A/N: Wow. This is late. Apologies. Thanks so much everyone who has been faving this and alerting and leaving reviews. You have no idea how encouraging that is and it's much, much appreciated. There are tons of reasons that this is late, none AT ALL having to do with the Mass Effect 3 multi-player or replaying ME2. Not at all. Nope. MARCH 6TH! Thanks to T.A.M. for beta-ing this. I will try to get these out more quickly and believe the next few sections should be relatively shorter for obvious reasons. But March 6th is around the corner...
Liara stumbles onto a moment she shouldn't have. Restlessness moved her to roam the ship, curiosity and humiliation make her stay. She is paralyzed. The ship hums quietly. The Normandy crew is asleep, save for two others.
"This is war," Shepard says sharply, "and what we're dealing with is Saren, Sovereign and the Reapers. We need the best: the best strategy, the best tools, the best team, the best soldiers. I need someone who won't hesitate to do what's right when the time comes, someone who won't get caught up in emotions, won't hesitate to make the hard decisions and will be a soldier first. I saw that in you in Virmire. Kaidan was a good man and a friend… but he was soft. Soft won't win the battle. We can afford to lose a biotic. We can't afford to lose someone like you."
Liara is horrified. Does Shepard really feel that way? That they have enough biotics? Is that enough of a reason for her to make a decision about who lives or dies? What if it had been her and Ashley? Who would have Shepard saved then? Wrex uses biotics, so does she, so does—did Kaidan. As does Shepard. Kaidan was close to Shepard. Liara shivers.
"Yes, Ma'am." Ashley says. There's a beat. "Commander… permission to speak freely?"
"I just—with everything that happened on Eden Prime and now Virmire… I really don't know what to make of it. Why am I still alive?"
"You're alive because you're a good soldier. Whatever survivor's guilt you're feeling, Williams, let it go. We can't have emotions holding us down." A silence follows. Liara wonders if hitting the elevator button up would draw too much attention. She's ready to announce herself when Shepard speaks again. "I know this is hard, Ash. This is hard: for all of us. What's done is done. And at the end of the day it was my decision. Don't blame yourself."
"Can't help but to do that, Skipper. Maybe if I'd moved faster you wouldn't have had to come back to get me. That facility had to go. Going out a hero wouldn't have been a bad way to end it all."
"Kaidan died a hero. And before all of this is over you'll have plenty of more opportunities to die the same."
"Any of that make you feel any better about it?" Ashley asks. Seconds pass. "How are you feeling about it all? Been a couple of times I've wanted to tell you to shove it up your ass and let me make the decisions, but times like these… I'm glad I'm the one following orders."
"It may be my job to send soldiers to their deaths for the sake of a mission. It doesn't mean that it ever gets any easier. I don't ever forget their sacrifice. It's up to all of us to remember." She takes a breath. "Good enough for a debrief, Chief?"
"Aye, aye, Commander."
"Get the best rest you can. You won't be getting much more of it from this point on."
Both of their voices are softer, tired. Liara hears footsteps move closer until Shepard is on the elevator to the hanger with her. Liara looks at her cautiously. Shepard is paler than usual, dark shadows under her eyes void of emotion. "I don't like it when people take to eavesdropping," Shepard warns her.
"Forgive me, Commander. It wasn't my intention to intrude."
"But you hung around anyway."
Shepard's voice is missing its usual ire. It's as if she's saying the words for the sake of saying them. Liara has many questions but doesn't ask any of them. She takes Shepard's hand instead. Shepard lets her, though she doesn't acknowledge the action. It is the most intimate moment they have shared despite their kiss of before. When the elevator doors open, Shepard untangles their hands and moves on without another word.
They're no longer grounded. Shepard told her they'd find their way out of the Citadel and she delivered on that promise. It's been hours since they released the Normandy from the Citadel. The course is set for Ilos. Liara has spoken to the rest of the anxious crew but has not seen Shepard.
She tells herself that she can be meek and wait until everything is over to talk to Shepard or she can find her courage now and speak to her before it's too late. Is she foolish to think that Shepard might need her? Does Shepard need anybody?
She walks into Shepard's room. Shepard sits on the edge of the bed, her hands covering her face. Liara is unsure whether Shepard has a headache or is suffering from some emotional crisis. At this point it could be either one but if she had to place her bets she would bet on the headache.
