I only own my imagination and the joy of actually having finished this. Yay me.
The Last Night on the Citadel
Chatter and the low constant thrum of hundreds of feet rose up in waves from the crowds on the deck below. A dozen different beats drifted through the air from just as many loud clubs and above, cars zoomed by, the buzz and growls of their engines drifting down to the balcony where a tall man, dressed in simple, nondescript armour and wearing a grey cap, was leaning against the silver railing. The balcony, littered with trash and cracked in places, was the only place in sight that wasn't packed with people, most likely because of its state of disrepair and the fact that the single club on the platform was closed and dark.
At this hour, when late night was about to give way to early morning, the Citadel's ambient illumination was sparse and the ward seemed to consist mostly of blues and greys, except for on decks like the one below where bars, clubs and billboards were islands of garish light, revealing the rich colours of the crowds and glittering in tired eyes, glossy goggles and shiny faceplates.
It had always been said that the Citadel never slept and tonight, with half the soldiers and ship crews in the galaxy on their last hours of shore leave, it was truer than ever. Tomorrow those same people would set out, in ships modified with ancient, rediscovered technology, on long journeys to the many clusters where the mass relays had not been rebuilt by the enslaved Old Machines. It had taken over a year of intense scrutiny and testing by the finest minds, but the blueprints Shepard and the other synthetics had brought back had finally been deemed safe and implementation of the new technology had been swift, driven by the grim knowledge that every day spent was a day the isolated worlds were suffering.
From what Shepard had heard, the new tech somehow allowed drive charge to be dissipated even in deep space, allowing for unprecedented freedom and range of flight. He didn't really have any great need to get a deeper understanding, but Tali simply glowed when she talked about it, so he kept asking.
Shepard smiled briefly as he turned his attention away from the vivid memory of Tali gushing about "simple, brilliant, revolutionary designs" and back to the mass of bodies eagerly making the most of the last hour of the night, letting his eyes drift lazily over the crowd. He spotted a krogan and a scintillating hanar giving each other what he hesitated to call a high five, considering none of them had five fingers. Further away, a group of drunken turians punched and wrestled before they pushed one of their number out towards several asari standing in front of them. A gaggle of Alliance pilots mingled with salarian technicians, both groups barely able to stand. As Shepard's eyes reached the area directly under the platform, he spotted a quarian locked in a tight embrace with a turian.
Those two seemed vaguely familiar, though he was pretty sure he hadn't seen them on the Citadel.
The smiles, the laughter, the drunken leers and catcalls, were exactly the reason he went on these long nighttime walks on the Citadel. He'd read the reports. The Citadel had been packed when the Old Machines took it over and the body count had been staggering, particularly when taking the time frame into account. That the space station had recovered to such an extent, overcoming the loss and terror, warmed and steadied him, and reminded him how strong the galaxy was.
He knew the dancing was still with desperate arm-waving and that the peace was kept quite forcefully by militia and C-sec, now heavily reinforced with many of the most reasonable krogan, but seeing happiness and peace return to the centre of galactic civilization made it really hit him: They had survived. They had passed the lowest point and were on the long way up. That realization made it easier to bear his memories.
He blinked as flames and terror invaded his vision, but only a second passed before he managed to pull himself back to the present. His grip on the railing was crushing as he inhaled deeply, grounding his thoughts in the feeling of cold metal pressing into his palms and the faint smells of food and alcohol, sweat and perfumes wafting up from below. After a moment he lifted his hands, inspecting the steel bar and finding no indentations.
He'd finally gotten the fits under reasonable control and though they still felt like they lasted forever, they seemed like just a split-second of hesitation to everyone else and he'd completely stopped damaging things he held during the seizures.
Steve and James were delighted that he'd stopped ruining weapons and armour with his amplified strength. Shepard was just glad he was no longer a liability and in no danger of involuntarily hurting anyone anymore. He still felt terrible that he'd broken one of Tali's fingers during the first briefing, over a year and a half ago.
