At long last it would be hers. She couldn't count how many hours and days had been spent plotting for this purpose or how many contacts she had to make to procure the necessary equipment and material to bring it to fruition. She'd had to use her Spectre status on one occasion to strongarm a recalcitrant customs officer, something she hated doing as it endangered her anonymity, and had to chalk up favors to procure the required chemicals as well, but at long last...her time had come.
Fingers brown with the soil of another world parted the green leaves before her to behold her target. Red and bulbous with a dark green and black cap that streaked down the sides of its body, it dangled before her eyes, oblivious to its fate. Shepard stilled her breath as she spotted something similar concealed behind it. Two of them? How could she have missed that little detail? Never had it been so clear that she was out of practice.
A warmth she hadn't felt since childhood curled her lips into a smile and she reached to gently take each of them into a palm. They weren't as heavy as she would have liked. The differences in gravity and nutrients were simply too hard for her to calculate but they felt sturdy nonetheless...firm with a gentle suppleness that spoke of long days in the sun, of sweetness and reward. She pulled gently at them and with a simultaneous push of her thumbs parted them from the vine.
She beheld them for awhile as the voice of the breeze and Thessian flora took her back to another place, far away and long ago. Their scent begged her to pull them to her nose and inhale, bittersweet memories rising to fill her mind for another moment before she looked up to see Parnitha falling beneath the canopy. Had so much time passed? She rose and settled her precious cargo into a knapsack before rushing to clear away her tools and mess.
With the greenhouse sealed from the salt air she looked around once more to ensure all was as it should be and then headed for the main house at a joyful lope. She nodded to the servants who maintained the gardens before turning the corner to the entryway. She secretly thought they disapproved of her disheveled, dirty clothes here in this little pocket of perfection but didn't care, parting the double doors to the main house with a wave to the guards before heading straight to the kitchen.
"Liara!" she cried in the direction of the stairs. She had no expectation she'd be heard the first time so she called again, "You gotta see this!" Didn't matter, though; the staff would take the message to her directly, just as they moved aside and gave her counter space without her even having to ask. She licked her lips as she gazed at the irregular globes on the stone surface. It seemed almost unforgivable to harvest them; it might even approach the level of sin. Shepard reached for a small bowl and filled it with water to set reverently aside as penance.
One of them was smaller than the other; less developed, less ripe, likely not as quality...all excuses for the ravenous need that quickly took hold of her senses. At once she had a small knife in hand and parted it smoothly, separating the pieces to inspect its flesh. Ruby colored juice pooled beneath the raw-meat colored interior while pockets of white and green seeds appeared to her eyes.
Not bad. Not bad at all. But she needed to make sure, didn't she? It would be the responsible thing to do, after all. Yep.
A quick slice later and a wedge was between her lips and caressing her tongue. She pulled it in and chewed slowly, every taste bud critiquing what splashed. Shepard inhaled and let the air fill her mouth before judging, but her smile never dissipated, only grew. She was fishing in cabinets and grabbing bottles and containers and plates when she sensed someone behind her. She paused for a moment in her furor, not wanting to jostle the hands that slid around her waist and pulled her close.
The swelling of Liara's belly against the small of her back kept their bodies from melding together as they once might have, but the sensation made her sigh happily nonetheless. She turned her head, only just able to make out the face nuzzling the back of her neck before speaking.
"I think this is the one," she said softly, even after all this time unsure Liara could possibly appreciate this pseudo-supernatural thing missing from her world. "Probably needs a lot of work still, but.."
Liara's chuckle was warm against her sweat-slick skin. "Making excuses already?"
Shepard grinned crookedly and hid the blush that warmed her face. "Maybe. You be the judge," she said while slicing a quarter of the larger, gloriously plump tomato on the counter into bite sized chunks before offering one between her forefinger and thumb. "It's called a Black Krim."
She turned and watched Liara eat it, enamored by the simple beauty of her face, rapt with concentration while she chewed.
When Liara's eyes widened a fraction and focused on her with a bemused smile she knew it was good but couldn't resist asking the question anyway, "So? Thoughts?"
"The texture is improved," Liara replied with a slow nod. "Softer, sweeter, but still complex. Is it what you hoped for?"
Shepard didn't answer at first, slicing the rest of the tomato into neat circles before unwrapping a white roll of moist cheese and doing the same. Liara moved beside her silently and she could feel the Asari's probing gaze settle upon her. It was still hard to talk about home, even after years of work acknowledging those bitter memories, but things had slowly gotten better. Better thanks to the person beside her, the person she loved more than life.
"Not quite the same, no," she finally replied. "Dad's were family heirlooms, crossbred over decades. I may never get that tomato again, but this variety seems promising." She plucked two large leaves from a sprig of basil, layering the ingredients on small plates before dowsing them with rich, dark, balsamic vinegar. "Voila!" she declared, and cut both of the snacks into quarters before passing Liara a plate. They both picked up a section and Shepard touched hers to Liara's in a mock toast. "To the old world."
