Jake Shepard fidgeted uncomfortably on his seat for what seemed to be the the billionth time in the last hour. He reached for his glass of orange juice on the coffee table in front of him and nodded to what the woman to his right was saying in a distraught voice, hoping somehow that drinking would prevent him to have to answer something.
He cast a glance to the two crying girls sitting on the sofa in front of him and wondered if he should smile reassuringly. There was a silence, and for a moment he struggled to find something to say.
The sound of a door opening and closing and footsteps coming closer happened then right on time to rescue him from his blatant lack of eloquence. Another young woman entered the room a few seconds later and he stood to acknowledge her entrance.
“This is Abby, the el…. the oldest of Ashley’s sisters,” Mrs Williams said to him. “Abby, this is Commander Shepard,” she added for her daughter.
Abby Williams nodded curtly in his direction, and he could see her swallowing hard at the mention of his name. She was pretty, he noticed. “Prettier than Ashley,” he couldn’t help but think and chastised himself immediately. Ashley was dead. What kind of man could make such comparisons with a dead woman? Especially when said-woman was dead because of him?
Then, again, he found all of Ashley’s sisters prettier than her. Not that he didn’t find Ashley herself pretty enough. He grimaced at the thought. It reminded him of the time when he only saw his Gunnery Chief as a pack of bones he wanted to jump. He didn’t want to be reminded of that time. He didn’t want to remember that after she had turned him down, he had never tried to get to know her that much.
Abby came to sit between her sisters, and dragged their weeping forms into her arms. It only doubled the tears and Shepard felt even more uneasy than before. He tried to smile again but he wasn’t sure what he had came up with was anything near the reassuring smile he was trying. This was a nonsense anyway. What was he trying to say? That everything would be alright? Ashley was dead. There was no way he could make this right.
He wondered why he was here. He remembered Kaidan and Liara talking him into coming. He should have said no. What Liara knew about what humans were supposed to do in such circumstances anyway?
He took another sip of his drink, his brains working furiously for something smart to say. This was ridiculous. He shouldn’t feel that bad. He was Commander Shepard. He headbutted Krogans for breakfast, insulted the Council when he thought about informing them about his whereabouts, killed Geth by dozens and had just recently saved the Citadel from a massive attack. Four crying women should be nothing to handle.
And yet, here he was, somehow regretting he had not gone to help Ashley instead of Kaidan on Virmire: he would now have a far easier time talking with Kaidan’s father, a former Alliance soldier himself, who would probably receive his visit with a little more dignity. He shook his head despite himself. He had made the right choice. He had not even blinked before making his decision. Ashley was just a good shot, she was expendable. There was nothing wrong with his choice and his line of thought. Tali, though, had recommended that he kept that sort of ideas to himself when he would meet the Williams. Tali, who had cried for days after Virmire. At some point, the two had become friends and he had not even noticed. He supposed it had something to do with the fact that Tali was an only child and being a big sister was like a second nature for Ashley. Even more natural than her mistrust of aliens. Shepard wished he could tell Ashley’s sisters and mother something inspiring about that fact. But words were evading him more than a geth hopper. He kind of remembered that Ashley was not a great talker herself and had a thing for poets words. He had not paid enough attention to be certain though.
Ashley’s mother asked him then if he wanted more orange juice and as he nodded, she filled his glass and handed him the datapad of pictures she was holding before. He flipped quickly between the family’s photographs and could hardly suppress a grin at Ashley’s already tomboyish look when she was a teenager. A lot of pictures showed the girls together, some showed Ashley with her father. On one, the two of them were wearing their dress uniform and were smiling proudly at the camera. On the following, Ashley was hardly visible, nearly disappearing in her three sisters combined hug. Shepard swallowed hard. Might he have made the same choices had his family never been killed on Mindoir? Would he have left them behind and risk his own life as willingly as Ashley had?
“How was she?” suddenly asked Sarah, the youngest of the girls. “During the mission, I mean.”
Shepard pondered what to say. Kaidan had recommended that he told anecdotes and amusing stories about her and Shepard looked for something to follow his lieutenant’s advice, but he soon realized he could not remember any. He wished it was because he was distraught and distracted by the high emotions in the room. Shame downed a little more on him at the realization that it was only because he had spent so little time with her. More than ever, he wished he had taken some time to know the person she was. He wished he had things to say to her sisters that would make them grin and say “that’s so her”. He wished he had enough imagination to make up a good story that would serve this very purpose. But he was not a storyteller, he was just a soldier making hard decisions where no one else could.
“She will receive the Nova Cluster from the Turians and the Silver Dagger from the Salarians for her bravery. She will be the first human to be awarded these medals. It’s a great honor.” he heard himself say instead.
They nodded weakly and he went on about duty, sacrifice, heroism, about how she had made a great name for herself. The words felt hollow and empty in his mouth and all he wanted was to be gone.
When he finally left them to their grief, he hardly heard their thanks for coming and when he met their eyes, he wondered if they really felt better now.
He certainly did not.