Author's Note: If you're curious where this story comes from, click my profile to find what Mind Over Matter is all about. This one-shot follows. Thanks for reading, enjoy!
"Don't be so nervous," said Dr Chakwas, "you look like you think you're going to be on the menu."
She had a kindly glimmer in her eye as she looked Liara over, up and down. Liara had been scrunching her face at multiple screens projected from her computer when Kaidan popped his head into the infirmary. It turned out Shepard wanted to have dinner with Liara. The asari scientist had frozen up in the middle of an article on prothean rubbish-site excavation-- which was riddled with errors-- and sat in fear while Kaidan and the doctor talked pleasantly in the other room. Dinner?
What did he want? What was she supposed to do? What would she wear?
She had panicked herself into a green and white chemise with long sleeves. Her slippers almost matched. Did it matter? Would he even notice? Was she going to be the only one looking at her shoes?
The doctor's hands went out to brush Liara's sleeves, and then she stood back with a satisfied smile. "You're such a sweet-looking girl."
"But I'm twice your age," Liara said, and winced the instant the words left her lips. Was it too late to turn off her translator unit? An emergency shutdown? "I'm sorry-- I didn't mean.. "
Dr Chakwas-- Helena-- laughed. "Don't apologize. But I suppose some silly old things might get upset if you mention their age. At times we humans are vain and impossibly foolish. Adverse to fact." Chakwas had received Liara's presence with grace and hospitality, aware of Liara's nonhumanity but making it no large issue.
Liara nodded swiftly, chastened. Her eyes went to the floor, where her toes scrunched up in their slippers. "I learn so much from you, Dr Chakwas. Thank you. I-- I don't know when I do something wrong."
"But you learn. You're a smart girl." Chakwas patted her arm. "And I wouldn't be so nervous. He just wants to get to know you a little better. I've known him for years, and he's nothing to be afraid of. I think when it all comes down to it, he is glad you're here to help us."
"I'll say something stupid."
"Nonsense. Just be yourself. He likes aliens." Did a human wink mean the same thing as with the asari? "I'm sure he'd like to know where you came from, what it was like there. Places you've gone. I imagine he'll answer any questions you have for him, but I wouldn't ask him about any of his missions. He can't tell you. And I wouldn't ask him about his family."
"The batarian raid.. "
"Yes. I'd stay away from that, especially if you were going to try and mind-meld with him. You don't want to get him dwelling on all that. You don't want to see. You know, he's actually interested in the protheans."
"I, is that so?" She had always hated giving a lecture to a bored audience. After so much time to prepare-- travel arrangements-- the fatigue of transport-- setting up her presentations on foreign equipment, getting it all to work-- and then speaking to blank faces, sullen eyes, furtive attempts to access omnitools. It was her great joy in life, this ancient and fascinating empire.
Dr Chakwas considered. "His father was writing some scholarly work about them on the side, if I recall correctly. John's always liked aliens. I know he'll be thrilled when you show him all the pictures you've taken. He might not show it, but I know him.. "
Liara brightened. "Well, I've mostly got reports-- essays, geological papers--"
"Stick with the pictures, darling."
Liara took one slippered step out of the medbay, paused, and hugged her computer to her chest. The doctor gave her a kindly smile and encouraged her with a nod. She didn't know if she was supposed to wait, or go over and knock, or, well, what?
One of the crew spoke to her in passing and her translator unit offered, "Hey Liara." This was Jaz. Although she was terrible with names, human faces were easier to tell apart than those of some other aliens. Since joining the crew in an official capacity, Shepard permitted Alenko to give her limited access; personnel name and rank popped up on her omnitool, for instance, whenever she came into proximity.
She told him, "Hey Jaz," back. She had picked up that at least. Their language sounded ugly to her. Harsh. His immediate grin told her that she had done well.
