Nathan stood straight and stiff a step behind the curtains in the wings of a long, narrow stage draped in red carpet and Alliance blue. Sigils belonging to every race in the galaxy decorated the wall at the back of the stage, all newly fabricated and polished to a shine. At the front of the stage was a lectern decorated with the symbol of the Citadel Council, and beyond that was a vast open parkland swimming with a sea of faces.
Nathan took a deep breath, trying not to think too hard about just how many people were out there. Admiral Hackett's promise of a medal ceremony had been genuine. The front rows were filled with journalists – he spotted Emily Wong in conversation with her camera operator, as well as a few more less well-known reporters – and behind them were rows of dignitaries, many who appeared a lot younger than the gravitas of their position normally required. Some species had lost almost all of their leaders to the Reapers. These were their painfully young and inexperienced replacements.
Behind them were seated rows of the injured, and behind them stood further rows of soldiers, then civilians. Every race in the galaxy was represented, from asari and turians to hanar and drell. Many had found themselves on Bekenstein when the war ended, but many more had travelled here in order to attend this ceremony and the celebration that would accompany it.
No pressure, Nathan thought nervously to himself. He couldn't shake a feeling of light-headedness, as though he couldn't quite believe he was right in the middle of this whole thing. That any of it was happening.
The ceremony had been the idea of the new interim Council, a group made up mostly of young and eager politicians yet to have their vision clouded by cynicism and reality. They were set on the idea of a rebirth, a new beginning for the galaxy as a united entity, and that was all going to start here and now with a ceremony honouring those who had made that possible. And after that, they had declared a week of celebration and reflection before it was time to get to the work of rebuilding.
As naïve as the idea seemed on the face of it, Nathan had to agree that it was a good one. The galaxy had to be brought together permanently now, and reassured that the Reapers were gone for good. They needed to be prepared for the hard work and hardship that would follow, and able to focus on that rather than constantly worrying about their safety. And they needed a little inspiration to tide them over in the months and years to come.
It was the recognition Nathan had always dreamed of receiving. Although he was more nervous right now than he had ever been in his life, he had to reluctantly admit that a tiny, hidden part of him was excited. He couldn't help it, even if the main reason he had so craved recognition and acceptance – his father – was now gone from his life.
"Lieutenant Nathan Briggs," the announcer called, and Nathan almost jumped. He swallowed, took a quick breath, and stepped out onto the stage.
The cheers were louder than they had seemed while he was standing in the wings. He felt pride swell in his chest, and just for a moment, he let himself feel it. A few short months ago, he had thought that he would never feel anything but despair ever again.
"Lieutenant Briggs of the Systems Alliance," the announcer was saying, "led the team that was responsible for securing the Citadel command centre. His team successfully held their position against a concentrated assault by overwhelming Reaper forces. His bravery and calm control of that battlefield bought enough time for the Crucible to be docked with the Citadel and fired, thereby destroying the Reapers."
Nathan stepped up to Admiral Hackett and snapped to attention. The admiral was intimidating in full dress uniform, complete with crisply pressed, peaked cap, and a new, freshly-healed scar creasing his forehead. It only added to his distinction. He retrieved the medals from a cushion held by an aide and pinned them carefully to the front of Nathan's own dress blues – the Council Medal of Valour and the Alliance Star of Terra. They were delicate and small but their symbolic weight was huge.
"You earned these, son," Hackett told him, and Nathan felt his chest swell even more. He had, goddamn it, he had worked hard, and lost so much. He had been through hell. They all had. "Wear them with pride."
"Yes, sir." He saluted sharply, and the Admiral returned the salute in dismissal.
Nathan spun on his heel and marched to take his place in the long line of the Normandy crew. They all stood along the back of the stage behind the lectern, every surviving crew member decorated with the Council's and their respective race's highest honours, all in full dress uniform or formal attire. Miranda was there, and Joker, both now fully recovered. Dangerfield was pale and her eyes were too dull for his liking, but she flashed him a quick smile anyway. Garrus was in full, imposing Turian Hierarchy uniform, and Tali in an ornate suit denoting her rank as Admiral of the Quarian Navy.
Interspersed among the living crew were beautifully crafted, life-like holographic images of those who hadn't made it. There were far too many of those: Karin Chakwas, Engineers Daniels and Donnelly, Kasumi Goto, Urdnot Wrex, Jacob Taylor, and more. State memorials would be held for them over the coming days; for now, Nathan just focussed on the fact that he was grateful for those who remained.
