Shepard recruited her family in much the same way she'd recruited her team.
She found Cassia first, when they were recovering in the same field hospital, and later when they'd been put in the same amputee physical therapy group. The young turian had lost a leg and two parents when her ship had been shot down attempting to flee Earth's atmosphere in the initial reaper assault, but she somehow still found a way to retain her poise and dignity in the mostly-human rehab facility. Though she was only nine years old and sported a fringe and crest, Shepard couldn't help but see herself in Cassia. It certainly helped that, having lost both of her legs in the aftermath of the Crucible, Shepard and Cassia had more than a few health challenges in common.
Jun she found a few months later, in a rundown orphanage she'd been asked to visit to improve publicity and bring in more prospective parents. Shepard couldn't point to anything particularly spectacular about Jun. He was around six years old with black hair and dark brown eyes, and he had a joyful smile that seemed to cut right through the bleak atmosphere of the orphanage. As soon as Shepard saw him, she knew he was meant to be a part of her family.
The Alliance set her and her new family up with what would have been considered a modest house in Vancouver, but post-war was practically a mansion. If it had just been her, Shepard would have been embarrassed to accept such lavish appointments, but suddenly assuming responsibility for two children's lives had changed something in Shepard. She moved into the fancy house and accepted the heavy security detail without hesitation.
Cassia, Jun, and Shepard lived the first three years after the end of the war in that two-story home in one of the only non-demolished suburbs of Vancouer, and there they gradually learned to be a family. As the galaxy's combined forces gradually re-established radio contact with other systems and rebuilt the mass relays, Shepard and Cassia continued physical therapy, Jun went to school and saw a therapist, and each member of the Shepard-Fedissian-Wang family learned how to move forward in their new lives both as individuals and as a unit. Shepard stayed in contact with some former members of her crew, most often Liara and Tali, with Joker following closely behind. Still, they always seemed to have to chase after her. Shepard was trying to focus on her new family, on her new life, and sometimes talking with the old crew brought back memories that were a little too raw. Shepard knew she couldn't avoid the past forever, though. After three years, when Shepard had more or less recovered as much as she was likely to, the Alliance came knocking.
It was a non-combat position, involving a decent amount of political nonsense, but with low risk of orphaning Jun and Cassia a second time. A large part of Shepard wanted to refuse, wanted to tell Hackett that after all she'd done she deserved to retire. But a bigger part of her understood that people didn't get what they deserved. Had she deserved to survive the war any more than Kaidan had? Than Anderson? Than Thane? Or Legion? If she was allowed to survive, it only made sense for her to do something useful with herself. And as much as she loved spending time with Cassia and Jun, they were both in school. She was beginning to run out of things to do with her spare time. After a day of mulling it over and discussing with the kids, Shepard called Hackett back, and formally accepted the offer.
"'Wilkins! Don't walk through the portal! There's no telling where it will take you!' said Portia.
"But Wilkins knew he couldn't live a life behind shut doors, couldn't live a life of unanswered questions. Beyond the mini mass relay he'd found in his old uncle's closet lay another world, and he was going to discover it. He took a deep breath, and stepped through the portal."
Jun stared at the datapad containing his favorite story for a good ten seconds before looking up at Cassia.
"Ok, the next chapter's yours."
Cassia rolled her eyes and turned away from him in her seat, setting her own datapad on the table next to her.
"Do we have to read like this? I already know this story backwards and forwards. Jun has made us read it like twenty times."
"We've only read it once before!" Jun objected.
"Cassia, it's family time. Jun got to pick what we're doing today, and you'll get to pick tomorrow," Shepard said.
She'd been working on her "motherly voice" voice for several years now, piecing it together from her imperfect memories of her own mother. It still didn't feel quite right, but Cassia usually responded to the authoritative tone anyway.
"When do we reach the Citadel? This trip already feels interminably long," Cassia said, continuing a habit she'd developed lately of throwing her newer vocabulary into casual conversation.
