What Time Cannot Heal

"I love you."

The words echo in my ears, completely lost on a battlefield. There is no love here. Love has no place amongst such bloodshed. I don't care whether or not I've earned it. Half of me says to join him on the shuttle, to leave and never bat an eye over the destruction of an entire galaxy. I'm destined to fail anyway. But that's the depression talking. Depression will say anything to get a foothold in your freedom, to dismantle you piece by piece. The man in front of me helped me realize that. Everything else forces me to drink in the sight of his battered, broken face for fear of never seeing it again. No, scratch that. I will never see it again. There's no coming back from this one.

I stare at Kaidan; acutely aware of the longing and desperation so intense it must be obvious I want to join him. Oh, I so badly want to leave. It's selfish, but there's no stopping your heart. Blood pours down his face from a serious gash across his forehead. Chakwas better take a look at that soon. The only thing keeping him upright is Garrus' shaking arm. They're both in such bad shape. They…they might not make it. The one person I care more about than the rest of my family might not come out of this alive. No. Can't think like that. You have a job to do. With a heavy sigh I steel myself for his response. My eyes close in defense against the sudden onslaught of pain pounding through my veins.

"Look at me, Dora." Kaidan places my hand delicately on his cheek. "You don't have to do this. Come with us. Come with me. Let the Alliance take care of it."

"You know why I can't do that, Kaidan." Tears escape despite my best efforts. My eyes remain closed. "I started this and I gotta finish it. It has to be me."

Now it's his turn to sigh. Tears of his own appear. Perfect glistening ovals clear a path through the blood and grime coating his features. "Then open your eyes. Come on." Hesitantly I obey him. "It's okay. I love you. You're going to walk out of this alive and we'll get married. For real this time, not just talking and pushing it off. Just come back to me."

His words are too much. If I don't go now I'll never leave this spot. With more force than intended I pull my hand away. The way his eyes fixate on mine, his favorite feature of mine, will haunt me for the rest of my numbered moments. It gives me something to fight for, sure, but is it enough to ensure my survival? Behind him Garrus focuses on a point in the distance in muted shock, letting us have as private a moment we can. I shoot him the brightest smile I can muster. Not only am I saying goodbye to my boyfriend, I'm saying goodbye to my best friend as well. His plates shuffle as he reminds me of our promise. My grin feels a lot more genuine. "You owe me that drink. I've only saved your life, what, a billion times by now?"

"Whatever you want. I'll buy you two if that's what it takes. Now go out there and kick some ass."

With one last glance at Kaidan I take off. Time speeds back up as I notice the carnage around us. The closer I run to Harbinger the brighter the white light becomes. Dad's voice crackles over the shattered remnants of my comm. I shout Anderson a few times to no avail. Harbinger's energy must cancel all electronic relays. I'm truly on my own. My legs scream in pain the faster I pump them. For over six hours the Normandy's been docked on Earth, joining the fight against the Reapers. For over six hours I've been strapped into this godforsaken armor, dishing out biotic tech attacks until my head splits under the pressure. Now I know how Kaidan feels during his migraines. One more Tactical Cloak and I'll put a bullet in my brain to ease the pain. This can't go on much longer. For six fucking hours soldiers of all races laid down their lives so I wouldn't have to. I should be dead by now.

o8o

Of course I wake before Kaidan; I usually do for one reason or another. Usually the best I can hope for is to zone out for an hour or two. This time I can't. Before long Joker's voice will ping over the intercom saying we're almost at the Milky Way, and I'll tell EDI to notify essential personnel to assemble in the cargo bay while we prep for departure. Just in case things go south I want to thank them for their commendable service. They make the Normandy my home away from home. Speaking of which, I should make a general speech over the intercom. Everyone deserves to know. Somehow planning a speech knocks me out. I feel the dream forming, what would be a night terror to anyone else but me. Like usual I'm in the wispy woods, loud murmurs trailing from clusters of shadow people. I'm in my armor as per normal, no helmet, but it doesn't offer its traditional mobility. I'm rooted to the spot as a child shimmers into existence. Who is it tonight, Clint or Victoria? My brother, eager to remind me of the uselessness of challenging the all-powerful Reapers; or my sister, fond of playing my mental problems against me? Neither. The kid who died on Earth back when this all started forms. The loss that kicked off my flirtation with death. He runs off. My legs unfreeze so I can chase him like I always do. I follow him past groups sounding suspiciously like my friends. Eventually I catch up.

A heavy darkness eclipses my vision, sending me into a panic. Without my senses I'm useless. I need to see, need to be aware of my surroundings. Stealth is my thing, dammit! Gradually it disappears, so slowly my panic heightens. Complete blackness spills over my pupils, everything dark except a bright flame in the distance. It grows until it melts the gloom. Now revealed is a carbon copy of me wearing the little black dress the female members of my Cerberus-influenced crew chipped in to buy. In my arms are my then older brother and sister, Clint in a dress shirt and Tori in her blue frock. Fake me smiles maliciously as the flames spread over their bodies. Clint and Tori actually laugh at the pain. I scream in response, my hand outstretched to save them. I have to save them, have to have to have to! They saved me, I save them!

My eyelids blow open. My limbs are glued to the bed, sleep paralysis a common occurrence after those dreams. Despite their regularity I still wake up terrified. I'm flat on my back, still naked from last night, nothing but the comforter warming my skin. Slowly my limbs come back to life, doing little other than letting me slide my torso from Kaidan's loose grasp. We often wake to this: clutched in each other's arms, either in a death grip or hardly touching at all, depending on the content of the night's dreams. I perch on the edge of the bed trying to collect myself and failing miserably. Why does every night have an emotional reaction? Against my will sobs escape, a response to weeks of worrying about this day. They pick up force the longer they continue. Behind me Kaidan stirs as he wakes. He mumbles a half-heard question. "Shh. Everything's fine. Go back to sleep." I brush the tears from my face and lean over to kiss his forehead. He isn't buying my words.

"It was the nightmare again. Who was it and what did they do?"

He pulls himself up so his chest presses on my shoulder blades. His hands snake across my chest to my shoulders. The simple act brings back the waterworks. He's not fazed, just rubs soothing circles on my cool skin. A thought strikes me: this could be my last morning. I should've cherished it more. Should've spent more time memorizing his face. Anything to preserve this moment. I melt into his touch. The way his callused hands glide over my bumpy scarred skin, his careful avoidance of fresh wounds, treating me like a human instead of a legend, all are etched into my memory. "It's actually happening. We're going to Earth and I've only heard stories while I was locked up and we still aren't prepared enough and…"

"And we are going to win. Everyone might not make it, but the Reapers will lose. I'll take you to my parents' place afterwards and we'll explore. You'll love it."