He shook his head and pushed himself up from the railing, turning to walk down the curved ramp to the lower level.
As soon as his gaze turned away from the throng of people and lights, his eyes began darting to half-seen flickers and shadows around him, but as he ambled into the press of bodies, the noise and colours of the promenade once again claimed his full attention. The heat and heavy smells of the crowd closed around him, one asari's cloying perfume in particular stinging his eyes while a small bead of sweat quickly appeared on his brow as he was bumped around by the mass of people going around their business.
He revelled in it. The mere physical presence of people around him and the freedom to go where he wished was almost intoxicating after almost a year in what was essentially a large testing cage, only interacting with people through holo-screens and machinery. There really was something about the saying 'you never know what you have till it's gone.' Years ago, he'd lost his anonymity as he rose in the ranks, finally making Spectre and then saving the Citadel. He'd only realized then what freedom you gave up when everyone knew your face. On Mars, he'd been made aware of how many sensations and bodily reactions he'd taken for granted.
Luckily, EDI and Miranda had been able to do a lot to fix what he'd missed on Mars. EDI had just dialled his sensitivity down to avoid him getting incapacitated by Mars' cold, harsh environment and she'd set it back to full strength once he'd warmed up.
It had taken more work, but they had given him fake sweat and tear glands, and coloured his skin, closing the ugly black sockets while they were at it. It was amazing how much a little colour and perspiration did to make him feel properly human again.
He grimaced as his train of thought continued and reminded him of the latest thing he'd had fixed. Asking for help getting his body to, perform, properly had been the most embarrassing thing he'd ever had to do. On the other hand, he mused, thinking back to earlier this night, it had been very much worth it.
He resurfaced from those thoughts as he reached his destination, the transit station. He glanced around at the people standing in line with him and smirked. The C-sec krogan and turians off to the right, the clearly mercenary asari to his left and the civilian humans and salarians in front of and behind him all minded their own business and none of them paid him the slightest bit of attention.
It was incredible, but true. Against all odds, Kasumi had given him back his anonymity and it seemed so simple. A change in posture, a cap to hide his face and eschewing the iconic N7 armour, and now no-one recognized Commander Shepard. Of course, he thought, as he came to the front of the line and climbed into a dark grey shuttle, he'd also died, but that hadn't stopped people from recognizing him instantly last time.
Still, despite the changes seeming simple enough, it was a relief to relax when the shuttle door closed, hiding him from the outside world as the vehicle quietly lifted from the ground and took off. The walks did him a lot of good, but it was hard constantly making himself move and stand differently than he had his entire adult life. It made him feel exposed, as some instinct told him that he was just asking to be attacked with a posture like that. Letting the façade slip made the worry and strain ease out of him, leaving him with only the constant throbbing headache of his memories, something he was very used to by now.
However, in the relative silence and simplicity of flying, the flickers and half-glimpsed shades of other cycles began to encroach on his senses again, blurry silhouettes and almost inaudible noise that somehow didn't impair his abilities in any way.
It still felt distracting as hell.
By the time the ride was over and he was standing in the agonizingly slow-moving, empty elevator, he felt like he was surrounded by ghosts. He saw hazy blotches that he knew to be ships and there seemed to be foggy shapes on the buildings closest to him and on the ground far below.
He was pretty sure the Citadel wasn't actually haunted. But the space station was ancient and had been the centre of most if not all civilizations that had come before. Whatever the Old Machines did when they harvested a species, it preserved most of the civilization's knowledge and the tens of thousands of years that the Citadel was inhabited in each cycle left an impression in the now dead peoples' collective psyche. A faded shadow of that impression lingered in Shepard's mind and when he wandered the Citadel, half-seen figures and barely heard echoes of the dead civilizations manifested around him, mostly imperceptibly in the livelier parts of the Citadel, but very distinct in the lonelier places.
Here, where the nighttime noise was locked out by the elevators' transparent doors, leaving him in silence but for the quiet hum of the elevator moving upward, he felt very close to the cycles that had been extinguished and it filled him with a sense of loss that he found oddly bittersweet.