"We'll be at the mass relay tomorrow. After that, we mostly just have to dock and start moving in."
"Where's our new place going to be? Andrea said there are a bunch of wards, and some of them are nicer than others."
"We'll be on Kithoi Ward. It's the one that has been best restored since the war. You'll like it, I promise."
Shepard thought she might still technically own Anderson's apartment, but she had no idea if the thing had been blown to bits or not. Even if it was still livable, she'd thought it would be nice to have a fresh start for the kids.
Jun huffed and set his datapad down, crossing his arms across his chest and pouting.
"You're just trying to get out of reading, Cass. It's family time, and it's your turn to read."
"Fine, fine," Cassia said with a long-suffering sigh, picking up her datapad and scrolling to the next chapter.
"The first thing Wilkins noticed about this new world was how incredibly hot and humid it was. The second thing he noticed was the group of ten-foot tall green aliens circled around him, staring at him with wide black eyes…'"
The wards didn't have an artificial day cycle imposed on them like the Presidium, but Cassia and Jun's schools had regular schooldays, so throughout their journey to the Citadel, Shepard was sure to gradually adjust them to their new time zone. Shortly after Cassia finished up her chapter of Jun's book (Wilkins was readily accepted by the green aliens he encountered, and was working on developing a system of communication with them), Shepard ordered them each to bed, shutting the lights off and tucking them in despite their protestations that they were too old for such treatment.
Shepard walked slowly through the passenger quarters of their moving ship, double checking their security systems and "securing the perimeter," as she liked to think of it. Most families wouldn't get a whole transport ship to themselves just to move, but most families weren't Shepard's. Her legs ached a bit from sitting so much, but she still kept her prosthetics on even after climbing into her cramped bed. At home she might take them off for the night, but old instincts wouldn't permit her to let her guard down while she was in transit.
She eased herself into bed, both grateful for the mobility her artificial legs provided her and annoyed that with all of their technological advancements, humanity still couldn't make prosthetics that integrated entirely seamlessly with the human body. Regardless, she was glad that she and Cassia could walk without any serious inhibitions.
Shepard checked her email as she lay in bed with the lights off. It was mostly boring but important stuff—notes from the movers on the Citadel about when and where they'd meet her the next day, instructions for Cass and Jun's first day at school, paperwork she was supposed to fill out before starting her job, etc. etc.
There was a note from Liara congratulating her on her move and asking her out for drinks whenever she had the time. Liara didn't live on the Citadel, but she assured Shepard that she could make herself available whenever. Liara had a knack for countering all of Shepard's avoidance tactics before she even had a chance to deploy them—something Shepard was grateful for. Shepard had had a hard time being social after the war, and if Liara hadn't been so aggressive about it, their friendship might have faded.
A similar message from Tali begged forgiveness for not being able to leave Rannoch in the near future, but promised a visit in the coming months. Tali had had a baby of her own the year before, and she was as eager for Shepard to meet her child as she was to meet Shepard's.
Shepard responded to each email, taking the most time on the messages to Tali and Liara, then shut off her datapad. As she closed her eyes, a vision of Earth swam before her—a vision of the last time she had left Earth. She shook her head to clear her mind of the horrific memories. This time would be different. She was starting a new chapter of her and her family's life, and that was a good thing.
Eventually, she fell into a deep sleep. Her sleep was interrupted several hours later by a tinny, clinking sound, followed by a high-pitched hiss. Shepard startled awake, but barely had time to register the thick gas filling her cabin before she fell unconscious once more.
Consciousness returned first in a dim haze, then all at once as Shepard remembered the gas and her survival instincts kicked in. She jerked awake, but her movements were severely limited by the handcuffs that tied her hands behind her back. She shook her head and looked around her, unsurprised by the dull metal walls of the small room that served as her cell. She wondered for a minute why her captors would leave her sitting in a chair restrained by only a pair of handcuffs—surely they knew it would take more than that to stop the Commander Shepard-then realized the likely reason for their confidence. She looked down at her legs, and noted that both limbs cut off above the knee. They'd removed her prosthetics and stowed them away somewhere. Well, that would make this a bit more difficult.