I sigh, really more of a hiccup. Enough crying. Crying is for death and nothing else. Crying makes you weak. Weakness isn't tolerated in commanders. I swipe angrily at my eyes. My neck burns from sleeping at an odd angle. Chakwas should know a massage to help with that. I need to be in perfect shape going into this. My hurricane of emotions calming into a storm, I risk speaking. "You know I love you, right? No matter what I say over the course of the day, I don't mean a word of it. All of it, to all of you guys. Can you make sure Garrus spreads the word?"

"Whatever you need. I love you."

o8o

Kaidan? Is that you? From behind my clamped eyelids a white light sears the air. Burning flesh taints my nostrils, already cooked from the feel of it. Oh yeah, I took a Banshee drain to the face. That explains my singed features and my lack of energy. Though that could be explained by how long I've been on Earth. Earth! My lids shoot open. Memories return faster than a bullet. But…what happened? All I remember is running towards Harbinger with the rest of Dad's special forces. Then…then there was a burning attack from Harbinger. My squad! Garrus and Kaidan! Half-formed thoughts assure me I sent them to safety. Painfully I force my head up to survey my surroundings. Two bodies rest not far from me. I drag myself over and prop myself to my knees. If I sent them back to the Normandy, then how come those bodies look suspiciously human and turian? No! I sent them back! I'm the only one who dies today. Not them. Not Garrus and Kaidan. The most I can do is close their eyes. The way they stare emptily, Garrus at the Reaper and Kaidan at me, no chance to even glance away…

Mourning comes later. Surely I'll have time. But I know I sent them away! They left in the shuttle to rejoin the Normandy, involved in the aerial fight in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Joker will keep them alive. Then why are their bodies lying right in front of me? Did Harbinger hit the shuttle? Or is my brain just fucking with me? There is a gap in memories completely unexplained. My best educated guess is I need to get up and find a way to activate the Crucible. That's the plan we risked everything for. In forcing myself to my feet I discover there's a reason why I had to drag myself. My Mnemonic Visor is gone, resulting in dirt and gore in my dry eyes. Blood mixes with debris to form a sticky mixture that coats my entire body. My armor is broken: cracks along key pieces, purple and red charred to black and gray, any tech boosts long gone. I couldn't summon a Cyro Blast if I wanted to. In sections the armor is fused to my flesh. Along my right leg the distinction is so unclear I can't bend it, causing a limp. I'm in so much pain I barely feel anything. Miraculously a lone pistol remains strapped to my hip. Good. If all else fails I have a way to end my misery.

Slowly I hop limp my way closer. Once I arrive I have no idea how to enter, but baby steps. One step at a time. Just like how you made it through N7 training. Way off in the distance a lone Marauder emerges from behind a stack of destroyed crates. It's limping too. How it survived such a devastating attack is a mystery. Shaking profusely, I manage to unclip my pistol. Raising my arm enough to take aim is another story. Maybe I should let it shoot me. Then I'd feel something. But that would doom trillions of lives. Trillions of lives fighting to their last breath and depending on me to save them. I must save them. So I press onwards and raise the gun so the barrel is level with its chest, a small vulnerable area learned from murdering thousands of them. The first few shots go wild. While I fight to pull the trigger again the Marauder manages to peg me below the rib cage. A hiss slithers through my teeth. Wow. I actually felt that. Sharp pain explodes from the point of impact. Angered now, I fire another volley, a bullet connecting somewhere that kills it immediately. It falls in a helpless heap. It looks so pitiful I almost feel sorry for it. Almost.

Judging by the amount of blood pouring from my side, I'd say the bullet clipped an intestine. Something feels out of place in there too. Great. Might actually have to use the gun. My steps slow the closer I get to the familiar Reaper. Harbinger, my old friend. Ye who tried to kill me on a suicide mission. Look where that got you. Eventually another white light flashes and the ground shakes. Nausea works its way up my throat. The last time I felt sick after flight I was nine, but the old illness returns. Surprisingly, I still remember with perfect clarity the reason for the trip: Kahlee had shore leave on a nearby planet and Dad wanted to celebrate her birthday while she was available. The pleasant memory contrasts the stench of decomposing bodies surrounding me. I dare open my eyes and promptly throw up. Human bodies clutter the floor, lifeless, scavenged armor deflated around their abhorrent skeletons. Soldiers. Dad's soldiers. Troops he's been organizing across the world. Gone just like that. This is…this is too much. Too much at once, too much for one person, too much for the great Commander Shepard…

"Dora? Are you up here too?"

"Dad!" I answer in an excited whisper. Even his verbal presence gives me enough strength to stand up. "I'm in some kind of dumping ground. There are Keepers and…your people are everywhere." I swallow hard. Bodies closing in, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide…

"Focus on my voice, child. Walk towards the center. I think I found a control center. Tell me what went down during that final push."

Limping, unable to fully pick my feet off the floor, I inch my way past rows of Keepers. "We lost a whole regiment to Harbinger's first offensive. Everyone suffered hits. Garrus got hurt, Kaidan more so. He's in such bad shape-" Every time I taper off on a tangent Dad gently eases me back to the right path. "I had to order an air evac for the Normandy. I had no choice. I couldn't let them die, couldn't lose Kaidan again. At that point nearly everyone was dead. As I got closer, Harbinger attacked. When I woke up I saw their bodies. My ground party that I sent back with Joker. I don't know what happened."

"The Reapers are messing with your mind, nothing more. Kaidan and Garrus are safe waiting for you. Have you reached the center yet?"

"Give me a minute. Almost there." When I pause a few feet away to catch my breath the wall begins to shift. Green washed white pulls away to reveal a vast control room with a single console in the middle. Dad stands near it, slumped from his own wounds. Did I focus so much on my own problems I completely forgot about my father? Shame. The sight of him grants me a boost to move faster, closing the distance quickly. He eclipses me in a hug. We've been separated for less than an hour, but it equates to eons. Granted, during this whole war he was on Earth while I chased the stars. He buries my face in his neck like I used to do willingly as a child. The sweet reunion doesn't last long, however. A familiar voice tears us apart.

"Greetings, Shepard. I didn't mean to interrupt such a touching moment."

I whirl around, my face contouring into an expression of disgusted outrage. I thought I'd never see this creep again after I left Cerberus. Not only does he reappear inside the Citadel, which last I checked is orbiting above Earth, weird black tendrils snake across the sides of his face. They remind me of the shadow people in my nightmares. His formerly blue eyes are now laced with red. His pupils' blackness tripled tenfold. Is…is he indoctrinated? He looks like Kai Leng. I glance at Dad to measure his knowledge. From the looks of it he had no idea either. "What are you doing here? Mighty suspicious of you to show up now."