Clutching her computer to her chest, she went across to the captain's cabin, hesitated, and then went to Kaidan. Although he was the most dangerous of the human marines-- Shepard excepted-- she found him the most approachable of the lot. The boys were friendly and energetic, but their adolescent smirks and snickers reminded her of her embarrassing mistakes. The lieutenant was a gentle man, understanding, and she did not feel as though he would laugh at her.
"Do I just.. " Liara started.
"Sure, go on in, I just saw him," Kaidan said, looking up from his workstation. His dark eyes flicked over her body, and he smiled. "You look nice. That looks comfortable."
She went in.
The cabin was spare, tight. Clean. He was always cleaning.
She didn't see much at first. Her eyes went right to Shepard. He seemed to suck the attention out of any room he went into.
He stood in fatigues like all the others. He held a Goroti apple in his hand. He took a crunch of a bite from it, nodded, and gestured for her to come in and sit down at his table.
She put her computer down beside the bowls but she knew immediately that this was wrong.
He was chewing, pointing to one of the side tables. Of course. Her computer would be in the way. And she might spill food or drink on it.
Her hands free, she milled about for a moment, looking at him for a cue.
He talked with his mouth full. Her translator made some sense of it, and she heard: "If I'd have known you were going to show up in pajamas, I'd have got into mine."
He motioned. "Sit. Hope you like salarian."
"I, yes, thank you," she said, and scrambled to take a seat. He snorted softly and she felt all the more awkward. At least he wasn't angry.
Her eyes peeped up to get a look at his face. No, he didn't seem angry. But she was always wrong. Who knew?
"How's the food for you on this ship? Are you getting enough to eat?" Shepard put a hand between his knees and pulled a chair up.
Liara nodded. "Our dietary requirements are similar. I will purchase supplements at our next stop if they're available."
"Let Doc know what you need. Write it down." Shepard nodded. "What do you think of our food so far?"
"It's very good," Liara insisted.
This made him laugh. She'd never seen him smile and it made her jump. "Bullshit," he said. "Our MREs are terrible. Unless you get the Kung Pao one, and crews fight for that. I've seen the knives come out."
Liara felt the warm embarrassment of now having to defend her statement. She'd eaten worse, at least, out on remote digs. The human MREs took some getting used to, but once you figured out how to open and heat them, the hardest part was over. Liara of course hadn't figured it out. Doctor Chakwas helped. Lamely, she offered, "Mine had ice cream in it. I really enjoyed that."
"Yeah, the ice cream's good. One of the first foods that we made spaceworthy." Shepard smiled. "No other problems? It's not making you sick? No food allergies?"
"I, well, I've been allergic to poura nuts since I was a child. If you know what those are."
"About this big? I heard them called burla." When she nodded, Shepard said, "Well, you're not missing out. Taste like shit mostly. The Mannovai put them in everything." He gestured to the bowls before them. "This is more Gorot style. We're still eating MREs.. but now they're salarian MREs."
"I didn't know you liked salarian cuisine."
"I suppose it makes sense. You humans like to eat termites, grubs, fruits, and nuts." She smiled. She had done her research and felt armed with knowledge.
Shepard studied her face as he chewed his last bite off the tinniwa fruit. He folded his arms on the table and just smirked at her with his eyes. "Sounds like you got on exopedia."
"I like to be informed," she said.
"That would be chimpanzees. Most cultures don't eat bugs." His smirk deepened. "Except for money. I have five credits that says Fredericks would eat a giant weedhopper."
Liara set her spoon down and put fingers to her lips. Oh, what an idiot! She might as well ask a turian about building nests in trees! Or a quarian about collecting pollen! "I'm sorry," she started to say.
"Stop apologizing. Anyway. After all the weird shit I've been through, I will eat anything. Splash some hot sauce on there and I'm good to go."
Liara smiled. "Well.. I see you're eating ta-plewa. Not many will."
"Good protein, good vitamins. I try to get it for my guys when we're out in the field. Wrote a letter once about getting a program started Alliance-wide, but I was told nobody wants to eat boiled alien palm maggots."
