The sounds of the hangar bay opening and closing, of the shuttle docking, weren't at all audible from Liara's control centre buried deep in the heart of the Shadow Broker's... in her ship. She still wasn't used to thinking of it that way. Maybe the knowledge that she owned it for all intents and purposes would become second nature in time, but for now every time she woke up she found herself surprised at where she was. She expected to hear the sounds of her apartment, the rush of Ilium's traffic past her windows. Now all she heard was the distant rumble of Hagalaz's eternal storms.
Although she couldn't hear the docking, and she hadn't checked the vid feeds, she knew perfectly well who was visiting her lair. Feron had called her through the comm only a few minutes earlier to tell her that the Normandy SR2 had entered orbit and was sending down a shuttle.
It had broken her concentration from a rapt examination of the correlation between rumours of indiscretions between members of the noble houses of Arthallan and the price of palladium in the Ruel star cluster. The rumours, read correctly, suggested that although there were no public records of any link between the nobles and any mining consortia that there were deals going on behind closed doors. Liara had been entertaining herself in rooting out useful information from the apparently meaningless celebrity gossip, in between some of her more essential tasks. It was almost relaxing.
"Greetings, Shadow Broker," the sound of the door sliding open, the locks recognising Shepard's ID and letting him through unhindered, and the VI's greeting startled her. She had lost track of time, getting distracted by the data sets again. She hastily shut down the displays and glanced around the room, frowning at the datapads she'd left all over the room. It wasn't exactly tidy, but at least it was presentable. Her mother had trained her out of the habit of leaving her clothes lying around in her twenties.
"Shepard," she called out in greeting, and then she hesitated as she took in his appearance. Perhaps the change wouldn't be obvious to someone who hadn't spent years examining her memories of the man, becoming intimately familiar with every inflection and muscle twitch, but there was something subtly different about him. There seemed to be an invisible weight pressing down on his shoulders, and he walked slower, as if tired.
Liara had never seen him tired before. There was always a fierce drive that propelled Shepard through life, a determination that allowed him to plough through anything in his path, be it geth or obstructive council members. In this case, she had a feeling she knew what the cause was. "I heard about Bahak," she said, simply, and waited to see if her instinct was correct.
Instinct, backed up with rumours and innuendo that were as good as fact to the Shadow Broker.
Shepard halted, midstep, then chuckled softly, and crossed the room until he was standing in front of her. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," he said, and gave Liara a rueful smile. The expression pulled at the scars on his face. His skin hadn't been unblemished when she'd first known him, but the nearly gaping wounds always made something in Liara's stomach twist painfully. She hated them. It was a reminder of what she had been willing to sacrifice to have him back. "I'm guessing I can't take a shower without you knowing."
Liara ignored the inference of voyeurism and leaned back against her console. It put a little extra space between them, which was no bad thing to her mind. Close proximity to him always distracted her. "There are a lot of rumours flying. The batarians are in chaos, trying to find out why one of their star systems suddenly went dark, and the Alliance leadership are holding very high level emergency meetings. There's no definite proof of your involvement, but I know that Admiral Hackett sent you to rescue an Alliance scientist in that sector."
She thought for a moment he would make some sort of smart remark. Instead Shepard dropped his eyes to the datapad he had brought into the room and held it out to her. "My report," he said, "Hackett didn't want it. I thought you might be able to use it."
Liara arrested the frown before it became visible on her face. He knew very well that she wouldn't need any sort of written report from him to find out what had happened. She would find it out eventually, whether from an indiscrete Normandy crewman who blabbed something in a bar or from a governmental source, and it wasn't the fact that he was giving to her that made her scowl. The fact that he had come to her, unprompted, to tell her, was rather gratifying in its demonstration of trust, but the fact that he had simply handed it over and then turned away worried her.
She watched him as he walked over to the windows to look out on Hagalaz's turbulent atmosphere, and glanced down at the datapad. She tapped it a few times, glanced at the report enough to discover that it was long and presumably very detailed then set it aside. It would go into her databases later.
"You didn't come here just to make an information delivery," she said.
"What?" Shepard glanced away from the storm for a moment and sat down on the thin padded couch that allowed one to observe the outside. It had to have been installed by the first Shadow Broker. His yahg successor wouldn't have been able to fit onto the seat. "I need an excuse to visit a friend?"
"You're always welcome, Shepard," she said, and after a moment's hesitation sat down next to him. She reached out, halfway to setting a hand on his arm, then withdrew it quickly. "And you know you can talk to me."
Shepard didn't look at her, instead he leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees and hands clasped together. "Liara," he started and then, quite uncharacteristically, stopped again. Liara didn't speak to interrupt him, keeping silent to allow him the moments he needed to gather his thoughts.
What he said, when he had assembled his thoughts into order was, "I know I'm not a good man."
Liara drew back slightly and shook her head, the denial automatic and springing easily to her lips. "Shepard... you're trying to save a galaxy that doesn't believe it needs help. That makes you one of the best men I know."