One place to Nathan's right, the last in the line, remained empty.
Admiral Hackett stepped up to the lectern, and took a deep breath before he began to speak. "We have one last person to honour tonight, and in this case, medals are not nearly enough. It is entirely accurate to say that this woman is the reason we are all here today.
"For three years she worked tirelessly to prepare us for this war, and I am ashamed to say that she faced staunch opposition from those of us who she should have been able to rely on. She suffered crippling hardships, devastating loss, and grievous injury, all just to slow down the Reapers' arrival. When they did finally arrive, she was the one who brought us all together as one galaxy to fight them. She united us all, and she personally defeated Harbinger, which allowed the Crucible to do its job. Ladies and gentlemen, every single one of us owes her a debt we can never repay." Hackett looked over to one side of the stage. "Commander Shepard."
Nathan felt his throat grow tight as the living, breathing, Commander Shepard stepped out from the wings. He had thought he was prepared for the effect this moment would have on him, but he had been wrong.
He blinked moisture from his eyes, almost bursting with pride – pride for himself, and the Normandy team, but mostly for her. Pride, relief, and gratitude that the universe had seen fit to allow her to survive.
She took a quick look at the crowd, a furtive twitch of her eyes, before quickly searching for and finding his.
Sea blue, like the Pacific Ocean. He smiled at her, the crowd forgotten, and she smiled back, resplendent in her perfectly-pressed dress uniform. Slowly and carefully, she made her way across the stage to Admiral Hackett.
Miranda had saved her life, but only barely. She was still weak and a little unsteady on her feet, even after months of bed rest and weeks of physiotherapy. Her brain still hadn't properly adjusted to her new cybernetics.
Nathan couldn't find the words to describe how angry he had been when he found out what the Illusive Man had done to her with his "kill-switch", what he had made her live with through the weeks leading up to the final battle, and just how he had tried to kill her. He had slowly destroyed each cybernetic part of her body in the most painful way possible – while keeping her awake throughout the process. It was sadistic, and vengeful, and petty, and the fact that Shepard had killed him in a decidedly ignominious fashion was little comfort. She had only fulfilled her mission by sheer strength of will.
Despite all that, however, the Illusive Man had failed. Miranda had assured them that she would – eventually – make a full recovery.
The crowd subsided as Shepard reached Admiral Hackett. When he spoke again, his voice was amplified and re-broadcast across the parklands and to thousands of remote links by the mic attached to his collar. "Commander Shepard. On behalf of the interim Council, and with the unanimous agreement of all the representatives of every one of the galaxy's races, we bestow on you a newly created medal, the Constellation of Golden Suns. This medal symbolises the new day that all of us have survived to see, thanks to you. Commander Shepard, we thank you. Deeply and profoundly."
Nathan was grinning so hard his cheeks were starting to hurt, as he watched Shepard finally receive the recognition she deserved. He knew she had never wanted anything like this, and more than anything she was probably incredibly uncomfortable right now. But it wasn't just about a medal to him: this whole ceremony was about showing her that she had done it, she had finally succeeded in the task that had haunted her for three years. And that people now, finally, understood why she had done what she had done and what she had been through.
For a few dark days, he had worried she would die without ever experiencing that catharsis. But as the shining, gold and eezo stylised medal was pinned to her uniform, he saw a profound relief in her eyes and knew that she got it.
She moved to salute, but the Admiral raised a hand to stop her. Confused, she stopped with her hand halfway to her forehead. To Nathan's surprise, Admiral Hackett snapped to attention and regarded her with all the gravitas of the unofficial commander of all the galaxy's military forces before speaking again.
"Nothing we do can accurately and fully address the monumental task you performed, so we ask you to accept this small gesture instead. From this day forward," he said, "as unanimously agreed by the military commanders of all races, you are to be saluted by all as one of higher rank and deserving of honour."
And with that, he raised his own hand and saluted her, back straight and eyes forward. Nathan watched her cheeks colour and her composure crack as she momentarily floundered. This wasn't a small gesture at all. It had never been done before, not since the twentieth century in some countries on Earth.
Whoever had thought of this idea needed to be congratulated. It was perfect. He saluted too, and out of the corner of his eye saw the Normandy crew following suit. Then the soldiers in the crowd were raising their own hands, and some of the injured were standing, and even a few of the civilians were placing hands on hearts or to stomachs or whatever their own race's expression of honour and thanks was.