"Commander?" Liara waits uncertainly by the door. Shepard drops her hands and looks at her. She says nothing and Liara doesn't know why. All this time later Jane Shepard remains an enigma to her. "I had hoped to see you…but I haven't," she finishes weakly. "So much has happened since our first meeting. And now here we are." Liara takes a seat beside her. "Did you ever imagine that I would visit you in this way?"
"I might have imagined it," she says and offers a small wry smile. She rubs her eyes and runs a hand through her hair. Fondness for the commander wells within Liara. As well as a small degree of bashfulness. "How are you feeling, Liara?"
"I do not know how exactly. Frightened and anxious. Worried." They've come too far to fail but civilizations have been extinguished before in wars, by the Reapers. There are no guarantees that this will be any different.
"Don't worry. We're going to get through this."
Shepard looks so tired; the effect makes her appear more organic to Liara. She should not voice her doubts but can't help herself. "Everything is happening so quickly. I worry there are things that I won't get to. All of this makes me feel like a child. There is so much at stake."
"We'll get through it," Shepard says more firmly this time.
"It is not my intent to anger you, Commander. I apologize." She is saying all the wrong things. She is dumping unnecessary stress and doubt on Shepard. How can she be so thoughtless? This is the last thing Shepard needs. "I want to say the right thing once for you, if only once."
"I don't need someone who is rehearsed and perfect at all times."
"With all due respect Commander, isn't that exactly what you need now more than ever?"
"I've got a pretty good idea of what I need, Liara and I like you just the way you are."
Liara is unable to look away from her. Shepard's eyes are bright and focused no matter how tired she may be. "Are… you saying that you need me?" Does Shepard need her? Or does Shepard want her? She doesn't dare ask, loath to think of how she might answer. This isn't the time for games. If nothing else, she does not think that Shepard would lie to her, feeling no sense to spare anyone of a loss of dignity. Nerves cripple Liara but she moves forward. "Shepard… in all my years I've never met anyone like you. I know you may think that I've led a lonely existence… and in some ways I have. I never minded any of that before… but when you aren't near I feel it all the more acutely. I cannot understand it try as I may. Human customs and rituals may continue to confound me…but I am of the feeling that you would remain mysterious to me even if we were of the same race."
"This had better have a good punch line for the lead up."
"This is not a joke to me." Liara narrows her eyes. Shepard's soften. "If it were I wouldn't agonize the way that I do over your every comment or… or every glance. Shepard… I. I…" The words dry in her mouth. Is this it then? The end has come too soon. Will they die? Will they all die? She and Shepard have had so little time together.
"I know." Shepard's hand, callused and scarred touches Liara's face. Liara takes a breath. She holds it. "It's going to be all right. All of it. I promise." Liara's lips part with questions, with doubts, with pleas for assurance. Shepard kisses her. Thoughts shift, emotions soar, everything is tactile, experiences merging, everything burning, eternity embraced.
Liara is still unused to sleeping over in the Commander's quarters, even if sleeping is all they've been doing since the attack on the Citadel and the end of Saren. If the crew has any opinion about it they've kept it to themselves, save for Joker who can't help but crack a joke now and then. The last time he joked, Shepard threatened to shatter every bone in his body. He doesn't make the jokes as frequently.
Everything is peaceful now—though Liara doesn't know how long the peace will last. She tells herself to take the time to enjoy every moment. Everything and everyone is in transition. There are those on the Normandy, mostly the other non-human races who are in the process of leaving. She will miss them all, Tali and Wrex in particular.
The political climate is in flux. Anderson is the first human council member. Liara thought to take it as an opportunity to discuss policy and diplomacy with Shepard, but whenever Liara has broached the subject Shepard grows bored and changes it. Liara lets it go. They have time to talk. Politics no longer matter as they used to and as far as Liara's concerned, Shepard has learned a little about diplomacy after all: she saved the Council when Liara had not thought she would.
The attack on the Citadel was brutal. The fight with Saren as much so.
The colorful bruises have finally gone from Shepard's face though her fractured, bandaged ribs remain so. She grimaces and tries not to whenever she shifts in the night. Liara's heart aches for her. She strokes Shepard's hair and back when she tosses and turns in her sleep. Shepard has nightmares but not any that she has wanted to discuss.
