AN: This is a story I've been working on over on AO3, but I thought I'd cross-post over here. This story will follow the events of Mass Effect 3 and the Reaper War, but take a closer look at Kaidan and Shepard's relationship. Hope you enjoy, and please leave a review to let me now what you think!

Alchera is cold.

That's the first thing that registers in Lily Shepard's mind when she steps off the shuttle and onto the planet's surface. It's the kind of cold that somehow passes through her hardsuit, the kind of cold that seeps into her bones, and she can't help but shiver.

The second thing to register is the eerie quiet. There's the wind, the slight crunch of snow under her boots when she first stepped off the Normandy and… that's it. Shuddering, she presses on, trying not to think too much about what this planet means.

It isn't until she finds the first dog tag that the emotions hit her, and she starts to wonder if coming alone was really the best idea. The metal glistens in the snow, staring up at her, stark and unfeeling and cold. Why is everything so cold?

When the first piece of wreckage from the Normandy SR-1 comes into sight, she inhales sharply, trying to fight back tears. The Normandy had been her first real command, but more than that, it had been her home. And now it was gone.

Good people had died here. Too many names and faces, lost forever, and it makes her heart ache to think about it. They deserved better.

(She tries not to think about the fact that she, too, died here, but when she stumbles across her old N7 helmet, cracked and dented, it's impossible to forget. Is she even real anymore? Is this real? Or did she stay dead, out in that endless sea of stars, and this is all some sort of purgatory-esque nightmare?)

She forces herself to go through the motions and collect the rest of the dog tags. She would not let the brave, loyal soldiers under her command be forgotten. Their families deserved peace, and they deserved recognition for being the best damn crew she'd ever had the privilege of working with.

It's not until she places the monument that a strangled cry escapes her defenses, clawing its way out of her throat. Everything is too real and also too dead and why is she so cold? Maybe going alone wasn't a good idea, but at least she doesn't have to let anyone see her right now. Scared. Vulnerable. Weak.

There was only one person she ever trusted to see that side of her, but his words on Horizon made it quite clear that he no longer wanted anything to do with her, that he didn't trust her. Could she blame him? Some days she didn't trust herself. She didn't trust herself to be real.

Because she remembers, she remembers what it was like to die, and how was anyone supposed to come back from that? She remembers choking on stardust, she remembers the deep cold of space, the kind of cold that lingers and permeates every cell of your being. The kind of cold that's inescapable.

The kind of cold that comes with death.

Because she was dead, and now she's not, and some days she wonders how long. How long until this illusion shatters, how long until she shatters? Some days she doesn't trust her feet to not shatter as she swings them over her bed in the morning and places them on the cold, hard ground.

Some days it is only the knowledge that the galaxy is relying on her that allows her to get up, to pull her hair back and put on her armor, to become Commander Shepard, Savior of the Citadel, and not just Liliana Grace Shepard, dead woman walking.

Her vision has started to go hazy by the time Joker swings the Normandy by to pick her up. He opens his mouth at the sight of her, blank-eyed and emotionless, but closes it again, either unsure of what to say, or perhaps knowing better than to engage Commander Shepard when she's in one of her moods.

"I'll be in my quarters," she manages to force out through frozen lips. Corpse-like. Again, there's that niggling thought she can't get over. Is she real? Or is she still dead?

"You know how to reach me if something comes up," she continues, tripping over the words, her tongue feeling like lead in her mouth. No, not lead—a block of ice.

"Roger that, Commander," Joker says. He pauses. "Are you—?"

"I'm fine." She cuts him off before he can finish. "I have reports to fill out."

She stumbles her way to the elevator, and into her quarters, stripping off her armor the moment the door closes. She can't stop shivering and now her teeth are chattering, and she trips and fumbles her way into the shower.

Why is she so cold?

She turns the shower on as hot as it will go, and the scalding spray turns her pale skin bright red, but she can't feel it. She can't feel anything. Why can't she feel? Maybe the real Commander Shepard is back there on Alchera, buried in the ice. Or maybe the real Commander Shepard is still floating out there in the vastness of space, drowned in the light of the stars.

Maybe Kaidan's harsh words on Horizon were true, maybe she is a fake, a clone. A ghost. That's what he'd called her, wasn't it? For some reason, that is what sticks with her, more than his distrust, more than his hurtful words, more than him calling her traitor.

Because if she is a ghost, then none of this is real, right? If she's a ghost, then Kaidan can't hate her. If she's a ghost, she doesn't have to save the galaxy from impossible odds. Again. If she's a ghost, she can't be a traitor.