Shepard's eyes were bright as she returned Admiral Hackett's salute, and Nathan could have sworn the old man's eyes were a little misty too.
"I still can't quite believe it," Admiral Hackett murmured, elbow on the bar, glass of whisky in hand.
Shepard mirrored his posture, grateful for the opportunity to lean on something. After two hours of meeting and greeting what seemed like every living representative from every Council race – and that was almost every race in the galaxy, now – every one of her muscles was sore. "Believe what, sir?" she asked.
He eyed her reproachfully. "No more 'sirs' from you anymore, Shepard. It's Stephen – or Hackett, if you must, since you seem to like using last names so much. And that's that."
She let a fleeting smile cover a pang of frustration. No doubt he thought she was just falling into old patterns, but in truth she had forgotten that he had told her weeks ago not to stand on ceremony with him anymore. She was doing that a lot, forgetting things, ever since she had woken up in hospital two months ago. Her neural pathways were still in the process of remapping themselves, Miranda told her, and until they did, her short-term memory would be patchy. Just like her muscles, and her hand-eye coordination, and her innate sense of balance. "Sorry, uh… Stephen," she replied. It sounded strange. "Believe what?"
The admiral returned his attention to the crowded ballroom some lucky surviving Bekenstein trillionnaire had donated for the event and waved a hand at the crowd. "That we're all here. That enough of us survived to fill a ballroom. That we have the luxury to gather together for a night and celebrate."
Shepard grimaced. "Neither can I." She took a sip of her drink, one of those chocolatey cocktails Nathan had introduced her to back on the Citadel. He was right. The fact that they were here, now… it was almost surreal. Suddenly the sugar was the sweetest, most heavenly thing she had ever tasted, and the smooth feel of the liquid as it slid down her throat was nothing short of glorious. She felt her hands begin to shake, and set it down beside her on the bar.
Hackett eyed her. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she said, but she knew she didn't sound the least bit convincing. And judging by the look in his eyes, Hackett wasn't the least bit convinced. Suddenly tired, she dropped the façade. "No. I'm not all right. I'm exhausted, and sore, and I'm still forgetting things. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn't… like I wasn't supposed to make it."
His eyes narrowed, and instead of empty platitudes, all she got was, "Why?"
"I've had two lives already, Stephen. I don't deserve a third."
"Hmph. 'Deserve' is entirely the wrong word to use, but that's beside the point. Don't you think that man of yours knows your feelings about this? Do you think he would have let them bring you back to life again if you had died? You didn't die, Shepard. Surely your medical team explained this to you."
He still made her feel like a green cadet sometimes. "I know that, Stephen," she put a slight emphasis on his name this time, and his lip quirked up in response. "But it doesn't change the feeling. It may not technically be a third life, but it does feel like one." She sighed, grasping the fingers of one hand with the other to stop the shaking. "I don't know, I feel like I've fulfilled my purpose, now. The reason I was brought into this world. It took everything I had to defeat the Reapers. And now I don't know if I'll ever… be that soldier again. Even if I could be, what would I do? My skills are… fairly specialised. And I don't know if I… if I have anything left."
Hackett turned to face her, and all his grouch and snark was gone. "If you're done, Shepard… that's okay. The Alliance and the Council will buy you a beach house on a backwater planet and never bother you again, if that's what you need. But… I don't think it is."
She forced a shaky laugh, all the potential options and decisions of a future that was suddenly possible rising up all around and threatening to overwhelm her. "I don't know, a beach house sounds pretty good."
He shook his head, and laid a warm hand atop both of hers. "You're not the settling down or the hiding type, Shepard. You never have been. You've always drawn strength from the connections you made with people and missions, not things. I think some time away would do you good, yes, but after that… well, as it turns out, I might have a job for you."
Damn him, but he was right, just as he usually was. Shepard couldn't deny the tiny thrill of anticipation she got on hearing those words. "Some general lost their favourite tie out in the Attican Traverse, and you need me to go find it?"
He opened his mouth to respond, then glared, but the glare lacked any real strength. "Those missions I sent you on when you had just assumed command of the first Normandy were important, you know."
"Yes sir—uh, Stephen. I know."