"I'm not here for you, Shepard. I'm here for the Catalyst. Of course, you provide a nice bonus. And the leader of the human resistance? Perfect."

My stance straightens. Without conscious approval I switch into commander mode. The Illusive Man deserves nothing less. My fingers ghost over the butt of my gun. One wrong move and he gets a bullet in his skull. "May I hazard a guess before anyone gets trigger happy?" I pointedly look at the black market pistol hidden beneath his overcoat. Of course I noticed it. I get paid to notice these things. He's not saying something. No one shows up with a weapon without expecting conflict. "You're indoctrinated. Up to your balls in the Reapers' bullshit. How far back does this go? Was I working for them all the while I worked for you?" Dad's hand travels to the small of my back as if in warning. Don't do anything rash, anything stupid, anything that blows our only chance to beat the Reapers.

"Indoctrinated? I'm not indoctrinated; I am in control. Think of all humanity can accomplish with godlike machines at our beck and call. Join me, Shepard. Help me purge the galaxy so humanity can start anew. I won't ask again."

In response I whip out my pistol and levy it at his chest. "You must be further gone that I thought if you think there's a chance in hell I'll fight on the same side as you."

Lightning fast, the Illusive Man lunges past me quicker than a normal man should. I have no time to react. All I can do is turn around to watch him point his gun at Dad. He grins seditiously but his hand shakes uncontrollably. His eyes aren't as steely as they were moments ago. Is he losing his mind?

I make a last ditch effort to plead with him. "Please, if any of your own thoughts are going on up there, don't do this. There's still a chance to make this right. Put the gun down and help us activate this thing."

A brief look of confusion, then a fierce shake of the head and molten determination. "No! I won't let you screw this up. I will control all of you!" As he concludes his tirade his finger twitches over the trigger.

"Don't do it. Please don't do it. Shoot me instead. Please!" I try to step forward to stop him, but an unexplained force prevents me from moving. I'm nowhere near strong enough to fight it. All I can do is watch Dad struggle to dodge the inevitability of the situation. The close range lets my cybernetics-enhanced eyes track the bullet from the barrel to its final resting place in Dad's chest. He slumps over, unable to resist collapsing under the weight of it. The sight of his cruelty lets me break free so I can grab my pistol. I don't care anymore, this fucker deserves to die. The Illusive Man blathers on about his master plan. Still don't care. He still joined the wrong side, still shot Dad, I'm still royally pissed off. Without hesitation I unclip the weapon, remove the hand holding my innards in place, take aim, and fire.

The bullet fires in a straight line to connect directly with his heart. Funny how the woman he spent so many credits reviving is such a perfect shot, even when wounded she kills him. He crumples to the floor in an unceremonious heap. I stand triumphant above him. In the exhilaration of the moment I nearly forget about my impending death. It took over a year, but I finally cut off the head of the hydra. This is fantastic! If only I could celebrate with my old crew. If only Miranda were still with us… No. There's enough death going on without pondering past mistakes. Even if they were all my fault… No. I came to terms with Miranda and Legion. I start to stumble my way to the console. My legs feel heavier. Holding my head high is becoming more of a chore. Dad rests against a ledge watching the battle outside large bay windows. Eventually I get there. As I fiddle with it the Illusive Man speaks, his voice a weak rasp.

"You're never going to win. It's a shame I wasted all those credits on you." In a faint whisper he adds, "I'm finally free…"

Touching last words from a murderous madman. Now I can spend my final few moments alone with Dad. I hit a red button that looks pretty final. Dad makes a grunting noise to indicate I should sit beside him. If I sit I'm never getting up again. With a heavy sigh I sink to the ground, my hand entering my body far past where it should. That's not good. Blood pours down my face from gashes too deep to heal naturally. Still can't bend my right leg. I haven't felt this sore since N7 training. Every heartbeat resonates deep in my bones. Dad is worse off than me. Together we watch ships from all races attack Reapers with everything they have, a united front from across the galaxy whose sole intent is to hold the line. In all honesty they're getting their asses kicked. Hopefully that should change with the introduction of the Catalyst.

Dad manages to sling an arm across my shoulders. He pulls me close. I lean in, my head on his shoulder. "Hard to believe we made it this far," he says.

"Touché. Best seats in the house, though."

"We deserve it. You deserve it. You did good, child. I'm so proud of you."

"Kahlee too?"

"Kahlee too, Dora. And your friends. Kaidan stressed that in case you two never see each other again." Each word comes out slower than the last. He's fading fast.

"Stay with me, Dad. Not much longer. Come on. Chin up, remember? Doesn't matter what happens, you'll always live to fight another day. Just like you used to say. Dad? Dad!" His head lolls against his chest. My attempts to wake him end up in sobs. I shake his thigh frantically, begging him to come back to me. I try to make the same deals I made with my mother's ghost years ago. The same deals I tried with Clint and Tori. Nothing works. Slowly his skin grows cold, his muscles slacken. Soon I'm the only thing holding him up. Tears clear paths through the gore, leaving my cheeks sticky. He can't be dead he can't be dead he can't be dead…

Crackling in my ear overcomes the pounding throb ratcheting my brain. Hackett's voice spills out loud and clear. "Shepard? Anderson? Either of you still alive?"

My voice a shaking mess, I answer in little more than a dry sob. "I'm still here, sir. Dad is…Dad is…" In an attempt to control myself my breath comes out in heaving melancholy. "What do you need?" I say to cover the disgrace.

"Something's not working on your end. Nothing's happening."

He tastefully ignores my lack of control around a superior. Thank heavens he's an old family friend. Now my family's just me again. "I don't know what else I can do." I drag myself to the console and struggle to reach it. None of my limbs are working properly. "I…I don't…can't…" If possible the flow of blood leaving my body increases. The lightheadedness prevails, sending the world spinning while I lay prone on the floor. Not under control anymore, I'm forced to succumb to the higher power painting my vision black.

o8o

Am…am I still alive? Only in life would I hurt this much. Any permanent death is beyond what I deserve. What do I owe to stay dead? What do I have to do? How many sacrifices will I have to make before the universe calls us even? Too much. Too many. God. I want Dad back. I want to see him again. Dad and Ashley and Mordin and Wrex and, and Thane. I just want to say goodbye. Tell them I love them and still talk to them. Ask if they've met my parents and siblings yet. See if Dad approves of Thane. They never got a chance to meet. Hope Mordin found some seashells to study. Ashley and Dad would get along swimmingly with my fellow elite squad from Akuze. Hell, Miranda and Legion might even be there. Maybe I will die so I can be with everyone at once instead of a two-year vacation.

