A small something I wrote a few months ago. I thought I'd share it with you.


Forfeit

One:

Admiral Steven Hackett stands with his hands spread over the war room console in front of him. Around him, his crew scurries around, relaying orders, checking statistics and trying desperately to see who's still in communication. Hackett raises his hands once, and sets them down again, softly, emptying his lungs of air. He closes his eyes and lets himself feel, for the first time this whole war, like the old man that he is.

It's been nearly two hours since the Citadel did... whatever it did. The Reapers had simply died, and now floated lifelessly around the planet. One moment there'd been a battle, and the next his cruises had been firing on an unmoving enemy. His first emotion was fierce pride. He'd told Shepard that nothing was happening, and she'd done her best, and pulled through, like usual. He remembers how his face had hurt from his smile, how he was already counting off the medals to pin to her Alliance blues when this was all over. He also remembers how that smile fell off the second he saw the Citadel explode, how pride had turned numb.

The Geth ships went dark, some listing too close to atmo and burning up as they were sucked towards the planet below. There were reports from the outer rim that the mass relay had imploded. That left Hackett with a hell of a lot of alien personnel and no way to get them home. He should be planning, should be in contact with them. It's his job, yet all he feels is heavy, as though someone hooked an anchor around his ankles and dropped him into the ocean, and he dropped down, down, being slowly crushed.

Someone touches his shoulder. He snaps to attention, glancing over to see it's Yamamoto looking unusually grave. She hands him a datapad, and glancing at it he can see it's a preliminary casualty list. He goes through the list, looking at all the ship names, trying to tally how many soldiers would've been on each. He comes to Anderson's name, and he can't help another sigh. The man died as he lived – a hero.

It's that last name that gets him. The one at the very bottom of the list, like Yamamoto didn't want it there but couldn't avoid it.

Commander Shepard.

He tosses the datapad away and runs a hand over his face. Yamamoto's still there, but standing slightly away, giving him some privacy. To her, he says, "I need to make a call. You and Orbison start drafting a contingency plans for the survivors."

"Sir?" she says.

He raises his eyebrows at her, and gives her a tired smile that takes too much effort. "The mass relay is gone, Shizuka. We have half a galaxy's worth of refugees now." He watches her eyes go wide, watches her glance out the small porthole, steel herself, and salute. He nods in answer, and retreats into the comm room.

It takes him a long time to muster up the courage to connect to the SSV Orizaba. He stands in silence, chewing on the nail of his thumb – a nasty habit he thought he'd rid himself of years ago. He waits until he knows he can't wait any longer, punching in the code he's learned by heart these past few months.

When Rear Admiral Hannah Shepard appears, she looks harried. Her officer's jacket is undone and tied around her waist, revealing an Alliance-issue tank top underneath. Her usually perfect hair has come uncoiffed, and she's shoved it back in a slapdash ponytail. There didn't used to be the long streaks of grey there, but – though he'd never admit it – Hackett thinks they suit her.

She stares at him, and offers him a belated salute. "Sir," she says, though her eyes are demanding an answer.

"No," he replies, shaking his head, leaning against the console, unable to meet her gaze. "Not now, Hannah. Not..." And somehow, he can't find the words.

She says, "Steve?" and he can hear that thread of disbelief in her voice, that note of warning, of desperation.

Because he can't think of anything else to say, he says, "She did it."

Hannah has gone very still, but her jaw is working and her eyes are too bright. "Where is she?"

He doesn't say anything, can't say anything, but he looks at her. Nothing more than that. Just looks, and feels like a damn coward for not being able to say the words a second time. His eyes are stinging, and he's trying his best to ignore it, and doing a damn good job until one tear snakes down Hannah's face. He wishes, dimly, that he could wipe it away.

"She did it," repeats Hannah, hollowly. "She always was special."

"Yeah," says Hackett. "She was."

Hannah runs a hand through her hair and wipes away the tear. She stands tall, nodding to herself, not looking at anything. "I have a job to do," she says, at last, voice full of false resolve. Hackett knows, because she always sounds more forceful when she's trying to convince herself. "And so do you."

"You're right." He stands tall, smoothing out the wrinkles in his uniform.

Hannah moves as if to cut off the transmission, but pauses. There's a hitch in her voice when she says, "Did you, finally...?"

And somehow that question, more than anything else, is what breaks him. In his long and – let's be honest – fairly distinguished career, Hackett has prided himself on keeping cool under pressure. On being utterly professional. And maybe that's why, now, at the end, he finally lets the tears roll down his face. He shakes his head silently, and cuts the communication.

He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a photograph. It's old, the edges crumpled, and has begun to dim with age. Even when it was taken, physical photos were rare, but he'd always enjoyed them. He runs one finger over the face of the child. She's maybe two or three, playing on the beach, crouched down as though ready to throw a handful of sand. The surf washes in around her stubby legs, and her face is pulled into a wide smile. He can almost hear her laughter, his little girl.

He wonders if he'll ever be able to live with the fact that he just sent her to her death.