His lip twitched in amusement. "Good. Then you'll be happy to know this will be even more important. We need someone out there ensuring the galaxy's rebuilding efforts go smoothly, and remain uninterrupted. For now everything is quiet, but it won't stay that way for long. Too many bad people are out there, and they'll be trying to take advantage of the situation every chance they get, especially now Aria T'Loak isn't around to rein them in. I need a quick, highly responsive fleet headed by the best Rear Admiral I know." Shepard raised her eyebrows. "Yes, Shepard, that's you. You're going to have to take another promotion."
Without warning, she burst out laughing. She couldn't help it.
Hackett frowned. "What?"
"Nothing," she gasped. "It's just… Nathan told me you would do this. Make me an Admiral. I laughed at him, but it turns out he was right."
"Smart man. Did he also predict that you'd be back on board the Normandy?"
Shepard let her laughter die away. It was her turn to be confused, and she didn't particularly like the feeling. "What?"
"We're going to build the Normandy SR-3. And it wouldn't be right for anyone but you to be her commander."
Shepard wasn't sure how she felt about that. "Why?" she asked carefully. "Why are you rebuilding her?"
The admiral's eyes were warm and genuine. "Because she's a symbol, Shepard. She represents the best of the galaxy, coming together to defeat overwhelming odds. She represents the sacrifices that were made for us to get here. She is a symbol of the galaxy's unity and resilience, and she needs to fly again. But," he added, "if you would prefer the name Normandy be allowed to rest, then we will respect that. It will be remembered with honour, and never used again. The choice is yours."
She nodded mutely, a thousand feelings crowding in on her all at once.
"Shepard!" Nathan called as he ducked through the crowd and joined them, handsome and more polished than she had ever seen him in his dress uniform. He slipped a welcome arm around her waist. "There you are. Evening, sir," he nodded in Hackett's direction.
"Briggs," Hackett nodded in return. "I'll leave you two to it. Think about what I said, Shepard."
"I will, Stephen," she promised.
"Think about what?" Nathan asked, reaching out and pulling her drink from her hand. He took a sip and grinned as he recognised what it was.
She gently snatched it back, giving him a mock glare. "You were right, he's making me an admiral."
"I knew it. Well, I suppose you needed something to keep yourself busy while I'm off at N school."
She raised her eyebrows. "So it's official? You're in? For real this time?"
Nathan nodded, and although he tried to act flippant about it, Shepard could see just how excited he was. "Admiral Anderson just confirmed it. Hackett recommended me himself, apparently."
She set her drink down and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly. "He told me as much. I'm so glad."
"It'll be a lot of on the job training, Anderson said, since the villa was destroyed. But they're keen to get a new class through ASAP. They anticipate a lot of work for us over the next few years."
Shepard drew back, but found herself unwilling to let go of him completely. She settled for keeping her arms circled loosely around his waist. "There will be. A lot of rebuilding work needs to be done, and so many people are homeless and hungry. There are plenty of others out there who will take advantage of that."
He nodded soberly. "There's a lot of work to do. But just for tonight, we are not the ones who need to do it. Tonight, let's just have fun and take a moment to be grateful we're both alive. It's late enough that we can leave without being rude."
She smiled, still unwilling to let go of him entirely. In fact, she would be perfectly happy not letting go of him for the whole night.
Shepard woke slowly, lazily, to the sun shining warmly on her face. She yawned and stretched her arms up over her head, secure in the knowledge that for the first time in many years she could stay in bed a little longer without feeling guilty. There was no pending battle to plan for, no ship or crew to look after, and, just for this morning, no rehab. No Alliance responsibilities, no Council demands, and most importantly, no Reaper threats.
It was over. She was free, and she was alive.
She rolled over, but the other side of the huge king-size bed they had been given along with the secluded house by a private Bekenstein beach was empty. Nathan must already be up.
Her fingers twitched involuntarily, and she pressed them flat to still them. They were twitching whenever he was more than a few metres away these days. It was exasperating. She had been annoyingly clingy ever since she had woken up in the hospital with him looking down at her, tears streaming down his face. But before that moment, the last thing she remembered was saying goodbye to him. With her final ounce of strength she had cut the comm connection so that he wouldn't have to hear her die.
She had been certain that she was about to die. She had never expected to see him, or anyone, ever again. It had hurt, far more than the physical pain the Illusive Man had caused her to feel. So now, while that pain was still fresh, and while she still couldn't quite believe that she had made it through after all, she found herself wanting to be as close to him as possible all the time.