Shepard wasn't reassured by her words. His shoulders tensed visibly under the jacket of the suit he wore. It was soft and expensively tailored. It wasn't the sort of thing that Liara would have expected Cerberus to put into a wardrobe, being more the sort of thing one would see at a cocktail party. She gave into the urge to settle her hand on his shoulder, and that he didn't pull away was telling.
"The Butcher of Torfan, a ruthless ex-Spectre. I've never been particularly bothered by what I had to do to get the job done. The galaxy doesn't respect nice guys. But..." The muscles under Liara's fingers shifted and bunched unevenly. "Three hundred thousand, Liara. I'd do it again, and again, if it saved more from the Reapers but..."
"You feel guilty?"
"No," he said, too quickly, then sighed and shook his head. "And yes. I just-" he faltered, then drew a fortifying breath. "Self doubt has no place in the mission." He rolled his shoulders as he spoke, and Liara took her hand away.
He always presented such a stoic face to the universe. There had been countless analytical documentaries after his death that portrayed Shepard as someone with borderline sociopathy. Useful as a Spectre, but as a Human being, the analysts said, he was clearly flawed. Liara had nearly worn her teeth down from grinding them as she watched, but she had continued to download and view them through some sort of masochistic desire to hold onto whatever flimsy remnant of him that she could. It all matched up so well with his public persona that Liara might have believed them.
Except she had touched his mind, those times where she had helped him sort through the visions from the Protheans. While his surface thoughts had been almost exactly as anticipated – neat, orderly – lurking just beneath had been a complex and turbulent personality, almost like a black ocean with a floor that could never be seen with the naked eye. She had brushed against the water's edge whilst smoothing out the beacon message into something the human brain could handle more easily. Maybe that was how she had seen what no one else had: the genuine anguish when he'd sent Ashley Williams to her death, the knowledge that it had been the right decision warring with the tentative feelings he had begun to develop for his subordinate. No one else had seemed to see it, and so Liara had said nothing, pretending that she didn't see the way his eyes slid to her empty chair in the comms room.
It had only gotten worse since he'd returned under Cerberus' aegis. She'd seen his poise crack just the once, as she asked him what he really thought the future held, after the Shadow Broker was dead and her life had changed forever.
"Have you," she bit her lip, "Have you tried talking to Miranda, the two of you are-"
"Nothing special, Liara. That's why I slept with her. Miranda understands, and I had proof that she could end a relationship and still work together with someone. I thought we were all going to die and... I'm only human, Liara."
"You say that like it's a bad thing," she murmured.
He laughed hollowly. "Some days," he said, and sagged backwards on the couch. "God, I'm tired."
"You should sleep more often then."
Shepard's mouth quirked. "You try sleeping somewhere you're pretty sure that you're being watched twenty four seven. Even if I did tell the Illusive Man to go fuck himself and ordered all the bugs pulled, I suspect some of them were missed."
"Sit here for a little while then," Liara said, standing, "Unless you have somewhere else you need to be."
The way Shepard's shoulders relaxed infinitesimally, she knew that was the invitation he'd been hoping for, even if he'd not been able to ask directly. "We don't have anything immediately on the agenda," he admitted.
"Do you want something to drink? The kitchen's well stock."
Shepard nodded slowly, and she smiled at him, moving to the personal quarters tucked away far behind the command centre. The ship took on food supplies for various species, and the support staff prepared most of the meals, but it would be far too easy for an outsider to discern the Shadow Broker's species just by looking at their dietary requirements. One less thing for someone bent on uncovering the Broker's identity to work out. One less way to be attacked. So there was a wide variety of food available, and a nicely stocked kitchen to do the preparation by hand.
Liara had spent a fair amount of time being entertained at the thought of a massive yahg sautéing vegetables, but for now, she pulled a jug of faintly orange opaque liquid and took it and a glass back through to the command centre, holding it out for him to take. Shepard stared at the liquid sceptically and raised an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes.
Shepard wrinkled his nose and took the glass, sipping tentatively. "It tastes like milk," he said, surprised.
"It's vegetable, not animal produce. From a bulbous plant originally from Thessia. I understand it's become quite popular as a dairy substitute for humans."
Shepard took another, larger mouthful then asked, "No cookies?"
That reference would have passed her by once, but she'd overheard Engineer Adams making the reference to 'milk and cookies' Tali on the original Normandy and then his subsequent explanation. "Sorry," she said, "My baking skills don't extend that far. You can have a reheated ration pack if you like."
"I'll pass." Shepard raised the glass as if toasting her. "Thanks."
Liara smiled and set the jug of llomin down, moving away to the console. She added Shepard's report to her database and then pulled up the latest messages from her field operatives and started sorting through them, reading them, memorising the important data, and then filing it away into the voluminous archive. Once or twice she glanced over at Shepard to see him sipping at his drink and looking out at the storm. Then, somewhere in the middle of reading about Councillor Adara's affair with her secretary, she looked over to see Shepard's head bowed, empty glass held limply in his hand, and breathing steadily and slowly.
She stepped away from the console far enough to see that his eyes were closed, his expression slack. She wondered what it took for a man like Shepard, feared by a lot of people throughout the galaxy, to willingly fall asleep in her presence. Liara tred lightly and crossed over to him, trying to keep the sounds of her footsteps too soft to disturb him.
