Disclaimer: Mass Effect and its various wonderful characters are owned by Bioware.

This is a little piece that's been swimming around in my head for quite some time, and I started it in a burst of creativity perhaps a month ago. I was then informed that I simply *had* to play the Lair of the Shadow Broker module since I was so stuck on Liara, and I did, and it was most excellent. I decided to finish this mostly as I'd intended it, though, because thanks to having finished the game before I played LotSB, my Shepard definitely went through this scene as written!

I'm writing this as a one-shot because I'm in love with the title, but I hope to eventually follow it up with a longer story that starts either at the LotSB plotline or directly after it.

A Starfield and a Photograph

Mara Shepard raked scarred fingers through her short, red hair as she contemplated the holographic galaxy map in front of her.

"Shepard, the Reaper IFF is online and ready. Shall I plot the course for the Omega Four relay, or hold?" EDI's faintly metallic voice inquired from some inscrutable vantage point.

The familiarity of long practice bound the Commander's voice to steadiness, despite her near-frantic worry for her kidnapped crewmen and deep personal misgivings about the endpoint of that accursed relay, as she answered. "Do it. And alert the team that we're en route."

"Yes, Shepard. We will reach the relay in approximately six standard hours."

"Understood. I'll be in my quarters until then." Turning to exit the bridge, Mara glanced left out of habit to nod to Kelly, and cursed herself for it before the motion was even completed. Her assistant's empty post seemed to glare at her accusingly every time she looked at it, and it was hard to avoid doing so given its central location in the CIC. Her vision filled with a traitorous shimmer, she stalked toward the elevator as quickly as was dignified.

Garrus stopped in his tracks on the way to the armory to watch her pass, cocking his craggy head slightly as he held a very quick and brutal internal debate on whether or not to try to speak to her. For her part, the normally attentive commander did not even seem to see him as she walked by. The nays had it, and the turian resumed his errand with the melancholy impression that he had probably made the right choice in refraining.

Shaking her head in a desperate attempt to forestall tears, Mara entered the elevator, snapping out "Captain's quarters" more sharply than usual. Seconds later, the door opened with a quiet hiss, and the commander of the Normandy finally allowed her shoulders to slump and her bleak exhaustion to show.

She sat on the bed with some vague idea of sleeping, but it took less than five minutes of irritable twitching for her to decide that was a pointless exercise. Sliding to her feet, Mara began to pace the chamber that she usually found so comfortable like a caged wildcat. She was not grateful for the hours of rest ahead.

It would have been far easier, far less painful just to ride the relentless tsunami of adrenaline that had been roaring through her since her crew's capture straight into this last mission. When there was action, Mara's mind was always steeped in a numb, icy clarity that left no room for doubt or aching memories. Time would slow down to a crawl around her, while her speed was unaffected. She saw patterns in enemy attack formations and strategies before most people would have even comprehended that a battle had begun. She could – and had – barked out rapid-fire, completely improvised orders that would determine the future of entire species without even a moment's second-guessing or fear.

Mara Shepard was well-used to pressure and chaos.

The only time that clarity had failed her… well, Liara wasn't here this time, was she? If Mara was going to die, again, on this mission, at least she would not do it while screaming futilely into the black void of space in soul-ripping terror for the safety of a lover whose escape pod may or may not have avoided obliteration by enemy particle beams.

Yes, that would have to be enough, wouldn't it?

It wasn't.

Powers help her, but she was angry.

Once again, she had identified a threat so dire that the entire galaxy should have been up in arms against it, for the sake of organic life's very survival. It should have been easy to trust her – she had saved the Council's sorry asses the first time their folly had dramatically caught up to them, when it would have been far easier just to let them die. Justifiable even, since no one could have blamed her for calling every possible force to bear against Sovereign, that instant.

But no – once again, the idiots had their eyes squeezed shut and their fingers in their ears, like children who convince themselves that as long as they can't see or hear the monsters under their beds, they're not really there. And they were very upset that Mara once again was trying to pry their eyes open. If they acknowledged the threat, they would have to act, and every good politician knows that the best way to ensure he won't be re-elected is to actually do something while in office.

Once again, Mara was charging into near-certain death with a crew of the most capable, intelligent, and courageous people in the galaxy, and once again, the stakes were so high as to be almost unimaginable.

The vids had it all wrong – being a hero was a pretty damned awful gig, all things considered.

She stopped next to her desk and sat tensely in the chair, eyes locked on the deceptive tranquility of the surrounding starfield. It was no use, of course – even though she had averted her eyes from the photograph, she could almost feel it sitting there.

She was angry at Liara, as well.

She supposed she should probably be grateful. It would have been far more difficult to leave Liara on Illium had their brief reunion been a warmer one.

More difficult? Likely. But I'd sure be less of a mess right now. Mara shook her head, frustrated.

They had been in the same room, working together again, yet it had felt like a durasteel wall stood between them. Liara had been coolly focused on her pet Shadow Broker project, intent on getting revenge for her lost friend. In her darker moments, Mara had speculated wildly on the nature of that "friendship," that Liara would need so badly to avenge him.


She kissed me. When I first walked in, the mask came off. She put it back on again, and quickly, but… was it just my wishing it that made me see love in her eyes?

The rest of their interactions had been maddening. Mara had wanted so very badly to talk with her, to make sure that brief flare of hope was worth holding onto, but there was no time or privacy to be had. After the Normandy had moved on, she had considered writing to Liara, many times. She had refrained, worried that traceable communications between them would put one or both of them even more at risk, but… hell, it was so hard to stay quiet.

So hard not to go tearing back to Illium to try to help her in what was likely a suicidally dangerous quest of her own.

Suddenly, Mara laughed.

That would have to be her reason to live through this particular jump down the rabbit hole, now wouldn't it?

If she did indeed blow the Collector base to hell and make it back into friendly space, the Illusive Man could take his misgivings about Liara's activities and shove them up his stylishly-trousered arse. She would help Liara do whatever it was she needed to do, if it meant fighting the blasted Shadow Broker himself, barehanded if need be.

And then she and Liara would have a long-overdue talk. Mara let out a long sigh, her anger dissipating.

She knew I had to do this, and probably also that I wouldn't have been able to order her into danger again. I'm going to have to use my team wisely on this mission, but that may mean ruthlessly, as well, and I couldn't do that with her.

I love her too damn much.

Relaxing achingly tense muscles and leaning back into her chair, Mara finally allowed herself to look at the picture. Liara grinned back at her, liquid blue eyes filled with gentle humor. Mara had taken the photo the night before Liara had gone on a two-week trip back to the asari homeworld.

"I'll need something to keep the cabin from feeling empty!" she'd teased. Liara had laughed, pointing out that even humans had developed real-time video calls within the last few centuries, but nonetheless had posed for the picture.

The rest of that night had been glorious, though neither had gotten much sleep.

Letting that memory in opened the floodgates, and a tiny smile formed on Mara's lips as she re-lived the veritable torrent of happier moments that she and her asari love had shared.

"I'll make it back, Liara. You'd better be ready…" Mara Shepard whispered to the stars. They were as remote and coldly silent as ever, but the photograph was still smiling…

And it was enough.

A/N: Please review! I yearn for feedback. ;)

If you enjoyed this, keep an eye out for a followup story in the future. (Though if you're one of my Talespinner readers, don't worry - that story is my first priority and it will be finished come hell or high water. I think my beta might kill me if I don't!)