This is a short story I've been writing while working on Inevitable, inspired by Shepard's final scene in ME3 with a destroy/high EMS ending, by that single breath. The title was inspired by the track from the ME3 soundtrack with the same name. This is a quick, cathartic once-off not connected to ME:I. I hope you enjoy it. :)
Two vague, indistinct concepts that she could barely remember. There was nothing but blackness.
No, that wasn't entirely true. There was the blackness, an inky, creeping, deadened blackness, surrounding her and blinding her and muffling her ears. It was a blackness that felt so heavy and so complete that if it wasn't for the other thing, she would have been certain she was dead.
The other thing was the pain. The pain. Oh holy christ, the pain.
She was drowning in it, her very soul was being seared by it. She couldn't breathe, her lungs were crushed by invisible fists, her chest caught in an invisible vise. She couldn't breathe.
She couldn't breathe—
When she drifted into consciousness, she groggily realised she shouldn't have woken up. She hadn't been breathing. She should have died.
She took a careful, shaky breath. She should have died so many times. In the explosion after she shot the conduit the Catalyst had told her would destroy the Reapers. By Harbinger's plasma beam when it caught her on the final run to reach the Citadel. More than once during Hammer's desperate push through London.
Yet somehow, after the Citadel crumbled all around her, she was alive. And awake. And breathing.
Her lips stretched in a painful, ghostly imitation of a smile and a tiny sound, more a grunt than a laugh, forced itself from her mouth. She had survived again. Again, she thought, head groggily spinning from the exertion even that smile had taken.
The movement of her facial muscles seemed to trigger a chain reaction of sharp, painful responses from the rest of her body, as if to remind her it was still there. Her grunt turned into a breathy wail, but she snapped her mouth shut, cutting it off, refusing it. She squeezed her eyes closed against involuntary tears of agony as each separate inch of her body railed, coalescing into one big bundle of hurt that threatened to send her plunging back into the depths of unconsciousness.
No! She struggled against it, gritting her teeth and trying to force her eyes open. She was alive. For some unknown, inexplicable reason she was still alive, and she would not squander this unexpected gift.
Her eyelids cracked open, gritty and sticky from dust and the tears she had stubbornly refused to shed. She blinked, squinting in the near-darkness. A light was happily winking somewhere, oblivious to her plight, casting a pulsing red shade over her immediate surroundings. It was just enough for her to begin to make out the huge slabs of broken concrete and twisted metal she was buried beneath.
Her breath sounded harsh to her ears, seeming to echo in the confined space, but at least she was breathing. She was breathing. Somehow her little cubbyhole contained breathable air. What did that mean? Had the Citadel – or at least the part she had been on – somehow managed to maintain atmospheric integrity after the Crucible fired? Was the Citadel even still there? Was she trapped on a chunk of it, drifting out into space?
Closing her eyes again, she took a deep breath and focussed on nothing but that. Her wondrous, inexplicable breaths trailed gentle, silvery fingers along the walls of her throat. It did her no good to let her mind skitter through every possible nightmare she could think of. She was alive… for now. If she did nothing, that could change. Slowly, she took stock of her situation.
Most of her body was buried in the rubble. She was on her side with her right arm below her. It was twisted at a painful angle, but – oh thank god – her left arm was free. Her head and neck were free, as was part of her chest. It was still difficult to breathe, though it wasn't as painful as the first time she woke up. Her lower torso and legs were completely buried, probably crushed. She didn't want to think about that too much.
She sucked in a sharp breath, suddenly conscious of the cold, sharp edges of the broken concrete digging in around her chest and neck. She felt an overwhelming urge to wriggle, to move, to try and pull herself out, but she knew if she did that she would probably make things worse. Her melted, mangled hardsuit was protecting her chest, but she could feel it tight against her breastbone. It had all but collapsed, and that didn't bode well for the weaker portions of armour covering her arms and legs.
If… if her legs were even…
She clenched her teeth. She was going to need help to get out of this. Gingerly she raised her left arm, whimpering as she felt bone grate against bone. It had to be broken. She ignored it along with everything else that hurt, just grateful she could still move it, and brought her hand awkwardly up to her ear. She triggered her comm, and was rewarded with a burst of beautiful static. She had never been so glad to hear static in her life. It meant her comm was working.
