WARNING! CONTAINS MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED THE GAME!


The stars were out.

She could see them clearly now, glittering spots of light against the dark Earth sky.

At first she thought she was alone. That the whole world had gone silent. That they had lost. She thought that she had been left behind, the only one alive in a dying world.

Then she noticed the shadows moving in the periphery; Further down the battlefield, shapes of black and gray, appearing and disappearing in the corner of her eye.

All sound had gone muffled. She could hear shots, but they seemed distant. She could hear voices, but their words were drowned out by the roaring when the Reaper fired.

It took all her efforts just to breathe.

Rays of light travelled over the battlefield. She could not see them hit, but when they struck their target the world flashed red and white, and the shadows scattered to stay down or regroup.

She had never felt so heavy. Weights on her legs and shoulders kept her from moving, but even if they hadn't been there...even without them, she wouldn't have been able to stand. Just breathing was hard enough. Every inhalation became a rustling, choking sound. Every exhalation became a shudder.

It had grown cold, she realized. Almost freezing. Had it been like that all along? She had been warm when they charged towards the beam. Her pulse had been high, she had been sweating from the heat and the exhaustion, but now she was shivering and out of breath.

She felt like she had been running, she thought, but no, that was not it.

She felt like she was dying.

Another burst of light threw some of the shades around her to the ground.

She had been on the Citadel, but the space station had been unlike she had ever seen it. She had walked through a corridor of corpses. She had sat next to Anderson as he died. She had sat beside him and watched Earth, and she had known that there had been something wrong. She'd had the nagging feeling that something was not the way it should be, something was not been quite real, something was... off…but she hadn't been able to tell what.

She had made a choice. Standing at the crossroads of three different paths, she had hesitated. But chosen.

When she had, the kid had faded away.

The thought made her smile.

Something had gone right. And something was going right. From where she lay she could see the Reaper falling apart, just like Sovereign had. The enormous, black machine was breaking up, pieces scattering on the ground below it.

She drew another unsteady breath.

There were no clouds. The moon was visible, perfectly clear and almost full. The entire night sky stretched out above her.

The night was beautifully still, despite the far-away sounds and the battle. The air was cold but clear. It smelled of smoke and fire, but it tasted clean.

The faint humming she had been hearing had faded away. Her mind was silent.

She knew she was injured, but not like she had been in the dream, not like when she had sat beside

Anderson. She knew she might be dying, but it would be a different kind of death. A far better one.

"We", the kid from her dream had said. When he was talking about the Reapers. "We", and then he had talked about control.

About merging. About alternative ways, about new solutions.

She had known, though. She had seen Saren- there was no merging with the Reapers, no bargaining with them. She had known that all along. She had seen the Illusive Man- there was no controlling them that did not end up with them controlling you.

She had set out to destroy them. Ever since Eden Prime, that had been her mission. That had always been the only option. She vaguely remembered telling somebody that. That the Reapers were more advanced. They were more powerful. They'd never fear humanity, never take pity on it. When had she said that? Who had she said that to?

She had known from the beginning there would be no middle ground.

And still it had been hard to remember, when she had been standing there. She had almost not been able to recall what they fought for. She had been so close...It would have been so easy to keep walking, straight ahead. For a moment it had seemed like the best choice, the only choice. For a moment she had been certain...Until she remembered that "We".

That was all that had been needed for her to draw her gun.

At some point, then, the arms of the Citadel must have opened- and the Crucible fired.

And she had opened her eyes to this scene of destruction, with the whole galaxy hanging over her head, the entire world around her, and these shadows moving, almost dancing, in the flashes of light.

She knew then that they had won. That they would win.

She knew something had gone right.

We're destroying the fucking bastards, she thought, and her smile grew wider.

She let her head fall back.

It was beautiful, she thought again. The night sky with the thousands of ships, the thousands of lights, and the thousands of planets and stars, all above her. And the Reapers, being blown to pieces.

She would have laughed if she had only been able to catch enough breath.

For the first time since Eden Prime, she let go of everything related to the war. There was nothing more she could do, now. When she lay flat on her back she couldn't even see the battlefield any more.

They'd handle this without her. For once, she could just lay back and rest. She needed to- she was so excruciatingly tired. She could barely keep her eyes open.

And while she rested, somebody else would finish the war for her. Nothing more was asked of her now. Nobody was calling for her. Not Anderson, not Hackett, not Cortez, not Joker. Her radio had gone silent.

There was nothing more she could do, even if they had ordered her to.