A soft voice whispers something repeatedly in my ear. It slowly nudges me back to consciousness. The fire burning on my eyelids recedes to my throat, horrendously cracked from hours of screaming orders and indications of loss. Wear and tear is finally taking its toll on my cybernetics. They're the only thing holding me together. I can feel every fiber stretching to mend wounds not meant to be sustained for this long. The voice is kind, gentle, womanly, the kind of voice you immediately trust. It guides me through shifting my weight, sitting up, crouching, then standing despite the pain. I open my eyes last. They were my last defense against the hell I must be in. But they had to go. After all, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. I'm in some kind of spaceship; walls open to the stars and the floor painted silver. Off in the distance are two machines and a wide gap between them. Any signs of warfare are nowhere to be seen.

The voice changes to a soft, loving tone that sounds so familiar. "Honey, please turn around. I want to talk to you. To see you."

I know that voice. It's locked deep in my memories but it's there. I spin around and find a face I haven't seen in over two decades. The face of someone who was brutally raped and murdered by evil batarians for the simple crime of fighting back. A face that showed me love and affection unconditionally, the likes of which I have not seen since. A face that never had the chance to grow older with me. "Mom?"

"Oh, Dora. You're perfect." She looks like she wants to hug me, seeing beyond my shoddy exterior, but settles for infusing as much love as she can into her beaming gaze. She hasn't aged a day since my most recent photograph: soft features, smooth brown eyes, dimples, dark brown hair cut to the same length. Still obviously malnourished, prominent bony angles and ribcage. Not paid nearly enough to sustain a biotic, especially through two pregnancies. She's the same as the day she died. "You are so gorgeous and strong. I am oh so proud of the things you've done, the woman you've become. Look at you."

Her hand ghosts to my cheek, hovering above the bone. My hand rests just above hers. This is my mother exactly how the photos portray her. No detail is out of place. I would know; I've studied them all extensively since I received them. But my mother is dead. Rotted to nothing in the ruins of a small mining town on Mindoir. This isn't her. "Mom," I mutter, the word foreign on my tongue. Her touch floods me with strength. My eyes close as I imagine feeling her skin against mine. Nothing compares to a mother's embrace. "Mom, I need to go back. Hackett and the Alliance need me. I'm a marine now, a Spectre. Someone that helps all the races. I need to activate the Catalyst."

Mom's expression turns mournful. "There is no Catalyst, sweetheart. The protheans were blinded by hope. The Crucible was a failure."

"Don't say that. Just don't." I pull my hand away. The ghost of my mom shows up for a reunion and all she has to say is our plan is a bust. I'm still not convinced this isn't some level of Limbo, waiting for my soul to be processed. If that's the case, they better hurry the hell up. "Without the Crucible everyone is doomed." She starts on an apology but I cut her off. "Tell me what's going on. Tell me what you are, where I am, and if I just hit my head really hard."

"I can't speak for whatever happened before, but this is real. I am real." Is she unaware she's a ghost? "I've watched you grow up all these years. Admiral Anderson did a bang-up job. Thank him for me."

No. This isn't real. She doesn't know. This can't be real. But this is Mom and she loves me. "You aren't my mother. My mother died on Mindoir. So tell me," oh God this hurts, "tell me how to kill you." The only way out of this is linked to Mom; that much I know. She's my ticket out of here and if that means killing my mo-an abomination, I need to do it. The remnants of the galaxy rest on my shoulders. The thought hurts more than anything I've ever experienced, my mother more so. Her face falls. I want so badly to retract my statement, to accept this thing as the woman who bore me, to give up and die in her arms. I take a step back to distance myself, but every negative step is met with a positive one by her. She doesn't want me gone; she wants me by her side like it should be. I can't let her get this far. I need to do this. "Tell me how to kill you."

"I'm sorry, Dora. I can't tell you that. What I can say is I am real. I have no idea about Mindoir, but I'm here now and I love you. You are my daughter and I am your mother. Nothing changes that."

"Let me rephrase that. Explain those and how I end this."

She follows my finger to the machines. Now she looks hesitant. "Oh. Those." She walks towards them, gesturing for me to follow. I do so, not noticing she stopped until I walk right through her. "The one on the left is to control the Reapers. They will respond to your bidding, but it takes a very strong mind to keep them in check. Look what happened to the Illusive Man. I know you don't want to hear this. I understand you already know. But you are not strong enough. A healthy brain? Maybe, with some luck. A brain ravaged by unbalanced chemicals and toxic circuitry? Certainly not. Crippling self-doubt and obsession aside, how can machines be trusted when the entire situation might be a hallucination? Posttraumatic stress is a very real thing. I would know; I'm sure the news beat the topic to death after Aunt Emily and I got famous in the First Contact War. We kept track of every time our names appeared. Even your father got into it. Once you carry through there is no guarantee your brain won't snap under the pressure. Listen to the voice in your head. It's there for a reason, Dora. Trust it.

"To the right is an option to destroy them. The Reapers will be gone forever, but all machines will fall alongside them. The rest of the geth, sentient AIs, even your friend EDI. Her programming will not survive, no matter how hard you wish otherwise. Think of what will happen to Joker upon her destruction. Think of how devastated he'll be, how much he'll hate you. First you die over him, then you murder the love of his life. Should the Normandy survive today, your crew will desert you. Garrus won't recognize the person you've become; Tali will follow his lead alongside the rest of your ground team. And Kaidan? Kaidan will leave you forever this time. You destroyed his home, his family, the woman he loves. Men are fickle like that.

"Down the center will melt your consciousness and join it with every living thing in the galaxy. They will be you and you will be them. Every thought, every impulse, every pleasure won't be yours alone. The Reapers will be gone, but do you really want everyone to know your deepest secrets, your darkest desires? Kaidan knows, and it nearly drove him away. Tali and Garrus know, and it made them wish to abandon you. Did you ever tell anyone in full about the pirates? Or the thresher maw? I thought so. The reason why you never told anyone is because the minute they see the full package they will run away screaming. Imagine those memories leaking. Not what you want, I'm sure. I know you, pumpkin. What's going on in that smart brain of yours should stay there."

Damn. Her speech was so…I don't even know. I hardly notice when she stops sounding like Mom. My mom would never say these things. How do you know? You were six. Those interviews and stuff were staged. Raising a kid sister alone in the slums can break you. She can't have made it out unscathed. I stare at the machines, torn between what is right and what Mom thinks I'm capable of. She knows a thing or two about PTSD; according to my memorabilia collection both her and Aunt Emily were almost as fucked up as I am. She gets me. For the first time in my life I have a chance to conduct a meaningful conversation with my biological family, my mother no less. If she thinks I'm unable to carry through, I'm probably unfit to do so. I sigh indecisively, the pain catching up. "What are the options? There's always another way out."

