God never yet forsook in need / The soul that trusted Him indeed.
The hymn ended, and a hush fell on the small crowd. The young woman had a beautiful voice. Shepard was amazed that Abby Williams had been able to get through the song at all. There had been tears shining in her eyes all the way through. They matched the tears in the eyes of just about everyone here.
It was a strange song, Shepard thought. The words were so absolute in their conviction, their hope, but the tune was melancholy, a dirge in a minor key. It sounded as doubtful as she felt.
The whole service had been contradictory. It had been held in an open area under the bright skies of the Presidium. Birds sang in the nearby trees and passersby looked on in curiosity. Two caskets stood on the small stage: one for Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams and one for Corporal Richard Jenkins. Both were empty.
Jenkin’s body had been shipped home almost four months ago, but there had been no time for a formal service back then. His passing was therefore tacked on to Ashley’s memorial. Her family hadn’t seemed to mind. The Williams women sat there with determined faces, looking so much like Ashley that Shepard could scarcely stand to watch them.
The service had been simple. After Abby finished the opening hymn, Anderson had a few words to say, then Liara spoke. The asari was good with words, Shepard thought. When it was finally her turn, Shepard hobbled to the stage. She was still limping. Just a few days ago, she’d broken half her ribs.
Finding her way to the podium, Shepardlooked back at the gathering. The crew of the Normandy was here, as well as the press. She frowned at that. Several salarian STG agents stood in the back and a handful of politicians sat at the front. Shepard took a deep breath. If ever her glib tongue was needed, it was now.
“Ashley was a hell of a solider,” she began. Then she winced. Less than a sentence in and already she was swearing. Her poise was clearly failing her these days. “She joined us on Eden Prime and helped us save the colony. She was a vital part of our team in our mission against Saren, the geth and the Reapers.” Shepard saw some of the politicians frown at her words and wondered why.
“But mostly, Ashley was a friend and she always made everyone laugh. She was the kind of person who makes you enjoy every moment in life. On a mission that might end in death, that’s a hell of a thing.”
Shit , she thought. Swearing again. Clean it up, Shepard. She took a deep breath.
“At one point in our mission, we found ourselves in a dangerous situation. The details are classified, I’m afraid,” she said this for the benefit of the press, “but in the end, we got separated from Ashley and she was left behind.” No sense in explaining her own choice in the matter. The press would have enough to chew on with this story, seeing as Ashley was the granddaughter of one of the most notorious soldiers in Alliance history.
“Ashley’s last words were that she didn’t regret a thing. That, and she wanted us to take care of each other, just like she was always taking care of us.”
Her voice cracked on the last word. Shepard could scarcely believe it. She never cried. She cleared her throat and went on.
“So thanks Ash, wherever you are, and know that we intend to do what you asked, and take care of each other.”
She nodded at the crowd, then walked back to her seat amidst polite applause.
“Well said,” Kaidan whispered in her ear as she sat down. “Ash would be proud.”
“She’d roll her eyes at this blatant PR stunt,” Shepard replied. “But sure, whatever.”
There was another speech, this one from Admiral Kirrahe, describing Ashley’s brave fight with him and his team. It was incredibly long-winded and Shepard found her mind wandering. She looked over at the Williams family. They were just as strong as Ashley. Tears stood in their eyes, but they every one of them had their chins lifted in the air. The service ended with a reading of Tennyson’s Ulysses, and then, only then, did Shepard see tears fall. She looked away.
When at last the ceremony was done, Shepard walked over to the family. She felt she owed them an explanation, but she did not know what to say. In the end, she didn’t say much at all. Ashley’s mother spoke, telling Shepard how much it had meant to Ashley to serve aboard the Normandy. Shepard nodded, then cleared her throat.
“Your daughter was one of the best people I’ve ever known, Mrs. Williams,” she said. “I’m honored to have known her.”
“I was honored to have known her as well,” the woman replied. She shook Shepard’s hand with a directness that Shepard respected at once. Shepard shared a similar handshake with each of the woman’s daughters and then, having nothing else to say, she gave them a nod and walked away.
As Shepard left the small gathering, someone fell in step beside her. She didn’t even have to look up to know that it was Kaidan.