He leaned his forehead against the glass, and tried to make out the shapes, but it was like trying to focus on the flashes of light behind your eyelids, the details slipping away, leaving him wondering if he had actually seen anything or not.
Then his view was abruptly cut off by walls closing in around the elevator, and shortly after he stepped out through the opening doors and walked up the pier where the Normandy was docked.
The ship was still and silent, gripped by the huge, round magnetic clamps. Despite the extensive modifications, the ship looked like when he'd first seen it, a sleek arrow of black and silver, though now with blue Alliance markings instead of the orange Cerberus icons. Somewhat odd considering that Garrus was in charge of the ship. The thrusters were cold and dead at the moment, but it seemed eager for take-off, aimed at the dark sky.
Or maybe it was just Shepard who was eager to be off. The Normandy would also set out later that day, though not on the same kind of mission as most of the fleets. The Normandy, like several other ships, many of them commanded by Spectres, would spearhead an active search for the remaining Old Machines, keeping constant contact with the main fleets by way of quantum communication, bringing in the big guns if they found something. It was a massive undertaking finding the remaining Old Machines, even if with the data on their last known vectors, but the galaxy couldn't rest easy before the last one was dead and they would find them.
The automatic doors whisked closed behind him and the person standing at the end of the pier only then turned his head, showing Shepard his profile. He cut an impressive figure, the turian in dark blue armour, standing against the dark expanse of space, where the dreadnoughts and cruisers and the thousand dots of smaller ships burned gold and silver in the light of Sol.
He stood tall, his stance not at all affected by the fact that, underneath the armour, his legs were more metal and polymer than flesh. A single, piercing eye set in a mass of scars observed as Shepard approached.
The grand impression was ruined when Garrus popped a piece of dark chocolate into his mouth and smiled lazily as he chewed.
"Morning, Boss," he drawled.
Shepard nodded in greeting as he reached the end of the pier and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the railing. He arched an eyebrow at the turian he considered his brother.
"How are you vertical after last night?" he asked.
"Willpower and training. Omega and the war taught me well."
He lifted the half-filled box of chocolate and added:
"And this is a great hangover cure."
"Turian chocolate? Really?"
"What can I say, she spoils me," Garrus said smugly, taking another chocolate.
"I hope it goes both ways, it took you long enough to notice," Shepard said dryly.
The turian gave him a flat look, though his mouth was set in his usual smirk.
"You're one to talk," Garrus said, "I didn't see Chloe much, she was on the Citadel while we were running all over the galaxy, what's your excuse?"
Shepard smiled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. He decided not to argue.
"Point," he said. "At least we both wised up and with her coming with us, you'll have plenty of time to make up for it."
He paused and shook his head.
"I'll just take comfort in not being as dense as Donnelly."
"A cheer for everyone finally getting their heads out of their asses," Garrus agreed, raising the box of chocolates like he was giving a toast. Then he swung it in Shepard's direction with alarming speed that betrayed that the turian wasn't quite sober yet.
"Thanks," Shepard sighed, "but you know I can't eat." That was something he missed, but installing an actual digestive system would neither be easy nor pleasant and EDI and Miranda had helped him quite enough. He had a hard enough time looking them in the eye as it was.
"True," Garrus conceded, "but it doesn't hurt to be polite."
"Now I know you need sleep, you're sounding like an actual decent sentient being," Shepard said with mock severity. "How much sleep did you get?"
"An hour, maybe two, it's a little blurry," Garrus said.
"I bet. Don't you think our fearless leader should get his rest?" Shepard asked. He was silently thankful that Garrus didn't even flinch at being referred to as the leader. It seemed the turian had finally accepted Shepard's insistent claims that he was good enough, even to lead the Normandy.
"I think you have a saying. Something about pots, kettles and the color black," Garrus said smoothly, turning his head to look at Shepard.