"There's one other choice. Leave this place, sweetheart. Walk away. Give up. Come with me. Let the cycle continue so we can be a family again. Clint and Tori miss you. Same with your father and me. We miss you so much."

Oh man, the offer is tempting. I miss them too. I miss not being the person in charge. I miss the childhood I would have had if not for the batarians. The little voice agrees with her one hundred percent. I debate back and forth between my morality and my own selfish desires. Why is this so hard? All my life I've gone with what I thought was right. There was never any time to question it until hours after the decision was made. Now what is right isn't so clearly defined with a gut feeling. My gut feeling got increasingly more unreliable the closer we neared the end and is now so corrupted I probably shouldn't trust it. Look to the cybernetic scars on my face for proof. What's one bad decision in the light of hundreds of good ones? Don't I deserve a moment of selfishness? No, I don't. I must give everything I have to earn a chance at peace.

"Dora? You with me?" Mom places her hand on my shoulder, either not noticing or not caring that it's currently grazing the nanofibers holding the bones together. "Say something, baby."

She doesn't get words in response. Instead I hobble towards the machines. Control or destroy them? Mom has at least one thing right: Joker would hate me for eternity if I let EDI die. He barely forgave me for Alchera. Another blow threatens our friendship entirely. Destroy isn't an option. My memories would devastate the average person if they were unleashed, especially one weakened by months of warfare. That's not even considering the crew of the Normandy. Liara can't handle it. Traynor doesn't have a clue. Tali wouldn't know what to do with herself. My only chance at seeing Kaidan and my friends again is by controlling them. Mom may think my problems are insurmountable, but I've learned so much from my new family. I now have something to fight for, something to give me strength. I didn't have that for the longest time. Mom thinks she can trick me with fancy speeches and psychological backlash, but she'll never win. Not when Kaidan waits in my bed, ready to ease the nightmares away. Not when countless people are willing to lay down their lives so I can save their children, their children's children.

Mom follows the whole way there, staying a pace behind despite her long strides. When I near the terminal she stops me. "You can't be serious. Are you sure this is what you want? It's not too late to back down. Retreat is a tactical option."

"That's where you're wrong. This isn't your decision. This is mine. I'm going to end this war, and I'm going to do it my way."

"But pumpkin-"

"Can it, Mom. I don't even know what a pumpkin is, for Christ's sake! This is over." I'm about to grab the handles, but I pause and face her for the last time. "And Mom? I don't know if you know this, but I was pregnant when the first Normandy blew up. About twenty-six weeks. We were so sure it would be a boy. So if you, uh, encounter a baby over there, can you take care of it?" A wistful smile replaces my grimace. "We were going to name him John. Jonathan Reehah Alenko."

Spectral tears glisten in Mom's ghostly eyes. "Your father and uncle will be so proud. I love you."

I don't look back again. There are two handles, one for each hand, and I grab both simultaneously. I'm dying anyway, no sense in prolonging it. Immediately a bright light encompasses the room, growing brighter the farther I press the levers down. What is this? This isn't what I imagined, whatever that may have been. This is…this is…

o8o

There's a space of about a minute I don't remember. Any number of events could've happened. All I know is one moment I was talking with Mom and the next I'm lying under a pile of debris. Everything hurts so bad I almost can't feel anything. Almost, as in I still feel each individual nerve ending screaming bloody murder. Come on. Wake up, Shepard. Take inventory. Metal rods impale my torso, pinning it to the ground. Blood and sweat cake every inch of my skin. My arms are bent sideways, the joints contorted beyond human capacity. My legs are somehow worse. Bones shouldn't be able to bend that far. My neck is locked in place, leaving me forced to stare at a slab of rock behind me. I couldn't talk if I wanted to. The only thing keeping me alive is the glowing red visible beneath my gunky armor. Everything feels…melted. Definitely not normal. Not something I'll live through. Then the hurt registers. Not like before. Worse. Like I'm on fire. I want to be dead. Death doesn't hurt. Why can't I die?

o8o

Aww, the sun's coming out. That's nice.

The sun went away. Now it's cold. Too cold.

I want to die.

Was any of that real? It feels like I've been here forever. Huh.

Why aren't I dead?

o8o

"Dora? You there? Say something!" Some of the weight lifts off my chest. "Guys! I found her!" More weight disappears until there's nothing left. "Dora, wake up. Please, please wake up. Don't make me beg. Please!"

It's the hardest fight of my life, but I manage to pry my eyes open another time. My right eye doesn't register much, but my left cracks to sweep the sky, eventually meeting Kaidan's face. It's a mix of worry, excitement, and exhaustion. Was I really gone that long? Did I really spend that much time aboard the Citadel? It feels like I haven't moved in hours. Maybe the whole Citadel thing was a hoax. The Illusive Man is still out there, the Reapers are attacking, Dad is still alive… Dad. Kaidan. Garrus. Which is real and which is fake? Maybe I really did die and this is a bizarre introduction to the afterlife. Maybe the war never ended.

"Oh thank God. Thank God. Stay with me."

The last of the debris leaves. No biotics, just manual labor. Circulation is supposed to be happening, not nothing. I can't feel anything. Absolutely anything. I don't even know if I'm breathing. I must be since I'm still alive. Somehow I move my lips, force my vocal cords into submission so I can talk. It hurts so much. The thought of what I'm about to do increases it. I should count myself lucky I managed to see his face one last time. I blink wearily at him as he eases my torso off the ground. Someone who might be James grabs my legs. Heavy Spanish cursing erupts at the sight of my mangled body. Definitely James. They leave anything penetrating skin intact, working around rods and crushed rocks. Kaidan slowly gathers me into his arms. I reach out to stroke his face. "Kai…I'm…sorry."

He shuts me up before I can start on my apology to James. His battered glove intercepts my hand drifting from his cheek to James. "Don't talk. Save your strength. That's an order, okay?"