###

She could have lain there for hours. It was hard to tell. She had no strength to cry for help. She could not do anything at all. After a while, the lights shifted. From red and white flashes of laser they became small, white circles, moving across the sky and the ground. At first she didn't understand where these circles came from- then she realized they were flashlights. Alliance soldiers were searching for the dead and the wounded.

That was how she knew the fight was truly over.

She was shaking from the cold, by then.

Every time she tried to move, a stabbing pain shot through her side. But when she lay still she didn't hurt at all. When she didn't try to get up or try to turn around it felt like she was about to go to sleep. She could have stayed there forever. Despite the trembling she was oddly comfortable. And perfectly calm.

She could feel something wet running from the wound, trickling between her skin and her armor, smearing against her back.

I'm bleeding, she thought, but somehow she didn't care.

She was still watching the sky and the stars when somebody bent over her, blocked them out. In the dark, he was only contours. The contours of a pair of shoulders, a pair of arms. The contours of an armor, and of a familiar face.

"Shepard?" The contours of his lips, moving.

Kaidan? She thought, she knew. She recognized the voice, but not the tone of it, not the shiver in it.

When he bent forward she could see him more clearly. Up close, his face was almost ghostly pale. He looked…different. It wasn't just the frown. He didn't usually have all those lines on his face. He didn't usually look so…tense. His eyes didn't usually look like that, didn't usually look at her that way. "Christ, Shepard…"

"Kaidan…" She tried to whisper, but the name barely became more than a movement of her lips, and the word turned into a breathless cough.

She felt his hand- was that shaking too? She couldn't tell- brush her cheek, and his lips kiss her forehead.

"Shepard, I'm getting you out, ok?" She could feel his breath on her face when he whispered, his lips almost next to hers. "I'm getting you out. Stay calm." A hand stroked her hair.

She would have answered, but the word she tried to pronounce only came out a strained gasp for air.

"Just lie still." He drew away. "I'll help you." She saw him turn around.

Don't…She had time to think. Don't leave…Then a weight lifted off her legs. Off her body. And another one.

And then she was free.

His eyes swept over her armor. Over her legs and her hands and her chest- and at the place where the pain came from, they suddenly stopped. For a second, all his movements halted. "Shepard…" It sounded like all air went out of him. She saw him bend to examine the wound, and when he lifted his hands again, they were covered in blood. In the dark it looked more black than red. "Shepard…you're…"

"I'm..." It was more a wheeze than words. "I'm dying..."

"Don't say that." One arm slid under her back, raised her up. The pain when it did made her wince.

She wanted to tell him to put her down again- she had been comfortable. She could have stayed there. She didn't have to go anywhere. It doesn't hurt when I'm lying down, she wanted to tell him, but those were too many words.

He seemed to ignore the wince. "Don't ever say that." He continued. His other arm lifted her under her knees, and for a moment she was flying. "I'm getting you to a doctor. You'll be all right."

The shades around them seemed even further away than before. The noises had blurred; they were one single noise, now.

She had never been so tired.

She had never been so calm.

Before her eyes the world flickered. The sky was turning gray, from small spots to large blotches, drowning out the stars. Drowning out the lights.

She could feel more blood seeping out from the wound.

She heard Kaidan's voice, but could not make out the words. She didn't have anything to say. Instead, she leaned her head against his arm, too tired to keep it up, too tired to do anything but breathe. She knew she was safe.

And then again, the same voice, the same sound, stronger, more urgent, but nothing she could comprehend. Nothing she could be bothered with, nothing that could disturb her.

She knew she had done everything she could, and this was just where she wanted to be. With him, right next to his heart. In his arms.

Then the voice again, repeating itself, louder than before: "Shepard? Shepard, can you hear me?"

She thought she heard panic in it. Fear? It seemed strange. How could he be afraid, when the world was so still?

How could he be afraid when they had won?

She tried to draw another breath, only to find it didn't come.

"Shepard! Stay with me!" She felt him pick up the speed.

But that she couldn't even answer.

"Stay with me!" She heard him say again, as she slowly drifted away.

The last thing she heard was this one horrible, suffocating sound. She wondered who it came from.

That's the sound of someone dying, she thought.

And then the world went black.

###

She woke up to fluorescent lights.

She awoke to white walls, to bandaged wounds, to tubes connecting her to monitoring devices.

She awoke to a medical ward full of injured people.

She awoke to a world that was entirely different from the one she had left.

She awoke to an endless amount of painkillers and people asking for her time.

