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Just This Once

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Gina had expected death to hurt more.

But it was like...falling asleep. She could feel herself dissolving, the light of the Crucible flowing into and around her body in a corona of sparks. The arms of the device shifted under her fingers like they were alive, as if they were magnets and her hands were magnets of the opposite type, but she held on tight.

Or was it magnets of the same type that repelled each other? Gina was just a soldier, but Samantha would have known. Gina thought of her with a sad, dreamy affection. Such an unexpected gift, to find love like that before she died. She hoped Samantha wouldn't miss Gina too much when she was gone.

Shepard

It was strange. Part of her was at peace, glad to finally be at rest, to be done with this war. She was so tired. But there was a little voice in her head, so soft she could barely hear it, shouting Nonononono. Gina felt a flash of irritation pierce her melancholy calm: what use was self doubt now? And it wasn't as if she'd made the decision easily. To die? To follow the Illusive Man's doomed example, to somehow think that she could control the Reapers herself? It was hubris of the worst sort. But the only other alternative had been genocide, and Gina refused, had always refused, to consider genocide an option. She would not murder an entire race out of misguided caution.

Shepard

There was pain now, but not in her hands. Her hands she couldn't even feel any more. There was a pressure against her chest and back, as if someone was messing around with her armour. Was she wearing armour? She couldn't remember. Gina tried to concentrate but her mind felt fuzzy and vague. Things started to go black, and she thought this is it.

And yet, it wasn't. Not quite. On the one hand, her vision was dominated by the darkening image of the Crucible and it's bright blue-white light. But she could also see...a face, blocking the light, staring at her with a calm, determined expression. The face was pale and ghostly, a smooth silver-blue streaked with dirt and grease and blood. The eyes glowed with a strange yellow light.

"I'm sorry," she found herself saying to the face. Sorry for what?

"It's quite alright, Shepard," said the face, and then everything went dark for real.


Shepard woke up in James's lap.

As she painfully opened her eyes Gina could feel him subtly shift, and then groan. "Hey, Lola," he said softly, his voice sounding tired but affectionate. She could feel his hand on her shoulder, his hold was gentle but there was tension in his arm, as if he didn't want her to get up and leave.

Had she had sex with James? No, she was pretty sure she'd remember having sex with James.

And...wait, what was she doing here? She should be dead. And on the Citadel. She tried to sit up but Jame's hand tightened on her shoulder, and the moment she lifted her head she started to feel faint, and was forced to lay it back down. There was a bright flash and a loud noise, and she closed her eyes in pain. Gina blinked, hard, trying to clear her vision, and eventually the fuzzy shapes around her started to coalesce into Jame's face, looking worried and blotchy, and behind him...rocks, blurry grey shapes that might be buildings, and the sky.

"James..." she said. "What's going on? What am I doing here?"

As her vision cleared more she could see that he was badly injured, one of his eyes was swollen shut and there was blood all over him. "You tell me, Commander," he said. He was looking at her so sadly, like a puppy that had been kicked and was trying to figure out why.

"Uh..." said Gina. God, her head was so sore, it was almost impossible to think. "I was...I was on the Citadel, and then there was...this kid...and..." She tried to sit up again, James kept his hand on her shoulder but let her lean forward a little. She could now see that James was leaning against what was left of a the wall of a shop. She tried to take in the details of the city around her, but all she could see through the smoke was rubble and bodies. "The Reapers," she said. "Are they still...did they leave?" But they would only leave if she was in charge of them, and she barely felt like she was in charge of herself.

"See for yourself," said James. He indicated his head towards an empty patch of sky, and Gina realised that it wasn't empty, it was filled with the black empty silhouette of a Reaper, it's outline briefly lighting up with a flash every time it got shot by one of the ships buzzing around it.

"But it's not...firing," she said, with exhausted relief.

