Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
"Lord Alfred Tennyson," she whispered, but it did little to keep the tears from gathering at the edge of her vision. "Ei—Eighteen-forty-seven." She took a steadying breath. "Ish."
There was no funeral, just as there was no body. A memorial service would be held, but not a proper mourning. Commander Shepard had no living relatives.
Ashley Williams blinked tears out of her eyes and kept her stance at perfect attention. "Damn it."
This was no place to cry. Not now. She would indulge herself at the service, among friends, not alone in a Citadel elevator.
Friends. Who would have thought half her best friends in the whole galaxy could be aliens. Shepard had shown her things could be different, and now that she was gone…
Ashley knew they were the only ones on this whole damn station who could understand the sense of...
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
It was loss, but there was more. With Shepard, there was always more. More danger, more chances, more choices, more courage, more family, more passion, more meaning, more time.
Go to the grave where friends are laid,
And learn how quickly mortals fade.
"Nathaniel Hawthorne." Her throat seized with unshed tears, nearly wrapping closed upon itself when the doors slid open. The AI voiced her destination as a dozen faces passed, as two asari entered the elevator as she stepped out, back still straight, hands clasped tightly behind her back, centering herself with her poet. "Eighteen-oh-four to eighteen-sixtyish." She didn't give a damn anymore if the passing faces noticed her soft words. She wasn't crying and that was damned well going to be enough.
Joker was taking it the hardest, no question.
He was holed up in a tiny hotel room, paid by the Alliance until… things got sorted. The place was mid-grade with carpet stains you didn't notice and almost couldn't see—drove military and cleaning personnel insane, yet, it was all both classes could afford. Ashely frowned at the walls, covered in garish portraits of—well—shapes? Colors?
She rolled her eyes. The paintings did nothing to distract from the dust layered on the air ducts when all she wanted to do was look away from the stupid things.
Seen one bargain hotel, seen them all—doesn't matter if it's on Earth, or on the most advanced hunk of metal in the whole damn galaxy.
She stopped in front of a flat, grey door labelled "318." It wasn't unusual to have to travel across town to see the rest of the crew during shore leave, but Ashley would have liked to be there when…
There was no use worrying about it now. She gave three, sharp knocks.
No answer. She knocked five times this time—to no avail.
"Joker! …Jeff, it's Ashley!"
She spent the next several seconds in terse silence.
"Jeff!" Ashley frowned, and keyed a brief message into her omni-tool. She pressed her hand to the chilly surface of the door. "Lieutenant Moreau, if you don't open the door, I'll break it down."
"I'd like to see that." Muffled, and not half as amused as he might have been any other day. But there.
Ashley released a breath of relief. "Open the door, you ass."
It slid open, but the pilot was nowhere in sight among the view-screen and desk and the foot of a freshly made bed. There were rails along the walls, and a case propped in one corner—no sign of Joker. "Only because you asked so nicely." His voice was low, and damp.
As Ashley stepped inside, and turned the narrow corner, she noticed tissues scattered over the bed, the floor—and in a chair by the night table, Joker, cap pulled down over his eyes. There was another tissue balled in his fist, wrist turned down over the dark, cushioned arm of the chair. "Hey," she said, a crease between her brows.
"Hey." He didn't look up; the shadow of his cap reached down over a stubbled chin.
There was little to say. Any idiot alive could tell he wasn't okay.
His uniform was wrinkled, and held the grey, disheveled look of clothing worn too long. "You might want to change before tonight."
"Chakwas said the same thing." Under the cap, he wiped at his nose.
"When was she here?" Ashley clasped her hands behind her back, knowing little else to do.
"This morning." Joker chucked the tissue at the waste incinerator, but it gave a pathetic little turn in the air, and landed among the others on the dark bedspread.
Ashley began to wonder if it had even been slept in. Not that any of them were sleeping much these days. "Would you like me to help you pick something?"
He shrugged and his head bobbed up, chin resting on his chest. "Dress uniform. Not much to choose from."
"It's dinner—just dinner with the crew."
"What's left of it."
"That's why we need to be there."
"I shouldn't be."
Ashley's fingers tensed, woven together behind her back. "What?"
"I said I shouldn't be here."
The face glaring up from under the cap was… worse than she'd expected. Red, puffy eyes, bloodshot and ringed with sleepless circles, reddened nose where tissues had rubbed the skin raw, unchecked stubble a shadow on his chin—but more, that face lacked the spirit and will of the Normandy's pilot. Her throat clenched. "Jeff—"
"It's my fault, you know." His mouth twisted, trying to find some humor. He succeeded only in looking incredibly ill. "That Shepard didn't make it. She was trying to talk sense into me and—" His nails dug into the arms of the chair. "They know. They won't let me go, but they're grounding me. Heartless assholes. I'd punch the goddamn wall if I didn't think that meant I'd be in the hospital for the service—fuck, Ash. I should be discharged. Fucking flight lieutenant my ass, I should have fried like a fucking ensign—in place of an ensign." He did not cry, only gave a wet cough.
Ashley suspected this was because there were no tears left.
"Can't even follow procedure; Shepard dragged me out and then that fucking ship just—I don't—it's my fault. I can't go. I can't go, Ash. Shepard should be there, not me—not me. Stupid. Stupid. So fucking stupid."
"Jeff." She placed a hand, light, on his shoulder. I should have been there. I should have gone with her, orders be damned, and been there with both of you. She bit her tongue.
He turned sharply in the seat and she let the hand drop to her side. "Go back to your hotel, Ash."
She swallowed the knot in her throat, and knelt beside his chair. "Jeff, before the attack, Shepard told me something."
Joker turned his eyes toward the door. "You can save the inspiring shit. She's not here."
"Joker, listen to me." For just a moment, Ashley saw a little life behind his dark eyes. He returned his gaze to her, a hollow, annoyed expression capturing his features. "It was after Sovereign. I told her…" She took a steadying breath. "I told Shepard that I should have died in Kaidan's place. That I… wished I had. That her decision didn't make sense.
That if I'd been faster, or less proud, he would have been there with us, after the mission. Do you know what she told me?"
"If I did, I would have stopped you earlier." His voice was still raw, and damp, but Ashley forced a chuckle from tight lungs.
"Sorry. Channeling my dad a bit, I think."
"Story-time and a lecture at once."
It was a genuine smile this time. "Shepard told me that sometimes, it doesn't matter what we did. Events won't change because we wish they would—we can only carry on with the strength earned from the way things turned out. The present is the only time to look to. The past is over, the future depends on what we do now, and the dead have their peace. That, and I'd better learn to damn well trust in my superior officer." Ashley rested a hand on Joker's arm. "Even if you can't trust yourself right now, even if you can't trust me, trust Shepard. She knew what she was doing."
There were tears now, steady, silent sentinels that marched down the pilot's cheeks. And then louder, wretched sobs, free and clear, hot tears in rivulets that Ashley felt on her shoulder. Then, there were tears on her cheeks, too, fresh cries choking her throat and pressing her sorrow into the air. Joker's voice was muffled in the soft fibers of her shirt, but his words rang clear in the narrow space: "Damn it, Shepard. Damn it."
O, Death in Life, the days that are no more.