First things first—she'd start with the handcuffs.
The cell Shepard had been placed in was completely empty, so it looked like jerryrigging some clever makeshift key was out of the question. Shepard began working her wrist back and forth in the restraints, testing the size and strength of them. It was a tight fit, but she might be able to get out of them if she dislocated her thumb. Of course, she didn't have a lot of practice doing this, and might just end up breaking the thumb instead. While contemplating which thumb was least vital to holding a gun, an unfamiliar feeling welled up within her chest, nearly overwhelming her. It was panic.
Shepard had been in stressful situations. That was the understatement of the cycle, as Javik might say. She'd been in galaxy-defining, all-life-threatening situations before, but somehow she hadn't felt this kind of panic. She knew the difference. It was one thing to have the entire galaxy depending on you, but somehow it was entirely different to have two helpless little souls who called you family depending on you.
Personal attachment. This was exactly the kind of thing that made it difficult to operate under high-stress situations, that made it difficult to make the kind of decisions that had to be made. This was exactly what she'd been avoiding during the war.
Shepard closed her eyes and took several deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth—and forced herself to calm down. She could do this. She could do this.
Most marines were trained to aim and fire with the right hand, and Shepard was right-handed anyway. Left thumb it was.
Shepard closed her eyes and held her breath, maneuvering her hands behind her until she could grab her left thumb with her right and and yank inwards towards her palm. A harsh gasp escaped her lips and she heard a sharp cracking sound. Yep, definitely broken. Trying her best to ignore the pain, she wriggled her left wrist around in the cuff, making millimeters of progress at a time. After about a fifteen minutes struggle, she was free.
The door to her cell was locked, the red light blaring down at her, and her omni-tool was gone, but if she could just reach the door, she might be able to find a bypass or something. She tried to lower herself down from the chair, but the sharp pain in her thumb as she grasped the seat of the chair made her gasp and lose her grip. She fell to the floor in an undignified heap. In a distant corner of her mind it occurred to Shepard that this was a little humiliating, but the thought passed like dust on the wind. Her dignity didn't matter—what mattered was Cassia and Jun.
She'd fallen on her stomach, so she started to army crawl towards the door, using her elbows to move herself across the slick floor and dragging her near-useless legs behind her. As she crawled, she looked around for some kind of access panel or control switch, anything she might be able to use to unlock the door, but found nothing. First, just make it to the door, she told herself as she crawled. Figure out the rest later.
She was only a foot from the door when she heard steps coming down the hall outside, quiet, but audible. She froze, wondering if she should try to get back to her seat, try not to let on that she'd escaped her handcuffs. She didn't have time to decide, as the next moment the door turned green, then hissed open.
Shepard jerked her head up towards the intruder, her eyes struggling to adjust to the bright light from the corridor beyond. Even though the harsh backlighting made it impossible to make out his features, she'd recognize that silhouette anywhere. Even though it had been over two years since she'd heard it, she'd never forget that voice.
Garrus reached a hand down to her, grabbing her by the arm and lifting her to sit up. He crouched down next to her and immediately pulled two small electronic devices from his back.
"Quick. Put these on your legs. They're sort of like… omni-tool prosthetics."
"What?" Shepard asked, still feeling a little dazed.
"We need to get your kids and get you out of here. These won't last long, but you should be able to walk on them for an hour or so," he said, taking one of the devices and strapping it around what was left of her right thigh.
Shepard grabbed the other one and put it on her other leg, pressing a switch that Garrus pointed out. A glowing, freshly-fabricated artificial limb immediately burst forth from the device. She activated the other one, then took Garrus's hand as he helped her to her new feet.
"Do they work alright? I'm told they're experimental," Garrus said.
She took a few cautious steps, testing how the simplified, almost crowbar-like limbs carried her. They weren't comfortable, and she'd have to be careful, but they'd do for now. She nodded shortly.