"Not that one," he said. "Some of them have stopped, I think it was...well, I'll try and explain in a second. But not all of them. The big guy over to our North, he's still firing on all cylinders like there's no tomorrow." As if to illustrate his point, there was a red flash to Gina's left and the ground rumbled with the Reaper's distinctive drone. Looking over, she could see another Reaper, all lit up this time, it's central eye closing as it recharged it's laser.

"God dammit," said Gina. "I thought...I thought I'd fixed it, that we were done. But I was just...I don't know. Dreaming. Hallucinating or something."

"Seems so," said James. "And is that what you thought you were doing? Fixing things?" He sounded...upset with her. Disappointed.

"...yeah," said Gina. "That's what I thought..." She squinted at him, trying to read his expression through the blood and her own fuzzy headedness. "Why? James, what's been happening?"

"You going completely loco is what's happening," he said, his voice tense. "We were all running towards the Conduit, trying not to get shot down by Reapers, and then you started shooting at everyone! At me! At EDI! At the other soldiers!" Gina could feel James's hand tightening it's grip, but when she winced in pain he let her go, waving his hand angrily in the air instead. "And the whole time you looked so calm, like you were having a nice stroll in the park or something." Gina stared at him in shock.

"I...I killed people?" It was too horrible to contemplate. She'd killed her own people with friendly fire before, and it was always terrible, but not like this.

James gave a sigh, and his voice ratcheted down a notch. "...'fraid so," he said, sadly. "We managed to bring you down in the end, but not until...not until there was just me and EDI left. You clocked me a good one in the eye, too, you always were better in a fight. Anyway, we decided you had to be being indoctrinated, and you didn't seem to be able to hear us even when we pulled away your gun, so we loosened the neck of your armour and EDI cut off the blood supply to your head until you fell asleep."

"Oh my god," said Shepard. Indoctrinated...yes. God. It made so much sense. Why would the Reapers just roll over and let her take control like that? Why would they talk to her in the form of some little human child? "James, I...I'm so sorry. I didn't...I didn't know what I was doing."

"Yeah, I kind of got that," he said. "It's ok, you couldn't help it. I'm glad you seem to be doing better now."

"Don't trust me," she said seriously. "I...I don't feel like I'm being indoctrinated, but noone ever does. You have to promise me, if it comes down to me or you, you have to be willing to take me down."

James made a face. "Yeah," he said. "I know. I'm glad you're not trying to shoot at anyone any more, anyway."

"Me too," said Gina. She reached her hand slowly towards her face and rubbed it, then carefully pushed herself up off the ground to sit next to James, leaning against the wall. Now that she had some distance, she could see that he had a nasty crack in his armour near his stomach, it didn't appear to have gotten through but he probably had some bad internal bruising. "Thanks...thanks for keeping an eye on me," she said. "And for letting me use your lap as a pillow. Though was that really your only option? Or did you just decide it was what I'd find most comfortable?" She tried to manage a flirtatious smile, though she was pretty sure it came out as a grimace.

James laughed briefly, and then coughed. "You know you liked it," he said. "And I won't tell your girlfriend if you don't."

"I'm sure Samantha will understand..." began Gina, and then her heart lurched. She was going to see Samantha again. If they didn't all die. If Samantha wasn't already dead.

"Where's everyone else," she said. "Where's EDI?"

"After we knocked you out her and me started towards the Conduit, but I started getting...I don't know. Weird. Like I could hear voices or something. EDI said she thought I was being indoctrinated too, as we got closer, and that I should stay here with you and let her go on ahead, because she was feeling ok. And I was only just barely walking then anyway, so a chance to sit down with my commanding officer in my lap didn't sound too bad."

Gina smiled weakly. "Right," she said. "Ok, so did EDI make it?"

"Far as I can tell. And then a little while later, Reapers started going dark, like they just stopped. Not all of them though, it's like EDI or the Crucible or whatever can only take them out one at a time or it's getting harder or something."

"What about the Normandy? Have they been in contact?"