Now she stirs, turning onto her back. She rubs the sleep from her eyes and looks at Liara, a slow tired smile pulling at her lips. Liara enjoys the way that Shepard looks at her in the morning, as if she is a welcome surprise. "Morning. You haven't been watching me all night, have you?"
Liara blushes. Only part of it. "N—No." she hurries on. "I really think you should let Dr. Chakwas have another look at you," Liara knows that she's fussing and that the ribs will mend in time. She can't help but worry. "You hardly sleep."
"Are you kidding? I put in a solid twenty hours a night for the first few nights after we stopped Saren."
Yes, Shepard had slept a great deal but that is only to be expected given the trauma received and the stress she had been under for so long. It's amazing that she did not break during any of what happened. "That was different and you know it. You're in pain."
"I'm fine. And last time I checked I had a doctor of my own to give me a physical."
"That is why I suggest you see—" Liara stops. Oh. Even all this time later she can't help but blush around her. Shepard has become more flirtatious and aggressive since surviving the assault on the Citadel—and Liara is happy for it. She takes Shepard's hand. "That is another reason why you should focus on getting treatment." She grazes her hand along Shepard's ribs before pulling the standard issue shirt back and kissing the hot flesh beneath. "I want to be with you, Shepard."
"You are with me."
"That isn't what—" She stalls before seeing Shepard's wicked grin.
"Come here, you," she pulls Liara closer, "I've handled tougher than you, Dr. T'soni. I'm pretty sure I can survive anything you throw at me."
Liara laughs softly. "I would not be so sure, Shepard. Perhaps I am not so passive as you think." Shepard arches an eyebrow suggestively. Liara gives her a peck on the lips before withdrawing. She may not be as passive as she used to be but she's still shyer than she ought to be. Shepard makes her bolder and meeker in one, a confounding state for sure. "You should know by now that if you injure yourself further it'll be a longer recovery time."
Shepard groans. "Fine. I'll see Chakwas." Liara nods with approval. "Later. But… we've just woken up and there's nothing saying I can't kiss you like the world isn't ready to end."
"Everything you say has such finality to it, Commander—" she bites her tongue. It's still difficult to stop referring to her that way. "Shepard," she corrects. Shepard's arm circles around her waist and draws her near. Liara is careful. They kiss as if their lives depended on it. There's no helping that.
It is just as Shepard said. Everything is going to be okay.
The door to the barracks is ajar. Curious, Liara enters unsure of what it is that she expects to find. She doesn't expect Shepard. A cardboard box is situated in front of her, half-filled. Shepard folds a shirt, military standard, and sets it gently into the box. Liara is surprised. Shepard is not necessarily delicate with words but she has never been anything but with her. She doesn't know why she's surprised. She steps into the room carefully. "Shepard…" Shepard turns to her, a framed photo in her hand. Liara stands next to her. She doesn't recognize anyone in the picture. "Are you all right?"
Shepard nods. "Kaidan's folks," she shifts the frame gently in her hand. "There hasn't been time before to send his things." She sets the photo into the box. "He didn't have much aboard the Normandy. We can't even send them a body for burial. They'll get an empty coffin from the Alliance." Shepard clutches the box with his items and frowns.
Liara remembers the thing Shepard had said to Ashley when Kaidan had died. She acted so differently then than she does now. Shepard has never spoken about it to her. Liara wonders how much of what she said she even meant. It was only a few weeks ago. "Have you come to terms with what's happened?" Liara asks. She takes Shepard's arm lightly. When Shepard faces her she doesn't look at her. "Jane." Liara touches her face. "Losing him must have been hard."
"I made that decision. I'll live with it."
"How do you make a decision like that? Kaidan was your friend. If it was you… I don't think I could do it. I couldn't do it. I couldn't lose you." The thought sends a shiver down her spine. Even all this time later, the nature of the events that have transpired haven't worn away. Are things still so fragile…? Will they always be? "I never knew you and Ashley were close."
"I can't make decisions about who lives or dies depending on who I'm close to. Alenko was a good soldier. I needed better than 'good'." She shakes her head. "But he deserved better. He deserved more than this," she shoves the box. It moves several inches along the desk.
"You did your best. I'm sure he understood. He knew how important all of this was. Is. He saved countless lives."