Firmly pushing those feelings aside for now, she sat up and shuffled to the edge of the bed before carefully getting to her feet. With her brain and new cybernetics still getting accustomed to one another, she often found she was a bit unsteady in the mornings still, but every day she saw a slight improvement. She tried to hang on to that as she braced a hand against the wall to steady herself against a brief wave of dizziness.
The old-fashioned wooden door swung open quietly and Nathan peered in. "I thought I heard you moving around. Christ, Shepard, you're cutting it close! It's about time you woke up," he began, then frowned as he saw her leaning against the wall. "All good?"
She nodded, and with the movement the last traces of dizziness faded away. "Yeah. All good."
He stepped into the room, hands on hips as he studied her. Probably trying to work out if she was playing it down or not. She had done that a lot to start with. "The dizzy spells are still getting shorter and less intense, aren't they? They haven't gone the other way?"
"No. Another month, and they'll be gone for good, Miranda thinks. I'll be able to get back into physical training then."
He smiled wryly. "Uh huh. Then. Not now." He eyed the resistance band she had stashed by the bedside.
"I'll go nuts if all I can do is sit around here or attend award ceremonies," she protested.
He held his hand out and she took it, and he pulled her into his arms. "Last night's was it," he reminded her. "The last ceremony."
"For now," she muttered dubiously, laying a hand against his chest and snuggling in close.
He leaned down and kissed her, a long, lingering kiss with all the promise of there being many more to come. "Wow," he whispered against her lips. "You really have gotten clingy lately."
"Hey, you kissed me!" She pushed him half-heartedly. "And shut up. You have too."
He shrugged, a goofy grin on his face. "Yeah, yeah, I know."
She stared up at him, feeling more sober all of a sudden. "Nathan… I don't think I ever thanked you. Properly. You saved my life when you came back for me, and you risked your own to do it. I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for you."
He shook his head. "Shepard, I love you. Of course I came back for you."
She smiled, raised herself up on her toes and kissed him fervently, trying with all her might to show him just how grateful she was. She knew that from the way she had been talking before the final battle, he might not be sure she was happy to be here at all. But she was, dear god she was happy to be alive. "I love you too. Always."
He cleared his throat. "Okay. Come on, you've got to get ready. Everyone'll be here in half an hour."
She let him go, but she was still smiling. "All right, all right. Give me fifteen and I'll be out to help you with the food."
The courtyard was filled with laughter and chatter, and Nathan couldn't wipe the grin off his face. He and Shepard had decided to throw a barbeque for the whole crew, and the house was packed. It was a simple, casual event, nothing like the extravagance of the commemoration ceremony and ball the previous day. Still, it was nothing short of perfect.
Shepard was sitting with Miranda, EDI and Tali at one of the tables they had set up, talking and laughing as though the galaxy didn't depend on what she did next – which, for the first time in a long time, was entirely accurate. Even Miranda was smiling, looking far more relaxed than Nathan had ever seen her.
"She looks much better," he commented to Joker and Garrus. The three of them had taken on the job of cooking the food: a spread of simple and hearty items like sausages and chicken with bread from Earth, fish from Thessia that Liara had gushed over when he asked for recommendations, Irune-grown vegetables, some sort of gamey meat suitable for those with dextro-based immune systems that Mordin had brought and quarian meal-packs for Tali, the kind without all the healthy nutrients. Despite its simplicity, it was turning out to be nothing short of a feast.
"Who, Miranda?" Joker asked from the raised bar-stool he was perched on as he sliced bread from a crusty loaf. "Yeah. She was genetically engineered to heal faster than all of us."
"You look better too," Garrus added. He was sawing carefully through a haunch of Mordin's meat and setting the pieces on a plate, ready to be cooked. It looked similar to venison, Nathan thought – and Garrus was doing a damn good job at preparing it. Who knew? The turian could dance, cook, and nail a reaper construct right between the eyes with his sniper rifle from a kilometre away. Could he sing too? "Tanned, even. Bekenstein is agreeing with you."
Joker winked lecherously. "The Bekenstein ladies who beg me for tales of my adventures as pilot of the ship that saved the galaxy definitely agree with me."
Garrus chuckled, rolling his eyes, but Nathan looked up from the sausages he was barbequing and frowned at Joker. "Wait, aren't you and Miranda…?"