"Not for a while," said James. "After EDI went into the Conduit I got contacted by Joker, he said EDI up in the ship was acting weird and he had to land in a hurry, and I haven't heard anything since then. I tried contacting them, but...nothing. And it's like there's some static interfering with everything, I can't get through to anyone."

"Oh." Gina tried herself but he was right...no response. She tried not to think about it, about her crew and her ship and her girlfriend maybe all being dead, or crashlanded and injured somewhere on a planet under siege.

James gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder. "I'm sure they're fine," he said, but she wasn't sure he believed it. "Hey," he said after a while, "Is it just me or has our friend to the north not said anything for a while?"

Gina looked left, over a big pile of rubble and some familiar soldiers whose deaths she was also trying really hard not to think about.

And all she could see was black. "Didn't it used to have lights up the side?"

"Yes," said James, "Yes it did. Good going, EDI!"

Gina leaned back against the wall with a groan. "Yeah," she said. "Though...there's a lot of Reapers. If she keeps taking them out at this rate it's going to be one hell of a long war." She just wanted it to be over.

"But a war we can win," said James. Wait, when did she become the one who needed to be given a pep talk? Those Reapers had definitely done a number on her head.

"You're right," she said. She steeled herself and started to pull herself up onto her feet. "Ok, I think I'm as good as I'm ever going to be. You ok to walk, Lieutenant? I think we should try and find some..."

Suddenly the ground shook again, much harder this time, and there was a massive flash of light. Gina fell to the ground and covered her eyes, but she was already blinded, everything was red and black for a while until her eyes got over the shock. She could hear the distant thunder of explosions coming from somewhere far away.

God, she hurt everywhere. But despite the spots in her vision and ache in her bones, Gina's head felt surprisingly clear. She looked up, and saw a sky full of stars...no, not stars. Exploding ships. She hoped to god that they were Reapers and not their own ships.

"James?" she said.

"Right here, Commander," he said in a strained voice from somewhere to the side. "What do you think..."

"Commander Shepard? Lieutenant Vega? You there?" Her radio suddenly, finally burst into life.

"Normandy! Is that you?"

"Alive and kicking!" said Joker, and Gina let out a rough sigh of relief. She had never been more glad to hear his voice. "EDI says to tell you that she's solved your Reaper problem, and that you should probably seek medical attention. Also that she apologises for knocking you out, but that hopefully you won't mind the insubordination."

"Tell EDI she's forgiven," said Gina. "And does she mean...the whole Reaper problem? Not just the ones nearby?"

EDI's voice interjected. "As far as I can surmise, the reason the Reapers came to Earth was to concentrate on preventing anyone or anything from activating the Catalyst. Although I am not as susceptible to indoctrination as yourself or Lieutenant Vega, the heavy concentration of Reapers nearby were able to interfere enough with my functioning, and that of the Crucible, to prevent me from operating it fully. I was able to harness it's power enough to disable individual Reapers, and once I had lowered their numbers enough was able to activate the Crucible's full capabilities. I cannot say for certain, but it would appear that all Reapers in the galaxy have been destroyed."

"But you're ok?" said Gina. "And the geth? What about the mass effect gates?"

"As expected, there have been some casualties amongst the geth during the battle," said EDI. "I have no reason to believe that the mass relays have been affected in any way, though I believe the Crucible does utilise them to spread it's destructive energy more quickly. Why do you ask?"

"No reason," said Gina, feeling awash with relief. So it had all been lies then, part of the Reaper's attempts to manipulate her, to make their "fix" not seem too easy. "Would it be possible for me to speak to..."

"Hold on," said Joker "Admiral Hackett wants to talk to you."

By the time everyone had been filled in and she and James had had their wounds seen to, the smoke was starting to clear and the sun was starting to rise, and Gina could see what had become of London.

It was a mess, buildings were destroyed, there were bodies in the streets, and everywhere around them were the corpses of the Reapers, each blackened and crumpled in on itself and surrounded by signs of a small explosion. It was a good thing their destruction hadn't been more dramatic, or there'd be hardly anything left of the city at all.