It meant her comm equipment was working, but that didn't mean it could broadcast. And it didn't mean anyone was still around to hear her if it could.
What if the Catalyst lied? What if the blast killed everyone? What if you're the only one left?
She swallowed that thought back down into the murky depths of her mind where it belonged. Quickly she triggered her comm again, pressing down to activate the voice pickup. "He… hello…" she began, words barely rasping from a dry throat. She worked her equally dry tongue around inside her mouth, trying to build up enough moisture to let her speak. "Anyone…"
The silence sat heavily around her, broken only by the sound of her own breathing. She tried again. "Hello… anyone?"
Nothing. The laugh that bubbled forth from her lips felt more like a sob. Of course she had a working comm, with no one there to hear her.
What had happened to the Normandy? Surely they would be searching for her. She just had to keep trying. Someone would hear her eventually.
But the effort to raise her arm and force words from her uncooperative mouth had taken a toll on her exhausted and broken body. Feebly she pressed a finger against the comm trigger again, determined not to give up, though the tiny muscles in her finger trembled with exhaustion. "Come in… Normandy…" she whispered.
That was all she could take for now. With a tired whoosh of breath she let her arm fall. Tendrils of darkness crept in on the edges of her vision. She fought it, but only half-heartedly. The pain was numbed while she was unconscious, surely it wouldn't matter if she let herself slip away for just a few moments…
She woke groggily, head lolling against a jutting slab of rough concrete. The silence pressed in on her, seeping into her bones along with the cold of the concrete. She lay there quietly, listening to the soft sound of her own breath as she gradually became more aware.
How long had she been lying here for? Hours? Days? Her stomach tightened with hunger, and her throat was parched. Days, she suspected, coolly calculating the most likely scenario. If it had been hours she wouldn't be so thirsty, and if it had been weeks she would be dead.
She had to get out of there, she had to get help. Determinedly she raised her broken left arm to her ear, gritting her teeth through the pain. "Hello…" she whispered, voice cracking. Her throat was so dry. "Normandy…"
Silence. She lowered her arm, indecisive about whether to keep transmitting, over and over, or wait and save her strength, and transmit in regular intervals instead. Which would increase her chances of being found?
She had no idea, but dimly she realised that although the pain she was in hadn't lessened, her ability to think and reason had improved. She hoped it was a good sign, and not just a final burst of energy.
A chill spread through her bones. What if it was?
She raised her hand to her ear again. "Someone… this is… Commander Shepard…"
She swallowed against the fear. No. She wasn't going to believe it. She couldn't give up. She could almost see Garrus frowning in disapproval at the thought. Wrex glaring at her. Miranda rolling her eyes. Tali crossing her arms impatiently. None of her friends would allow it. And she had to… she had to get back to them…
Tears began to spill from her eyes. What if they were all… No, she had ordered Garrus and Tali back to the ship before the final push, they had to be safe. Miranda and Wrex hadn't been on the front lines. Surely they were okay.
She squeezed her eyes shut, angrily trying to stop the tears. Marines don't cry. Especially not Commander Shepard, First Human Spectre, Saviour of the Citadel.
She snorted, darkly amused, as she lay there on her side, buried under thousands of tonnes of cement and metal, alone in the suffocating darkness. She could cry as much as she wanted, no one was there to see.
The moment of levity faded, and she sobbed, alone in the darkness.
When she next woke, she realised her hunger was now a dull, cramping ache in her belly, and her thirst was beginning to fade. She knew that was very, very bad. She was running out of time. She was tired, so tired, but if she let herself go to sleep, she wasn't sure if she would wake up again.
She had lost count of the number of times she had transmitted into the empty static. But she doggedly pressed her finger to her ear again anyway. What else was there for her to do? "Hello… this is Commander… Shepard. Is anyone… reading?"
She listened to the static for a while, letting the constant white noise lull her into as close as she could get to relaxation. Her pain had subsided somewhat, and she knew that was also a very bad sign. Parts of her body were beginning to shut down to conserve more vital functions. Distantly, analytically, she assessed her situation.
It wouldn't be long now.
"Normandy, come in. This… is Commander… Shepard."