"So, I speak from experience," Shepard replied amiably, shrugging.
"Experience you never learned from yourself," Garrus shot back.
"It isn't like that's an option anymore," Shepard said and Garrus tilted his head in silent acknowledgement.
That was mostly true. He didn't have any need for sleep. In fact, the only thing he did need was regular maintenance and a daily dose of some fluids. What he didn't say was that EDI had offered to figure out how to implement a real sleep cycle and that he'd declined. 'Sleep when you're dead' had a very real meaning to him after the two years he'd been gone, and he wasn't sure he ever wanted to sleep again anyway. At least when he was always awake, he only had to deal with the waking nightmares. Those were horribly real visions of the previous cycles and occasionally the worst moments of the war, but the nightmares his imagination conjured up were all filled with familiar faces, either dead or corrupted.
He'd gladly stay awake forever if it meant never again having to see Tali or the others, twisted and broken with Old Machine modifications, even if he would have to relive his failures and traumas in stark clarity from time to time.
Shepard barely held the crystalline flash of a nightmare at bay, focusing on the ships in the sky, the metal under his arms and the faint sounds drifting through the air. The seconds ticked by as he looked out into the open air.
"What are you seeing?" Garrus asked quietly, after several minutes had passed.
Shepard realized his eyes had been tracking the ephemeral shadows in the air, his gaze wandering from one fading image to the next without his mind retaining details of any of them.
"Ghosts and echoes, I guess," Shepard said and realized with a start how melancholic his voice sounded. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Garrus nodding, though his gaze was thoughtful. Garrus was one of the few who knew about what he saw on the Citadel.
"I think EDI could do something about that," Garrus said, his voice carefully neutral.
"I don't really want my head messed with any more," Shepard said wryly.
"That I can get behind," Garrus agreed, "you just don't exactly look happy."
"It's confusing. And-," Shepard said, trailing off for a moment. "It's actually comforting, the certainty that there was something in the other cycles other than pain and death. And except for a better understanding of synthetics, these-"
He paused and drummed his fingers on the railing as he searched for words.
"These visions are the only good thing I brought back from the Old Ma-, Reaper Collective."
"But?" Garrus prompted and Shepard's mood darkened.
"It feels like I killed them. I've practically lived each culling."
Garrus sighed and gripped Shepard's shoulder, turning him so he could look him in the eyes. His voice was firm and insistent when he spoke:
"You also told me you lived both sides of it all. None of those deaths were your fault. They happened thousands of years ago."
Shepard averted his eyes, his gaze drifting out into the open space to his left. A click and a whisper of displaced air reached his ears, followed by light steps, but he didn't turn his head.
"I finished the job. Almost everything about them, all those people, are gone now," he said quietly. "And I don't really know what bothers me more, killing them or that I'm sad that they're gone."
Garrus' face was twisted in frustration. His mouth twitched, but he didn't speak. The turian had always seemed to be pretty much at peace with killing in the line of duty and, though he might be able to see the logic behind Shepard's distress, the monstrosity of the Old Machines had probably made it impossible for him to actually feel grief for their deaths.
Shepard supposed he wouldn't have felt any grief either, if it weren't for those inherited memories.
"That you care so much, for the living and the lost, is one of the reasons you are such an extraordinary person."
Liara's words were soft, and Shepard turned his head to see her and Tali approaching. Liara looked dishevelled from sleep, though her blue eyes were alert, and Tali had the distinct little slouch she always had when she'd just woken up.
"Your timing is impressive," Garrus said, slipping his hand from Shepard's shoulder. Shepard could hear the smirk in his voice.
The two women reached Shepard and Garrus, Tali stepping into the fold of Shepard's outstretched arm and leaning into him. He wrapped his arm around her and once again the thought of just how good it was just to touch someone, particularly her, darted through his head.
"Liara and Tali requested that I inform them when you returned."
EDI's voice floated out from Garrus' armor. Small speakers had been installed in all their armour for when EDI had something to say while her body was elsewhere and earphones were for some reason insufficient.
