan. It makes me feel as though you have gone back home, too.”
Ashley felt as though her chest were tightening, the air suddenly hard to breathe. She missed them, so much. It felt infinitely less lonely to know that she was not alone in that.
EDI stepped forward then, carefully removing the cap from her head. Her metallic hair shifted in the wind, a warm smile on her face. “Shepard, it was an honor to be your friend. It was you who encouraged me to explore my humanity, and you who fought for my rights to be considered an individual. I know if Jeff were here with us…that he would want to go down with his ship.”
Ashley’s eyes welled with another set of unshed tears at the mention of Joker. To her side, she saw Liara struggle with the same sentiment.
“Because while the Normandy was his vessel, it was you, Shepard, who turned it into the ship that it was. The Normandy was not the Normandy without Commander Shepard.” EDI paused, eyeing the hat with fondness. “It is for this reason, and with your permission, Ashley, that I would like to bury Jeff’s hat here with the botanical representation of Shepard. I believe it is what he would have wanted.”
EDI held the worn hat out to her, a questioning look in her eyes. Ashley grasped it gently, nodding fervently. “Where would Commander Shepard have been without Joker to save the day?”
EDI smiled brightly, ducking her head appreciatively. As Ashley crouched down once more, she stilled.
“Would you like to have the honors?" She asked after a moment, pausing. "I’m sure it would have meant a lot to Joker…to Jeff.”
EDI knelt beside her with a nod. “Thank you, Ashley. That is very thoughtful of you…I appreciate that.” Her metallic fingers sifted through the soil easily, and they all watched with a heavy sadness as the cap was slowly buried, one handful at a time, beneath the dirt.
They stood, Ashley wiping feverishly at the tears that had now begun to fall in earnest. James stepped forward then, pulling an arm up in perfect military salute. “My Commander, my Captain, my Admiral – my friend. It was an honor to serve with you, Lola. I have you to thank for my success as a marine, because I had the best damn N7 there ever was to help drag my ass out of the fire along the way. You may have been completely out of your mind loco sometimes…but you have an entire galaxy still standing because of it.”
Tali wept openly against Garrus’ arm now. Beside her, Liara had closed her eyes, glistening tracks rolling slowly down her cheeks.
“And say hi to the Major for me, Lola.” A tear formed in the corner of James’ eye, threatening to fall. “Tell him to brush up on his poker, because I intend to clean house when I get to where you guys have gone.”
A crisp salute and he stepped back, hastily wiping at his cheek with the back of his hand. The air was silent for another moment before Liara finally, hesitantly stepped forward and opened her eyes.
“That was beautiful, James.” She said softly, as Tali nodded fervently in agreement. “Shepard…you’ve touched so many lives. You were a natural leader, a hero to all species throughout the galaxy. We are the lucky few chosen to be your friends and, for that, I am eternally grateful. The memories we have shared will not be forgotten. The galaxy you united, I will not allow to fall apart.”
Liara paused, taking a deep breath, her eyes closed as though gathering her words.
“By the goddess, I wish you eternal rest with the man that you loved, and whom loved you in every way you deserved to have been cared for. You deserve an eternity of peace, as it is the same gift you have given to all lives today, tomorrow, and ever onward.”
Ashley grabbed Liara’s hand as her voice trailed off, gripping tightly. They stood in silence for a few minutes, and she could not help but glance around through her tears.
At James, white-haired and wrinkled, but still proudly wearing his N7 uniform despite having long since retired.
Garrus, his back hunched slightly with ashen skin.
Tali, who’s arm still linked with her husband’s, the lines around her eyes betraying her age.
Wrex, who had a hardened look in his eye as he stared out at the ocean contemplatively, remembering.
EDI, hands locked behind her back, looking oddly empty without the presence of Joker’s hat.
And at Liara, as young as the first memory Ashley had of her, but who’s hand trembled gently against her own.
Ashley took in the sight of these friends, who had come from every corner in the galaxy to be here with her today so she would not have to face this alone. These people she had grown up with, who had helped raise and shape her.
These people who had stood by her parents’ side when they needed it most.
One by one, they trailed back to the shuttle as the sun settled low in the sky. Bright bursts of orange and pink burst across the clouds, the twinkling of the first stars beginning to peek out at the inevitable approach of night. Ashley knelt down in the dirt, looking out at the ocean, taking in the sight of these two trees.
She heard the shuttle come to life behind her, and she knew she had been left alone to say her own goodbye.
“Mom…you have some incredible friends, but I already knew that.” She swallowed, waiting for her voice to stop wavering so she could continue.
“I was lucky enough to grow up in a time of peace, and I have you and dad to thank for that. I spent most of my childhood asking a million questions about the person I was named after, the woman who made such an impact in your lives that you named your only daughter after her. Being here today…made me realize, after all this time, how meaningful that really was. I hope you’re happy being rested here. It somehow felt right, to bring you back together again.”
“After we lost dad, I didn’t think I’d be strong enough to lose you, too. But after being here, seeing your friends stand by my side…I know I’m not alone. And I know that you’re back where you belong, too. Please give dad a hug for me.”
She closed her eyes, touching the trunks of their tiny trees. She took in the sound of the ocean, tried to memorize the way the air smelt and the whistling of the wind running through the leaves. “You and dad taught me to be everything that I am proud to be. Strong. Smart. Resilient. I know…I know logically, as dad would say, that there is no afterlife. That there is no bright light. But I like to think that there is a place, somewhere in this vast universe, where we will all be together again somehow. At least…it makes me happy to think that way.”
She stood, digging into her pockets for one last memento. The familiar clinking of dog tags reached her ears, and she smiled. Ashley raised them up and settled them over her head, securing their place beside her own, resting against her heart. Three tags, now bound together.
Admiral J. Shepard. Admiral K. Alenko. Captain A. Alenko.
“I am so proud to be your daughter. Rest easy, mom. Say hi to dad for me. I love you both. Always.”
With the last of the setting sun’s rays flitting down beneath the horizon, Ashley Alenko walked slowly back to the shuttle, to the friends that awaited her. Behind her, the two trees began to take root, their leaves fluttering softly in the evening wind.