Because she worries sometimes. She worries about trusting Cerberus, about trusting the Illusive Man. She doesn't trust them, but what choice does she have? She's a ghost, and none of this matters because none of this is real and Kaidan can move on with that doctor on the Citadel he mentioned, and the thought hurts but he deserves better than a ghost.

He deserves better than the shell she's become, the empty husk that Cerberus brought back; because this isn't real and it isn't right and it isn't her and she still can't warm up. Even though she's been standing under the scalding spray for minutes now.

She turns the water off and wraps herself in her bathrobe, droplets from her long blonde hair dripping down her back. She only makes it a few steps before she collapses, her breath coming in gasps, sobs catching in her throat as she clings to the frame of her bed for support.

She died back there. Died. Dead. Deceased. And all the other synonyms she can't think of. There is no 'almost' this time, no coming back from the brink just in time. She's faced death countless of times—on Earth as a child, when she fell into the wrong crowd; during the Skyllian Blitz, when she held off the Batarians until reinforcements could arrive; fighting Saren at the battle of the Citadel.

And countless more insignificant moments, countless times when a mission had gone awry, when something unexpected had happened, when reports had been wrong, and the danger was greater than anticipated. But there was always that almost. There was always laughter born out of relief and "fuck, that was a close one" and toasts to fallen friends who didn't make it.

But this time, it had been her. It should be her friends toasting her, it had been her friends toasting her, and yet she's still here, why is she still here?

She cries and cries and cries until she can't cry anymore, until she can't tell if she's shaking because of tears or because of that unending cold, until she's numb and exhausted.

In her head, she writes a thousand letters to him.

In them, she curses him out, she begs him for forgiveness, she tells him she hasn't changed, she apologizes for who she's become. Contradictions, but all true, nonetheless. She is both legend and ghost, hero and traitor, broken but somehow still whole.

Words from his email run through her brain on a loop. "I guess I really don't know who either of us is anymore." "A lot has changed in the last two years and I can't just put that aside." "When things settle down a little… maybe…"

And, worst of all, "Just take care."

She wants to cling on to hope, hope that maybe he doesn't hate her, that maybe they still have a future. Hope that maybe she's still real.

But if she can't even trust herself to be real, how can she expect him to trust her on that? He can't love a ghost. He can't love what doesn't exist.

In her head, she has a thousand conversations with him, a thousand arguments, a thousand reconciliations. She worries that maybe she's going crazy, but ghosts can't go crazy, can they?

"Dear Kaidan," she thinks, as if her thoughts can somehow reach him. "I'm sorry that I've become a ghost. I'm sorry that I'm no longer real. I, too, don't know who I am anymore, because who I was and who I am are not the same and I don't know how to reconcile that. I am made entirely of broken parts and pieces that no longer fit together and nothing makes sense. I need you to show me how to be me again."

But there's another part of her, too, a part which is angry at him for not trusting her, for not believing her, for turning his back on her on Kaidan, and sometimes her imaginary letters aren't so kind to him.

"Dear Kaidan. How could you? I loved you. I trusted you. I thought, in return, you trusted me, too. But I died, and now I'm back and none of it makes sense, but I'm still me. Cracked and broken, but still me, and if you can't trust me now, when I need you more than ever, then maybe you don't deserve me."

Through it all, there's one common thread, one underlying theme in all of her imaginary conversations with him, one line that gets to the heart of her feelings.

Why aren't you here?

He should be he here. He should have been with her when she went to Alchera to place the monument. He, more than anyone else, knew what the Normandy had meant to her. He'd been with her from the very beginning, from before Eden Prime, from before Saren and the Geth, before this whole mess began.

He'd been there to listen to her vent her frustrations as the Council refused to listen to her. He'd been there to console her when Ashley died, and she was wracked with guilt and grief in equal measures. He'd been there, on Ilos, when they learned about the fate of the Protheans and the Reapers.

And he'd been there when the Normandy was destroyed. When she died.

But now he wasn't, and she hated him for that. She hated how his words from Horizon dug deep and cut her to the very core of her being, she hated that she'd found her old helmet on Alchera, because it was a reminder of who she used to be.

It was a reminder that she died, and by all rights, should not be here today. And yet, here she is. A ghost in the shape of a woman.

She drags herself to the bathroom and forces herself to look, really look at her reflection in the mirror. She's almost afraid she won't see anything. As she lifts a hand to touch her cheek, she's almost afraid it will just pass right through her, as if she weren't really there, but her hand makes contact with solid flesh.

In the mirror, she sees wide, haunted blue eyes staring back at her. Long, blonde hair that frizzes around her face, still soft and stringy and damp from the shower. The same as she's always looked.