Garrus made a small sound in the back of his throat, a hum of understanding, before saying:
"Aren't you with Joker? I thought I saw you two leaving earlier."
"Yes, he is just waking up," EDI replied, calm as ever.
Shepard couldn't help the snort of amusement that erupted from him, but before anyone had a chance to speak, he said:
"I think Joker would appreciate it if you would focus your attention on him right now."
EDI didn't reply for a moment and, wondering if the AI was puzzled again, Shepard elaborated:
"It's an emotional thing. At least, not having several conversations right now would probably be best. It'll make it more obvious that he is your highest priority."
There was another few seconds of silence, then EDI's voice appeared from the speakers again, a slight hint of confusion in the words:
"I will do that. However, I want to add to the previous subject that the geth and I have preserved a considerable amount of data from the previous cycle, if that is any consolation."
Shepard inhaled and exhaled the air in a sigh.
There wasn't a reply, so it seemed EDI had taken the advice to heart. For a short while, the four just stood there in silence, gazing out at the ships blazing in the sunlight.
"Liara's right. You care so much for everyone," Tali said, picking up the interrupted subject. She rubbed a his shoulder. "You always take all responsibility, even when it's out of your hands. You should remember what you have and what you have accomplished."
"You did was what had to be done. We are here now because of that," Liara said.
"I know that, you know I know that," Shepard said. There was a note of exasperation in his voice but his mood was brightening.
"Shepard," Garrus said, "you've met Javik. Do you think any of cycles would be any different? Do you think any of them would have wanted to continue to exist as Reapers after what they'd done?"
Shepard chuckled helplessly.
"Of course we are," the Tali said cheerfully. Her tone and the smirk on Garrus face gave seemed to indicate that anything else was unthinkable.
"I still think it's unfair of you to gang up on me," he groused, his voice full of mock indignation.
"I've found it to be the quickest way to make you deal with your issues," Tali chirped pleasantly. Liara and Garrus just kept smiling and smirking respectively.
Shepard snorted. He'd had plenty of time to deal with his issues in the year he'd been locked up. In between the poking and prodding, he'd had plenty of conversations, with the Normandy crew and a team of shrinks. Dr. Stanton and her colleagues had actually been pretty helpful, even if he'd never figured out if the main purpose of the sessions had been to confirm that he was the real Shepard, figure out if he'd been indoctrinated or if they were actually supposed to help him deal with the trauma of the war and his time in the Old Machine Consciousness. The shrinks' solemn declaration that he was the real, unsullied deal had both been a great relief and mildly underwhelming, seeing as the important people had seen that almost immediately.
Whatever help the shrinks had been, he still found it immeasurably better for his mental state to be with his friends and family. He'd been about ready to claw down walls of the seemingly more and more cramped rooms at the end of the year.
Shepard closed his eyes and dragged himself out of his thoughts. That was enough introspection for today.
"Speaking of Javis, is he coming?" he asked.
"Yes," Liara answered after only a short moment of hesitation.
"Good, the Normandy doesn't feel right if there isn't at least one person that might decide to shoot me," Shepard said, smirking.
Javik had warmed somewhat over the year and a half, but his distrust wasn't gone. That was one of the reasons Shepard had cited when arguing that Garrus retain command of the Normandy.
"Oh, sometimes it's still a toss-up for me and Tali," Garrus rasped nonchalantly.
"So we're all set?" Shepard asked.
Liara just nodded.
"The Normandy is ready, everything's checked and calibrated," Tali said, adding the last two words almost as an afterthought. Her head turned slightly towards Garrus.
"It's just a shame more of the band isn't coming," the turian said, completely ignoring the quarian. He shook his head disbelievingly before adding:
"I still can't believe Jack and Grunt have other responsibilities. I can't believe they have responsibilities."
Shepard nodded in acknowledgement, joining the group in a quiet chuckle before they lapsed into companionable silence, enjoying each others' easy presence as they looked out into the black sky.
