A swath of brown hair falls across the woman's face as she tilts her head forward. Her shoulders round self-consciously as she hunches further over her drink. Despite the inadequate lighting and the distance, Elizabeth Shepard can see that the woman is hurting. She longs to touch that lock of hair, to tuck it behind her ear, to whisper assurances. To take away the pain.

Shepard takes a step forward, even though she knows it's wrong. She finds herself at the booth, and sits down without invitation. She tries to convince herself she does it without hesitation, but the lie isn't credible. Every move she makes from here will be a mistake, and she's not the least bit confident.

"Hey," she ventures, the fingers of her free hand twitching on the table as she slides a fresh, cold beer towards the woman.

"Commander—er Beth… I might never get used to that… Sorry, I'm—" Samantha Traynor stops speaking, fingers delicately swiping at her cheeks, trying to dry them, to maintain some semblance of composure. Eventually Traynor's hands still, her gaze falling to her beer. She struggles for poise a moment longer before looking up. "What are you doing here?"

"I was at the bar. I saw you come in."

"I've been here a while."

Shepard shifts her gaze away. "I know."

"Oh."

An awkward feeling settles in Shepard's stomach, but she made up her mind after debating for half an hour. She knows what Samantha is going through, she has first-hand experience. When she smiles at the former specialist, it's in sympathy, traces of her own painful memories lingering below the surface. She says, "Talk to me."

Samantha's eyes snap shut, her mouth twisting in agony. She shakes her head. Unshed tears shimmer among long lashes. Her chest rises and falls slowly as she takes a deep breath. "It's too hard," Sam whispers. Shepard almost misses the admission as the other woman slides across the bench, dragging her purse behind her as she goes. "I have to go."

Shepard panics at Samantha's imminent departure. She beats Sam out of the booth and stands before her, looking down, studying her for a moment. Still seated, Sam hides her face, all of her hair obscuring it. She looks at her shoes. She doesn't seem to want to look at Shepard.

Motion comes naturally to Shepard, just as quickly as rash decisions. She crouches before she knows what she's doing, what she'll say. Down in front of Samantha, so they're on the same level again. "Hey." She reaches forward and holds Sam's face between her palms, gently tipping it so the other woman has to look at her. She strokes Sam's silky hair back from her face, tucking it tenderly behind her ears. She doesn't resist the urge to trail her knuckles down the side of Sam's neck as she withdraws. "I might… have some idea how you feel."

The other woman shivers, almost imperceptibly. Did she lean into Shepard's touch? Just a little? Even if it's a figment of her imagination, Shepard rocks forward, her knees hitting the floor. Genuflecting for a queen.

Sam takes a shuddering breath, her eyes focusing on Shepard's face. Her lips part slightly, quivering. Samantha's gaze darts away for a moment, immediately slides back. She licks her lips, shakes her head again before speaking.

"I'm afraid of her."

"I was too."

"You?" Samantha looks shocked.

Shepard grins. "Of course."

"She's… brilliant, dazzling… so potent."

"But scary as shit," Shepard says, coaxing a hesitant smile from the specialist.

"Yeah. Definitely that."

"She wasn't always that way."

"I know. Everyone else on the Normandy was friendly, sort of connected to one another. She was outside that, so distant, yet—I don't know, maybe vulnerable somehow? It was part of her allure. She was a mystery I felt compelled to solve."

"She opened up to you in a way she couldn't with…" Shepard trails off. She looks down at the dirty floor. She swallows around the lump in her throat, barely hearing herself speak over the brutal rhythm of her own traitorous heartbeat. "With others."

"Liara has never loved half way, Shepard. You know that. She appeared so remote, but when we were together, I thought she gave me everything. I knew softness at her touch. But I didn't see…" Sam shrugs self-consciously, her caramel skin flaming slightly in embarrassment. "After the Normandy was stranded and we finally managed to get communications up, reports arrived indicating that you had died. I finally saw who she really was."

"I'm sorry," Shepard says, placing her hand on Samantha's knee, gently squeezing.

"I knew what she wanted of me. I trusted her; she guided me." Sam touches her own throat, eyes unfocussed, recalling a distant memory. "But I need that tenderness, Beth. She's not—she can't—I just… I need it back."

