Say That One More Time
"We're just going to test the fit first, Commander, and then we'll put you under. We'll also take a look at your cranial injuries and see if we can do anything about that right away. Don't want to waste Miss Lawson's valuable time here."
Miranda's name is enough stimulus to pull me out of my daydream. I glance at her worriedly, already expecting something to go wrong. When I said yes to all this all I could think about was preventing a future outside the military. All I wanted was a return to the way life used to be long before Reapers entered the picture. Back when I was just Commander Shepard, first mate to Captain Anderson, not Commander Shepard, the only person capable of saving this fucking galaxy. And that can never be restored. Dad is dead. I watched him. Felt his last breath as my world burned. Had to ignore it so I could finish the job. Left the man who gave me a second chance at life to burn alone so I could have one last bullshit conversation with my mother. I never thought how I would get out of there.
Miranda comes into my limited field of vision. She's a mess: hair gleaming with oil both natural and not, skin covered in the day's events, in dirty clothes several sizes too big. This is the first time I've seen her less than perfect. Still she manages a small smile. It looks out of place. "You're worth all the time in the world, Dora," she says, squeezing my shoulder lightly. "Don't listen to him."
The doctor pulls out the fanciest cybernetic prosthetics I've ever seen. An arm and a leg, gleaming bright silver, the only thing in this building untouched by the war. Somehow somebody managed to procure them in the depths of destruction. Military connections are moot if half the people involved are dead. Unnecessary surgeries can't be high on the priority list either. I wonder how he got them. He pulls down the blanket that never leaves, exposing pasty skin and-oh God. It's the first time I've seen it. Whatever liquid I last injected makes a reemergence, scouring my throat. That's-what-that can't be. That can't be my arm. That charred, bloody, mangled stump can't be all that's left. It can't be. Nope. Not mine. I refuse to believe-
Miranda looks up from her spot at the base of the bed. She must recognize something since she leans forward to place a reassuring hand on my hip. "It's okay, Pandora. Calm down. I know it looks bad, but we're here to fix it. Do you trust me to help you?"
I almost open my mouth before I remember the pointlessness. I want to say yes, want to assure her I've forgiven her for Cerberus, to do more than nod and try to smile. Even smiling hurts more than the garbled yes I gave Kaidan and Garrus just last night. Being dead would be easier. Being dead would make everything easier.
In return Miranda offers her own smile, one I miss both on her and being able to do. As she was speaking the doctor finished the sizing and returned the blanket to its proper position hiding the mess of my upper body. He's much less gentle. It hurts under him while his opposite is carefully gentle, careful not to inflict anything more severe than existing. She lifts a basin to my lips so I can spit; more like let it drip out with no pressure or muscles to force it. The same basin I relieve myself in. Because Miranda can't be here every second of the day. Then the basin disappears with nothing to remove the taste. "Soon you'll be able to move on your own," she says. "You'll be good as new. Better. Garrus might even attempt to calibrate."
With limited technology for so long Garrus must be going insane. And Tali. Even me. We all love techno babble. Goddamnit. I watch them leave the room to confer. I hate being alone. Then I can't stop the dreams. The dreams and the voices and the emptiness. Ghostly whispers drift down from the ceiling.
You should have joined me. You're not strong enough. Nobody will love you after this. We can be a family again.
I want to scream. What's the line again? I have no mouth and I must scream. I have no fucking vocal chords and I must whisper. Whisper, scream, shout. Something to let the world know I want payback. I should've died under the rubble. Never given Kaidan hope pf living the life we should have had two years ago. Jetting around the galaxy killing geth with our baby boy. Not watching each other fall apart as the same galaxy demands more than we can ever give. I miss that life. Maybe I should've gone with Mom. Let the Reapers have their way so I can get some peace. Ah, who am I kidding? Commander Shepard doesn't deserve peace. She deserves every bit of suffering so the people living the normalcy she'll never see don't have to. But that's okay. That's what I got for signing up for this. That's what I get for signing my life away.
I'm trapped in my subconscious again. It's telling me I'm back on the examination table, cold hard metal everywhere, awake and not simultaneously. It tells me I was there once before, awake to strangers pumping drugs through my veins. There was a man, gruff and stern faced. And there was a woman, impossibly beautiful but mean, rebutting my attempts to figure out what's going on. I needed away from the table, the experiments, the reminders of the batarian ship that traumatized me. But this time there are no giants above me. There are only lights blinking in disaster, an off white instead of bright red, why aren't they red? They should be red. The Normandy's are red. My brain lights up in response. I'm not on the Normandy. I was spaced. The Normandy is gone, Kaidan left, Joker safe in the escape pod. Everything was gone except for the stars. The same stars I used to love so much; the same stars that led me to Dad and the Citadel and the Alliance. Everything gone but the stars and me and my baby. Where is…my hand shoots to my stomach, immediately responding with pain searing my veins. Every nerve in my body is on fire. Not doing that again. Why does everything hurt so much? Why is someone shouting? Where did my bump go? What happened to my baby?