"They're fine. Let's get the kids."
Garrus nodded. He handed her a pistol, then turned back towards the door, pulling his assault rifle from his back as he went.
"I would have gotten you your own legs, but I don't know where those bastards put them, and the kids are our first priority."
"If they're your first priority, then why did you get me first?" Shepard asked, a little sharply.
Garrus moved down the hallway and Shepard followed after him, though he turned his head enough to point a piercing blue eye at her as he answered.
"I was worried they wouldn't come with me, that they'd panic if they didn't see someone familiar—someone they trusted. Don't worry, they're not far, and I placed mines in the hallway to make sure no one could get to them before us."
The Shepard of a few years ago would have felt chagrined by her accusations, but Shepard no longer felt any guilt being protective of her children—especially not given their present circumstances.
"They're a bit farther down this hallway, but we need to move quietly. I don't think anyone has realized I'm on the ship yet, and I'd like to keep it that way."
"Who kidnapped us anyway? And why are you here?"
Garrus looked back at her again, a browplate raised in an almost comically human gesture.
"I'm a Spectre now, Shepard. Remember? Galaxy-famous war hero hostage situations are exactly the kind of bullshit they send us to take care of. As for your captors, we're not 100% sure, but they seem like Cerberus holdovers. Extremists who got it into their heads that destroying the Reapers was a bad idea."
Shepard let out a groan that was almost a growl. Would she never be rid of Cerberus? Even after they had been proven wrong a million times over, it seemed like there would always be some crazies out there clinging to their fanatical ways.
"My feelings exactly," Garrus said dryly.
"Well I'm just glad the Council sent you. It's nice to see a friendly face when my very worst nightmares come true."
"Thankfully I happened to be nearby. The other Spectres are alright, but… I wouldn't really trust anyone else to do this," Garrus said.
They walked down the halls of ship in a cautious but hurried fashion, each vigilant for any signs of hostiles. The ship was plain and boring—no distinguishing features and a straightforward layout with no frills. Shepard had no idea how he knew where, since all the doors looked identical to her, but eventually Garrus turned down a side hallway and towards another locked door.
"Cover me," he said as he put his rifle away and knelt down to bypass the door.
Shepard stood, watching the hallways they'd come from with eagle eyes as Garrus worked, the tension building in her chest. She needed to see her kids. She needed to see with her own two eyes that they were unharmed.
The door clicked open, and Garrus took her place, covering her back and letting her walk into the room first. Shepard put her gun down, willing to risk being surprised by a hostile over ever pointing a weapon at her children. The room was dark and small, and Cassia and Jun were sitting on chairs in the middle, facing away from each other and tied up around their chests and legs. They looked up at her at the same time, eyes blinking blearily in the light.
"Mom?" Jun said, his voice barely a whisper.
"I'm here, sweetie," she said, trying not to let her voice waver.
"Can we get out of here?" Cassia said, "I'm scared."
"Of course," Shepard said, rushing over to their chairs.
She dropped to her artificial knees and immediately started untying, working first on Cassia's chair with the understanding that she could help untie her brother when she was free. Garrus dropped down next to Jun and activated a small omni-knife, slicing easily through first the restraints around his chest, then those at his legs.
Garrus spoke as he worked, his voice calm and soothing.
"My name is Garrus Vakarian. I'm a friend of your mom's. We're going to get you out of here, ok?"
He finished freeing Jun before Shepard could finish untying the cords around Cassia's legs, so she moved aside to let him through.
"We know who you are," Cassia said.
"Oh yeah? Your mom talks about me constantly, I assume," he said in his customary drawl, a clear attempt at setting the children at ease.
"You're famous. Any turian would know who you are."
Garrus let out an awkward chuckle at that, pulling the cut cords from Cassia's legs and taking a moment to untangle one that had wound itself around her spur.
"Mom, what's happening? Cass and I woke up and we were in this room all tied up," Jun asked as he got shakily to his feet.
