The amalgamation of a thousand human lives screeches infernally, flinging its hand down with such force, the ground beneath their feet gives out and the world around them crumbles. The three of them tumble like broken children's toys. Thane is a smear of black jacket and green skin; Samara a haze of biotics and crimson. And all that enters Peyton Shepard's vision is dark smudges of brown, and steel the colour of an angry sky as she descends farther into darkness and obliteration. She hurtles downward, ever downward, breathless and numb.

Falling, so much damn falling, and it occurs to her then that it might never stop. All control lost, all sense of feeling drained from the body Cerberus made for her, and the part she finds the most ironic is how the notion of dying again becomes real.

Cerberus breathed life into her cracked lips, and Cerberus was sucking it back out.

There is a spark inside of her that screams 'no, no, no, stop this, stop doing this,' to get back up and not let herself become just another number. But being just another number is all that she would have been if Cerberus didn't play god and fuck around with human mortality. And she does not think she could cheat death again, for her brother always told her that to laugh in the face of someone with a pistol held to your temple is stupid, and laughing in the face of someone already shooting you in the head is all that Peyton would be doing.

So she does not fight.

She closes her eyes, and allows the momentum to drag her deeper into the abyss of hell that surely awaits her and that damned beast of metal and torture. For a moment, she is tugged backward, body battered against steel and stone mercilessly. A hand grabs her armoured fingers and defies the laws of what should be, and decided that today is not the day that Commander Shepard, fabled product of the Lazarus Project, puppet of Cerberus, and goddamn saviour of the universe does not die.

She curses them, whoever they are.

"Your story does not end here, Shepard." A dry voice forces her eyes open and black pupils stare back at her. Wiry drell bodies have more strength than people give them credit for.

Thane effortlessly pulls her up and onto the safety of the cold steel with his free hand, which grips her elbow when she is on her knees. She can feel the way it shakes, his fright palpable even if his stoic face and tense body don't give it away.

But all she can think is why, why would you do this? The fact that Thane went out of his way to save her makes regret boil in the pit of her stomach. They both could have fallen, eaten up by the bottom of the Collector base and engulfed by horrors Peyton doesn't desire to fathom.

Before they can say another word, a blast forces them to the ground, the sheer heat of it threatening to melt the very combat suit she wears. It singes the inside of her nose and makes her eyes ram shut. Thane throws his arm over her back, shielding her. A concussive blast rocks the platform, and their bodies curl together and begin another set of somersaults when their platform collapses.

Then the world settles, dust and debris hail down from the heavens likean ungodly rain, their kinetic barriers nothing more than tinfoil against a sharp blade. Thane and she are thrown apart, and she feels the tips of his fingers scramble to grab hold of her. She rolls and slams into something that send hot licks of pain coursing through her body, and she yells out in distress, panic. The ground shudders with a great sigh, and for one awful moment, Peyton is convinced that the both of them will double over and cartwheel their way to death. But it stills and seems to move no more. The world turns black as her head strikes something impossibly hard.

It is as if everything crawls to a standstill, sluggish and slow moving. She becomes aware of a stone stabbing into her hip and the cold, cold metal of the platform against her cheek. A shadow hovers over her and blocks the harsh brightness of fire and destruction from piercing the inside of her eyelids. Time stopped having a meaning for Peyton the moment she started spewing missiles at whatever that thing the Collectors wrought with their evil sins and sacrifice; she doesn't know how long she was out for.

In the background, voices speak in hushed monotones and whispers. She can't make out what they are saying, her mind foggy and unclear. It takes a while for it to make sense.

"You are all right?" Scaly, oddly warm hands flutter over her cheek, her forehead (they feel wet, and given the gentle throbbing of them, they must be bleeding). The medi-gel Thane applies is sticky, and leaves her skin tingly and frozen.

She means to say something, but only a groan escapes her.

"Perhaps we should wait?" Samara's voice pierces the quiet, hints of concern lacing her words.

"No. We must keep moving. We're sitting targets whatever is left of the Collectors and their Seekers." It is not Harbinger that scares her, but the paralysis his minions promise her. She has had her fill of being unable to move when she had Miranda looming over her on an operating table. The fear of that alone is enough to motivate Peyton to action.

Her eyes flutter open, and Thane and Samara hover over her, though they are nothing more than green and red and blue blurs in her vision.

"I've got you, Shepard." Thane murmurs into her ear. He helps ease her into a sitting position.

Peyton grimaces as a sharp stab of pain racks her body—a broken rib moved the wrong way. The beginnings of a migraine assault her temples. The world is still much too bright for her to bear, and her tongue feels thick, clumsy.

"Why?"

"Pardon, Shepard?" Samara breaks in, confused.

"Why?" She says with more force, snapping at the drell and asari. Immediately regretting the harsh recrimination in her voice, Peyton shoots them an apologetic look, though it does nothing, means nothing.

"I don't think we—" Thane's dark eyes blink rapidly, and he steps back.

"You should have just left me," Peyton interrupts, cradling her throbbing head in her hands. "It would have been easier for you two to escape." Could she cope if one of them were to die? Peyton shoves the thought to the back of her mind, unwilling to dwell on it.

"That does not mean it would have been any easier for us to leave you behind." For the first time, she notices the bruises marking Thane's face and the side of Samara's mouth and jaw, and their wounds only make it more difficult for her to look them in the eye. She can't shake the feeling that she has insulted them, somehow.

"You are our commander, our friend, leaving you behind was not an option." Samara gives her a severe look that makes her wither.

These two followed her into hell and back, had seen so many things with her, have become the only people besides Tali and Garrus she dared to trust. Yet Peyton cannot shake the horrible wish that they would have left her back there when that demon reared its ugly head, and threw its mighty arm down like some petulant child. Freely she would give her life for theirs, and she knows she should feel so honoured to know people like Thane and Samara who would do so in return. Guilt replaces whatever was left of her petty anger. She looks away.

"Come; let us not sit around here any longer." Samara speaks more gently, places her hand on Peyton's shoulder.

"We're inviting an ambush enough as it is, we need not make it easier for them." Thane adds, eyes scanning her face. When Peyton stirs, he moves to help, but she quickly declines.

As she climbs to her feet, both watch her, unsure of her balance. Such baseless worry shines in Thane's eyes; it almost makes her feel remorseful. If they are not risking their lives to save hers, then they are worried about what seems to be nothing.

What she has done to earn their unwavering loyalty? She will never know. She knows she will always think herself unworthy. Always.

But she does not tell them this, feeling too exhausted, too drained, to say anything more than a cursory, "Yeah. Let's get out of here."

The corner of Samara's mouth quirks in a half-smile, relief evident on her regal features, and she nods her head slightly. Thane's hand grips hers, and Peyton is convinced she hears him whisper softly, "Siha,"

And she realizes that he didn't save her out of a question of loyalty, but something deeper that she can't return.

Nothing makes her feel worse.