A voice crackles to life overhead. "Commander Shepard? Can you hear me?"
The sheer amount of effort it takes to find a reply is astounding. I've never hurt this bad before. Not even after Akuze. A close second, to be sure, but nothing compared to this. I can feel each individual nerve shooting tiny pillars of flames through my limbs, all connecting in my chest. Each breath makes my lungs ache. That's the worst part. Not the fire, or the searing pain in my abdomen, but breathing. Fighting for air as the last of my oxygen leaked into space. The last thing I saw: a milky blue planet over a backdrop of stars. The last thing I felt: my lungs collapsing in on themselves. The last thing I thought before falling victim to the blackness: I hope Kaidan can't hear this. I hope he doesn't hear two heartbeats fade into nothing.
"Commander, this facility is under attack. There's a chest over in the corner with weapons and armor. Can you go put them on for me?"
I've been awake fewer than thirty seconds and I'm needed. The fire hasn't waned; if anything increased the more my brain registers. Somehow I sit up, stand, move to said chest. Inside is a heap of drab N7 armor. It's perfectly fitted over whatever uniform they saw fit to give me. It's nothing like anything I've worn in the Alliance. Moving my arms up to check the buckles is impossible. Anything above waist height is out of reach. This isn't right. Beyond the fact that I'm dead. The armor is perfectly fitted but it's wrong. There's muscle mass formed differently, bulking up places that have been less maintained than others by order of Chakwas. It's form fitting but still several sizes bigger than normal. I was always tall and lanky, always with lean muscle over visible bulk. I was not this obviously muscular. And my exposed arms are completely clean. No scars, no healing battle wounds, no slightly discolored skin from medigel overuse. No proof I survived Mindoir at all. A window reveals the only marker of surviving Akuze: my lips permanently stained black by acid from the thresher maw. Nothing of the childhood Dad gave me on the Citadel. Nothing from a year of N7 training. Nothing of my life from first stepping foot on the Normandy to falling asleep nestled in Kaidan's arms, nothing but our child between us. A completely blank slate. It can't be. I earned those scars. They were there for a reason. They can't be gone.
"Now I need you to find the zzzt." The sentence is left incomplete as it fades to static.
Well that's just fantastic. The pistol hidden beneath the armor is basic, intended for training for complete newbies. Recruits get better than this. I follow trails of blood leading from the room, into the rest of the building. Each patch is redder than the last. Sometimes I stumble across an unlocked computer displaying a video log. Some lady talking about some experiment. Just some experiment until one word stands out. "Shepard." Very posh, very formal. An experiment to fully restore Shepard's body functions, completely rebuild what was destroyed beyond repair. Nothing physical can be changed, only believable skin and weight improvements. Mentally, you have to tread carefully. Her personality is what draws others to her, makes her the leader we need. That can't be touched. But her diagnosed mental illnesses hindering her abilities can. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, insomnia, unnamed eating disorder. Alter whatever chemicals are unbalanced, stop the night trauma, but whatever you do, do not erase the memories. They must remain intact. Tarnishing those means the real Commander Shepard is lost. She is what we need to win. Do not let us fail. So many "we's" and "us" and "don't tarnish the test subject." This is scary. This can't be true.
Outside the office several workers are mowed down by a mech. Why do they need a mech? No research facility has need for such technology. This isn't right. Only military or private funding can afford this. I fight my way through mechs and robots, following occasional instructions from the lady over the intercom. Eventually I find the only other human left alive in this place. He still smells of battle, rifle smoking, biotics thrumming like they do after constant use. He's not the man there when I first woke and that's enough to raise my suspicions. "What happened to me?" I demand when we get a breather.
"Whoa, whoa, let's tone it down a couple of notches." I never holstered my gun, which is pointed squarely in his face. I return it to my thigh and take a step back. "I'm Jacob Taylor. I work security here. Miranda must be desperate if she woke you up this early." Another robot appears across the catwalk. He takes care of it with a biotic slam. "Now really isn't the time to get into the deep stuff. We need to find a way out of here."
"They called me an experiment. I was dead. Trying to breathe after flying out the airlock. So I'll ask you one more time. What. The hell. Happened to me?"
"The original Normandy blew up in a surprise attack. Pressly was killed in the attack itself, but you were the only other casualty. Everyone made it except you."
I stumble back into the glass railing. My memories are right. I'm a ghost. "What about…what about Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko? Surely he…I…"
"Last I heard the Alliance took the human crew members back. Everyone else scattered without you there to keep them together." His hand clasps my shoulder guard, supportive despite its unfamiliarity. "I know today has been one bombshell after another dropped on you, but we really need to get moving. This station is gonna blow whether we're on it or not."