Kaidan almost never pulls rank on the battlefield. This must be a lot more serious than he's letting on. My hand drops to my chest. James limps in time with him. He stays at my head, never out of sight. The slight rocking caused by Kaidan's uneven footsteps lulls me into a warm blanket of security. I'm safe now. It's okay to give up. No need to keep fighting. I let my head sink into his arm. Tucked into his arms is the only place I've ever felt truly safe. If all else fails, Kaidan will protect me. Almost as if sensing my thoughts he pulls me closer. Wonder how long we've been on Earth. How long before he drops from sheer exhaustion. How long before I drop from exhaustion. Not long, that's for sure. It's okay. Go to sleep…

o8o

I roll over in bed, careful not to jostle my sleeping partner too much. We need all the sleep we can get in the coming months before this little bugger arrives. Heh. I can say that now with absolute certainty: my little bugger. That night was so insignificant in the grand scheme of things: a welcome home party after the temporary Council had their way with me. I got drunk (not nearly as bad as the others made it out to be, I never completely lose my senses), and lo and behold I ended up on this bed in nothing more than my shoes. Getting the wrinkles out of my old ball gown was nigh impossible the next day. God, I couldn't fit into that thing if I wanted to. A shame, given it's my default formalwear. No fancy celebrations better pop up in the next five months at least. I am huge, and this still isn't big enough according to Chakwas. Apparently I don't eat enough (no shit), especially to support another life. I never eat enough. That's the way it's been since I was six. Eating nothing but dextro scraps tends to do that to you. If I didn't listen every time I got put in the hospital why would I start now? My stomach grumbles as a reminder. Great. I snuggle in closer, hoping the presence of his father calms him down.

A particularly loud rumble is enough to wake Kaidan. Not a lot, just enough to pull him out of whatever dreams his mind saw fit to produce tonight. "You hungry?" he mumbles sleepily.

"Nah, I can wait. We still got some time. The kicking woke me up."

"Be good for Mom," he says before promptly falling back asleep.

That man, I swear. I chuckle. He could fall asleep standing up and has already done so on several occasions. Alas, the hunger can wait but the bladder cannot. Without thinking I grab the closest t-shirt and pair of shorts and spend the next ten minutes freshening up. Then it's off to Joker to check up on things and gift him with a cup of coffee. I don't care what the Alliance says; the man deserves as much coffee as he wants. Everything's fine, so it's off to the mess for breakfast. Tali stands pouring over the contents of a cabinet while Garrus and Wrex fight over the best brand of shotgun. Ah, some things never change. As I wait for my eggs to finish in the microwave Tali strikes up small talk. After explaining where eggs come from I plop down next to a cluster of communication specialists.

Tali follows suit. She pokes at my plate for a bit before asking, "Do you have all your supplements?"

"Ungh." If I didn't value my food so much I would drop my face into it. "Don't tell me Chakwas got you involved. I can take care of myself, including whatever the pill of the week is. I'm twenty-five years old. Come on."

"Childbearing is a complicated matter, Pandora. The whole community is involved. I'm simply looking out for a friend." She takes a sip of water, then whips her head up, facemask alight. "Have you and Kaidan decided upon a name? Liara said she heard some discussion last night."

"Either he read my encrypted file or I drank too much at 'Talk About Your Past Night' because he's insisting upon naming him after my real dad and my uncle. That's unnecessary. I said to pick a name we both like and go from there, but there's no getting a word in otherwise. He won't even pick out a girl's name for backup."

"Your real father and uncle? Do you not mean Anderson?"

"My birth father. The one who died on Mindoir. And my uncle is my mother's sister's husband. That makes this kid Jonathan Reehah."

"But Reehah is a quarian name popular on agriculture ships."

"Exactly. I'm no farmer-" A loud, piercing wail cuts me off. The ship shakes violently followed by pulsing lights in emergency red. My coffee splashes onto the table. The specialists jolt in a panic. Garrus is gone, presumably to check the weapons systems, while Wrex lumbers to the lower level. Tali grabs my shoulder to steady herself and doesn't let go. What on Sam's green hill is going on? Are we under attack with stealth mode on? Is that even possible? I pry Tali's hand off and force her to stand. She's about ready to bolt when I root her in place. "Go to the cockpit. Find out what's going on. Get everyone out of there. Feel the change in air pressure? There's a leak. If we need to evacuate you know what to do. Go!" She takes off. Completely neglecting the sliding plates I sprint to my locker. Inside is my modified N7 armor, which I thankfully remembered to pick up last night. My new sniper rifle rests on top, the mods for which I forgot to pick up last night. It's still the most powerful weapon I own, but unwieldy and possessing a lot more recoil than I'm used to. Now's not the time to be picky.

My armor is especially snug around my midsection, even with no under suit. The N7 gear may have top-of-the-line mods, but they're all useless if I can't put the stomach piece on. I make it work. As I raise the helmet to my head I hear Kaidan run up behind me. The ship makes another sudden jerk in the opposite direction. I keep my footing but Kaidan careens into the next-door locker. The lights continue their routine, but dimmer now. Liara and Chakwas ran out some time ago. Hopefully the rest of the crew made it to the command deck. If not, well… Can't think like that. Everyone made it out fine. I right Kaidan, my hands lingering on his waist. There's so much to say, so little time to say it. "What's the situation?"

He pauses the briefest of seconds to catch his breath. "There's a breach by the airlock. Pressley is dead, but everyone else made it out alive. Joker's not budging though."

"Stubborn ass is going to be the death of me." I take a deep breath to come out on top of the adrenaline rush. "Okay. You go to the cargo bay, make sure everyone finds the escape pods. I'll get Joker."

"With all due respect, Commander-"

"That's an order!" He looks hurt but he'll live. At least he managed to speak not as my lover but as my subordinate. We'll see the end of this, the three of us. I'm sure of it. I follow him to the elevator. With no power he slides through the evacuation hole. Instead of following my own order I lap the rec floor, double-checking everyone found their way out. By the time I'm done drifters start to emerge from the hole. I pull them up one by one and send them to the closest pod. Kaidan comes last. "Is that the last of them?"

"Down to the last ensign. No one left behind. Did Joker leave?" At the shake of my head he gets flustered. "Let me go instead. Get to the pod, wait for me-"

"Certainly not. I'm the commanding officer here, not you. An order's an order!"

"Goddammit Dora! This isn't about you anymore! Think about us. About our son. If you go out there who knows what could happen. There's nothing wrong with sitting this out."

"You goddammit, Kaidan! No one left behind means the pilot's included too. I swear on our child's life and mine I will come back."

He puffs angrily. Seeing I'm going whether he likes it or not, he brings our faces together. This is the closest we'll come to a proper goodbye. "I should know better by now. I love you."

o8o

Strong sedatives whirl through my rising consciousness. Blissful black turns to heavy light. I can feel the steady drip of an IV course through my robotic veins. Each drop slithers down my limbs, concluding its effectiveness as it reaches my heart. Every limb feels molten, individual pockets of fire spreading across until there aren't any free patches left. Hot sensation is more disturbing than no sensations at all. There should be something beside the fire. Something marking me as still human. One small spot on my stomach feels the warm wool of an old blanket. Right where my child should be. The first thing that flashed into my mind after I was spaced. Protect the kid at all costs. Am I still floating above the Normandy, grasping desperately for an oxygen tube? Am I dying? Is that why I'm set aflame?

