Champagne corks popped and the cheering was loud when the Normandy appeared off the port bow. People were jumping around boisterously and hugs were common. It was, in a way, the final shot in a war that had redefined the galaxy's existence. The comms channel was redirected to the loudspeaker and everyone heard Joker's voice for the first time since the defeat of the Reapers, "Transit complete. Looks like we made it!"

The group of old crew that had coalesced and chatted through the morning on the Alliance flagship were all smiles and handshakes, their reactions more solemn and bittersweet than the rest. Those happy few, those thicker than blood compatriots could now take their ease with the return of their companions. It was finally over for them all. Implicit in their handshakes, high-fives and hugs was the undercurrent of loss for those not there. Wrex, Garrus and Jacob cavorted loudly with the rest of the surviving crew, their boisterousness atoning for the other's absence in some small way. Stories were told about the lost crew; about Kaidan who sacrificed himself on Virmire; Mordin, who did the same for the Krogan on Tuchanka; Legion, for his Geth to become more than they had ever been; for Zaeed and Samara and Javik, who died along with epic numbers of their foes during the final battle; and for the mysteriously missing Kasumi that everyone hoped was pulling the disappearing act of the century.

"This is the SSV Normandy requesting permission to dock, Kilimanjaro," came Commander William's smooth contralto.

"Permission granted, Normandy. Proceed to the starboard docking array. Welcome home," was the response from the Dreadnought's comm officer.

The Hephaestus appeared from the Relay next while the Normandy began docking maneuvers. Garrus perked up at the sight from the viewports and Shepard put a pleased and calming hand on his shoulder to keep him steady. Comms gave them the customary challenge and received a reply, "This is Captain Vedra Tanner of the SSV Hephaestus. Transmitting ident and requesting permission to dock."

"Identity confirmed, Hephaestus. You may proceed to the port docking array. Welcome home, and well done."

Finally through the relay appeared the strange silhouette of the Rachni freighter, its alien configuration aweing the remaining viewers at the port before slowing to a respectful stop. Shepard stepped away from the celebrations to set her eyes upon it, unnoticed but for the cameras of the media.

The yearning she felt for its lone Asari inhabitant swelled in every fiber until she thought she might burst from it; but she would nevertheless be forced to wait. The Dreadnought had only two berths for vehicles of the Normandy and Hephaestus' size, and their crew disembarked to be reunited with friends and loved ones first. She moved to the fore with Steve Hackett to greet them all as propriety dictated and took pleasure in that task despite the impatient desire that prickled her skin.

The reunions happened one after another, including a raucous mauling that Tali'Zorah gave Garrus Vakarian on sight. Their exuberance had everyone applauding with shouts of encouragement before the Turian took the Quarian's hands and smoothly dipped her for a kiss on her faceplate, which turned the approval to widespread applause.

Eventually the two now famous ship Captains stepped aboard and shook hands. Shepard, Hackett and the rest of the assembled crews saluted them to the cheers of the crowd and received a salute in return before the formalities relaxed into a more casual homecoming.

"Great job, you two," Hackett said to them both before Admiral Inez stepped forward to speak to the assembly.

"We've all been eagerly monitoring your exploits. I want you to know just how proud we are of your efforts, and welcome you back home to Sol. The work you've done has charted the way for the rest of the galaxy and now it's time for us to forward that progress," she said in a deep, proud voice, "You've earned a well deserved rest, and I've assembled crews to pilot your ships home. Take your time here, then coordinate with Master Sergeant Lewis to collect what belongings you need before you ship to the location of your choice."

Ashley shook Hackett's hand with a warm expression before turning to the new Admiral, "Thank you, Ma'am. Nothing we did would have been possible without all of your coordination. You really saved our bacon out there and we couldn't be happier to see your faces right now."

Shepard noticed Ashley's gaze flicker to the side, where Lieutenant Commander Vega stood quietly in his dress blues with the remnants of Ashley's family. The moonstruck look in his eyes warmed her heart. Ashley had not only redeemed the unjust shame of her grandfather, she had returned a hero of the Alliance and found a partner who shared her deep convictions for devotion, loyalty, and service. All was decidedly well on that front.

Vedra, on the other hand, looked decidedly gun shy. Ashley had reached out to Shepard a few weeks before to discuss her specifically, detailing what level of involvement she had in the attempt on Liara's life and what she had done to avoid the conflict. It was understandable she would feel guilt with regard to the events, especially when facing Shepard, and soon Liara, together; and Shepard promised to make overtures to the young woman. So she stepped forward, meeting the young engineer's eyes unwaveringly before holding out an earnest hand.

Vedra looked at her, then her hand, then back to her eyes, the conflict clear in her gaze. Shepard waited quietly for that storm to pass, unmoving, until Vedra took her hand in her own, sorrow twisting her visage. Shepard felt her own grief surge in response but swallowed and managed to keep her face still before addressing her, "Good to meet you, Tanner. I've heard a lot about you."