"Tell them it's rice," Liara said.
Shepard's eyes went sly. "Always do."
They ate awhile in silence. The dishes had assumed a more comfortable temperature. "You must have eaten with the salarian servants," Liara said, then, "if you lived with the turians."
"How'd you know that?"
"Well, well I guessed, and I looked up your file."
"I lived with a turian family while. Studying to become an adept. Yeah. Salarian house staff. Hyperactive, always nervous. Bickering all the time."
Liara smiled. "We had the same." Stirring a spoonful, she thought of other times, back when she was young. "Our salarians were from rival clans and they squabbled all of the time. Usually they kept it to themselves, to present a united front I suppose, but behind the scenes it could become quite entertaining."
"Insulting each other's lineage."
"Yes, the ah, the passive-aggressive slights."
"I remember one time.. my mother had some guests over and well, I was very young, but I came into the salon and just started repeating some of the words they had used. I barely recall this. Anyhow, my mother was extremely upset over the interruption and the, ah, vulgarity. I wasn't supposed to leave my chambers." Liara frowned slightly as it came back to her. "I remember this because my favorite tutor got into trouble for it. I liked him. He'd been a doctor of philosophy at his university.. his country had been dissolved in the war." Professor Tethik.
Shepard watched her. "Go on," he said.
"I'm sorry. Sometimes I just go on and don't think," she replied. "It's actually a sad memory for me." And Tethik had been a batarian.
"Your mother. I understand."
"I, oh." Liara paused. She said no more. In truth, it broke her heart to lose Professor Tethik. Was that selfish? The case of her mother was so strange, so foreign, that she didn't know yet how she really felt. In some ways it was not surprising. Benezia had always been so distant...
She searched for something to change the subject. "I was told your father had an interest in the protheans. Was he an archaeologist, or was it a hobby?"
"He was a man of God," Shepard replied, "and it was part of his life. Dad grew up in the span of time when we knew there were aliens.. but we didn't know where they were, or if they still existed. All we had were those ruins."
"How did the discovery impact your religion?" Liara sat forward. Her anthropological brain kicked into gear. She had just been reading an article in the Serrice Lifeways Journal about the decline of the drell pantheon on Rakhana. Technically the decline of everything on Rakhana.
"Depends. We've got a lot of them. My father left the seminary when his particular denomination fell apart. He could have gone to one of the others, but he took some time to think about it. He took twenty years. He still believed. Strong as ever. When they killed him.. " Shepard trailed off. "Anyway, he got to thinking that we were all connected. He wanted to meet a prothean. There were all sorts of wild stories and ideas about what the base meant, on Mars, this planet in our home system. Maybe that the protheans were evil, that they were taking us for slaves, or eating us, or that all our gods were actually prothean visitors who got in a good laugh at our expense."
Liara hmmed. In the article she read, it was put forth that some of the old batarian and drell religions were influenced by asari explorers. The Arashu figure and her attendants. And Torva.
"Dad wanted to believe that the protheans would be our friends. That they'd come back when we were ready."
One thing she had noticed about him was that he always tried to look in your eyes when he talked to you. It made her nervous, made her look away, but now he looked at the table and tapped his fingers against his cup.
"Oh, no. And the turians attacked your explorers."
"Yeah. You think he'd learn after the First Contact War." Shepard shook his head. "I loved my dad, but.. but yeah. He was always interested in aliens. Even more after we had names and faces to go with them. He loved reading up on everyone else's discoveries on the protheans. Putting all the pieces together." He stirred the dish a while before he just dropped the spoon in. Wiped his hand. "What about you? What made this your life's work?"
"Professor Tethik, one of my tutors.. he wanted me to understand what we owed to the protheans. All of their innovations and technology, which even now we have barely begun to understand. If it weren't for the relays we would have never found one another."
Shepard nodded. "We wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation."
This heartened her, that he was capable of understanding. She nodded eagerly. "Yes, precisely. And I suppose some of the old fairytales and stories of course were interesting to me as a child."