Something shifts beside me. I'm not in space. I'm on a mattress. A creaky, matted mattress inside a derelict building. That means I'm on Earth, not under Collector attack. I…I lived. Harbinger didn't kill me. Mom tried talking me out of it, but I made a choice. I made a choice and something must have worked because I'm lying here partially alive. The mattress shifts again, sinking in at two spots, like a sleeping person hastily awakened. I feel hands tighten over my left one, or whatever's left of it. Who would sit so devotedly? Kaidan. Kaidan would never leave my side the same way I never left his. We swore to never leave so long as the other is unconscious. That means he lived! He and Garrus made it out alive, not dying at the hands of Harbinger. Each movement heightens my desire to open my eyes, twitch a finger, anything to show I'm alive. Nothing fancy, just something to ease his worries. But I can't. Summoning the energy to do so is too much. Whatever medicine drips from the IV pulls me under again.

o8o

My pointer finger spasms. Then again. I have no control. But it's moving! Still no feeling, but hopefully Kaidan felt it. Whoever sits at my bedside startles awake. I hear his breathing quicken, his hands scrambling to find mine while he calls for a doctor. Why won't my eyes open? Why can't I control anything? I should be able to. I always come out on top. More twitching, more near awakening. Open your goddamn eyes, Pandora! At long last, after much internal debate, I manage to crack my lids. From my limited field of vision I see a fluttering curtain, discarded food cartons, and bruised arms slung over my hips. They're probably the least injured spot on me. Those arms shouldn't be that purple. He should be in bed too. Why don't you take care of yourself, Kaidan? One of us has to be strong, and I'm taking a long break from bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders.

His arms grasp my body again. He knows. He's here and alive, even if more than a little beat up. Harbinger lied. Mom lied. We saw each other again. My hands disappear in a swell of warmth, safe from the ravaging cold floating through the air. No wonder Kaidan stayed by my side. I feel his breath on my cheek as he leans in. "Dora? You here? Do something to show me."

Come on. Look at his face. Prove you won't leave him. Slowly, hesitantly, mind reeling in pain, I force my brain to focus. Scars crisscross his face already mottled with unspoken agony. Nearly every inch is covered in crusted blood, scars, or not yet healed wounds that should be covered. Dirt streaks his hands, burrowed deeply in his fingernails, chewed to the quick. All my energy is directed towards registering everything. I dig deep to pull the strength to infuse happiness and gratitude into my gaze. Talking isn't an option.

"Thank God. You're alive. I told them you would make it. Thank God." He sounds so relieved, so genuinely thankful to a higher power I didn't know he believed in, so…in love. For the longest time I feared he'd leave me once he discovered the true extent of my problems. Now I know for sure he will never so much as dream of it.

Hearing Kaidan's voice, a doctor walks in. She's young, frazzled, a civilian, overworked. Her lab coat is specked with blood, her clothes rumpled and dirty. She looks like she hasn't taken a shower or slept properly in days. "What's going on in here?" she asks, her voice almost a whine. "Dora is supposed to be out like a light."

"It's Pandora," Kaidan responds snippily. "Or Commander, if you want to show the respect she deserves."

The doctor instantly retreats. Hopefully she's fetching more drugs. Or water. Water sounds great about now. I wish I could ask Kaidan why he was so mean. People are still in shock, not used to the new chaos. I'm not okay with strangers calling me Dora, but Pandora is perfectly acceptable. Dora is reserved for family. I don't even deserve the title of commander anymore. I committed so many war crimes in the past year I could be dishonorably discharged ten times over. The doctor returns with a fresh bag and Jacob. With Miranda gone he's the next best thing when it comes to the Lazarus Project. Kaidan explains my heightened immunity to foreign substances while Jacob covers the cybernetics. Nothing's strong enough to keep me in a medically induced coma and my natural one didn't last long enough to prove beneficial. Consequently, new shortages of basic supplies means I get to stay awake throughout the surgeries and anything else they deem necessary. Fantastic! Truly outstanding. Exactly what I wanted to hear.

Bad news follows, then more bad news, then bad news that is slightly surprising. I managed to stay semi dead for over two weeks. That's the longest I've ever been out. Even after the Akuze surgery I only took a week to recover. The crew must still be around. My family might still be nearby. No way they let Kaidan stand watch that long with no breaks. Someone had to ensure showers, food, and necessary recovery protocols. They may not have won on the first front, but as a medic I'm sure he understands the importance of treating injuries properly. I shift my gaze from the doctor to Kaidan, exhausted from so much talk directly after waking from near death. All in all I'm elated none of my suicidal wishes came true. My mind may slowly become accustomed to the constant pain, and this inability to talk already worries me, but those are things I can learn to live with. I didn't graduate N7 for nothing. All that matters right now is I got to see Kaidan again. Everything else can wait.

o8o

It takes another week to stay awake longer than five minutes at a time. The simple act of rousing my brain creates more fatigue than a week's hike with little food and water. Each awakening only lasts long enough to assure the occupant of the bedside chair I'm still alive. Once I gain that win, my teammates tell stories of their time fighting on Earth. Traynor keeps me updated on galactic news, of recovery plans throughout the worlds. Liara explains the aftermath of my decision aboard Harbinger. Shortly after I grabbed the handles the Reapers went into some sort of backup mode. Their weapons ceased fire and those not taken out by our guys fled. She avoids my questions about the empty space in my head, but I'll take what I can get. Joker speaks of celebration parties. Apparently the Council wants to throw me a victory banquet when I can stand on two feet. He jokes of me finally receiving a well-earned promotion. If the Council has anything to say about it I'll remain a commander forever, content with my Spectre status. Only Hackett is on my side. EDI has the gall to ask if I plan to retire after I heal. Statistically speaking, the next major cataclysm has a high chance of successfully killing me. I laugh at the notion. Me, retiring? That's a good one. Military runs in my blood. What did Chakwas say that one night after drinking? "The Alliance is my spouse and its soldiers my children." Perfectly applicable to me as well. I'll never retire so long as the Alliance exists.

On the three-week anniversary of me waking up I find myself alone for the first time. No Kaidan, no Garrus, nobody. That's strange. I wonder what was said to Kaidan to keep him away so long. He practically lives in the plastic folding chair beside me. His defense is that he has enough medical knowledge to save me should anything go wrong and to take care of his own wounds. No one had a problem with it. The worst result was a few comments about wasting a medic who could instead treat the injured. I'd prioritize civilians if I was in his place, but I'm not complaining about the hand to squeeze during surgery. They made me enter la la land for most of it, so I don't even know what the surgeries are for. No one tells me anything and I can't produce the words to ask. I'm alone with my thoughts for a while. I have no idea how much time passed. An entering surgeon shuffles through some omni-tool files, seemingly psyching himself up to speak. Nothing bad can come of this.