She had no tears left. There was a lot she still wanted to do, but… maybe that was okay. A faint, trembling smile touched her lips. She had already done a lot. She had fought the Reapers… and won. The galaxy would live on, now. She had broken the cycle. She hadn't been able to save the geth or… or EDI… but organic life would be free to flourish as nature prescribed. And hopefully they could be rebuilt.
Earth was saved. The Citadel, Thessia, Palaven, Tuchanka. All were saved. She had helped to cure the genophage and saved the krogan from extinction. She had brokered peace between the quarians and the geth and saved Rannoch. She had defeated Cerberus and the Illusive Man once and for all.
She had saved her friends, the people she loved more than any others. The people who had become her family. They would go on to live happy, peaceful lives because of what she had done. She had saved everyone she could.
She felt the edges of her vision begin to grey out. One… final… call.
"Anyone… out there… come in…"
She let her arm fall and her eyes close. She knew she wouldn't wake up again.
It was okay.
But she did. Her head was spinning when she woke, and voices clamouring on both sides. Garrus, and Tali, and Wrex and Miranda… Garrus was yelling at someone. She had never heard him yell before, she thought dimly. Tali was talking to her, but she couldn't understand what she was saying. Miranda was making noises, inarticulate grunts and sounds. She had to be hearing things.
But Wrex, she could hear Wrex so clearly. His voice was deep and solid, telling her to get it together and be ready because it was going to get real painful in a second—
Pain seared through her legs, forcing everything into focus. She cried out and her eyes flew open, then shut again, blinded by bright lights where before there had been only darkness. She panicked, unable to suppress it, brain unable to catch up with the flood of new information.
Her legs moved, and she cried out again, both in surprise and pain. She shouldn't be able to move, what was going on—
A huge, scaled hand engulfed her free left hand. "Shepard. Be strong. You can handle this." Wrex's voice again.
She looked up at him, feeling the tears running down her face in warm rivulets, and realising they weren't all from the pain. She could feel his hand. She could see his face. She could feel the pain in her legs – both of them. A tiny spark of hope ignited in her chest.
Slowly she began to make out other important details. She could see Tali on her other side, omni-tool out, scanning her and reporting the results. Miranda, Samara and Jack were all surrounding her, wreathed in the blue of their biotics, heaving giant pieces of concrete and stone away. Vega, Wrex and Zaeed stood directly over her, lifting smaller bits of ruined concrete from her body. A shimmering blue barrier surrounded them, protecting them from any rubble that might fall, and she looked up to see Liara. The asari gave her a reassuring smile then glanced over to Garrus, who was arguing with someone in front of a crowd. There were people, so many people, worried, cheering people, all kept back by Ashley, Jacob, Westmoreland and Campbell. Next to the person Garrus was arguing with, a floating camera shorted out with a spectacular bang. For a brief moment Shepard could have sworn she saw Kasumi.
A sleek white hull slid smoothly by overhead before passing out of Shepard's sight, but the brief glimpse didn't matter, she would know that hull anywhere. Her heart flooded with joy. It was the Normandy. After all those calls, the calls she thought had gone unheard…
Wrex let her go, gripping onto a piece of jutting concrete with Vega, but Tali took his place and Shepard didn't worry. A few minutes later, Karin Chakwas was hurrying over, Legion and Javik just behind, carrying a stretcher.
Legion… the Catalyst had said the geth would… If he was here, the Catalyst had lied. What else had it lied about? "Reapers…" she rasped, heart pounding.
"Gone, Shepard," Tali told her, and she could hear the satisfation in her voice. "Dead."
"Geth?" she pressed. "EDI?" All synthetic life forms, the Catalyst had said…
EDI stepped out from behind Legion, and Shepard felt herself smiling despite dry, cracked lips. "I am alive, Shepard. And I am not alone."
"The geth survive," Legion confirmed, face-plates contracting in that particular manner that meant he was pleased.
All of them. They were all alive. The Catalyst had only been trying to save itself by telling her she would be killing her friends as well if she chose to destroy the Reapers. None of it had been true. She had saved them all.
She smiled through the pain, staring up into the faces of her family as they worked to get her out, to save her.
She would be all right. Everything would be okay. She had done it. Destroyed the Reapers, and saved the whole goddamn galaxy.
It was time to wake up. She had a whole life to live.