Vedra bit her lip to try and maintain some semblance of calm, though her voice shook with unshed tears, "And you, Shepard. It's an honor to meet you."

Shepard pulled her close so she could speak privately into her ear, "I want you to know you are forgiven. You have nothing to fear from me. Thank you for helping save Tali's life."

Vedra's face dropped nevertheless, though she managed to respond in kind, "You and yours have nothing to fear from me, or anyone I know, ever again. I would die before I let that happen, I swear it."

Shepard withdrew so she could look the woman in the eye, and nodded in understanding. Then she gestured to where an older couple waited with patient smiles. Vedra turned to follow her gaze and grinned, then nodded to Shepard before moving to embrace her parents.

She turned then to look at Ashley and could see she was as eager to get to her loved ones as Shepard was. Still, an acknowledgement was required, and desired. She walked forward and embraced the Spectre gruffly, then withdrew to behold her no longer as a subordinate, but as an equal.

"Words can't express how proud I am of you, Ash," she said, "You are everything I knew you could be, and more."

Ashley grinned widely, memories brimming behind her eyes, "Thanks Shep. That means a lot."

They shared a lengthy moment before Shepard glanced at the waiting group, "Go on. They've been waiting for you long enough. We all have."

Ashley nodded but squeezed Shepard's shoulder a moment longer, "Thank you. For everything."

Shepard grinned, "Don't get too comfortable. I may call on you before long."

Ashley withdrew and very formally saluted the woman standing before her. She held it even when Shepard blushed and looked away, but then Vega was saluting, and then Vedra, and before long everyone in the room was following suit, including Hackett and the Admiral.

Shepard looked around at the crowd, and the cameras, and the dignitaries who had also quieted respectfully for her. What else could she do but return that sentiment? She straightened despite her fashionable but very civilian slacks and blazer, saluting as crisply as a new recruit while fighting tears that blurred her vision.

She held it as long as decorum demanded, then lowered her hand; the rest of the room following suit. She looked around at as many of their faces as she could in thanks. It was then that a familiar shape entered the room, blue eyes searching for and finding their target.

The sight of Liara stole Shepard's breath. She swallowed and wiped the dampness from her eyes with the back of one hand while beholding her in disbelief. They stared for a moment before walking at a dignified pace toward one another. Gone were the crowds and the cameras, gone was the ship and its sterile bulkheads; all that remained were the two of them. They stopped short, their eyes devouring each other's faces until Shepard remembered what she had practiced for weeks, only then moving her hands in a slow and solemn greeting that was intimately familiar to the Asari.

Liara took Shepard's hands in her own before she could complete the greeting, moving close enough for the tips of their noses to brush, then leaning forward until their foreheads met. There they looked into each other's eyes, the moment surreal.

The feeling of Liara's hands in her own was electric. Shepard lightly rubbed her palm with the pad of a thumb, all the while continuing to stare into the most beautiful deep blue eyes in the galaxy. They darkened ever so slightly and she knew that Liara wanted to meld with her.

She wanted it too, so badly that the force of it made her cautious. They were in a room full of people watching them closely, and her eyes delivered that warning to Liara. The piercing look she received in return asked only for her trust, and Shepard knew that in the end she couldn't deny her anything on this day of days. When she acquiesced, Liara's eyes darkened again and she felt a light brush against the corners of her mind. The gentle movement of their spirits into the other was a key to the shackles of disappointment that weighed their souls, and when that weight dropped from them they shared a sweet breath of air, their brows lifting in terribly needed relief. Such was the pleasure of that sudden freedom that they were surprised by the sound of laughter, realizing after a moment that it was coming from their lips.

Shepard slipped her arms around her beloved's waist and lifted her up high into the air, spinning while she cried her name, "Liara!" There was childish delight on Liara's face, her peals of laughter like bells in Shepard's ears as the Asari clung to her shoulders. Their souls entwined in familiar patterns and Shepard lowered her slowly to the ground, their lips likewise entangling to a rising cheer from the room. Liara's fingers curled into Shepard's hair as they kissed, tears falling unabashedly from both their eyes when they parted.

"You're really here. You aren't a dream," Liara said breathlessly.

Shepard's arms tightened and she nodded, "I'm here. Always and forever."

Liara smiled widely and nodded while their meld intensified. Past events and future fears gathered like stormclouds and they each promised to explore them at the same time that they erected barriers to their view. This level of control was bliss to Shepard and she promised a full accounting later...hopefully much later. What she wanted to do in the meantime filled Liara up and threatened to deepen the connection embarrassingly.

They reluctantly broke the meld and the deep kiss they weren't even aware they were sharing before they perceived that the cheering had turned to chanting; boots stomping the ground primally to accompany the embrace and kiss of others as full of promise as theirs. Then, suddenly, Tali was among them, throwing arms around Shepard while they both giggled in delight; and the crowd closed in around them in spontaneous celebration.