"Go bring your computer." He nodded to the side table, and began to clear some of the spent dishes.
She jumped up to go do so, and across the next half-hour, she showed him collections from her database of photographs. Ruins, architecture, and even hypothetical diagrams of how some scholars believed the protheans conducted their lives. He reached over at one point to go back to some pictures that seemed significant to him, mulling over one or two for a longer period. Then he pressed a few buttons on her computer, only because-- as he said-- he always thought asari keyboards were strange.
He had nudged his chair closer and it had become somewhat distracting for her from time to time. When he leaned in on the table, she could smell him, and there was a very good musky chemical smell coming from his skin. Perhaps something he washed with. Other races and even some asari were always saying that the humans were primitive, hairy, and dirty, and-- well-- those few humans she had encountered were always smudge-faced and sweaty from dig sites and industrial mining. The soldiers here were all very clean. Obsessively so, in some cases.
Shepard was staring at her. She had left off suddenly in the middle of talking. It was gone now, so she recovered by pulling up some pretty pictures. There. No one the wiser.
Her eye was drawn to a vein looping over his arm muscles. They had a stockier build. The males.
Of course she found him fascinating. From a scientific perspective. And well of course he was physically attractive, not too far outside of asari norms. An asari-shaped configuration of the body, with some distinctions. His face was beautiful to her. Symmetrical. A well-shaped mouth. He looked healthy. Tired, maybe, around the eyes. And his eyes... Interesting--
"I, ah, no, I've just noticed your eyes are blue," she remarked.
With all the blood rushing to her face, Liara thought she might be turning black by this point. "The batarians have a superstition-- well I wasn't sure if you were aware," she said.
"The hell god," he said.
"Yes. Blue eyes, magic." And a twin..
"Yeah. It fits. I think that was part of the reason why Nihlus picked me. But our mission's changed now. The batarians have their reprieve." Shepard rubbed a hand over his chin and jaw. "Til I'm finished with Saren."
"What did you see," Liara said slowly, softly, "when Anarinda touched you?"
Shepard was silent for a moment. "A beach," he said.
"I don't know. They took her somewhere. Experiments. Something was done to her like the others that we fought."
"You were fortunate to survive your encounter."
"They weren't all there. We'll train better for next time. I need a new amp.. "
"There were implants in them."
"Maybe Saren was putting geth tech in them. I don't know. Making them into husks.. or close to it. They could pass for being normal."
A new idea came to Liara, then, something horrible. "What if the protheans were infected somehow.. What if that's what happened to them?" She studied his face, and then took in a breath. "Shepard?"
He notched his chin.
"You'll allow me to meld with you, won't you? You can show me your vision."
"Makes sense. If you think you can take it."
She began to shut down her computer. "I'm willing to take the risk. I know it will work. I'm uniquely prepared to help you interpret what you've seen." She looked up again. "I of course believe you. The beacons are artifacts of amazing technology, it's just that we don't understand specifically how they work." She paused. "But they do work."
Shepard nodded slowly, then leaned away. Stood up. "Let's clean up first," he said. "And not here."
They cleared the table in silence. He touched a comm panel. "Pressly. You've got the deck. I'm going to mind-meld with Liara. I don't know how long it will go."
In the following silence, Pressly took stock of Shepard's frank announcement. When he spoke, his voice seemed embarrassed to Liara, even through the translation. "I um, aye sir.. are you sure this is a good idea?"
"We've talked about this." Oh. Was that-- had that been his idea all along?
"Well.. Aye sir. I'll see you aren't disturbed in there."
"Not here. Communications room. Alenko, I'm going to link up my omni tool and beam my amp feedback to you. Just keep an eye on it. Don't let me have a stroke."
"Understood, commander. I'll come check on you if you want."
Shepard thought it over. "Yeah. But don't touch us. It screws it up."
"Wouldn't know anything about it, sir."