Shepard surreptitiously glances back towards the bar. She's not sure how someone can look encouraging and heartbroken at the same time, but Liara does. Although Liara remains elegant as she picks up her drink and tosses it back, her movements are tightly controlled. As she swallows, the asari inclines her head, supporting Shepard with a wink and a brilliant smile. When she turns away, before blending inconspicuously into the crowd once again, Shepard notes that the alien's facade rapidly crashes. Liara is exercising every ounce of self-discipline just to walk away.

Suddenly, Samantha's fingers entwine tentatively in Shepard's, regaining her attention. Everything about this is wrong.

But it's not a mistake.

Leaning forward, Shepard touches her forehead to Sam's. "What you're feeling… it's okay, Sam. Trust me." Despite her words, Shepard briefly wonders whether she trusts herself.

"I do. I mean, I want to. But don't you see? She would kill me for this, Beth."

"What 'this'?"

Sam's voice is breathless, faltering. "This," she whispers, leaning down to press a gentle, cautious kiss against Shepard's lips.

Elizabeth's heart begins to hammer rapidly against her ribcage, threatening to burst from its prison. She allows the other woman to control the moment. Responding tenderly with interest, she fights the overwhelming urge to intensify their connection, to drive the kiss deeper. She has wanted this for a long time, ached for it, but she burns to give Sam what she needs. Shepard promises herself she will take nothing that Sam hasn't offered first.

That Samantha's feelings seem to be reciprocal is a gift, one that Shepard does not intend to squander. Liara proposed Shepard to be her antithesis, to provide for Samantha the tenderness that she cannot. Shepard readily agreed. Now, she privately vows that is where her selfishness terminates.

"She won't," Shepard assures, lips caressing Samantha's.

Sam kisses her again, more fervently, before pulling away. "I'm scared."

Lifting Sam's hand, their fingers still entwined, Shepard turns the other woman's palm up. She kisses the heel, then the pulse point of her wrist. "Don't be."

Sam leans back. It is her turn to tilt Shepard's head up to peer directly into her eyes. "You sound so assured." Her eyes narrow in contemplation. Shepard imagines she can see mighty cogs mashing together inside Sam's mind. She wonders what the other woman is thinking. And then, Sam's eyes widen accompanied by a self-deprecating smile. "Oh! I understand. She put you up to this."

Shepard struggles with being called out. "Do you mind?" She struggles against looming disappointment.

"Is this… do you want it—me?"

Taken aback by the question, Shepard cannot keep the astonishment from her face. "I'm surprised you don't know—can't tell, how much I want you."

"She knew."

Shepard's lip quirks. "She knows everything."

"I told her once, long ago, that I was fascinated by you. Perhaps she guessed more than I was willing to admit."

"I think she saw a bit of her old self in you. When I first met her, before she and I… well, she admitted a similar captivation with me."

"You don't care about being manipulated? To know that she's acting something of a puppeteer?"

"Look, it's selfish to say this and I know it, but in the end I get what I want. If you're willing, Samantha, I have never wanted anything more. Not even her."

"Beth, you have to understand something… despite everything, I love her. She's my world, my reason for being. I don't know if I can feel the same about you. Ever."

"I'm prepared to make that sacrifice. No one person can be everything to someone. I will be what she can't be for you, and I will accept whatever you're willing to give me."

Sam lowers her head into her hands, shaking it amusedly. "Goddess, what a mess!"

Shepard smiles. "It's only a mess if you make it. Liara knows what she's doing. She believes she's showing she loves you by giving you what she thinks you want, or need. I already told you how I feel about it. My original question stands: do you mind?"

Peeking through her hands, Sam smiles a little more confidently. "No. How could I mind?"

- x -

Author's Note: People often complain that my shorter stories lack 'context', but as a writer I trust my readers to create their own. We all knows these characters, usually inside and out. I feel that by leaving many details out, the reader is able to plunk the characters into their own imagined situations. Perhaps that is a shortcoming of mine as a writer, I don't know. I like to think of it as having faith in the imaginations of the reader. :)

Regardless, if you want to know more background on this story, it could be considered something of a companion to 'Brokering in Shadows'. I wrote it with that dynamic lingering in the back of my mind.

I would also like to apologize for any lack of, hmm, polish, shall we say? I didn't have my usual editors check this one out for me. I've been out of the writing loop for a bit and I just wanted to see what I could come up with that hasn't been spit shined to gleaming. What you see is my work before it is refined by the capable minds of my spectacular beta readers.