I take his hand to pull me up and move out. The rest of the facility is mostly empty outside of small clusters of robots. No survivors anywhere. No survivors of a massacre as bad as Akuze. But the flood of memories triggered by that word doesn't bring the usual overwhelming feelings of despair that can shut me down in the middle of anything don't come. There's an empty spot where they should be. Like they never existed in the first place. No. They messed with my head. No no no. Then we reach our destination. I plow straight into Jacob, paying more attention to how they messed with me than our surroundings. Nobody's there, no way off this station, until there's a gun pointed at my head. My eye only catches one thing. A black and yellow logo right where a bullet would tear so cleanly through.
Cerberus… No… I told you to kill them… It feels like the words actually left my mouth, but then I realize I'm back in my new normal body with its shattered vocal cords and pathetic brokenness. My brain interpreted the vague noises as fully formed words. Noises are more than silence. But that must mean…
Miranda is the first thing I register. She looks even more stressed and exhausted than before. She hasn't changed out of her bloody coat, the closest thing they could find to scrubs. Her eyes are locked to her flickering omni tool. Everything is fuzzy around the edges. Then I notice the room, different than my old one. It's as sterile as it's going to get, down to the tray of operating tools at my bedside. Medical equipment in varying stages of completeness hug the edges, out of the way but never far from reach. Multiple IV lines snake through a machine, reemerging as tubes that run to ports all over my body. Just what I can see in my surviving limbs, my chest, my stomach, and I think I feel one in my back. Everything is simultaneously numb and tingling with the familiar onset of pain. A thin sheet replaces the blanket. It sticks to my skin. I can almost feel the chafing on all my damaged skin. Almost imagine how I got this way.
My eyes can't track how fast Miranda moves to my side once she realizes my eyes are open, though in reality it can't be that fast. First one eye, then the other, then waving her omni tool along my body. The results displease her. Then she opens a different program and holds it to my chest. Her expression changes when she realizes I'm staring. "Welcome back, Dora. It's been awhile." Her smile is forced. Her eyes are swallowed by dark bags. The readings she gets are obviously not what she wanted. I wonder what could possibly be going on. Miranda pulls up a stool directly in my line of sight. Sitting is an effort. She takes hold of my hand beneath the sheet, gripping it loosely. "I don't know if you remember anything that happened before the surgery, but we managed to trick your brain into initially shutting down. Pain must have taken it from there. Under that natural sedation we were able to address most of your injuries. However, there were some…complications."
Her voice drops with my hope. Complications. Just like everything else. Nothing in my life ever comes easy. "We never accounted for how quickly infection would spread throughout your organ systems. I built your immune system to weather alien atmospheres to space and everything in between. Whatever you did to stop the Reapers somehow destroyed that. As you can see, this isn't the ideal spot for life-saving surgery. Your body fought everything we did. Honestly, I'm surprised you woke when you did. With all the strain you were under…"
She doesn't have to finish the sentence. How I'm still alive is a medical mystery. If it were literally anyone else in the galaxy they would without a doubt be dead on an operating table. Even the woman who sacrificed everything is holed up in a shabby prefab room with whatever scraps of medical tech could be salvaged. If this is the best they could do I should've been left to die so the resources could be used on the masses. Triage like they teach you in basic. I'm not even the highest-ranking officer out there. I still can't sense anything beyond Miranda's dominating presence and I can't tell if that's a good thing.
Miranda gently leans against the side of the bed, sinking in to meet a vague eye level. There aren't any places to sit in the room beyond the rickety stool. "I ordered Kaidan out of the room from the initial surgery on. We couldn't risk more infection with your broken immune system and his own grievous injuries. Admiral Hackett kept your healthy crew busy. Doctor Chakwas took care of those confined to the hospital. But don't worry," she adds quickly, noting my rising panic, "everyone is still alive to tell the tale."
Everyone is still alive. Maybe not in one piece, but they're alive. Maybe one day I could even see them in person. Someone develops antibiotics again, gets actual hospitals up and running, get the worst of the injuries squared away, and I can see my crew again. Start fixing the mess I helped create. For a brief second I forget I can't speak and try to ask about Kaidan. When he originally got me out of the rubble, I could tell he was hurting but not how bad. All I could focus on was that I saw him one last time. Grievous injuries can't be good. But then I try to speak and burning shoots down my throat. Swallowing bleach wouldn't hurt so much. Despite willing them not to tears squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. Combined with everything else all I want is unconsciousness again.
Concerned, Miranda waves her omni tool over my torso. Brows furrowed, she says, "I'm sorry there's nothing more I can do, Dora. The people rationing the drugs don't care if you're an admiral or the woman who saved us all. We were only able to scrounge so many medical supplies and there're not nearly enough professionals to make it last. I didn't even risk preparing you for the cybernetics with what we have and what went wrong."