Tevos' shuttle dropped them off at the cabin, the Councilor's escorts neatly preventing paparazzi from discovering the quiet location. Shepard and Liara gave their heartfelt thanks, but Tevos would not stay at their invitation. She gave them both a knowing look before the shuttle lifted, and raised a hand in farewell before heading back to Vigil.

All that remained after her departure was the sound of the wind in the trees and that underlying sigh that was the voice of wide open places. The leaves had all fallen in brilliant colors, carpeting the ground while the trees themselves reached into the cold and peerless afternoon sky. Liara stood there beholding the beauty of it, drinking in the sound of silence and feeling the approach of winter on her skin. Shepard said nothing, choosing instead to draw near and slide her arms around Liara's waist from behind to hold her close.

The Asari shivered and it was from more than the cold. Shepard's warm breath was slow and even against the back of her crest, and her own hands covered Shepard's where they folded over her stomach. Her fingers traced delicately over the skin of Shepard's hands and she could feel goosebumps rise wherever they wandered.

"It's beautiful," she whispered reverently, looking out over the growing town far below them.

"You're beautiful," Shepard replied against her ear. Her voice was deep and full of emotion, sending a thrill through her limbs. "You're also shivering," she added with a note of concern, "Let's go inside?"

Liara nodded. There would be plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, now. Shepard took her hand and they walked toward the house made from what appeared to be native trees. Liara wondered at its construction and that Shepard and Garrus had built it themselves. The door opened as they approached and a very formal looking dark-haired man bade them enter.

Shepard smiled and led her into the wide open interior before he shut the door behind them. Shepard turned and introduced the stranger, "Liara? This is Zhuang Sueh-Yen. Zhuang? This is Doctor Liara T'Soni." She cocked a thumb at him, "He's one of a few people I probably would have lost my mind without, so be nice to him."

Liara smiled obligingly and took his hand in the human custom, but her eyes were inexorably drawn to her surroundings. The air was warm from a fire in one wall, a well lit kitchen drew her eyes, set against dark granite, comfortable seating focused on wide open windows, and the sound of water beckoned her toward the sight of aquatic sea-life set into panels for viewing. The ceilings rose high and away but recessed lighting kept the shadows away with elegant sophistication.

"I….how did you?" Liara looked at Shepard incredulously, "You are a soldier, not an architect."

Shepard grinned self-consciously, "This isn't a complicated building and trust me, I had help when I needed it. When I was a kid, the whole neighborhood would pitch in to help build a place for new couples, you know, a family just getting started. Things were rough on a colony without that kind of assistance. Of course, kids grew up a lot faster in that environment and we were fully expected to help. The concepts aren't difficult once you have some repetition under your belt and...well I had some of that. The rest came with instruction vids."

Liara smiled softly at the nostalgic look on Shepard's face, "You've never mentioned your childhood before."

A blush blossomed on Shepard's cheeks and crept down her throat, and Liara realized it might be because Zhuang was still there. She cleared her throat and gave him a proper greeting, "So sorry, I just never expected anything like this. I am so happy to meet you."

"The feeling is mutual, Doctor T'Soni," he said, bowing his head briefly before looking to Shepard, "Will there be anything else?"

"No. Thank you very much for keeping the place ready today. If we need the shuttle we'll call."

"Of course," he replied smoothly, then gathered up his reading materials from where they were stacked on a table beside the couch. He turned before he opened the front door and said simply, "Welcome home." before departing.

"Home," Liara said as if she were tasting the word for the first time.

"Does that mean you like it?" Shepard asked hopefully.

"It doesn't seem real," she said quietly.

Shepard nodded and took her hand again, "Let me show you the upstairs. It'll sink in."

Floating stairs were anchored into the granite near the fish wall, allowing Liara to see Shepard's new pets up close before ascending. The granite wall continued on their left as a hallway opened before them, three doorways exiting off to the right. The first doorway stood open but dark and Shepard led her inside without pause.

"Lights," her lover said softly, and illumination rose to reveal a state of the art office, the windows to the right now becoming translucent and revealing an even better view of the downward slope of the mountainside, Vigil beyond. Monitors came to life and awaited interaction, and she looked to the left to find a mahogany bookcase rising to the ceiling. It was mostly empty, a model of the Normandy SR-1 displayed prominently in the center; the rest was hers to fill as she saw fit.

"Miranda helped me with this part," Shepard said gratefully, "She says it has everything you need to communicate with your contacts and access the Data."