Joker's expression changed to one of surprise. "Me and Miranda...? Oh! No!" He laughed. "It's not like that, we're friends. Although, if she offered, I definitely wouldn't knock her back…"
"Wait, don't the two of you go out together all the time?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah, and she's the best wingwoman I've ever had," Joker told him enthusiastically. "She tells all the ladies about how I pulled her out of an exploding ship despite the brittle bones, and suddenly they're all over me." He grinned.
Garrus leaned forward. "How did you manage that, anyway? I don't think I ever heard the full story."
Joker settled back in his seat and grabbed another loaf of bread to slice. "Gravity was lost with the drive core. She was unconscious, so I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and used the walls to pull both of us into the pod." He shrugged. "Shepard died trying to save my ass the exact same way, you know. You better believe I worked out how to save my own ass in future. I just brought Miranda along with me."
Garrus stared. "Joker, that's pretty damn amazing."
The pilot tried to wave it away, but Nathan could tell he knew it had been a hell of a close call. "Yeah well, pity the explosions caught up to us and fried all the pod's electronics, along with a good chunk of its outer hull. I was lucky Miranda figured out how to signal the fleet or we would have probably died out there anyway."
"Didn't she send a message in Morse code or something?" Nathan asked. Miranda had told him about this during the weeks he had spent at Shepard's bedside in hospital. "She used the emergency manoeuvring thrusters to angle the viewscreen so it reflected the light from the sun in Morse code, and someone on Hackett's ship picked it up."
"Yep," Joker confirmed, and Garrus whistled. "Fucking genius."
"What's she doing now?" Nathan asked. "I mean, is she moving on, or staying in the military?"
"Liara said she had been talking with her a bit, actually," Garrus commented, just as the asari in question moved over to join Shepard, Tali, Miranda and EDI at their table. "Liara wants some help with all this shadow broker business, and spirits know Miranda has all the requisite skills for something like that."
Joker winced. "That's a scary thought. She'd be good at that. Way too good. No one's secrets will ever be safe again."
"What about you, Joker?" Nathan asked.
The pilot shrugged and grinned. "Well, they're gonna need a pilot for the Normandy SR-3, aren't they?"
Nathan raised his eyebrows. "No kidding! They're really going ahead with that? I heard a rumour, but I wasn't sure if I should believe it or not."
Garrus eyed him quizzically. "Yeah, it's been decided. Shepard's been asked if she'll captain it."
Nathan paused in the middle of flipping a sausage. "She has? She didn't tell me."
Garrus' mandibles lifted slightly. "Oh, damn, I didn't think it was supposed to be a secret. Not from any of us, anyway. It must be pretty highly classified if she didn't tell you."
Nathan waved a hand in dismissal, though inwardly he was confused. Shepard's dream of life after the Reapers was going to come true, and, classified or not, she hadn't told him? Why? "I'll talk to her about it later. Who else is staying with the Normandy?"
Before anyone could reply, another voice came from behind him. "Nathan."
He turned around at the tap on his shoulder to find Dangerfield standing there, a thin, hesitant smile on her face. He didn't hesitate. "Dangerfield!" He reached out and pulled her into a tight embrace, relief flooding through him. "I was worried you wouldn't come. You disappeared pretty quick after the ceremony yesterday."
"As if I would miss this." Her reply was muffled by his shoulder.
He pulled back and stared at her. She was thinner than she had been before they had dropped her off on the Citadel with Garrus, and there were bags under her eyes, but she looked better than she had a month ago when he had visited her in the hospital.
"Fellas, I'll be right back," he said quickly, passing his tongs to Garrus who nodded and waved him away.
"How are you doing?" he asked, guiding Dangerfield away from the crowd and over to a table and chairs under a massive beach umbrella. The sand was only a few metres from the patio.
Sporritt and Jarvis had both spotted her too; before she could reply, they hurried over and engulfed their old squadmate in tight hugs. When they were done, and the four remaining members of their old squad were seated in a close circle, Dangerfield was a little more relaxed. "I'm doing better," she told them all. "But… it has been hard. I wish I didn't have to remember what happened." Jarvis grabbed her hand and held it.
Nathan nodded soberly. "I know. I have a few memories I wouldn't mind erasing, too."
"We've been through some shit," Sporritt said, and Jarvis nodded in mute agreement.