That means those charred stumps are still there. Lying useless as a reminder of how Commander Shepard is no more. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now to not get my hopes up. They're crushed every time. I'll be stuck in a wheelchair wasting away in a veteran's home while my ship rebuilds without me. To hell with it all.
"You will get better, Dora. You have my word. As soon as your immune system rebuilds and everyone is healthy enough I'll allow visitors, let Kaidan out of bed."
Who knows when that will be. At this rate I'll never recover. Not without supplies and facilities nonexistent and doctors trying to treat too many people at once. I'd hate to be the reason behind someone else receiving substandard treatment. I have my own medical training. I could be helping, if not for crying at the slightest attempt at talking. I'm nothing anymore. Especially banned from my family.
Miranda gets up to leave. Please don't. You're the only person I can see anymore. Don't leave me alone with the thoughts and the pain. "I'm sorry, but I need to check on my other patients. Believe it or not, some people aren't happy with Commander Shepard receiving my sole attention. As soon as time allows, I will be back."
And just like that, I'm alone again, with nothing but the pain and my thoughts. Nothing but a flash of light so bright and the reminders of the war we won but I lost.
If not for Miranda sneaking visits and an omni tool I never would have survived under their strict lockdown. No visitors, no word from the outside world, nothing outside of these four walls. A luxury, the prosthetics doctor never fails to remind me, but leaving me with only my thoughts and a nasty mental meds withdrawal ended in what Miranda called a regression to how fucked up I was before her help. All the networks are down, everyone more focused on rebuilding critical needs, but somehow Miranda patched me into the military servers. Strictly passive (like I could even type anyway), but better than nothing. More than anyone else can claim. Only because of my godforsaken status. And the status updates, because only the Normandy crew gets that kind of treatment. Especially the ground team. Nobody will tell me about them, only that they're alive. They must have restricted tech access for them too; otherwise someone would've tried to break in by now. Even with all the security. It'd take someone like me to get past them. Half the universe dead and there's still someone left to stand guard.
It's when the guard disappears that I know something changed. There's no incessant chatter outside, civilian med techs trying to talk their way in, doctors whispering over how bad it really is. Everyone conveniently forgetting I'm still mostly awake, sometimes lucid, not completely lost in a fever dream, with damaged vocal cords instead of eardrums. The energy of the entire facility calmed. The full hallucinations died down to just audio, the voice of my mother begging me to give up, Clint and Tori crying in the background. It tugs on the empty hole where the Reapers used to be. If it's not Mom or my long dead siblings then it's my squad during my first assignment out of the academy, everyone who died on Akuze, Jenkins, Nihlus, Ashley, Thane, Mordin, Dad, even my clone. My brain won't let me forget any of them. Their memory still haunts me, even distorted through a haze of infection. Each of them my fault, a fact I will never forget. My mother's voice picks up, saying how I should've come back to her and Dad the first time I died. How jealous my birth father is of Anderson taking his place. How any life I manage to build will be overshadowed by how I'm responsible for all the death and destruction.
Miranda stands in the doorway of the dismal room. She's framed by the stark white lighting of the hall. The only change in her appearance is a fresh set of clothes. Normally the guard holds that spot, decked out in Alliance armor and an always visible assault rifle. Yet she's still the most put together person I've seen, human or otherwise. "Good afternoon, Pandora. I've been told your mental symptoms have been acting up again. But don't worry, I have a better solution than just a feeding tube." As my eyes widen she continues with a smile, "I'm still bearing lunch and there is no escape. It stays in until you can swallow without destroying your esophagus again. Instead I bring company." She sets down her tray of tools, complete with supplies for the tube, and waves for someone in the hallway to enter.
First comes Tali and Garrus, holding hands. Tali's suit has more makeshift patches and Garrus is covered in fresh scars. "I don't leave my friends behind," he says, omni tool flashing on his arm since I lack one capable of translating.
Then Liara enters. She just grins, since she's busy hovering over James, who hobbles in on crutches he clearly doesn't know how to use. "Jesus Liara, go fawn over somebody else who needs it. Hey, Lola."
Joker and EDI squeeze in last. "Ms. Lawson reports on your symptoms worsening," EDI says, withstanding a glare from Joker. "Seeing as how you liken us to family, she thought our presence would help alleviate your medical stress."
While my attention was diverted Miranda hooked up the tube and did her daily battery of tests. "This is everyone capable enough of seeing you without hurting anyone in the process. Though some should still be in bed." She shoots a pointed look at Garrus. "I'll let you all catch up alone. Whatever happens, just don't create any messes I have to fix."