"It's perfect," Liara breathed, "Just perfect." She smiled and turned to Shepard, gazing into green eyes glowing with pride, love and something else, something so tightly reined in that its twin, coiled within her breast, ached in response. Shepard had always been in staunch control of her emotions. She had been patient when they were first together, always restraining herself to allow Liara to learn, to deal with her own fragility and newfound feelings, to maintain decorum in front of her crew; and now as certainly as this planet orbited its star she was restraining herself because of their lost child and the effect that might have on Liara's desires for intimacy.

But Liara had grown impatient with patience. She had come to despise their shared stoicism, as associated as it was with things that would inevitably keep them apart. She wanted to sate what had woken her on more nights than Liara would care to admit. She wanted to give Shepard what she obviously needed, wanted to fill her up with it until her lover begged for respite. She wanted to make Shepard lose that terrible control.

She lifted her hand to cup the side of Shepard's face and approached close enough that she could feel the woman's breath hitch on her own lips. She stayed there, intimately close but not close enough, their eyes locked in a stare that revealed everything about what they felt. Liara saw her pupils dilate and felt the warmth of arousal beneath her palm; but still Shepard resisted, her eyes continuing to ask cautious questions until Liara put an end to them with a warm tongue, licking its way from Shepard's chin to the tip of her nose.

She watched it shatter Shepard's composure with satisfaction, the groan that caressed her ears making her growl low in her chest, "You have another room you want to show me?" She asked in a tone Shepard had never heard from her, one that made her lose her words until she nodded hurriedly in response.

"Then show me."

Shepard took her hand and pulled her, walking backwards farther down the hall, unwilling to tear her eyes away from the object of the need that weakened her knees. She backed into the last doorway, the room already lit by the same vista that could be seen from Liara's office. She didn't notice the aged wood furniture or any of the clever decorations or curtains. The entirety of her existence focused on the woman before her and the bed just beyond her visage.

Liara dimly recognized that she had ripped the forest green blazer from Shepard's shoulders because the woman's muscular arms were momentarily pinned by the garment. The hunger that would no longer be denied pressed her body against her prey's hard enough to give her lips and teeth access to the bared neck before her. Her hands slid round to pull Shepard's hips close to hers, and she tasted the flesh of her throat fully before raking her teeth across it. The startled whimper she received in response to that bite drove her to push Shepard until they both fell onto the mattress.

"God….Liara! Shepard gasped, pressing herself up against Liara's thigh instinctively, her hands cupping Liara's face and her deft fingers sliding behind to caress dips in her crest that made her burn. She could feel the slickness of that need inside her undergarments and suddenly felt constricted by her own clothing.

Shepard was meanwhile entranced by the aggressive expressions moving across Liara's face. Her liberated hands slid under Liara's form fitting medical tunic in response to her wordless plea and caressed the skin of her stomach, dragging up to cup and squeeze her breasts.

When Liara felt Shepard tweak her taut nipples the sensation cut through her stupor. She came to herself long enough to lay her body down on Shepard's and kiss her with a desperation that couldn't be in any way mistaken. Liara's fingers tangled into the red hair that had grown past her lover's shoulders and she nearly cried from the pleasure that simple touch brought her. She withdrew and looked into those emerald eyes once again, asking without asking to delve into her mind.

Shepard nodded without hesitation and they were buffeted by the force of the meld that followed. Their desires were laid bare and Shepard was taken aback by the ferocity she found. It was love, it was desire, but it was also anger and fear...and possessiveness. Every experience they had together seemed to be born at the end of their world. In a way, Liara had acclimated to that constant potential loss; to the point that any satisfaction she felt was inextricably linked to some nameless dread.

While Shepard enjoyed the validation of her attraction, this was not okay. Liara felt that gentle disapproval, then felt herself flipped on the bed until she was enfolded in Shepard's arms and anchored by her weight. Shepard's kiss was gentle and slow in comparison, and Liara felt the drumming of her pulse ease with the calm assuredness that enveloped her.

I'm not going anywhere. I'm here. Shhhhh…

Liara felt hot tears slip down her cheeks as she responded, I know. I know but…

Shepard placed her hands on either side of Liara's face and through the meld could see herself with Liara's eyes as well. She gathered the sad brightness that was Liara within and cradled her soul with her own while their eyes stared into one another's. The ache that echoed between them was as sweet as it was bitter, for they were alive, alive, alive.

It's over Liara. We're safe, now. It's finally over.

And then no more words were said, comfort given and received instead with the truth of their souls. As one they bared their bodies to join in that most sacred of unions until the physical, mental, and spiritual realms merged, time marked only by the beating of impassioned hearts and tears that fell to sweetly salt their kisses.

The sun set and the stars wheeled before exhaustion finally claimed them, but Liara woke when the first beams of the sun shone directly on where they lay entwined. She took a deep breath and turned to gaze upon the one she loved more than life, expecting to see green eyes staring back at her as they had every time before.

To her surprise, Shepard lay bonelessly in her arms, breathing slowly and quietly.

She had slept through the night.