And most importantly, she awoke to Kaidan, clinging to her hand, watching her with bags under his eyes.

The first couple of days she slept through. He wasn't there all the time, but often enough. He would come by to check on how she was doing. He would come by with something to read, with something to keep her busy, but she was happy just to have him there. She was happy just to hear his voice, drowning out all the thoughts and memories that crept up on her when she was left alone. Even when she slept, she slept better if he was at her bedside when she closed her eyes.

Sleep was still uneasy. She would wake up in the middle of the night, alone in the hospital room, with the machines ticking away by her side. In some dreams she still walked on the Citadel, but this time she knew the choice was coming, and this time she was able to spot all the inconsistencies she had missed the first time. All those little signs that should have made her realize it was all a dream.

She hadn't thought she could be indoctrinated. Or that she would be. But maybe she had been. It could have happened at any time along the way. It could have started with the dead Reaper. Or the Reaper IFF. It could have started with Object Rho. Or with the invasion. She could not point out a moment when she had felt that her mind had fallen under control of somebody else. She could not even point out what decisions had been hers, and which ones had been influenced by somebody else. She just knew that on the Citadel, in the dream it had all seemed logical. It had all seemed real, up until the last decision.

It was not until afterward she found the flaws in that dream.

She still had difficulties piecing together what had happened during that last night of the battle. When and how the Crucible had opened. When and how it had fired. And what was real and what was not. Kaidan had told her that the last thing he had seen of her, before finding her in the rubble, had been the lasers that hit right next to her in an explosion of light. That it had been impossible to find anybody then, among the corpses, among the collapsing buildings, among the flying debris. He had described a battlefield she did not remember, a battlescene that only partly corresponded to what she could recall. And all he could tell her was that some time after that, the Crucible had gone off, and the Reapers had come down. He had described searching for her, without finding her. Turning over corpses, looking for her.

And he told her that when he had found her and seen her injuries, he had thought it was too late.

He told her the city outside of the base was a disaster area. He told her there were many wounded, many dead. He told her that the Alliance soldiers were working all hours of the day to clear the city.

Sometimes during the sleepless nights she would get out of the hospital bed, and limp over to the windows. She would lean against the wall and watch the remainders of the base and the movement on the other side of the glass. Where everybody seemed to be going somewhere, everybody seemed busy, despite it being after midnight. She would stand there for as long as she could manage, knowing she should be out there, helping. That it was her duty. That it was her job. Knowing she wanted to see this through. Knowing that she did not want to see the aftermaths of this war from a hospital bed.

Walking was hard, but she could do it. The limp would disappear when the pain did. She was told she would make a full recovery. They said she was healing surprisingly fast. That she had been lucky. Apparently her implants helped her recover quickly. Apparently, they had helped her stay alive.

Some days later she could stay up for more than a couple of hours without feeling like the effort would make her faint. After a few more days and a lot more pain medication, she stepped outside of the hospital for a brief moment, inhaling the London air. Looking up to a sky where the sunshine was only broken by clouds. Nothing else. It was a strange sight- there were no ships. No vehicles at all. And no Reapers.

It's over, she thought, but she wasn't certain she believed it.

She found that a part of her was waiting for them to come back. More than that, expecting them to. That a part of her was still preparing.

"What if they come back?" She asked Kaidan on one of her more restless days. "What if they come back, I'm stuck here, and no one is prepared?" She had been in her bed at the hospital, piled up with a bunch of pillows behind her back.

"They won't." Kaidan had told her, sitting on a chair by her side, his elbows resting on the mattress.

"No, but what if?" She had insisted, feeling like every single minute she spent there was wasted. Knowing she should have been on the Normandy. Knowing that she was needed just as much now as ever before, and that she should still be out there, gathering alliances, collecting armies.

"They won't." He had shrugged.

"But…"

"Shepard." He had taken her hand. And his eyes had met hers- calm and soft. "Listen to me, Shepard. They won't."

And that was when she started to believe it.

After a couple of more days she walked with him on the base perimeter. Beyond the edge of the asphalt, the grass had grown tall.

And after a few days more, she decided she had had enough of the hospital to last her a lifetime. She convinced Kaidan to help her out of the Alliance base, into the streets of London. She told him she wanted to. She told him she needed to.

She wanted to see for herself what- if anything- had been won.

###

He followed her out there, one evening. They walked side by side through the empty city.

It was almost night when they went out; it had grown darker, but it was surprisingly warm. A light breeze stirred the litter on the street; the flyers and the papers and the garbage.