Her departure is cue for everyone to fan out and get comfy. Garrus starts off with a bad joke about soldiers finding scarred women attractive. James adds that's the sole reason why Kaidan and I can finally get hitched. He'd even plan the wedding if it meant it'd finally happen. Joker reminds him that everyone who served on the Normandy are now the galaxy's hottest bachelors. If the power couple that is Second Human Spectre and Last Kickass L2 Biotic Kaidan Alenko and First Human Spectre and All-Around Badass Pandora Shepard can finally hold the wedding to end all weddings, then the rest of the crew doesn't stand a chance. We'll all be able to pass the same suits and dresses around for the next couple years. Liara gets unreasonably excited at the thought. So does Tali, but she's known she'd be a bridesmaid since I helped her on her Pilgrimage all those years ago. Then we can all go back to life as normal, which for me everyone agrees will always involve my own ship. They talk and laugh over the happiness of potential futures, keeping me focused on the here and now instead of the almost was.
Memories of that party of a conversation are enough to drown out the memories of my mother, my nightmares, my decisions leading to my current situation. Especially when Traynor comes to visit, or Cortez, or when Jacob smuggles in Jack who's supposed to be leading the biotic restoration effort. Her visit is by far the easiest, to not feel like I'm forcing it. She even checks the tattoo we share of a shattered star spilling eezo onto my ribcage. It's one of the few places on her body left unmarked and, on mine, without scars. In her words, not even a missing limb can replace that one tattoo inked on a drunken night in a seedy parlor on Omega. Jacob's the one responsible for the entertainment Miranda brings and the privacy from the outside world. Cortez and Traynor have been too hurt and busy to do much, but he assures me they'd be helping otherwise.
The only person no one will let me see is Kaidan. He was at my bedside for so long originally, what harm could be caused now? All I'm told is he was hurt bad and Hackett needed him functioning as soon as possible for something no one knows about. Me too apparently, but Miranda is doing her best to give me more time. I saved the entire fucking galaxy and I'm still in need. Me and my entire crew. Just let me see the man who's been at my side for all of this. No one ever mentions the state of the people, not honestly. It's only rebuilding, recovering, reconnecting, celebrating the war we won while grieving what we've lost. Nothing that could potentially negatively impact my recovery. So let me see the one man I can't. He made me a promise we both need to keep. Nothing can get in the way of that promise.
I stand before the master bath's mirror, trying to twist around enough to see if the back of my dress is fully zipped. I'm only in this bathroom because the lighting's better; otherwise standing in Dad's bathroom doing my makeup and fighting with clothing feels insanely wrong. I always used the common bathroom growing up, slept in the same bedroom since I was six. Dad transferring the deed to my name was only a safety precaution. The dress is tight and I'm still sore from the past few day's battles. It's the same one Tali, Miranda, Chakwas, even Jack and Samara picked out for me: short, silky black, with slits going up the sides and a fake corset thing around the midriff. Chakwas even thought to throw in a pair of shining silver stilettos. Complete with makeup that's been sitting around since high school, I almost look human again. Nothing can be done about the glowing scars running along exposed skin or the deep bags under my eyes, but at least for tonight I feel okay.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch Glyph materializing. "Your first guests have arrived, Commander."
"Thanks, Glyph. Would you mind doublechecking the food and the decorations for me?"
"As you wish, Commander. But rest assured everything is perfect."
As Glyph disappears I adjust my necklace one last time. If Tali or Miranda see a hair out of place they'll never let me hear the end of it. Then I bolt down the hall, tripping on the stairs, and land in front of the security camera, nearly breaking off my shoes. The camera shows James, Steve, and Jacob, Brynn hiding behind them. James stares directly into it, asking where the hell I am. I hit the button to open the door and they barrel in, a flurry of limbs and greetings and an immediate beeline for the bar I set up first thing. I barely have time to congratulate Brynn in person before the doorbell goes off again, this time Liara and Garrus. She's dressed up for the first time in months, he's bearing a box decorated in starry dark blue wrapping paper.
"Consider this the gift I should've brought the last time you had a party here," he says.
My sixteenth birthday party, a surprise Sweet 16 thrown by Dad a lifetime ago. I tear open the packaging, revealing a bottle of wine brewed from plants native to Mindoir and a new, modified sniper rifle scope. A mix of two different homes. "You know which of these would've pissed Dad off more."
"You hid the drinking, but spirits forbid you have access to a loaded weapon. I know the drill."
Liara's been on the Normandy since the beginning, but Garrus has been there since the very beginning, since we met as kids on the Citadel. She's just as lost as I am trying to help out with her Shadow Broker stuff. I shove her towards Glyph, who's cycling between music playlists, as Garrus lets in the next round of people so I can put his gift away. Bit by bit everyone arrives. They break off into clusters to catch up. This is the first time everyone's been in the same place long enough to talk without the fear of being shot or interrupted by Reapers. I flit from group to group, eventually settling at the bar with Jack, Wrex, Bailey, and Joker, EDI keeping an ever-watchful eye in the background. Jack started a drink making competition and, since it takes so much more to get me drunk, immediately declared me taste tester. Despite EDI's recommendation otherwise I down every single drink, from ryncol margaritas to Illium Sunrises extra strong. Only when Joker demands snacks do we take a break, dispersing into the crowd getting more and more energetic.