"Good morning, Commander Shepard. We requested Major Alenko to leave so you could receive this news privately. Would you like the good news first or the bad?" So we're being direct all of a sudden. I mouth the word bad. Might as well get it over with. "Due to extensive damage to your entire body we were forced to amputate what we could not save. We amputated your right leg from the knee down and your entire left arm. If your cybernetics don't pick up the pace you might need hearing aids implanted. Your voice box was crushed; speech therapy is in order." In his hurry to calm my panic he adds, "The good news is your eyesight is completely normal after some corrective surgery. With your military connections we secured the best prosthetics money can buy. They're custom fitted, permanent, and awaiting installment."

Amputated? Arm? Leg? Prosthetics? What the hell? God no. He's lying. I'm just dreaming. I've had these nightmares before. Wake up in such a daze I think my foot or my arm or whatever is gone. But I can't be dreaming. Everything hurts too much for me to be asleep. This is real. A hallucination? You're prone to them. No. No one's trying to bring me out of it. This is real.

"Major Alenko has been making all your medical decisions since your arrival. I thought, with the nature of this, you'd like to make the decision regarding the prosthetics yourself. Feel in no way pressured to carry through, but I'll let you think about it."

With that he leaves the room. Oh my God. So that's why the blanket never moved from my shoulders. Why everyone exclusively holds my right hand. How am I supposed to continue a career as a Spectre with missing limbs? Hackett won't want me back. He'll give control of the Normandy back to Dad. Wait. Dad is gone. A sea of memories comes crashing back at the most inopportune time. I can't help the tears, only partially blamed on stress. Sometime in the midst of my personal pity parade a clawed talon traces the outline of my leg. Garrus. I blink away the worst of the tears, not wanting my best friend to see me cry. I half grin up at him, his sadly cheery face joined by Kaidan. I want to talk to them, goddammit! I want to keep this conversation equal without trying so hard to channel questions into my facial expression.

"I take it you were told the news," Garrus starts. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, a talon continually twitching towards Kaidan's hip, almost like he's holding him back. "I've seen pictures of what he's talking about. They're fitting for what you've accomplished."

"This isn't a death sentence, Dora," Kaidan chimes in. It's like he read my mind. "We asked the rest of the crew. They're willing and more than eager to follow your command no matter what. If you're willing, that is."

They're willing to obey my orders? Garrus answers my silent question. "These people have your back, Dora, the same way you've had theirs all this time. Years, for some of us. It will take more than a lack of fleshy bits to deter them. No one left behind, if I recall correctly."

How dare he use my words against me! The words themselves aren't a surprise; they were said many a time when I came to him in distress. I live by those words. So why shouldn't they bleed down to the rest of the crew? I stare at the cracked ceiling, my best friend for the past few weeks. It's the only thing that doesn't care if I can't talk back. I suppose a bit more outer metal is better than being forcibly confined to a wheelchair. Oh, how I wish I could answer with more than a shake of the head. I inhale and exhale deeply, preparing for nothing more than a light squeak of air in replacement of actual words. But then something happens that catches everyone in the room off guard. It's barely more than a breathy whisper. The faintest of sounds escapes my mouth. "Yes."

Kaidan and Garrus do a double take, bending over to see if it can be replicated. That's never happening again. They glance at each other, their faces contorting into twin expressions of confusion and shock. Then Kaidan erupts in a dopey grin and plants a kiss on my lips. His mouth ghosts by my ear. "No matter what happens, you are the strongest person I know. I love you, Pandora Shepard."

Epilogue

A shrill scream scrapes the windows and nearly draws blood from the ears of everyone in the room, including me. Kaidan's used to it from years on the battlefield, but poor Chakwas usually deals with patients knocked out from their injuries. Even with my unusually high pain tolerance I can't keep a good cap on expressing said hurt. Chakwas probably now regrets proclaiming herself my sole caregiver. Kaidan can only do so much, and I'm stuck lying in bed crying bloody murder. I just want this thing out of me. Is that too much to ask? Yes, I love my child, but I can only put up with so much. I'm sure Kaidan feels the same. His hand is currently about one contraction away from shattering. And that's the human arm doing all the squeezing. My left arm grips the unbreakable metal of the bedrail. If the walls aren't soundproof I need to apologize to everyone in the surrounding rooms. No one should have to put up with this.

Chakwas bustles about the counters at the end of the room. She mutters something about how I should've come in sooner. I'm sorry, Chakwas. I didn't know what going into labor felt like. I thought it was another case of my body screwing with me. There were plenty of occurrences, making this the most trying ten months of my life. Even N7 training and being brought back to life didn't affect me this much. This baby was never meant to be, and yet here we are. It's lucky I gave the crew a week's shore leave around my supposed due date. It took six days for me to give in and check into Huerta. Turns out that was a mistake.

Another particularly vicious contraction rips through me. This prompts Kaidan to smooth my hair back, whispering scant comforts and loudly adding, "Chakwas, you better come over here before someone loses a limb."

She rushes over with an armful of potential drugs to ease my discomfort. None of them will work; Jacob forwarded me everything Miranda wrote about the Lazarus Project. I'm immune to all known body-altering substances. This entire time I've gone without painkillers. I brush her offering aside with a frantic shake of the head. Stop screwing around and get this baby out of me! I follow her orders to a tee, reluctantly releasing Kaidan's hand before I completely destroy it. The poor man never complained, never let go, went so far as to create biotic barriers to protect himself from my enhanced strength. All coming to fruition when Chakwas orders a final push. Ten minutes later I'm collapsed against the pillows, trying to calm myself down so I meet my child with a clear head. The baby is quickly rinsed off and given a thorough examination from Chakwas, then swaddled in a blanket.

Kaidan beams at the bundle in his arms, bouncing it to quell the wailing. He places it against my chest, keeping his arms under mine, knowing I don't have the ability to hold anything. A tiny face peers out at me. "We have a girl, Dora."

"We have a girl." I echo his words incredulously. We consciously avoided names, avoided becoming attached to a child who had a high chance of killing the both of us. Now we're both lying here exhausted. I smile at Kaidan, then at my daughter. Faint orange and purple hues light the room, replacing the darkness I insisted upon. My voice cracks hideously at my first attempt to speak. I try again. "Her name is Dawn Nicole Alenko." Little Dawn Nicole is here, clutched to my chest, proving that time does heal some wounds.