She could walk without limping, now. And without having to stop to rest too often. She only occasionally had to pause to lean on him and catch her breath.

She was still tired, but she was happy to just be up and moving. She was happy to be with him.

They stepped past the crushed stone and concrete. Over the puddles of water and dirt and around the fallen electrical wires.

The sound of their footsteps echoed between the buildings.

Some om the lampposts they passed still shone on the pavement; electricity had not gone out in all parts of the city.

Ahead of them, the road passed the waterside, leading up to one of the city's many bridges.

"We're not done." She said. It was obvious, seeing the state of the city, but she said it anyway.

There were voices, far away, drifting out over the city from the base. Apart from that, the evening was quiet. "It will take decades just to restore London. More than that to restore Earth. Not to mention the galaxy. The Alliance will need us." She was prepared to give him a long speech about why she could not just remain on Earth. Why she could not just stay on the base. But in the corner of her eye, she saw him nod.

"And you can't just leave the Normandy in somebody else's hands." He agreed. "I understand, Shepard. Whatever you need to do, do it. But I'm coming with you."

"I want you to come with me. And I want you to stay with me. Always." She stopped right before the edge of the river." Ahead of them, the water that divided London lay perfectly still. There was not a single ripple on its surface "It may not be a…a conventional life, Kaidan. I'm not sure I could just settle down in a colony or on Earth. I'm not sure I'm cut out for that. I'm not sure what the future will be like. I just…I want it to be with you."

"That's what I want too, Shepard." He answered, softly.

They stood there, side by side, watching the river and the city on the other side.

"Did you really think we would make it? That we would live to see the end of this war?" He asked.

The wind picked up slightly, then, sent shivers across the water.

"Mmm…I hoped. But there never was much hope. You?"

"I was never afraid of losing the war." He turned to her. "I was never certain this war could be won to begin with, you know. But I was never afraid of losing it. What I was afraid of…" He paused. "You're everything to me, Shepard. When you died I thought I would never see you again. That I'd never speak to you and never hold you again." He lifted his hand to lightly stroke her cheek. "When they attacked Earth, I thought there was no way we both could survive this. That last night on the battlefield, heading out…I was so certain it was goodbye." His fingers lingered on her chin, his eyes on her face. "But now…" He shook his head slowly, almost in disbelief. "…now here you are. Alive."

"Here I am." She agreed. Her mouth felt strangely dry.

"When we ran towards the beam…and afterwards…I didn't fear failing to stop the Reapers. I feared losing you again."

"If we had failed to stop the Reapers you would have lost me again." She tried, hoping for a smile, trying to break his seriousness, but it wasn't funny. Not the least.

He didn't smile. His voice was soft, but his eyes were still worried. "I don't know what I would have done. I couldn't go through that again. I don't know what I would do without you."

"Well…"She lifted her hand to touch the lines of his face. With her fingertops she traced them, trying to flatten them out, one at a time. One by one by one. There were so many of them when he grew serious. So many he just didn't need. "Well, Kaidan." Her voice trembled slightly. "I told you I'd be waiting for you when it was all over."

"You did." She could see a little smile break through, then. "I just figured it would be in your bunk, or mine. Not under a pile of rubble I'd have to dig you out of."

"Mmm…but I'm glad you showed up anyway." She took a step closer, stepped into his arms, let him wrap them around her and rested her chin against his shoulder.

The sun was setting over London. Over the bridges and the highways and towers. The sky had grown purple with red streaks settling in the horizon.

All around them, there were collapsed houses. Seared walls and water leaks and big cracks in the asphalt. On the other side of the river the city stretched out with crumbled skyscrapers and homes for as far as the eye could see.

"Look at this, Kaidan." She whispered into his skin. "We stopped them, sure, but…" Around them were ruined buildings, collapsed roofs, heaps of broken glass and splintered wood. Parts of the city glittering with light streaming from the lampposts, from rooms behind the broken windows. Other parts dark and abandoned. "…look at this." At the lists of the dead, at the homes that would never be rebuilt, at the families that would never be reunited, at everything that was broken and torn and destroyed. "Is this what we fought for?"

He drew her even closer, held her so tight she thought she would disappear completely into his arms.

"No. We fought for those left standing." He answered, meeting her forehead with his, one hand pushing a strand of hair from her face, a slight smile on his lips. "We fought for those who live." She felt the stubble of his beard against her face when he leaned in to kiss her "This is what we fought for."