All at once all the booze starts to catch up. They aren't kidding when they say ryncol fucks you up. Walking in heels wasn't always this difficult. Neither was climbing stairs. By the second-floor balcony Liara, Jacob, Kaidan, and Miranda somehow got into a biotics versus muscle fight against James. Miranda, normally the voice of reason, uses her biotics to lift James into the air while Kaidan keeps his limbs suspended.
Jacob notices me first. "Hey, Pandora. What would win in a fight: good old-fashioned training or biotics?"
While I don't have the normal biotic capabilities, I was born with eezo in my veins that Miranda managed to harness into biotic-like abilities based on my Infiltrator training. So I turn invisible for a moment while summoning an Incinerate blast from my omni tool. Becoming visible again, I lean against Kaidan. "I can't argue with the technology that brought me back to life."
"Not fair!" James cries, still airborne. "You can't ask the person who's the best at both."
"But," I add, moving to pull him down, "I've been winning these fights since I was born, and that's before all these fancy biotic implants."
"Traitor!" Kaidan and Jacob shout simultaneously.
"Traitor? Nooo. Just better than you in a fight, biotics or otherwise. And," to Kaidan, hopefully in a whisper, "better in bed."
To distract from his face glowing red, Liara exclaims, "Goddess Pandora, you told me you couldn't get drunk anymore."
"No. I said I couldn't stay drunk. Not without the good stuff. Which means enjoy this while it lasts! And thank youuu Miranda." She decides then to take a long sip of her drink and make eye contact with the ceiling. "Who's ready for another round? You look like you could use some more, big guy."
James backs away, pressed against the balcony railing. "Maybe we should slow down for a bit. Not all of us have cyborg metabolisms. Dance floor, anyone?"
That suggestion takes us downstairs to the floor emerging in the entertainment room. All the expensive stuff had been put away when Dad moved out of here for good to serve on Earth right before the Alliance locked me up, thank God, but I never thought to move furniture. All the alcohol at the small bar had been moved to the main one, but someone brought enough back to start a game of beer pong. Except Dad was never a beer person, and I followed in his footsteps, so they're using bourbon originally a gift from the turian councilor. The irony. Jack is already dancing on the pool table. Tali is trying to convince Kolyat to dance with her. Traynor is in the middle of a drunken argument over who goes on which team for beer pong with Oriana. Samara waits just outside, unwilling to bring herself down to our level. Don't know why. We're having the time of our lives.
Kaidan gets me onto the floor, taking control through a high energy techno beat. It's nothing at all like what I normally listen to, and yet that's okay. It's enough to get lost in the bass, not be in charge for once, feel the vibrations and the booze and the lights and being surrounded by people who care all at once. It's enough to almost completely forget there's a war going on. That several people who aren't here should be. That tomorrow we'll be back on the Normandy ready to continue the fight. Just me and Kaidan dancing, nothing existing out of this room. Jack gets us all in a circle. All of my friends, soldiers and war specialists, the polar opposite of good dancers, standing in a circle dancing their drunk minds out. Ribbing each other like we're at senior prom. Pretending we're everything that we're not. Enjoying our last night together as a family. Song after song of nothing but being together.
We could stay like this all night, but instead Glyph floats up and hovers in the middle of the group. "Commander, while everyone is still conscious, why not take a group photo? Miss T'Soni mentioned it upon her arrival."
"Oooh, a picture! Great idea!" The music stops so everyone can hear. We file into the living room, the one spot big enough to hold this many people, and arrange ourselves around the couch. I stand behind it, smooshed between Wrex and Grunt. But Joker, seated on the couch beside EDI, insists I'm in the middle, front and center. Kaidan's on one side, an arm casually flung over my shoulders. Garrus is on the other, attempting bunny ears behind my head. "Say Normandy!"
The end result couldn't be more perfect.
Today Miranda greets me with an overstuffed bag instead of medicine. It doesn't sound like anything she'd normally bring either. No clanking or grating. Only rustling, like fabric on fabric. She's dressed normally too, in a button-down shirt and dress pants, even jewelry, including an Alliance pin on her chest. I stare inquisitively at the bag. All I can see from my angle propped up against pillows on the same goddamn bed as always is a flash of black shoulder pads. "Ready to change out of a hospital gown?" she asks, setting the bag next to my leg.
