Earth March 23, 2187

What would happen after the Reaper war wasn't something Shepard had spent much time thinking about. There'd been too many uncertainties to consider the possibility of an after. For her, the war had always been a life sentence. It was a life of fighting biomechanical abominations and arguing with politicians. It was trying to rescue civilians and hunting down Prothean artifacts and praying that whatever they recovered wouldn't be their death. There were too many times that civilians turned out to be monsters in disguise and far more times that the artifacts made things worse.

Most who fought in the war died, and Shepard didn't expect to be much different from them. She didn't expect to survive, so she hadn't planned for what would come after.

The world could, and would go on after she was gone. What was one human amongst a galaxy of people?

It wasn't like her crew hadn't asked her about her plans. Vega had all but cornered her to learn she wanted to retire someplace warm. It wasn't entirely a lie.

She loved the heat and the calm of peace.

But it wasn't hers.

Her survival on Akuze proved that. Eden Prime and everything that happened after proved it. She thrived in the chaos of battle. It was why they'd chosen her to be a spectre.

She was never meant for peace, but maybe she could bring it.

The crucible flickered with blue energy, too bright and loud in the echoey white room.

She'd die here.

She'd die, with a dozen regrets burrowed beneath her skin. Every rushed decision and poor call she'd ever made had led to this, to the gun in her hands.

This was the catalyst. The choice that could end the war.

It could.

She raised the gun.

It could end everything.

Or it could end nothing.

Either way, she was going to die. She had to try.

She emptied her pistol into the crucible's power core.

There wasn't a big moment where her life flashed before her eyes. She could close her eyes anytime and see the same thing. The same house on the shoreline calling her back. It always called her back.

Earth October 3, 2170

It was rare that Lila dreamed of anything but the shore. It was the same nightmare she'd been having for almost seven years. This one had felt different. Where shore felt unreal, like sand flowing through her fingers, this nightmare had felt too real.

She could still feel the unbearable heat of the explosion that ended it burning off her skin, her flesh melting off her skin, her throat aching as if she really had inhaled fire. It was never fire in her dreams… Unless it was becoming a new trend.

For a few moments, she was certain she'd been on the Citadel- a place she'd never been. She'd never left Earth. But there was an itching feeling she couldn't shake, a sense of dread that if she looked outside

Earth would be burning.

That she'd died in the dream wasn't unusual. The fear beneath her skin was normal, but…

Shepard felt weird. She felt hollow. Like she was too small, too weak… Like she was missing something important.

She gripped the threadbare sheet covering her throwing it to the side as she rose for the day. Her fingers caught in knots as she ran a hand through the bleached ends of her hair, resisting the urge to look outside.

She knew what she'd see if she did, and it wasn't war-torn streets. It was trash and cracked pavement and the park where the Reds dealers frequented.

Her place had never been any semblance of nice. But while it was a rundown shithole falling apart on top of her, it was hers. It was the runaways dream, only mildly mouldy and relatively pest-free. She wasn't the only one that lived there, of course. Rent cost more than Red's paid her.

Darius had taken the other room. Her best friend and only other person that knew what had happened on the shore. He was more of an older brother at this point. He was a source of endless complaining, but that was more a trait of their city than a personal one.

Her part of Vancouver was still showing signs of the riots that broken out after the first contact war ended. It was all crumbling infrastructure and combined with the gangs that had moved in… Well, it wasn't a nice area, but it came with employment. There weren't many people willing to employ a pair of teenagers. The gangs didn't discriminate in who they recruited.

She shoved the bathroom door wide open, staring herself down in the mirror.

She knew her reflection. She knew it. So why did it feel so strange to see it? She should have been older, scared, and tired. The bleached ends of her hair were frizzy. Mocking her.

She turned away, stalking into Darrius's empty room to grab the knife on his nightstand. In another life, she'd hacked it too short in an Alliance washroom with a pocket knife- cream tiled walls and bright lights, not the flickering bulb of her mouldy washroom.

That had never happened in this life. It'd been a dream. A big, elaborate dream that felt too real.

She hacked at the blonde ends until there was no trace of them, leaving her hair an uneven mess of red curls.

She stared down her reflection, ignoring the feeling in the back of her mind that it wasn't really a dream. She was sixteen. She'd never been a soldier. She hadn't even considered it, but it was a way out of the gangs, wasn't it? It was a place they couldn't follow her.