"To the new," Liara countered, her other hand sliding down over her abdomen as a wistful expression passed her face.
"The new," Shepard repeated lovingly before they both popped the treats into their mouths.
"Mmmn," Liara intoned with real pleasure. "That is delightful. What is it called?"
"Caprese, I think," she replied around a mouthful. "Glad you like it. I see more in our future as long as I can collect seeds."
Liara took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. "You should teach us how to care for these plants while you are gone."
Shepard nodded and scooped the seeds from the other tomato, depositing them in the bowl of water she had set aside. "Already taken care of. Besides, I'll only be gone a few days. No big deal." When she felt Liara's fingernails slide along her scalp from the back of her neck up and over her ears her lips curled into a smile, though she focused on drying her hands.
Liara's voice was warm and soft near her right ear, somehow both clinical and sultry in a way only she could manage. "Do you have your speech memorized this time, or are you planning to 'wing it' again?"
She turned to look into her wife's eyes and spun, sliding her hands around the Asari's softening hips. "You could always go with me, you know."
"And spoil your martial bonding event? I would only make things awkward. Besides," Liara dropped her eyes apologetically, "I have only a few more arrangements to make before I am untethered for good. I should focus on that."
"I know," she said softly and with regret. The T'Soni house had a great number of assets after the war but almost as many detractors. Hero, savant or no, the daughter of Benezia T'Soni unnerved the halls of power and her return to Thessia lined them up in opposition. Liara's first instinct, true to her bones, was to redeem her mother's name no matter the cost. She had the gift for political warfare, of course, and assuredly the motivation...but Shepard's advice came instead in the form of an age-old human idiom.
Discretion is the better part of valor.
Liara's purpose wasn't homegrown politics. She wasn't destined to be a Matriarch of her line or to guide her people publicly; she gave all of that up the day she went to Hagalaz. Instead, she needed to use tactics as appropriate to the battlefield as the boardroom, and that was to give your opponent exactly what they expected to see..the theatre of their own desires providing the distraction that allowed the achievement of your real objectives. It meant allowing 'them' to 'win'. It meant liquidating T'Soni holdings one by one in protracted 'battles' that left the 'victors' with comfort in their own abilities and Liara's failings. It meant the annihilation of what remained of her reputation; a chafing task in success but one that also allowed her to deftly maneuver agents into every level of business and government. In the end she would have more influence on her homeworld as the Shadow Broker than she would have ever achieved as the daughter of a Thessian traitor but it didn't sting less, and if anyone understood the pain of dying pride it was Shepard.
Liara sniffed delicately and lifted her eyes, steeled with quiet strength. "I am sending some information for Steven with you. I assume you will be seeing him while you are so close to his home?"
"Yeah," she confirmed with a nod. "He's coming down, too."
Liara smiled genuinely. "Tell him I am sorry to miss it?"
"Sure thing." Shepard cleared her throat and scratched the back of her neck, a tell she was well aware of but could stop no more than the tide when it came to Liara . "The uh...after parties for N7 graduates are sort of...legendary. You um...may hear some stories."
Her wife chuckled at her nervous stammering, eyes sparkling with affection. "Am I supposed to be jealous?"
Shepard smiled with a sudden easy confidence and leaned in close to brush rose lips against violet. "Are you?" she asked with an arching brow.
That affection changed color before her eyes; the warmth of summer afternoons turning frost cold and ice sharp. "Well," she said in a tone that was meaningfully shy of sensual, "If what I have isn't enough to keep you home," she continued, hands wandering into dangerous territory and eliciting a startled gasp from her, "And knowing that you are all being watched even in your most secure locations doesn't daunt you, I simply present as point of evidence one Commander James Vega."
Shepard rolled her eyes dramatically and snorted herself into a chuckle before drawling, "Uh...yeah…" There were few people in the universe as devoted to her. She was 'blood to him' and had been informed to that effect on more than one drunken occasion. Vega hid a tender sense of propriety beneath vast casings of muscle and dirty looks. He'd defend her to the end, verbally or physically; but as he'd grown into himself over the course of his training he'd also picked up the habit of telling her when she was being an ass and would undoubtedly pummel anyone tempting her away from virtue while on her visit.
"Nothing to worry about, then," she resigned with a shrug of her shoulders.
"Anyway," Liara explained, her smile brightening at the change of subject, "We will have our own adventure when you return."
Shepard fairly glowed with pride at the words, her palms sliding over the globe of Liara's abdomen. A world of possibilities lit behind her eyes just like every moment she ever gave in consideration of the child growing there. Their second. This one with all the protection they couldn't provide the first. All the peace. All the love. A future. She pulled Liara close again, unable to get enough of that warmth, her fingertips gliding back around those hips and over the sensitive small of her back just so she could pull a similar gasp from her beloved's lips.
"Our greatest adventure yet," she whispered before pulling the rest of Liara's breath away in a deep kiss.