"Yeah, we have," he murmured. "A lot of shit. More shit than I ever thought I would ever have to go through. Ever." The wordplay wasn't intended to be humorous in the slightest. "But we did make it through. We did it. We've been given the gift of the rest of our lives. We can all go on to die of old age now. We've got to make the most of it."
Sporritt eyed him. "Do I have to learn speeches like that for N school?"
Nathan grinned. "You got in? Fuck yeah, of course you did. We're going to be in the same class, man!"
Sporritt groaned, rolling his eyes. "Ah, crap. I know how much you suck at written tests. Don't even think about copying my answers."
"Hey!" Nathan shoved him lightly and he laughed.
"I never thought I'd see the day where you went off to N school, Spore," Dangerfield ribbed him.
"Hey!" Sporritt protested, shoving her lightly in turn as she laughed and held up her hands in surrender.
"Seriously, though, I'm really happy for you," she told him. Looking around at each of them in turn, she added, "Nathan is right, you know. We've been given the gift of a future, all of us. We need to make the most of it, whatever that means for each of us. For Ngandu, Kasumi, and all of those who didn't make it."
They all nodded, but the moment of solemnity passed quickly, and they were full of the same smiles and chatter as they were before any of this started. Nathan joined in wholeheartedly, but a tiny part of his mind sat back and took it all in, full of joy that he was right here, right now, in this moment.
The sun was going down, but the party was still going strong. They had all moved down onto the beach, bringing a tiny portable bar with them. Music echoed down from the house, and people were dancing and laughing in the sand. Jack and Dangerfield had stripped down to their underwear and were splashing around in the water, screaming and trying to coax Liara and Garrus to come in with them. Mordin was walking along the shore, chattering away with Sporrit who was holding a light for him as he scavenged for sea shells. Vega, Zaeed and Jarvis were dancing, alternating jerky movements with bouts of laughter. EDI and Legion were standing nearby, doing something that involved a lot of flashing lights and very little movement. Robot dancing maybe? Shepard had no idea.
Others were quieter; Thane, Samara and Miranda were sitting together, having what looked like a serious conversation. Tali was sitting by herself, swaying slightly as she sipped a drink and stared up at the moon and occasionally over at Garrus. Joker had disappeared into the house, and Javik was standing by himself, staring out over the waves.
Shepard wondered what he was thinking about. He had accomplished the task bestowed on him by his people, as the Avatar of Vengeance. Now what? He had no home to return to, no family. There was no being like him in the whole of the galaxy anymore. Liara had told Shepard about her plans to redouble her search for prothean artefacts after she had delegated some of her tasks as Shadow Broker to Miranda, and that Javik had agreed to help. Shepard hoped he would find meaning in the work.
"What are you thinking about?" Nathan asked quietly.
She leant in closer to him, enjoying the warmth of his arm around her shoulders. The two of them were snuggled up together on a blanket under a giant, completely unnecessary umbrella. "Javik," she told him. "Just hoping he'll be okay."
"He's tough as hell, he'll be fine," he reassured her. "We all will. The hard part's over."
She glanced up at him, creeping anxiety gnawing at her insides. It felt too familiar. "Is it? Everything is pretty messed up right now. The krogan are joining the Council, and that's got the salarians up in arms. The quarians are joining too, but they're starting to make some noise about the geth doing the same, and I'm not sure if they'll be able to work out how to coexist as allies. Even the asari matriarchs are starting to get agitated. Tali tells me they've made tentative and very subtle overtures towards the quarians – of all people – about an alliance against us. They don't like our new increased status, apparently, and they think the quarians will side with them because of our part in freeing the geth." She shook her head. "We're all allied for now, but it could all fall apart so easily."
Nathan nodded slowly. "Yeah, it could. We could all start fighting amongst ourselves again any day now. But do you know what's not going to happen? The Reapers aren't going to kill us all, that's what."
She laughed half-heartedly. "I suppose."
He tightened his arm for a moment. "No, I'm serious. Don't brush it off. The galaxy has a future now. That's huge."
She nodded, staring out at the stars that were just beginning to appear as the sky darkened into night. "I know. You're right. And I do know how huge that is. I know how lucky we were to pull it off. But the wheel doesn't stop turning, you know? Ever."
He frowned. "Do you think there might be… more Reapers out there?"
