They were silent a long while, just watching Earth and the battlefield before them. Anderson's breath rasped in his lungs. Shepard could feel a hot squelch in her stomach, an eerie echo of her heartbeat, with every circuit of her blood. It should have hurt. Everything should have hurt- the bruises, the cuts, the burns that left her hard suit blackened and charred to her flesh- and she wondered if that part of her brain had closed its doors in the face of overstimulation, or if her nerve endings were simply gone.
Anderson cleared his throat, wetly. "You know, I never had a family. Children."
"Plenty of time for that yet, sir." Even to her own ears, her voice sounded like it was coming a long way off. She coughed. Blood speckled the floor.
A chuckle, ending in an audible wince. "I think that's a chance that's come and gone, Shepard." He turned his head a bit, propping his body against the platform. "What about you? You ever think of settling down?"
Two memories, in rapid succession. She was shocked to find she could still cry. There was little shame in it, and little passion. Just twin tracks of water navigating the fresh cuts and cybernetic scarring until they found her neck, disappearing into the remnants of her suit. With a hopeless little laugh, she said, "You know, I told Kaidan I wanted to retire."
"Yeah. We were going to buy a nice little ship." She twisted her head and met his eyes, beyond good soldier bravado or concealment, without even the strength for a sob. "I'm just so goddamn tired."
He closed his hand around hers. "Tell me about it."
"We've spent our lives crossing the galaxy, and we've dwelled so long on the parts that are torn apart, bleeding. We thought maybe it was time to see the rest. Figure out what we've been fighting for this whole time." Another cough, stickier. "We never really had a chance to…just be together."
"I know." There was more empathy in his craggy face than she ever expected to see, and she knew at that moment he was thinking of Sanders. "I'm happy for you."
Shepard half-smiled, despite herself. "What, you're not going to bust my ass for breaking regs?"
Anderson wheezed a laugh. "Maybe sometimes regs are meant to be broken. Or maybe I'm just getting soft in my age."
"Settling down… I don't know. Hell, my body was a wreck even before all this. I don't know if… Doubt I'd be any good at it anyway."
"Sure you'd be." He squeezed her hand. "Just think how proud your kid would be to have Commander Shepard for a mother."
"I don't know. Not everything I've done is something to be proud of." She hesitated. Hell with it. They were sitting at the end of the world. "Between you, me, and the sky, sir? I'd sure have liked the chance to find out."
"You'll get it. We're not done yet."
She let the pleasant lie slide. Her suit was getting slick around the side, blood pooling between the shell and the skin. Her hand pressed harder against the wound with ingrained futility. Anderson's head was drooping now. She could barely make out his half-lidded eyes beneath the baseball cap.
"You did good, kid. You did real good," he whispered. "I'm proud of you."
She swallowed. "Thank you, sir."
His head fell another inch forward, and his hand went slack on hers. "Anderson? Stay with me…"
Shepard sat up a bit, as much as she could manage. "Anderson?"
There was no response. Dammit. She looked down at her other hand, tacky with blood, and slid down the platform. There wasn't even enough energy to wonder if they'd find her before she bled out. Her medigel dispensers were fried.
Black crowded the edges of her vision. The bone-weariness of her body welcomed it, even as her mind tried to sound a critical alarm, swiftly overruled.
Then the com crackled to life. "Shepard, are you there?"
Something too deep inside her to turn off snapped to attention. Her old sergeant back in basic would be proud. Shepard struggled, and failed, to find her feet. "I'm- wha- what do you need?"
Hackett continued impatiently. "There's something wrong. The crucible isn't firing. It has to be on your end. Can you see the problem?"
"I- uhg-" Shepard fell forward, and began hauling herself across the floor towards the console with one arm. Blood smeared the white floor behind her. "I can't-"
She flailed for the hepatic keys, her reach not quite enough, and a part of her laughed, hysterical. For the first time in forever, I'm actually too short.
"Shepard, do you read?"
She groaned, tried to push herself higher. "I don't know how-"
"The engineers are saying there's a final connection that needs to be made. The center needs to seal to the Crucible."