But there was also life, soldiers and even a few civilians picking over the rubble, setting up temporary shelters and cataloguing the dead.

And eventually, the debriefing was done, and Gina was able to take a shuttle back to the Normandy. With the surviving medical facilities all horribly overtaxed, anyone who could provide their own medical care was appreciated. James was stable, but too sick to be moved. He refused to tell Gina how many of his injuries she'd inflicted herself.

The Normandy was still grounded, one of her wings had come off in the crash and she sat looking very dilapidated in the middle of an abandoned motorway. But wings could be fixed.

Shepard received a hero's welcome when she got back on board the ship. "I don't deserve your praise," she said, addressing the crew members assembled at the door. EDI's body wasn't there, it was still somewhere in what was left of the Citadel, but from all accounts she'd recovered mentally from her fight with the Reapers the moment after she'd sent out the blast. Everyone else seemed to be alright.

Gina leaned against the medic helping her into the ship, and tried to sound less broken than she felt. "When it came to the crunch...I was weak, and I couldn't stop the Reapers. But that's why I didn't go into this fight alone, why I rely on people like James and EDI and all of you. And it's you, and them, who are the heroes here today." She was darkly amused at her ability to still give inspiring speeches with barely healed injuries and no sleep. Looked like she was definitely out from under the Reaper's thumb. She smiled at her crew. She really was proud of them, though, all of them. "I'll speak to you all again later," she said, "but for now...I need some sleep."

She looked through the throng to search for one particular face, and felt lighter when she finally found it. Samantha politely pushed her way forward to get to Gina and looked like she was about to hug her, before she remembered that they were on duty and in front of the rest of the crew.

"...Commander," she said, her eyes wide and slightly damp.

"Specialist Lieutenant," said Gina. "It's...really good to see you." She thought about putting out her hand for a handshake, but she wasn't sure she could touch her without letting go.

"You too," said Samantha, her voice breaking slightly.

"Would you be able to give me a hand to med bay?" asked Gina. "This medic here has been doing a fine job, but I get the feeling you can handle it from here."

Samantha smiled. "I'll do my best," she said.

"Are you sure you'll be ok, Commander Shepard?" said the medic in a concerned tone, and Shepard wanted to deck him.

"I'll manage," she said through gritted teeth, and then Samantha put her arm around her and everything hurt a hundred times less.

Of course, even outside of her armour Shepard was relatively heavy, and Traynor was a scientist, not a soldier, so she did actually have a little trouble.

"...ok, maybe you can help us to the elevator," she said, and then he and Samantha helped her make it across the room. The trek across CIC had never seemed quite so long before.

Once they were alone Samantha pulled Gina close and squeezed her tight. "I thought you were gone," she said. "Don't ever do that again."

"Ok," said Gina, with a weak smile.

They somehow got her to med bay in one piece, and after a brief once over Dr Chakwas left the two of them alone. Boy did it feel good to lie down on an actual bed.

"You know," said Samantha. "You don't get out of your promise that easily."

"My promise? Oh, the picket fence and two kids and all that. Darn." She smiled up at her, the warmth of Samantha's fingers in her hand keeping her from slipping into the welcome embrace of sleep for a little while longer.

Samantha leaned down and gave her a kiss. "Go to sleep," she said. "I'll be here when you wake up."

"Thinking your pull with your XO will get you out of dereliction of duty?" asked Gina, sleepily.

"Yep," said Samantha with a smile.

"Well you're right," said Gina. "But you should get some sleep yourself. I..." She yawned, and then things went fuzzy.

Shepard had a moment of panic when she woke up into darkness. Had she been hallucinating again? She looked around and noticed a dark form slumped over a nearby chair: Samantha, her hand still holding Gina's tight. She looked up, and saw the familiar windows of med bay, made opaque to keep out the lights from the rest of the ship. She was still home, and everything was alright. Gina closed her eyes and went back to sleep.