She shook her head firmly. "No. The Crucible worked via Harbinger, and Harbinger was able to connect with other Reapers beyond any distance we are able to measure. They're gone for good. But… what if there's something else out there?"
She shrugged, mildly irritated all of a sudden. "I don't know. Something. A danger we've never even thought of. The idea of the Reapers never crossed anyone's mind before they appeared and started trying to kill us all. What else haven't we thought of?"
"Shepard. You're going to make yourself crazy if you carry on with that line of thinking."
"What do you suggest, then? Just sit back, put my feet up and hope?"
He eyed her reproachfully. "When would I ever suggest you do that? No, Shepard, listen to me." He turned to face her, laying a finger along the line of her chin. "You have a whole lot of power now, remember? You don't need to waste time with wild guesses and constant worry; you can start working on making real contingency plans, and developing actual, concrete processes to address them. You don't have to sit back and take it anymore when the admiralty or the Council tells you you're nuts and refuses to help you. You can fight back and actually do something about it."
She looked up at him, surprised. She hadn't thought of that. She had been so caught up in the immediate joke value of being made an admiral, and the small-scale but important work she would be doing, that she hadn't stopped to think of the possibilities beyond it. But he was right. As an admiral, and with the recognition that had come from the Reaper War, she would wield considerable power. She had no illusions that she could protect them against any possible eventuality, but she could make sure nothing ever took the galaxy by quite as much surprise ever again.
Finally, that familiar but unwelcome feeling of anxiety began to fade. "I love you," she said.
He smiled briefly. "I love you too." His smile faded. "Now that we have that all sorted out, why didn't you tell me you'd been offered command of the Normandy after they rebuild her? I had to find out from Joker."
She looked away guiltily. "Sorry. I was going to. Soon," she added when she saw the accusing look in his eyes. "I just had to think about it for a bit myself first. I wasn't sure if I was going to accept it or not."
He raised his eyebrows. "Really? I know how much you wanted to return to command of the Normandy after the war. And I know you don't want to sit around doing nothing on a beach."
"That's why I didn't tell you sooner. I wasn't lying when I said those things, but when Hackett told me they were going to rebuild my ship… again… I wasn't sure how I felt," she explained. "A lot of people died with that ship. Both of them – the SR-1 and the SR-2. If I had a choice in whether Cerberus built the SR-2 or not, I don't know if I would have said yes."
Nathan set an elbow on his knee. "The SR-2 grew on you, though. It became your home just as much as the SR-1."
She nodded. "Exactly. We went through a lot together, me, my crew and that ship. More than the SR-1. I don't know if it could ever be replaced."
He shook his head. "The SR-3 won't ever be the SR-2, just like the SR-2 was never the SR-1. You built your home in the SR-2 from scratch, with a new crew and new surroundings. It didn't just become your home, you made it your home. You made it that way with the people you brought on board and the missions you took it on. That's what you'll do with the SR-3, too." He shrugged. "It's a symbol. You make it represent something."
And just like that, it made sense. He was right, again. The Normandy wasn't just a symbol to the Alliance, or the galaxy, as Hackett claimed. It was a symbol to her, too, and she wanted it to fly forever.
Suddenly, a vision of all the years to come blossomed before her. The Normandy soaring through the stars once more, filled with laughter and family, both new and old. Nathan right there with her, onboard or in his own ship or across the galaxy at N school, but always in her heart. Tali, Garrus, Miranda, Mordin, and all the other friends she had made that had turned into family, all living their own full lives and orbiting in and out of hers – often, she hoped.
She kneeled up and cupped his cheeks in her hands, pressing herself against him and feeling him wrap his arms around her. "I love you," she said again.
"I love you too," he replied, and kissed her.
Final Author's Note
Oh my god, after six years of writing, Mass Effect: Inevitable is finally finished!
This story has been with me for so long. It became a real labour of love. It's my first real novel and I'm so proud.
It would never have been so much fun to write if it weren't for all of you who read it over the years, stuck with it, followed, reviewed and favourited it. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much I appreciate you all. I worked really hard for a really long time trying to make the final send-off perfect, before I finally realised it was never going to be as perfect as I wanted it to be. I hope instead that it was good, and gave you the closure you deserve after so long. Thank you.
And finally, a huge thank you to all my betas and reviewers over the past six years, especially Meleba, VorchaGirl, and MrFredCDobbs. Thank you so much for your help and advice, I would never have made it here without you.