"I can't see-" Her hand managed to pass through the console. Nothing happened. Shepard collapsed, at the end of all strength. "I'm sorry."
She was back in the forest. No weapons this time, the lack of their weight unfamiliar on her back, and her armor was stiff, unresponsive, hard to move. Shepard stumbled forward a few steps. Laughter, childlike, echoed through the trees, but it was too late. She couldn't make out the boy.
Another step. A root lashed out of the ground and she fell to her knees with an unspeakable tide of shame and grief. "I'm so sorry-"
Then a hand clad in white armor appeared in front of her face. "Get up, soldier."
She looked up into Ash's brown eyes with a sense of disbelief. Ash wasn't smiling. "I said get up. I didn't give my life for you to fail us all now."
Shepard allowed Chief Williams to haul her to her feet. Ash fussed a bit, brushing dirt and a stray leaf off the ruined hard suit. "Am I dead?"
"Were you dead before?" Ash raised an eyebrow. "Do not stand at my grave and weep / I am not there. I do not sleep."
"I always liked that one. Maybe they can write it on Earth." She sighed. "I'm dying, Ash. I can't even lift my own head."
"Yes, you can."
"I can't." All her grief and exhaustion and rage were channeled into that one syllable. It rocketed through the wood like a gunshot. "It's too much."
"Don't tell me that." Ash glared at her with crossed arms. "You're Commander fucking Shepard. Your destiny is to do what no one else could. You're going to tell me fate is an illusion. You're going to tell me, even, that this was always too big a thing to do for the right reasons, that you were just trying to get from one crisis to the next and spare the people around you."
"The people around you are dying, Shepard. Garrus and Javik are probably already dead. Anderson is dead. Miranda, Zaeed, Mordin, Legion- they're all dead. Jacob told you the truth. The Normandy is your family, and what's left of it is dying, on Earth, giving their lives to buy you time. Tali will never build her house. All that will remain of Liara is her box, waiting quietly among the stars. Wrex will never hold his firstborn. James-"
"They made their choices," Shepard cut in, harshly. "They bet on the wrong woman. I'm sorry for that but it's not my fault."
"Shepard- Kaidan is dying." Ash stepped forward, cupping her face in both her hands, searchingly. "Do you think I don't know why you turned back for him, on Virmire? It was the right choice. Not because he was the superior officer, not because his expertise was irreplaceable, but because you needed him, to get you through this mess, and you were always the only one with a snowball's chance in hell of pulling this off. You had the vision. You had the cipher. Maybe it could've been someone else, but the galaxy placed all its bets on you, back on Eden Prime. You didn't ask for it, but life isn't about fair. People get what they get. It took someone with even more cause to be angry with the universe to teach you that and you never listened."
Shepard tried to turn away. Ash yanked her gaze back, ruthlessly. "Look at me."
And Shepard looked, down into the depths of her eyes, where she saw the nuclear apocalypse of Virmire, the first gasp of light as she came back into being in Miranda's lab, the death moans of the human reaper, the flames engulfing Earth. One by one, Ash showed her the future. She couldn't turn away. She saw their deaths as she'd seen their lives, aboard her ship, under her command. Her protection.
At the end of it, Ash released her, and quoted from the end of the poem. "Do not stand at my grave and cry."
Ash was giving her a quizzical stare. Shepard licked her lips, and found her voice. "I am not there."
I do not die.
She picked her head up off the floor. Hackett was screaming frantically through the com, trying to raise her. With almost unimaginable will and slowness, she got one of her knees under her body, and levered herself to squatting height. It was just enough to see the interface.
The problem was obvious. So simple a child could have pieced it together. She hit the toggles and extended the bridge.
Immediately, the whole Citadel thrummed with energy. She could feel it coiling around her, flooding her cybernetics, tracing her nerves real and artificial with incandescent fire. I guess they're still here after all.
Then there was a moment of stillness. The whole universe held its breath.
The torrent unleashed sent the Citadel into a recoil that knocked Shepard to the floor and threatened to cast her off the platform altogether. Her body caught against Anderson's. There was shouting over the com. Then, only merciful blackness.