Liara knew a lot about everything, but some things about Shepard were still a mystery. He was a spacer kid, educated with shipboard tutorials that, while supposedly up to Alliance education standards, tended not to generate particularly exceptional individuals. He'd served well, distinguished if unremarkable, until that attack on Torfan. According to the reports Liara had read, it was almost a competition to see which of his superior officers had been more shocked at his ruthlessness. It had set the tone for his service afterward.
There had been speculation by the psychiatrists assigned to evaluate him that he'd had some sort of psychological 'event' which had caused his character to change, but none had been able to come to a consensus, and they'd eventually shrugged, pronounced him stable, and let him continue on active duty.
She hadn't known any of this when she'd first been rescued by him. Liara had been, if she was willing to admit it, somewhat swept away by the human commander who stormed Prothean ruins, brushing aside all opposition to rescue her. Even after she'd touched his mind, it had only increased the sense that he was something out of the ordinary, and she had fallen for him.
It had been a silly crush, she told herself that repeatedly. It was a dangerous time, and he'd saved her just when everything seemed desperate. He'd let her down remarkably gently, and she'd tried to keep a straight face whilst pretending that knowing his feelings for Ashley Williams hadn't broken her heart.
Of course, she'd never let those feelings go. She knew that now better than ever. Two years of thinking someone was dead meant that lying to yourself about them was silly. She'd known exactly what she felt about him the moment she realised she was willing to give him to Cerberus for the slightest chance of having him back, even knowing that he probably wouldn't thank her for it. It was worth it to know that he would still exist in the Universe, even if it was away from her.
And now here he was, dozing on her couch.
Liara leaned down and took the glass gently in her fingers. As she'd guessed, the slight movement stirred Shepard instantly. His eyes snapped open and focussed on her. Then he blinked and the tight set of his shoulders relaxed. It took him a mere fraction of a second to go through the process of reacting to her presence, preparing to fight her, then recognising her and standing down. Liara wouldn't have even noticed it if she hadn't been watching.
"Sorry," he murmured, "I wasn't doing anything horrifically unattractive like drooling on my shirt, was I?"
Liara smiled gently and set the glass aside. "The yomarn consider excessive salivation to be a sign of desirability. It signals sexual preparedness. You probably don't want to hear the rest."
"You're cute when you're being scholarly about salivation," Shepard said, with a wry smile.
Liara felt her cheeks warming and knew, without checking, that she was blushing deep cerulean. "Cute, huh? I'm not sure the Shadow Broker should ever be called... cute. I doubt it inspires the right level of fearful respect."
"I'm not scared of you," Shepard said, leaning back in his seat and grinning broadly.
She put her hands on her hips and gave him a look of mock scepticism. "Oh really?"
"Really." Without warning, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, tugging just enough that it unbalanced her. She was forced to catch herself on the back of the seat, bent over him, close enough that it would only be a matter of inches to settle in his lap. The warmth of him seemed suddenly very close, and her stomach twisted. "Shepard-"
"Liara." His hands moved, settling on her hips, and he pulled her closer. Not roughly, but firmly enough that she couldn't mistake his intentions. She moved unresistingly, straddling him. That warmth seemed to seep through her clothes, her skin, warming her very bones. Her scalp felt like it was tingling. He tilted his head closer, his breath brushed her lips.
"Is this why you came here?" she asked, frankly, pulling her head back just far enough that she could look him in the eye.
"I-" Shepard hesitated, and then shrugged. With her hands on his shoulders, should could feel the muscle groups bunch and shift. "It wasn't the first thing on my mind, no."
"You said yourself you weren't looking for anything special." Liara's stomach twisted itself into knots, rebelling against her words even as she said them. "I won't be your little fling, John. Go play with Miranda for that." And how she wished it were otherwise with him. But the way he cast his eyes to the side told her everything she needed to know.
"Liara," he said, and sounded genuinely apologetic, "You're my friend. My best friend. I shouldn't, I'm-" He broke off, and took a deep breath.
She didn't push it. She didn't need him to apologise directly. She had no desire to embarrass him that way. She raised her hand to his cheek and turned his face towards her. She indulged herself, just the once, and kissed him. His hands tightened on her waist, and he returned it with fervour for the few second she allowed before pulling back. "My door is always open," she told him.
He stared at her, his face oddly blank for a few moments, before his arms went right around her, and pulled her closer. He buried his face in her shoulder, and just held her tightly. She ran her fingers through his hair, and let him work through whatever feelings were driving him in that moment. When his grip finally loosened, she stood, and he followed suit.
"I should get back to the Normandy," he said. His mask was firmly in place, but there were cracks in it. Maybe it was only to her that they were as obvious as the scars on his face.
"I mean it," she said, and made sure he held her gaze while she said it. "You're always welcome here. My dear friend."
He raised his hand, and his fingertips brushed her skin, the touch barely discernable. "Thank you," he said, and before she could respond, he turned on his heel and left, and she was there, alone in her command centre, with no one but the drone buzzing around.
She sighed, and pretended that her heart wasn't breaking again, and went to read Shepard's report on exactly what had happened in the Bahak system.
~ End ~