The meld encompassed them effortlessly. There was no need to ask permission anymore; it was unspoken but agreed upon with every fiber of their beings. Together, entwined with them in the fathomless but welcoming void that was their inner world was their daughter Athena, who knew her name before she was even born. She was quiescent but sensate, her essence stirring joyously at the arrival of their trusted presence.
It'd been a long road to get here. Each of them had been forced to use the tools of their mortal enemy to survive the war and as it was said, looking into the dark meant the dark looked also into you. They'd both done things they weren't proud of; things that crossed the line, things that made them little better than the people they'd fought. It'd taken time and patience for them to reveal that shared guilt to one another and longer to forgive themselves but there had never been a single moment of doubt about why and that had carried them through. They fought each and every day for each other and for what could be, so it was ironic that the one thing Shepard had the hardest time letting go of was the unasked and uninformed impregnation of their first child.
She'd forgiven it at first...of course she had. What was that compared to the end of the world? But it began to rankle as time wore on, as she was forced to delve within herself and heal old wounds, come to terms with what she had done, what had been asked of her and what had been taken from her again and again by the Batarians, by the Alliance, by the Council and by the Illusive Man. To have Liara take as well without asking began to seem similar in scope; their first child Benezia's premature end simply an additional cut to bleed her after she was dry.
It wasn't that Shepard couldn't see the Asari's point of view in that spur of the moment instinct. Liara made the decision because she didn't believe Shepard would agree to the act when they both might die in the next few hours or might force her to stay on the Normandy during the fight of their lives if she had. No, whether or not Shepard agreed with the choice she could still understand the reasoning, could understand why Liara chose any potential future over the end of everything ; but that didn't make the decision right and it sure as hell hadn't boded well for the delicately balanced relationship they tried to build in the aftermath.
Perhaps that's why Liara consented so quickly to the dissolution of her house. Perhaps it'd been a sacrifice on the altar of her commitment to their relationship. In the meld Shepard could sense Liara's conflict about it but the one thing that was perfectly clear was the Asari's intent to make things right; which then made Shepard feel guilty about any judgment at all. What was this when measured against the effort Liara put forth just to return her to life after Alchera? The haunting hypercritical judgement of past deeds was as cyclical and unending as a hurricane and it was in the eye of that swirling dance of emotion that they finally found a lasting truce.
They'd both done the best they could under the circumstances. They'd both made mistakes. They'd both paid for the future with a piece of their souls...but that transaction was now complete. Should they squander it now that they held it in their hands? Never. They spent months in their secret cabin together; sleeping, eating, talking, living and loving. They took the time they'd been so long denied to put themselves back together piece by piece. They sometimes argued, sometimes cried and often nursed their own wounds; but they were never ever alone .
When the relays finally opened they decided to abandon their hideaway and make their way to Thessia to settle in at Liara's ancestral estate. Shepard soon talked to one of the agents beating down her door for appearances and they both began their new 'careers' in the spotlight of the galaxy, all the while plying their secret trade as Shadow Brokers. Well, Liara's secret trade anyway. Shepard's 'protection detail' had proven a bit redundant, what with the House guards and the river of intelligence keeping them weeks ahead of any potential threats.
But Shepard had her hobbies. She had the greenhouse, her ship models, combat simulators (her opponents only knew who kicked their can by the name 'JustanAlt'), her exercise regimen and meditation. She stayed in touch with the gang regularly and they'd had get-togethers, including an epic redux of shore leave in a swank hotel erected near Anderson's old apartment on the fully repaired Citadel (Finally relocated back home in the Serpent Nebula where it belonged). She kept an eye on all things Spectre related too, of course, but was careful to keep them at arm's as she might she was still sometimes tempted to get involved when she shouldn't. That's what Ashley's for had become her mantra. Provide intel only, she told herself, no more click-bang-fu.
It may have taken a while but Shepard eventually came to realize that for the first time she was truly happy about her life, her marriage and the world into which she was about to bring a new wriggling blue baby. Liara's soul echoed that sentiment in their meld; a sense of pleasant, calm contentment wrapping around them all like a soft blanket, but it wasn't long before Shepard could feel her wife's mirth begin to bubble like a spring. She opened her eyes and saw Liara's crinkled with that same laughter, shaking her head ruefully.
"What?" Shepard asked with a broad grin.
"Nothing," she answered enigmatically, then relented, "It is good to see you so excited about going back to Earth."
"Yeah," Shepard said, sobering a bit. "It is good, isn't it?" She paused, struggling to find the words to match her feelings, something they'd worked tirelessly on together. "I guess…" she started, "I guess it's pride. We've come back pretty well down there and to see Vega become an N7 it's…" She took a deep breath. "It's like passing the baton."
Liara caressed Shepard's cheek. "Proof that your job is done?" she asked tenderly.
Shepard nodded "I suppose so," she said before a glint of mischief appeared in her eyes. "Means I can enjoy the lap of luxury in my old age. No doubts, no regrets."
Liara rolled her eyes expressively and retorted, "Shall I begin looking into hospice for you so soon?"
"God, I hope not!" Shepard laughed. "Who else is gonna be able to keep up with our little monster while you're at work?"