"Some bad people wanted to keep us from moving to the Citadel, but Garrus is here to help and we're going to get there safely," Shepard said, pulling Jun to her for a tight hug.
Cassia hovered over to the side for a few seconds before Shepard pulled her in to join them, and she allowed herself a short moment with her kids, holding them tight and thanking her stars they were uninjured.
"Shepard, we've got to get moving," Garrus said.
"Yep," Shepard said, releasing Cassia and Jun and stepping towards the door. "Cass, Jun, follow after Garrus. I'll hold up the rear."
They moved as a unit out into the hallway, Garrus checking behind every corner before moving forward. It was hard to judge from the inside, but the narrow hallways and tight layout suggested they were on a relatively small ship. Shouldn't they be close to an exit?
"Ok, I got onto the ship via an emergency repair exit, but we'll be going out the airlock, which is just through the common area ahead. My ship is docking now, so whether the Cerberus knew I was here before or not, they'll know now. Be ready to face some resistance ahead," Garrus said.
Cassia and Jun nodded nervously, glancing back at Shepard for some assurance. She tipped her head forward in their direction, forcing a tight smile.
"We'll be alright. Just stay close, try to stay low to the ground, and do exactly what Garrus or I tell you, alright?"
"Ok mom," Jun said shakily.
"Ok," Cassia echoed.
Garrus moved towards a wide doorway likely leading to the aforementioned common area, the light on the door glowing an ominous green.
"Hide behind the walls—I'll take point," Garrus said.
Shepard herded her kids to the side with a wide arm, backing them up against the wall to the right of the entrance. With a nod in Shepard's direction, Garrus tapped the door open, immediately raising his rifle to scan the room beyond. After a few tense seconds of scouting, Garrus looked back to Shepard and jerked his head inwards. Shepard moved Cassia and Jun into the common area, staying close behind them.
They moved into a large, open area furnished with tables and couches. Shepard couldn't see anyone else in the space, but as soon as she stepped through the door, it shut behind her and the light flicked to red.
"Get down!" Garrus shouted, dashing to a long couch that happened to sit right in front of the door.
Shepard grabbed both children and practically threw them towards the couch, joining them seconds later as Garrus opened fire on their captors who had finally decided to show their faces.
"Cass, Jun—duck your heads down and cover your ears. Don't move until I say so," she ordered, pushing both of them downwards to emphasize her point.
"I see four on the right, three on the left," Garrus said, "but more are likely to come. I get the sense they knew we were here, and decided to catch us at the bottleneck at the airlock."
"Garrus, I don't want my kids in a firefight. Any way you can bring in some backup?"
"I'll call it in. Cover me a minute," he said.
Shepard looked up from behind the couch, popping off a few shots at a white-and-yellow dressed man who was getting a little too close for comfort.
"James. We need some backup ASAP. We're in the room just past the airlock—bring a whole team," Garrus said into his communicator.
Before Shepard could hear a response she started shooting again at her ever-advancing captors. If it had been just her and Garrus, they might have been able to get out of this. But Shepard couldn't afford to run from cover to cover, shooting and charging people down left and right—not with two kids to keep alive. It also didn't help that she didn't have her shields or her favorite rifle.
Understanding her relative vulnerability, Garrus took the brunt of the firefight, peeking out from behind cover a much higher percentage of the time than she. The firefight was relatively short—probably five minutes or so—but it felt like an eternity knowing the Jun and Cassia were at her side, frightened and confused.
Reinforcements arrived in the form of a beefy marine—James Vega, Shepard realized—several turians, and an asari commando. They surged forward from the airlock door and into the middle of the room, pushing the Cerberus forces back and leaving space for Shepard, Garrus, and the kids' exit. On Garrus's signal, they headed for the door, staying low with the adults putting the children between them and the line of fire.
They made it to the airlock, and Garrus waved them through.
"I'll stay with the team to clean up. You head aboard—it should be familiar to you."
