Among the gunshots and cracking biotics, the phantoms flashing in and out with their shields, a single mistake, a single moment's hesitation can be fatal – yet Shepard freezes. The phantom rushing at him in a whirl of biotics and steel, is a black figure with blue sheens dancing on her thighs, hips and breasts, the momonolecular blade aiming for his heart, yet Shepard's finger still hesitates to pull the trigger.

Seeing Shepard freeze like that, Liara nearly freezes herself, but then an opposite extreme overcomes her: rage. All the Lazarus and Akuze materials they were basically stumbling over during their progress through the Chronos station, were just a prelude to this, to the final blow in the form of some hapless implanted girl in Jack's battle suit.

With her left hand, Liara raises a barrier before Shepard; with her right, opens a singularity that draws the phantom in. The moment the woman loses her footing, her personal shield flares once, twice, and then a neat hole appears in the middle of her chest.

Liara doesn't waste the time to nod to Garrus; this all is just a prelude, and –

Kai Leng materializes just behind Shepard's back.

And before she or Garrus can even yell a warning, Shepard swirls, his omniblade flashing. Liara has seen him fight many a desperate fight, but never to exhibit such a level of controlled rage. This time, the Cerberus assassin doesn't stand a chance. His bloodied face is contorted in disbelief as his body slowly hits the ground.

Soon, except the team, there is not a living soul left.

Stepping over Kai Leng's corpse, Shepard kneels next to the body of the woman in black and blue hardsuit.

"It's not her, Shepard. It's not Jack, "Garrus says, while Liara's throat tightens painfully as she echoes the words in her mind. But she cannot, cannot, be the one speaking now.

With trembling hands, Shepard removes the helmet. The face underneath has olive features and closely cropped, curly black hair. It's not her.

It's not her, and a part of Liara cannot help but calculate, what if she was.

As if reading her mind, Shepard looks up at her. Through the visor, she cannot see his eyes but she knows the look: the one telling her that the lie she had offered him to save his face – and hers – no longer works.

Shepard gets up, still facing her, but Liara never learns if he meant to call her out on it right then and there. The comm buzzes, and Admiral Hackett informs them that even though they haven won a battle, they may have just lost the war. The Reapers have seized the Citadel and flocked around the Earth.

In victory, a loss: Liara recalls that human history even has a name for it, after some ancient general. She knows what that Pyrrhus must have felt like; she fells like that on many, many levels.

A/N: It's been quite some time, so just a little reminder: if you recall Kai Leng thinking about a surprise for Shepard, this was it, making use of the highly specific hardsuit that Jack had left behind during the evacuation of the Grissom Academy.

Also, I have allowed myself a little liberty here, making Hackett the one telling Shepard that the Reapers seized the Citadel, as I don't really see why Vendetta would, or should, know about it. Besides, telling them only after they have succeeded and won the fight, makes for a bigger gutpuncher.

Thanks to everyone still following, as well as all the new readers. The end is coming near, and though I can't make any promises, I hope to update more frequently during the summer.