“Did you tell her…?” he began, then broke off.
“That I was the one who chose to leave her daughter behind to save you?” Shepard asked, quietly “No.”
“Yeah,” he said, just as softly. “I suppose that’s not the sort of thing one says to the mother of the deceased.”
“What purpose would it have served?” Shepard asked. “I did what I had to do. Saren forced a choice on me – on us. I still think my reasons to save you were sound.”
“What?” Kaidan shook his head. “Because we were…”
“Because you were the ranking officer, a medic, a biotic, and you were on my team. You were charged with protecting the bomb and you were under fire. If I had other motives, well, that’s not something I’m going to tell her about. It would only upset her. I did nothing wrong and I don’t need my guilt absolved, Kaidan. I’m going to miss Ash, but opening wounds over it won’t help anyone.”
Kaidan nodded. The steel in Shepard’s voice told him all he needed to know. She missed Ashley, but she wasn’t going to let anyone but him see how much – especially Ashley’s family.
They walked along the white-metal boardwalk in silence. After a while, Kaidan cleared his throat.
“So, ah…” he began awkwardly. “I didn’t know you could sing. You have a nice voice.”
“Oh, thanks,” Shepard said, half smiling. “Religious upbringing. Comes with the territory. There’s a lot of singing involved.”
“Is that how you knew that song? No one else seemed to know it, but you were singing along.”
“Was I?” she blinked. “I hadn’t even noticed.”
“Yeah,” he frowned. “It was kind of…weird.”
Shepard chuckled. “A lot of religion is,” she agreed.
“I meant the song, not Ash’s faith.”
“I know what you meant, Alenko. But sometimes they’re both weird. But I think…well, I think Ash is alright, wherever she is.”
“Yeah,” he murmured. “I guess so. I just wish she didn’t have to go.”
“Me too,” Shepard replied. They both fell silent for a minute. Then Kaidan sighed.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose I’d better get back to the ship.”
“Why?” Shepard frowned. “We have the afternoon off.”
“Well,” his lips thinned into a line, “I wasn’t sure if you wanted to spend time with me, ma’am. You haven’t had much rest…”
“Kaidan,” Shepard stopped mid-stride. “Don’t.”
“Don’t pull away from me now. I need you, alright? I need my friend…” She broke off.
“Just a friend?” He had stopped, too, and stood looking at her uncertainly.
“No – more than a friend.” She smiled a little sadly. “We spent the night together a few days back, if you remember.” The words sounded strange to her ears. Saying it out loud made it all seem real, not just some dream wedged in between nightmares.
“We did,” Kaidan said. He looked at her steadily. “Where are you going with this, commander?”
“It’s Shepard, Kaidan. It’s always ‘Shepard’ to you.” She frowned. “Look, I thought we said when we had some shore leave, we’d spend it together.”
“But we aren’t going to get much shore leave. As soon as the Normandy is repaired, we’ll be out looking for a way to stop the Reapers.”
“True enough.” She sighed. “Can’t someone else save the galaxy next time?”
He chuckled. They stood in silence for a moment, then by silent agreement walked on.
“I wish someone would,” Kaidan said after a pause. “I wanted to take you to Vancouver. For shore leave, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Kaidan rubbed the back of his neck. “My father lives there – not that you have to meet him, if you don’t want to. We could just… That is, I’ve got a buddy who works in the forest preserve nearby. He knows of this cabin – it used to be an old fire watch tower. It’s up in the hills with nothing but a sea of trees around it – if you wanted to stay there.”
Shepard looked at him and smiled.
“I mean, there’s hiking nearby, and fishing, too, if you fish. It’s a small preserve, but there’s no one around…”
“Time with just you?” she murmured softly. “I’d love it.”
“It may not be for a while,” Kaidan told her.
“That’s alright. I’ll look forward to it, then. It’ll give me a reason to stop the Reapers. I need to make sure nothing happens to that cabin back on earth.”
Kaidan grinned at her and Shepard returned the smile. They walked on under the bright lights of the Presidium, both in their officer’s dress uniforms, both with their hands clasped tightly behind their backs. If anyone had looked out of an office window just then, they would never have guessed that there was anything between the two Alliance marines strolling through the embassies than a polite, professional acquaintance.