Shepard nods. "His father was an Alliance man. And his mom, she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But without it, Kaidan wouldn't have been an L2. Hell, maybe I never would have met him." Liara lets Shepard talk, not necessarily understanding everything that she says, not knowing much about Kaidan's history but knowing that Shepard needs to say it, needs someone to listen. "Nice thing about being an orphan is not having to worry about who you leave behind." Liara's brow knits. "I've written his family a letter. It says a lot of nice things. But it won't do a goddamn thing to make his family feel any better about the loss of their son."
Liara wraps her arms around her waist, a gentle frown on her face. She doesn't know how to make Shepard feel better. This is all she can do. She rests her face on Shepard's chest. Shepard circles an arm around her shoulders. She brushes a kiss onto Liara's forehead. "I have to finish this," Shepard says quietly. "Did I tell you? The Council wants me to start hunting down pockets of geth throughout space. What a waste of time."
They're in the med-bay when the attack begins.
The ship swerves violently. Liara stumbles forcefully, nearly hitting the wall before Shepard grabs her arm. They try to find their footing. There are explosions. Liara's heart hammers. The automated emergency system is online. "What's happening?"
"Something's wrong," Shepard says. The lights flicker and dim. It's only been an hour or so since they returned to the Normandy from another geth sweep. Shepard is still in her hard-shell armor but Liara's changed back into her Normandy clothing not anticipating needing to go out so soon. "Suit up," Shepard goes to the door, grabbing her helmet on the way out. Liara sees a ball of flames as the door opens and people shouting. Shepard stops and looks back. "Now, Liara!"
Liara is frozen. The door slams shut behind Shepard. Liara fumbles to get into her armor. When she stumbles out into the hallway everything is dark and red. There's so much noise she can hardly hear herself think. She sees the bodies of the men and women she's fought beside for months littered across the ground. She's momentarily paralyzed once again. She's used to battle. She's used to fighting geth and mercenaries – but not on the Normandy. Not on the inside.
She forces herself to move. Shepard, she needs to get to Shepard. It doesn't take more than a minute to find her but that time feels like forever. Shockwaves tear through the ship. Shepard wears a helmet. Liara holds hers helplessly. It's important to Liara to look at Shepard's face but she can't. Asking now would seem absurd.
"There's Joker," Liara says. It's the only reason she can think to stay for, it's the only reason that might matter to Shepard. The Alliance is coming. Whatever is happening the Alliance will help them. They have to help them.
"I'll grab his crippled ass," Shepard fires back, trying to stabilize a pipe that is threatening to go off. "I need you to get the other survivors and grab an escape pod out of here." Liara doesn't move. Shepard moves toward her so aggressively that were it any other person, Liara would be petrified. Shepard's grip on her arm is strong and it hurts. "I'm counting on you to do this, Liara. There's no time to waste."
"What about you?"
"I'll see you on the other side."
Shepard shoves her back, not particularly gently. "Go."
Shepard goes. Liara moves to the pods, hears herself barking out orders as if she were a soldier before stepping inside and buckling down. The escape pod fires off. The soldiers talk animatedly, excitedly, hysterically but Liara doesn't say a word. What's happening? What is that attacking ship? She's never seen anything like it before.
The Normandy is falling apart. It's falling to pieces, Goddess help them all. Gold rains down the sky, chunks of the burning ship. If it were anybody else she would worry for them. But not Shepard. Shepard will make it out. Shepard will see her on the other side and once they do… then… then…
The attack ship moves around for another round, moving faster than Liara knew a ship could move. Liara watches helplessly as the Normandy is cracked in half. There's a detonation. It happens silently but the force of it slams into the shuttle, hurtling them back into the walls painfully. She can still only hear the men and women in the emergency pod with her. It's noise. She can't make out any words in all of it.
Everything is still. Some of the soldiers are asking if Joker made it, if the Commander made it. Of course the Commander made it. No, another one says, no one could survive that. They look at her uneasily but as if not realizing why. Liara doesn't realize why.
"Shepard isn't dead." She tells them blankly but the words sound hollow in her ears. Maybe her ears are ringing. The Normandy is like a meteorite, blazing through the sky. It's too close, all of it. Like a scorching star, it sears all the air from her lungs. Her eyes are wide and strained. It burns, cold and hot all in one, everything burns.