"I think Alenko just tried to sass me," Shepard said.
Shepard had no choice but to clear out the comm room for this. He permitted off-shift crew to use the room and its screens to watch vids, play games, or just gather together and eat if they wanted. Morale was important on a small ship like this with very little space.
But damned if he was going to do this with her in his cabin. There was nothing wrong with it.. but the context rubbed him the wrong way. It was already too personal.
Very likely Pressly or even Williams, if she was up in the CiC for sentry duty, had come in here to chase everyone out before Shepard and Liara arrived. Hell, the ship elevator took long enough. But the place was clean and tidy when they came in, which was good. Just as he expected it to be.
"We'll sit on the floor," he said. "These chairs are too far apart."
They took their places, making themselves comfortable. Liara rubbed her hands together, frowned, looked nervous, and then started picking at her shirt. That was going to make it difficult. Doable, but he wanted to do this right.
"Can you roll up the sleeves on that?"
She smiled a little flash of a smile, caught being awkward. "I was just thinking I should have worn something different," she said. "I could take it off."
She unbuttoned the front and shrugged it off. She did so with the unthinking dexterity of someone taking off a pair of winter gloves.
Seeing his look of surprise-- holy shit-- she said, "What's the matter?"
John was taken off-guard, but he should have known better. Liara always seemed so socially awkward, fussy, fretting, fearful that she may say or do the wrong thing. They sat together now and she was completely unabashed of her nudity.
"I, uh, thought you had something on under that," he said, glancing away.
Her brow furrowed. "No," she said, and her eyes hunted after his eyes. "Have I offended you?"
"Just surprised me, that's all," he said. "You can put it back on."
She was beautiful, smooth, with small but finely shaped breasts, enough to get a handful. He was reminded of those classical statues in the asari gardens on the citadel, with all the young maidens sculpted dancing or pouring colored water from urns.
"I could go and change."
"By the time you get down that elevator and changed, and back up again, the reapers will have killed us all." After all, they all showered together. Hell. Alenko and Williams conducted ship business in the shower, or so he heard. Actually, he wasn't sure how he felt about that, as a matter of fact..
"I'll put it back on, but it works better with more skin. If you hold on to my arms.. "
Shepard shook his head. "You're fine. Leave it. It's a non-issue." He rubbed the back of his neck. Damn. Damn. It had been a long time. Months.
Liara studied his face, and then she smiled nervously. The shy blue dork that she was. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm always doing the wrong thing.. "
They held arms.
Her skin was smooth. Completely hairless. Up close he could see that little freckles dusted her shoulders, neck, and slope of her breasts. Like the freckles on her face.
"Just try not to melt my brain," he said.
He hurt her feelings somehow. "No no, I've tried it before, well, sort of, and no one was hurt," she insisted. "I've already been tested by physicians."
He drew back. "What?"
"I thought you meant.. ? I thought you were implying I might be ardat-yakshi. But I'm not. It's very rare, even in purebloods.. "
"I don't know what that is."
"I.. oh, nothing. I won't hurt you. Please. I've shared minds before like this."
"Just go easy on me."
Watching her eyes go black.
That weird tingle again.
Like your body catching up with alcohol. Suddenly realizing you're getting more drunk than you thought..
Breathing sync. Faster. She's as nervous as he is.
Like being swallowed up.
That intense grip.
Then the pictures come.
They are up on their knees.
Her naked breasts against his chest. His very warm skin.
The skin of her scalp against his jaw and his mouth.
Gripping each other very tight.
She feels pressure against her belly.
Weakness in her entire body.
Can't even move off her knees, like her legs won't support her.
That disoriented feel. Goddess. He fought her the entire time.
Exhausted. They disentangle.
"You saw it," he says.
The room seems very bright to her.
"It was terrible," she says. "More than I could have imagined."
He helps her fasten her shirt.
His hands just barely touching the slopes of her breasts to do so.
"What does it mean?"
