He laughed. He had failed. The Reapers were still out there, they were still coming. He hadn't stopped them. He hadn't saved the galaxy. And surprisingly, he didn't mind. It was finally over. All the anxiety, all the pain, all the loss… it was all finally over.

He sighed. He was so tired. He tried to forget it all, but he just couldn't lie anymore. He was exhausted. He was so tired. Tired of the fighting, tired of the hard choices plaguing his life, tired of the death… his life was a parade of death and lost. First his parents to a mindless slave run on Mindoir. Then his entire unit on Akuze. He had fought past all that, but he couldn't do it anymore. He had finally found the reason, the reason for his entire life. The smile, the bad jokes, the sappy yet wonderful poetry; he had been happy. There was more to life than duty, then revenge and anger. There was her.

He was actually going to have it all: the job, the friends, the duty, and the girl. His life was complete for one brief, shining moment. But he chose duty. She was gone, ash in the winds of that pitiful little planet. Just one more death in his life, his empty life. And now it was over. He gazed in numb acceptance at the flaming wreckage. He failed and he was going to die. He could only smile as the numbing cold suddenly vanished in a flash of pain only to be replaced with a scorching heat that burnt his final thoughts from his mind. It was finally over.

Shepard was nearly blinded by the brilliance of the harsh white light. All he could see for the first few moments was the intense glare right in front of him. Harsh and unexpected, the light hurt and tears moistened his eyes. Slowly, the glare dimmed, though the white light was still too bright and caused him to squint. Suddenly, a shadow darkened the glare and the contours of a soft face and wide anxious eyes swam into view. His confused mind exploded with wonder and unfettered joy. He smiled. She was there, waiting. They were going to be together.

The beautiful face glided into view again, her soft blurred features glowing in the radiant halo of light. Her lips pressed into a tight, worried pout and her eyes shone with restrained panic. She looked scared. She looked stunning. She was still so beautiful. He smiled once more and tried to lift his arm, to reach out and caress her cheek.

His breath stuck in his throat as fire burned up his arm. His eyes widened in confused shock at the sudden and furious burst of agony. He was dead. Nothing was supposed to hurt anymore. Dim voices rumbled at the edge of his struggling awareness; jumbled words laced with hurried tension. He tried to speak, to call out to the voices but his throat constricted in mute scream of intense pain. He tried to sit up, to move, to do anything but his body only tightened and shook with mind numbing spasms of agony. His bones felt like they were shattering, pieces tearing through his burning muscles and his skin melting, sloughing from his body in pools of liquid fire. His entire being was smothered in maddening and confusing pain. He was dead, this wasn't possible.

Insistent hands pressed into his chest, gently pushing and holding him down. The voices danced at the edge of his awareness again, but he still couldn't understand the muted rumblings. Finally, a cool rush flowed through his body and the pain faded just a bit. Still, he wanted to reach out. He needed to touch her, to prove that she was real. Her flowing hair and worried face teased him. He needed to feel her again. He tried to reach out, but another faint cool rush flowed through his body. The pain dimmed as his muscles grew heavy with numbness and the harsh light slowly dimmed. Still, Shepard desperately tried to lift his arm one last time. He wanted to grab on, pull her close, and never let go.

But his arm refused to move. He screamed silently to himself as darkness smothered him and his consciousness started to drift away. But, with one last gasp of desperation, he managed to whisper once just before the darkness consumed him.

"Ash."