It was a strange, but fantastic and, he had to admit, very gratifying, to see how far the members of ground crew had gotten. Several Spectres, a good king in all but name, a leader made from an apparently immature, violent hothead, a teacher made from a seemingly psychotic, lost cause, reformed criminals, and the rest, who had been good people, that now were great people.
It was still a little bittersweet. Exactly because they had gotten so far, only a few were coming with the Normandy, Javik, the three standing around him now, Kasumi and of course, EDI. They still had had not contact with Samara and Zaeed. James and Kaidan were going with different ships, their status as Spectres making them much more valuable as leaders of other teams. Garrus and Shepard hadn't split up like that, technically because Shepard was Garrus' responsibility but in reality because they absolutely refused to split up the remaining ground crew any further.
Wrex had ruling to do and the rest had people to take care of in some capacity, except for Miranda, who instead was going to put all that skill to use, for the first time openly.
It would be a long time before he saw any of those people in person again and that hurt, though the pride and joy of his people finding their places soothed it somewhat. The presence of the people still with him, and the Normandy crew sleeping in the ship beside him, reduced the hurt to only small pangs.
Shepard returned his eyes to his three companions. Liara still bore her scars, though like Garrus, she'd gotten a prosthetic for her major injury. It couldn't be seen on Tali, but he knew the scars she had well, ugly rough ones on her stomach where he'd learned metal had pierced her. Warmth filled his chest. They were family, like the rest of the Normandy crew, despite the fact that not one of them shared blood with him.
He pressed a kiss to the top of Tali's cowl and as she looked up, her head tilted a little in curiosity, he gazed from her to Liara to Garrus.
"Thank you," he said, the words heartfelt.
"You're welcome," Garrus said, his tone wry, but the smiles that he and Liara gave him left no doubt that they had complete understanding of what he was feeling in that moment. Neither did the squeeze Tali gave him.
"Thank you," Tali answered, her voice as warm and soft as the feeling of her body leaned against Shepard.
"You did it, Shepard," Liara said softly, "you changed the course of millions of years of history."
"We did," Shepard said, the realization hitting him just as hard as it always did, "all of us."
"We are pretty amazing," Garrus said, buffing his claws on his chest plate. His smiles turned predatory before he added, tone half-serious:
"That's why the Reapers are hiding from us."
"Well, they can't hide forever. We'll run them to ground," Shepard said, a bit of vicious bite creeping into his voice. There was only a very faint stirring in the back of his head that regretted the necessity of killing the Old Machines and it had no influence on his certainty of purpose.
Liara and Tali merely nodded solemnly and as the lights on the Citadel slowly bloomed to daytime strength, the group turned their backs on the magnificent view and walked down the pier towards the Normandy's doors.
The hunt for the Old Machines and the restoration of the galaxy would likely take a lifetime, probably Liara's lifetime, but Shepard felt confidence, all his own, swell in his chest unlike any he had felt since the disastrous mission in the Bahak System. The Old Machines had lost and would never be able to rise again, the galaxy had survived and was getting better, day by day. He still felt the ache of loss and the guilt of many of his actions, but the people he cared about eased the pain and brightened the days. His duty and mission was clear once again.
As they stepped from the brightening Citadel into the softly lit airlock, Shepard smiled.
He had all he needed.
Well, that was it. I'm really proud that I actually finished this and all in all, quite pleased with the end result. I'd like to thank all you readers and my reviewers in particular, so thanks: Lord of Bays, Suqu124, beastlynerd, Just An Avid Reader, general-joseph-dickson, Everettspartisan, Inverness, bob rijke, X59, Riptow, PenAndBoad, Dur'id the Druid, murdrax, Tomon and Raven Marcus.
As always, I'd love to see your reviews and now that the story is done, I'd love to hear your overall opinion, what my strengths and weaknesses are, how the pacing was and such. I'd also like to know if there was anything I forgot to explain.
Thanks everyone, it was a pleasure to write for you.