But she has new scars, scars that glow with an eerie orange undertone, scars that show the cybernetics under her skin that are keeping her alive, and that's what scares her. Her outside looks mostly the same, but what of her inside? What had they done to bring her back?

Despite herself, tears well up in her eyes once more; tears mourning the loss of who she used to be, and tears for the deep unknown of who she has become, who she is trying to come to terms with it.

It is these moments, where she is entirely alone, that she lets herself be vulnerable. Tomorrow, she'll put on her armor again, both literal and metaphorical. Tomorrow, she will be Commander Shepard, hero of the Blitz, first human Spectre, Savior of the Citadel. Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy, because despite everything, that's still who she is.

But for now, she lets herself just be Lily. Earthborn girl who had a rough start to life, who never knew her parents. Lily, who died back there, above Alchera, drowning in the stars.

Lily, ghost in the shape of a woman.

Across the galaxy, on a separate planet, worlds and light years away, Kaidan is struggling to concentrate. Now that most of Horizon is gone, he's moved on, assigned a new job, a new mission, as if everything were the same as always.

But it's not the same, because he saw her. He'd heard the reports, of course, that Commander Shepard had been seen on Omega. He'd both desperately craved it to be true and fiercely wished it weren't. Because if it were true, it meant she was alive, oh God, she was alive.

But if it wasn't true, it meant she was truly gone, and his heart would break into a thousand pieces again, because it's been two years, but he's still sometimes not sure how to exist in this galaxy without her.

Not just because he loved her— (loves her? Sometimes he isn't sure anymore)—but because she is Commander Shepard, living legend. And she can't just die, alone in the emptiness of space, where they can't even recover her body.

But then he saw her on Horizon, and he realized that it was all true, and in that moment, his relief was overshadowed by his anger, because if she was alive, how dare she let him think she was dead for the past two years?

He's been doing a little better lately. Or at least, he had been, before he saw her again. His Alliance-mandated therapist was slowly starting to help, the coping mechanisms he'd originally written off as bullshit slowly starting to help him heal.

He'd even gone on that date with the doctor from the Citadel. Sure, he'd spent the entire time comparing her to Shepard, to Lily, and finding her coming up short in ways that weren't her fault (no one could live up to Shepard), but at least he'd tried.

In that moment on Horizon, when his anger overshadowed his relief, he said some things that he regrets. But at the same time, how was he supposed to trust a dead woman walking? He'd follow Shepard to the end of the galaxy and back, but she'd died, and he'd been slowly, sort of, almost getting over it—not getting over it, there was no getting over it, but getting to a point where it wasn't so raw—and then she just showed up again.

Her memorial service had been beautiful. Beautiful and heartbreaking. It hurt like hell that they hadn't been able to find her body, that they couldn't properly lay her to rest and give her the best goddamn hero's funeral the galaxy has ever seen.

But it was still beautiful. Everyone was there—Liara, Garrus, Tali, Wrex, Joker. Captain Anderson. Admiral Hackett. It seemed liked half of the entire Alliance Navy had been there, and why shouldn't they be? She'd been an amazing woman, and they all deserved to honor and mourn her.

And now, two years later, she shows up again, and he's torn between how dare you and I was so lost without you. But is it really her? That's what worries him.

She's with Cerberus, and the thought of that turns the whiskey he's sipping bitter in his mouth. Was it not enough to lose the woman he loved? Must he now be tormented by her half-return, the shell of who she once was, close enough that he craves her, yet different enough that he doesn't trust her?

It's as if the universe is dangling all his hopes and dreams in front of his face, daring him to reach out and grab it, but he's scared that if he does, she'll crumble into dust and he'll be alone. Again.

Her return is taunting, tantalizing, and oh so dangerous, and he can't make up his mind about it, about her. He wishes… well. He wishes a lot of things. He wishes he'd ignored her commands to leave, that he'd stayed and made sure she was safe.

He wishes she'd never died; he wishes she'd stayed dead; he wishes everything didn't hurt so damn much. But she did, she didn't, and everything did.

So, here they are. Shepard, or some facsimile of Shepard, is out there with Cerberus, in the Normandy SR-2, both the same and entirely different, and here he is. Sitting at a bar on the Citadel, knocking back a glass of whiskey, trying to figure out what to do now.

They are worlds apart, nothing but the strangled cry of space separating them, but when he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine her sitting there, next to him.

"To Shepard, bravest woman I've ever known." He lifts his glass in a quiet, solitary toast. "Stay safe out there, Lily. I can't handle losing you a second time."

AN: The next chapter will pick up at the start of ME3, this prologue is just to establish the emotional and mental state of Kaidan and Shepard. I hope you enjoyed, and please leave a review to let me know what you think!