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the blush in the sky begins to fade

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Faster. Harder. There is no margin for error. Good men and women scream around her as they are mowed down, one after another after another, flailing, flaming—futile. Shepard shuts them out and charges ahead. Just get to the Citadel, fire the Crucible, and save the galaxy, that’s all she has to do; this isn’t the first time she’s had to ignore dying comrades for the sake of the mission, after all.

The Reaper Dreadnought lumbers closer, screeching as it fires a beam so close she has to use her biotics to push herself to cover quickly enough. Through her comm, Tali shouts, “Right behind you, Shep—“

The explosion reverberates both in front of her and through her comm, and she’s turning and running back before’s she’s even fully aware of it. Put the mission first, says the Spectre in her head, but her body urges her backwards, and the woman she used to be, the Estela Shepard that still laughed and loved and lived, cries, no, I have to keep them alive; I cannot bear to lose what’s left of my heart.

She slides behind the overturned Mako and throws up a barrier just as another tank explodes in front of them, her biotics pushing back at the Mako as it threatens to rock over onto them, teeth gritted in strain. A singularity explodes to her left, and the tank groans back onto its side. Shepard drops her barrier, moving immediately to Tali and Liara’s sides, and Liara’s biotics fizzle out as her arm and head both drop, the scent of eezo heavy in the air. “Status?”

“We’re fine,” says Tali, and Shepard bites, “Bullshit.” They’ve both been badly burned, their armour melted and still smoldering in many places. Tali’s steadying hand on Liara’s shoulder drips both red and purple, and Liara herself is barely even conscious—there’s a deep gash from her forehead to her crest, and a faint wheezing quality to her breaths; her injuries and that last singularity must’ve drained her dry, because it looks like it takes all her energy just to keep her eyes intermittently open. They’re not fine. Shepard calls for an evac even as Tali grabs her arm in protest.

“We can do this,” she insists, but her faceplate has a spider-web crack, and she’s visibly favouring her left leg.

The Commander’s voice is steely firm. “No. You have multiple suit ruptures, and Liara has a punctured lung; if either of you spend any longer down here, you’ll die.”

“The medigel—“

“Can’t fix infections or reset bones.”

“Landing in twenty seconds, Commander, just hang on!” Joker crackles over the comm, and Tali tightens her grip desperately.

“Shepard, please. Even if Liara can’t go, take me. You don’t have to go in there alone!”

“I said no!” A banshee shrieks two meters in front of them, and Tali tries to turn to shoot it, but her right leg gives out and she crumples to the ground with a cry. Shepard’s vision flashes red; with a vicious scream and burst of biotic energy, she yanks it towards her and shoots its head off in the same motion, black blood splashing over her. She crouches over next to Tali—who is spitting curses with shaking hands—suddenly feeling old, grateful, and so, so tired. Gently, tenderly, she cradles a hand behind the quarian’s neck, touching their helmets together, forehead to forehead. Tali freezes. Somewhere to the right, a turian screeches his last breath, but it feels distant, removed. A stillness settles over them.

It feels almost like peace.

“My brother would be your age, if he were still alive,” she says, quiet, and tender, despite the whirlwind of war. “I’ve seen too many people lose their futures for nothing; I’m not going to let that happen to you.”

A powerful gust of heated wind rushes in behind them, complete with the Normandy’s telltale whirring. Over the comm, Joker yells, “We’re taking heavy losses, Commander! I can only hold position for a minute, max!” To their left, Liara stirs, and tries to stand, but Shepard holds Tali’s panicked gaze to hers just a moment longer.

“You mean more to me than I can ever express, Tali, and you are going to live.” She squeezes Tali’s slippery forearm, then pulls her up. Louder now, she commands, “Get under Liara’s right; we need to get her on the ship!” Tali stands stunned for just a moment more, before saying, “Got it!” and snapping into motion. Her helmet obscures her face, but the strength in her voice despite the slight hitch in her breath tells Shepard everything, and a weight lifts from her chest. Tali will live.

With some use of her biotics to keep them all semi-upright, she and Tali manage to haul Liara into the ship, but when she passes most of the asari’s weight to Tali, Liara clutches onto Shepard’s hand. “Shepard,” she gasps, clearly struggling with every breath.

“You’ve got to get out of here, Liara. Don’t argue with me,” she hisses as Liara starts to protest. “Tali, get her to Chakwas immediately!”

“No!” cries Liara, clutching onto her hand tighter even as Tali tries to steer her away. “You’re not leaving me behind!”

Something in Estela breaks, then; she has to swallow down the pressure in the throat as she takes a step towards Liara, and touches their foreheads together. She wishes she didn’t have her helmet on so she could feel Liara’s warmth, even if it would be sticky with drying blood. She wishes they had more time to explore the almost-not-quite that was their fragile relationship. In this moment, Shepard wishes for a lot of things, but all she does is cradle Liara’s cheek gently, smudging a rivulet of blood with her thumb.

“Thank you,” she says, voice trembling. No matter how hard she tries to stay alive—and she will try, alright; she’ll hang onto life by the fingernails if she has to—a large part of her has been resigned to a deadly fate ever since that last tactical meeting for the siege of Earth, and she’s come to peace with that. Now all that’s left is to help Liara do the same. So she takes a deep breath, and smiles.

“I love you.” It’s the first time Shepard’s said those words in almost seventeen years, and her heart mends and shatters at the same time because she knows it’ll be her last. She slips away as Liara’s hand goes slack with shock, eyes wide with hope and happiness and heartbreak all at once.

“Shepard, I…” Tears slip from the corners of Liara’s eyes, hand outstretched as Shepard backs just out of reach. “I am yours,” she whispers. An explosion nearby snaps Shepard’s attention back to the battlefield; she wraps this newfound warmth in her chest up tight, and hardens her gaze. There’s no going back anymore.

“Go!” she yells, jumping off the ramp and pushing Liara and Tali back with a little biotic pulse to drive the point home. “Get out of here ASAP, Joker!”

“Be careful!” Tali shouts for both her and Liara. Shepard looks up at the closing ramp, the Normandy already rising off the ground, and, smirking, gives a little mock salute.

“Stay safe, soldiers,” she says over the comm, and then she takes off at a sprint towards the beam. Shepard tracks the Normandy through the firelit sky until it’s well out of sight, and a Reaper’s laser consumes her, instead, but she pushes herself up, screams until she’s on her feet, and, bloodied and broken, limps her way to the beam.

They will live, today—they all will—and as the beam lifts her away and steals the breath from her lungs, all she knows is that she will make fucking sure that they’ll continue living for years and years afterwards, too. The Crucible tells her to pick, and she only thinks for a second before she’s dragging herself forward, towards the end—towards their future.

Her death, after all, has been long overdue.