I've been in a gown ever since my skin healed enough to tolerate anything more than sheets. It's been humiliating, harboring visits from my crew and the occasional dignitary in a paper-thin gown that does little to hide anything I want hidden. I'm used to having nearly all of my skin covered: scars, wounds, medigel discoloration, sometimes even my tattoo. My body has no business being plastered all over the tabloids, especially after all my interviews with Allers. Coupled with the countless surgeries Miranda's put me through however long I've been here, it's been awful. Anything would be an improvement over this.
Miranda pulls out a mound of blue and unravels an official set of dress blues. They're crisp and new, the buttons still done, probably my set from the Normandy. I've never worn mine, even at formal military events. I always wore my black officer's uniform when I had to dress up. It's enough to set me apart from the rest of the crew but not enough to put me so far above them I'm inaccessible. Accessibility was always my thing. "This is what I promised Admiral Hackett I'd make you wear. You know how formal he is. However, this is what you'll actually wear." From beneath the dress blues she retrieves my standard uniform, freshly ironed but still unmistakably me. "I know when to pick my battles with you, and this is one of them. Besides, more people will recognize you in this. You always recorded your interviews and appearances in this, if I recall."
Thank you, Miranda. She's come such a long way from the woman insisting on perfection on everything when we first met. As grateful as I am for getting out of wearing standard blues, the act of getting dressed almost makes me regret it. My freshly healed skin is still incredibly sensitive, and the raw scars around the prosthetics are screaming with every bit of contact. I've gotten used to existing with constant pain, but the addition of new metal bits makes it so much worse. Each movement is slow, deliberate, humiliating despite Miranda's best attempts to give me some dignity. Even transferring me to a wheelchair with her biotics, the most movement I've had since I first woke up in this bed, strips me of the last of it. I used to take on Reapers head on. I used to charge geth and husks and Cerberus agents without a second thought. Now I can't even move to help Miranda get me out of bed on my own. It's fucking depressing. We do it though, agonizingly slowly, and Miranda finishes by fastening my dog tags around my neck. One for me, branded when I joined the Alliance, and one of Kaidan's from a night on the first Normandy. It's the last thing that makes me me.
"At least we don't have to worry about a haircut." She grabs my hair, now long past my shoulders, and pulls it behind me. "You know, longer hair suits you. I'm sure Commander Shepard can pull off this look if she so chooses."
And with that she pushes me out the room I've been trapped in, down the hall, and into a small courtyard. There waits a hovercar with enough bulletproof shielding to put the Mako to shame. I can't imagine anyone having the firepower and the determination to take out a single hovercar carrying an injured veteran, but that's normal with Hackett. Somehow Miranda manages to get me inside and she climbs into the passenger seat, the driver being a soldier in complete battle armor. This is a bit ridiculous. We pass the destroyed remains of London, restoration efforts still behind what it could be with a full, dedicated force. Another thing I could be helping with. Another problem resulting from my halfcocked decision stemming from a conversation that probably only happened in my head aboard the Citadel.
On the other side of the city we stop, somewhere behind what looks like an arena. It's devoid of everyone except barebones security and, of all people, Wrex, Tali, and Primarch Victus. They're waiting next to the doors, ready to help Miranda. She pulls me out but sticks with pushing the wheelchair, the others keeping pace, giving updates on the world and the state of their people. Tali chatters on about how much she's looking forward to taking me out to her favorite Earth spots now that I'm dressed and presentable. It'd be cute if not for the reminder of how Earth was never really my home. It was Dad's. He was supposed to show me the sights, not my quarian friend.
We stop behind a makeshift door. It's quiet except for a faint voice. I look first at Wrex, who says he was sworn to keep his mouth shut, then Tali, who refuses to look back at me, then at Victus, who says this is not his business to share. Miranda keeps her mouth shut too. This is bizarre. Then, without warning, Victus grabs the door and Miranda pushes me out to a stage before a packed arena. It's filled with civilians and soldiers alike, everyone applauding so hard their arms might fall off. My crew are in the front row, my other friends and allies right behind them, everyone stuck on Earth during the battle and sticking around to help clean up. Allers and her camera are off to the side recording everything, Hackett taking center stage at a podium. And, beside him, clapping perhaps the hardest of all, is Kaidan.
He's in his own dress blues, as perfect on him as a new set ever will be. He's standing on his own but with crutches tucked under his arms, the outline of a brace visible beneath his pants. He's almost as beat up as I am, beaten and bruised and scarred, but he's also the most beautiful I've seen him. We've been separated for so long, so unnecessarily long, and the first time I see him is on a stage surrounded by others who may well not exist in this moment. Our eyes lock and he beams, matches my own ear-to-ear smile, face lighting up the second I appeared.
If not for Tali and Wrex keeping me moving I'd completely stop. In a body with fully functioning legs I'd rush into his arms and never let ago. The applause keeps going, shaking the arena, Hackett doing nothing to calm it until everyone on stage is in position. With a simple gesture it is silenced. He stands before the podium, using his omni tool as a microphone, Kaidan on one side and me on the other, the others behind us.
