36 hours before launch, Garrus was conspicuously absent.

The drunken goodbye between Vakarian males had ended at the artificial dawn of the fifth day, the atmosphere still laden with unsaid words, so today Shepard left her com blatantly silent. Whatever male secrets they had chosen to exchange now without her were none of her business. She spent her time shaking hands with new crew members, and ordering last minute supplies for the little room that would be her habitat for the next century. Hygienic supplies? Good. Hard copy of the entire works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Check. Dried fruit from Palaven? Got it. Many, many pounds of authentic Earth-grown, vacuum sealed cocoa powder? You'd better believe it.

She got a message from Wrex and Eve. Eve was pregnant. Wrex promised to send her a regiment of his offspring to serve aboard her ship when they were old enough. Her reply was rude. "I'd put in a good word for you with the Council," she'd concluded, "but they're still pretty pissed at me. Plus they'd see your name and know I'm lying. Good luck and try to keep your hellspawn from blowing up my solar system! One Tuchanka's bad enough."

At last she amused herself by looking up the operating name of her vessel in various languages. The Alliiance had, pragmatically, opted to call the station the "Citadel Mark II." In the current atmosphere, naming it after an historical conveyance would have been politically precarious, so she supposed it was for the best. The Salarian name parsed out roughly as "The Great Forward Motion," while the Turian phrase translated, somewhat anticlimactically, as "Star Skipper." She liked the Krogan version the best. "Tunnel's End." Or perhaps the Quarian. "Bridge-Builder." In all languages she was Shepard, even if the plosives in her family name didn't transfer well to lipless races.

She thought she was ready when Miranda finally confronted her.

"I'm not on the passenger manifest list," said Miranda levelly. Her two eyes, unblinking, bored into Shepard's good one. It made Shepard feel her new physical disadvantages acutely.

"You aren't on my crew," she replied, her own body seemingly cool and assertive. She braced for argument, a torrent of logic, anger.

"Yes, I am," said Lawson calmly. She offered nothing else. It was distinctly unsettling.

I didn't put you on the list for a reason, thought Shepard. You have family and a future here, thought Shepard. I won't steal your potential as a leader and a visionary from you, thought Shepard. I'm not a selfish coward, thought Shepard.

"No you aren't," she blurted lamely, and immediately resisted the urge to smack herself in the face.

"Yes, I am," said Lawson. If they had been a pair of six year olds, this would have been the pinnacle of debate tactics. They were getting nowhere.

Shepard paused. "Miranda," she said. "You're needed where you are," she said, then paused.

"Why are you doing this?" Miranda asked casually, examining her nails.

"You're brilliant," said Shepard. "You have medical and organizational expertise that no one else has," she said.

"And...?" Miranda shrugged.

"What about Oriana?" said Shepard. "She's the only true family you've ever had. You have a chance to be with her now." She managed to raise her one green-grey eye to Miranda's blue.

"I don't know her," said Miranda, smooth as glass. "I'm coming with you."

"Stop it," Shepard hissed angrily. "I won't let you throw the rest of your future away. You're staying. I'm going. That's all there is to it." She took a deep breath, and in a moment of distinct weakness, closed her eyes to the face in front of her. One second. Two seconds. Four more seconds and she'd get it together. Three more. Two more… and she'd say goodbye.

When she opened her eyes Lawson was kneeling, hands on Shepard's knees, tears running down her pore-less face like rain on a bulletproof window. Shepard froze, shocked.

"You are my family," Miranda choked out between gasps. "You are my my mother, my father, my sister. I… I'm begging you, Shepard. Don't leave me now! Take me with you. Wherever you're going." Ashamed, Miranda dropped her perfect head into Shepard's lap and sobbed. "Don't leave me behind again," came her voice, muffled in Shepard's uniformed thighs.

Jane smoothed back dark curls with her awkward, altered fingers. "Okay," she said. Miranda's hair spilled over her khaki knees like shining silt on sand. "You can come," Shepard said. She thought of everyone and everything she was leaving behind, and her heart contracted painfully. "I wanted you to come," she admitted.

They stayed there for a long moment, parent and child, for the first and last time until her death.

A day and a half later, the universe held its breath.

A deep blue glow was building at the tips of the Citadel Mark II's wings.

"One," said Garrus in the cockpit, his arm around Shepard's shoulders.

"Two," said Ambassador Tali Z'orah vas Normandy from her berth on the Salarian ship.

Three, said the people of Earth, Tuchanka, Palaven, Thessia...

"Four," Jack whispered against Kaidan's chest.

"Five," said Dr. Liara T'Soni, her smile aching.

They blazed into the black, the hopes of the multitude trailing like electrons in their wake.


*Thank you all again, from the bottom of my heart.*