Shepard nodded, then ushered her children aboard. She was surprised for a moment when she recognized The Normandy, though she shouldn't have been. She herself had recommended the ship go to Garrus. The ship was originally a turian-human collaboration. The first commander was a human, it stands to reason the second should be turian, she'd argued to the Council. It had been easier to give the ship up than she'd thought it would be. She'd been weak, recovering from her injuries—returning to active duty felt like a very remote possibility. And she'd been so tired, and so ready to move on to something resembling a life. Now, though, urging her kids through the airlock, it suddenly hit Shepard how much she'd missed this ship. Her home.
"Commander Shepard, Cassia and Jun, welcome aboard!" a friendly voice greeted them as they passed into the ship proper.
A cheery-looking turian woman in what looked like the first un-armored turian uniform Shepard had ever seen waved them aboard. It was hard to describe what exactly about the woman's demeanor made her seem cheery, but Shepard's familiarity with first Garrus and then Cassia had taught her a decent amount about turian body language.
"Who are you?" Jun asked.
"I'm Alba Cintas, second-in-command aboard The Normandy. We'll be escorting you the rest of the way to the Citadel. Let me show you to your room."
"Thank you," Shepard said.
She kept Cassia and Jun close to her, her hands on either of their shoulders as they followed Alba to the elevator. She expected Alba to go down to the crew deck, but instead she selected the captain's cabin.
"We're not staying in the crew's quarters?"
Alba shook her head.
"Spectre Vakarian insisted. He said the children would be more comfortable there."
Shepard thought first of the tiny military bunks downstairs, then of her old large bed and fishtank in the captain's quarters. She looked at Jun, with his wide, frightened eyes, then at Cassia, whose blank stare and persistent silence worried her even more than Jun's terror. She'd take the big bed.
The elevator dinged, and Alba walked the family into the cabin. A wave of nostalgia washed over Shepard, the memories of the many, many nights she'd spent here almost overwhelming her. Garrus had been living here for awhile now, but she and Garrus were similar in their Spartan tastes. He hadn't changed much since she'd left.
"Mom, is all of our stuff gone? What's going to happen to your friend Garrus? What are we going to do now?" Jun asked.
Shepard sighed, finally letting herself believe they were safe. Her legs started shake, and she almost fell to the floor, but she managed to rally enough to herd the children over to the large bed.
"I'm sure we'll get our stuff back, and I'm sure Garrus will be fine. For now, let's just rest. We'll be at the Citadel soon."
One of the few things Garrus had changed was the bed. He'd swapped out her human bed for a turian bed—similar enough in dimension but with a dip near where his crest would lie. It vaguely occurred to Shepard that it might be nice for Cassia for the humans to have to make accomodations for once. She grabbed a couple of spare pillows to fill in the space for her and Jun, then lay down in the middle of the bed in between the two of them, pulling them close to her.
"I'm so sorry you two went through this," she whispered into Cassia's fringe. "I'm just so sorry."
"It's alright," Cassia said, her voice so soft Shepard could barely hear it, "it's not any worse than the war."
Shepard screwed her eyes shut in pain. She'd fought so hard to free Cassia, Jun, and every other innocent like them from experiencing something like the war ever again. And simply being associated with Shepard had put them in danger.
"But you came for us, Mom," Jun said, still a bit shaky but with growing confidence. "You came for us."
"I can't always… I can't always promise your safety. You two probably know better than almost anyone that you can't guarantee anything in this life. But I can promise you… I swear to you, that I will always come for you," she said.
Cassia nuzzled her head further into Shepard's side, her three talons digging into the material of Shepard's shirt. Jun tightened his grip on Shepard's waist, and whimpered a little as Shepard returned his embrace with a tight squeeze. She held them, whispering soft, soothing words. Eventually they fell asleep, their deep, even breaths assuring her of their rest. Shepard was also exhausted—completely drained both physically and emotionally—but she would not sleep. If she slept, when she woke who knew where her children might be. She had to stay awake—had to watch over them. No matter what.