Earth October 14, 2170

She'd known joining the Reds was dangerous. From the beginning, they'd asked for too much, attempted to erode the morals at her core, put her and Darrius in constant peril.

They'd run for the Reds, stole, threatened, and now…

Lila had killed for them.

Not for them. She reminded herself. Not them, for Darrius. For her brother.

The gun in her left hand felt heavy in a familiar way. The soft heat from its thermal clip poured over her fingers as she caught her breath. Lila flipped the safety on before tucking the gun in the waistband of her jeans.

She stepped over the body of a rival gang member with swift steps, the hole in his chest painting his white shirt red. The stain of a tattoo marred his throat just like it did for the twelve others she'd killed — a black snake eating its tail.

Beyond him was the remains of Commandough pizza, her favourite of the Red's fronts. Most days, it was frequented by teens and affiliates of the Reds. It was the only place on the Reds payroll that actually did what it advertised. Store business and gang business worked out of different doors. Its front served subpar pizza, and its basement hosted illegal poker nights and stocked runners with their drug of choice. Ouroboros violated that.

Lila stopped when she reached Darrius, kneeling by his side. Her fingers were already reaching for the pocket knife in her coat pocket, pulling it free so she could cut his shirt out of her way. She pressed the remains of the shirt against the bullet wound in his shoulder, trying not to think about what would have happened if she hadn't pulled him out of the way in time.

He still had a pulse, at least. It was faint, but it was there. Lila flexed her hand to activate her omni-tool to tap out a trio of numbers.

The cashier behind the counter squawked as he watched her. "I- I- You can't call the cops, Shepard!" He hissed.

She glared in his direction. "How much you want to bet they've already been called, Finch?"

"The Reds will take care of it."

She could hear the dispatcher speaking over her omni-tool. "My brother just got shot! You can tell the Reds I fucking quit!"

She gripped Darrius's hand in the ambulance more for herself than him. She only let go when they reached the hospital, and he was wheeled away.

In Darrius's absence, the adrenaline fueling her had dissipated, leaving her alone in the hallway outside his surgery room. Her hands were still covered in his blood, soaking stains into her sleeves. It was only a matter of time before the cops showed up and behind them the Reds. Both would demand answers she didn't have.

What could she even say? They'd lived because Darrius had made the same lame joke she'd heard in a dream. Would they believe it was her first time holding a gun? That it was her first time in a serious fight?

Lila shouldn't have known how to do any of what she'd done. Urban gunfights, military tactics, combat first aid…

Lila shouldn't have been so calm. Her instincts shouldn't have been right. But she'd reacted like a soldier without a second thought.

Regardless of the unanswered questions, there was one answer she did have.

Finch.

There was no doubt that the bastard had already ratted out her early retirement from the Reds. More than that, there were the cops. She eyed the pair watching her from across the hall.

"Before I talk, I want a lawyer," She paused. "And I want Darrius protected."

Earth October 20, 2170

The tail the cops had forced on her was almost too easy to lose. The military tactics she'd picked up from her dream had proven themselves useful in that regard; if it even was a dream.

Over two weeks of deja vu had sown a seed of doubt in her. Every action she took and every word she said was annoyingly familiar. It was irritating enough that she'd resorted to hunting down proof.

There was a fine between paranoia and intuition, and apparently, it was drawn in the Alliance databases.

It hadn't been hard to break in. Security was a nightmare. There were at least a dozen new Alliance recruits with next to no security on their omni-tools. Or maybe her modified VI was just that good.

It hadn't taken much to reprogram it to look for Alliance ID's. Once she had that, well. It was a matter of finding someone who hadn't changed their default password. In her dream, their default password was a combination of a person's ID number, birthday, and department. It wasn't surprising when it worked.

It was a matter of waiting for her code to bypass restrictions and navigating files for what she wanted, something impossible. The name Saren Arturius specifically.

If her dream had any merit, he would exist. Files usually had pictures and vids if she was lucky. What she wasn't expecting was to find any of it. Or to recognize his service history.

He'd taken more than his fair share of names during the first contact war, and when it ended, he'd taken more. Not enough to renew the fighting but enough that the Alliance took notice.

Then there was the issue of the first human spectre — David Anderson — one more name she recognized. The result of their mission together was also familiar.

The more she dug into both of them, the more familiar names showed up.

Karin Chakwas, Steven Hackett, Charles Presley…

She'd never been off Earth. She'd never been out of the province either. It didn't make sense.

Unless it hadn't actually been a dream at all.