"Commander Shepard," he begins. "The woman who somehow managed to pull off a feat so extreme it banished the Reapers and saved the entire galaxy. The woman responsible for saving the lives of everyone both in attendance here today and everyone watching from all corners of the galaxy. From all of us, Commander, thank you." There's another brief round of applause. I'm blushing so hard my cheeks are about to catch fire. "Yet I did not request your presence here today solely to state facts. I'm here, alongside the highest ranked representatives of our closest allies, again thanks to your efforts, to reward you to the best of our abilities."
Each of the others steps forward one by one, starting with Wrex. "I am Wrex of Clan Urdnot, and I have served alongside Shepard since her days as a young pyjak. Thanks to her, the krogan have a future again with an end put to the genophage. On behalf of the krogan, I present the Mark of Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws, for her bravery and excellence in battle."
"I am Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, an admiral of the Migrant Fleet and now, because of Shepard, Rannoch. Pandora was my first friend aboard the Normandy SR1, someone who sheltered me when I was on my Pilgrimage. She has proven herself an ally time and time again, giving us the one thing all quarians have ever wanted: a homeworld. For that, I present this shared piece of Rannoch and the geth, for bringing our races together."
"I am Primarch Adrien Victus, representing all of Palavan and Menae. While I never had the pleasure of knowing the commander outside of war, I do know that within its confines she is one of the most loyal, protective, and effective leaders I know. Even without her title, Shepard is an astonishing woman. I am proud to have served alongside her and her crew. From the Turian Hierarchy, I present the Nova Cluster, for uniting all of us in our time of need."
Last Hackett steps up. "No amount of awards can do justice to what you've done for us. Starting as a member of the first Infiltrator class, you worked your way up through N7, became first officer of the Alliance's flagship at only twenty-six, and then became the first human Spectre. From there you have only grown. For uniting all the races of the galaxy, finally defeating Cerberus, and destroying the Reapers, on behalf of the Human Systems Alliance I present the Star of Terra, the highest award one can receive. But yet an award is not enough to fully recognize all you've done. Your crew assures me you would never relinquish command of the Normandy, so I am promoting you to the highest rank within the Alliance while still commanding one of its vessels. So I, Admiral Steven Hackett, promote Pandora Adelaide Shepard, to Captain in the Alliance Navy. And, should you ever desire, there is always an open position within the admiralty."
A promotion, the highest awards a soldier can receive, and an arena filled with people cheering me on just for saving them. How I wish I could speak, give these people the proper thanks. All I can do is smile and attempt a wave with my good arm. Hope I can show enough on my face to make up for not being able to give my own speech, not that I would have one in response. This all came completely out of nowhere, and the only spontaneous speeches I can give are for going into battle. The entire crowd keeps clapping, hooting and hollering, my friends making the most noise. They should be up here too. They've earned this just as much as I have. But still I just sit there and smile, filled to bursting with happiness.
Kaidan hobbles over to my side. Can there possibly be more after that? He takes hold of my human hand and squeezes it lightly. His voice is as raspy as I picture mine when I'm finally able to talk again. "I am Major Kaidan Alenko, serving alongside Commander Shepard since the day we first boarded the Normandy SR1. There's an old military saying that you find a good commander and you stick with them. They'll walk with you through hell and come out the other side covering your six. From day one I knew Shepard was that commander. She's been with us through thick and thin, from geth to Cerberus to Reapers and everything in between. She saved all of us, her and the crew of the Normandy, and I don't even want to think about what would have happened had we not met. You saved us all those times. Now it's your turn to let us save you. And I want to do it while at your side. A lot of people look up to us: as soldiers, as leaders, as people. I can't begin to describe all the messages I've received saying so long as Kaidan Alenko and Pandora Shepard can work it out and stay together during a war, then there's some hope left for everyone else."
Then he gets down on one knee, stiff and fighting off a grimace but still doing it. From the pocket of his uniform he fishes out a small box and opens it. Inside is a ring, the band iridium, the jewel a shimmering diamond cut into a vague heart. Oh God. This is it. He's really doing it now, on stage, for all the galaxy to see. "So how about it, Dora? Will you let me stay at your side forever, titles be damned? Will you marry me?"
Even with the ability to talk I'd still be speechless. He's always talked about proposing, but life kept happening until eventually we got swept up in the war and there were more important things to think about. But there's no excuse for that now. I never stopped smiling, my facial muscles burning from so much use, but I need to do something else. It hurts like hell, but I manage to pull both my arms up and wrap him in a hug, as tight as I can. For the benefit of the cameras, I mouth the word yes. Kaidan knows. My friends know. There's not a chance in hell I would say anything else.