Liara shuts her eyes a moment, squeezing shut, as if trying to blink back into full clarity. "I can't say for sure," she says. "It seemed to flash by so quickly, so much to see.. "
He is rubbing his forehead now. "We've been in here for an hour," he realizes.
"Yes, well, you were fighting me, I'm told humans naturally resist."
"What do you need from here?"
"I.. I want to write down everything while it's fresh."
"You look like you need to lay down."
She keeps thinking-- blood, fire. The destruction of an entire civilization. What she had always feared was true... is.
She feels like she may be sick.
Shepard helps her. She barely remembers the elevator.
Doctor Chakwas is running a scanner around her head and neck, where her bio-amp goes. The omnitool light catches her attention and makes her focus a little-- she's somehow back in the medbay, sitting on a bed.
"How was it?" Helen asks.
Liara is honest. "We are all going to die."
"Surely he wasn't all that terrible," Helen replies. "Takes some getting used to, I know, but he's actually a sweet boy.. "
"The vision from the beacon," Liara says.
"So you saw it."
"I'll need to make some notes." Liara holds her head, feels like she has to hold her head on or it might topple off.
"You need to take it easy."
"I know this is terrible," Liara says, slowly, watching the room spin, "but I feel.. I feel.. "
"Anxious. Disoriented. This is normal."
"No-- I feel like Armali Journal was foolish to decline my submission-- when it turns out my hypothesis is frighteningly accurate-- my paper is.."
"Liara, dear.. "
"I should write them a letter," Liara says, and faints.
Shepard sat low in one of his chairs. He rubbed his face slowly. The numbness made it feel like someone else's face. He willed himself to make sense of his surroundings. He hadn't felt this weird in awhile, not since he came off his medication, or not since that time with Liz..
He was debating whether or not to take his amp out.
Alenko wanted to come in.
Shepard glanced up through his fingers at the lieutenant, who always looked sharp and composed no matter the situation.
"Just checking in on you, sir."
Alenko had checked in on him and Liara; on the way out, Shepard had noticed some water left for them. He wanted to know what Kaidan thought of the scene, but knew the man was too professional to say anything of it.
To his face.
"Thanks for doing that," Shepard told him. "I'm good. Just-- tired."
"I monitored your amp throughout. It dipped low but kept level for the most part. Is it bothering you now?"
"It'll be better when I get a new one."
"I understand. It's too low-level for you. How's Liara besides?"
Shepard thought of the mind that had reached out to touch his. Curious, hesitant, fearful, yet brave. Questing. Intelligent. The soul of a lonely child dreaming of a better age. Unloved. Awkward. Hiding in the past, pouring out her affection for the dead who would not judge her..
a little girl tottering behind her mother's brisk walk, a cold grip tightening on her little hand
"I think I understand where she's coming from."
"She seems nice enough. I'm glad she's on our side."
Shepard nodded slowly. "Me too, after all that." Alenko's stance made him want to sit up, to look captainly and professional, but he couldn't make himself move. Fuck it. "Any further communication from the Theseus System?"
"Negative. The buoys are down. We'll have to get out there and see for ourselves."
"I'll take it that Saren's goons are cruising through downtown Feros."
"Sir, I'm to understand that all of Feros is downtown."
"Not going to make it any easier, but we'll kill them all the same."
"Roger that, sir." Alenko at last eased a little. He smiled. "Did you two have the salarian MREs in here?"
"Yeah, and some of these." Shepard leaned back in his chair and looked over his shoulder. He still had a piece of hard fruit, the salarian coast-apple. He pulsed with biotics and tossed the fruit from the side-table to the lieutenant, who grabbed it out of the air with a similar display of powers. "Help yourself. Half my biotic rations are salarian, so if you want to swap some time.. "
"Thank you, sir. That one was surprisingly good. I might take you up on the offer."
"The one with the rice."
Shepard smiled a slow smile. Alenko smiled back. Trusting brown eyes. "Anytime, lieutenant," he said. "Carry on."