A/N: Goddess! Thanks for the reviews, people! It's so, so encouraging! Ah, Traynor! I could tag her in this earlier and now I can't. I'm going to try again. Thanks to the awesome T.A.M. for proofing this and the chapter title. He is the wind beneath my wings.
James' fist pulverizes into her. The blow immediately numbs her face. Shepard staggers backward as her nose erupts with blood. She shakes her head, sending drops of blood to the hard metal ground of the shuttle bay. She checks her flank and lifts her arms.
"Sure you want to do this now, Lola?" James asks. His massive arms don't intimidate her. Shepard's taken him out before, easy. He got a lucky hit. She was sloppy. He circles her. She sees him with her eyes but Thane with her mind. It happened so quickly. A fight one moment, a decisive finish the next with Kai Leng the victor. "You're not off to a good start."
"I'll get better." She swings, curled hard fingers connecting solidly with his side. He makes a small grunt but brushes it off. A wide swing leaves him open, she ducks under his massive arm and swings up, ramming into his jaw.
He blinks, shakes his head. Flexes his jaw, tests that it works. "That's more like it."
"Want to give up now or are you looking for a few more bruises?"
"This dance aint over yet. I'm still on top from where I'm standing," he rushes forward, a flurry of savage swings thrown. James has brute strength but lacks the elegance of Thane's precision. She steps aside as a large fist nearly slams into the side of her head.
Could she have been faster? The fight with Kai Leng had been hers. Thane had bought her time with his life and in the end the bastard had gotten away.
Thane's prayer for her settles over her like a mist.
Kalahira, this one's heart is pure but beset by wickedness and contention. Guide this one to where the traveler never tires, the lover never leaves, the hungry never starve. Guide this one, Kalahira, and she will be a companion to you as she was to me.
She is not worthy of the prayer. Damn it. Damn it. She's lost someone else on her watch. How many more will she lose? Not one more. She'd said that after the boy on Earth, after Mordin, after Thane. Goddamn it.
She's a fraction too late. Always too late. James rams a fist into her abdomen. She doubles over, breathless and lifts an arm, easily brushed aside. There's a crack when his other strike connects with her jaw, knocking her to her knees on the ground. Her face loses feeling. For some moments all she can hear are voices, as if she were underwater, humming.
She's still, the floor blurry, pain flares throughout her despite the numbness.
"Commander?" James voice is far away. His body, like an oily shadow colossus, towers over her.
Shepard tastes blood in her mouth, sees it on her hands. She is grateful for the emptiness of feeling, the stinging ache. All of it deserved.
"A little bird told me you were in here." Traynor walks into the lounge.
"That bird have a name?"
"Let's just say she has a lovely voice. I heard that Lieutenant Vega proved to be the better dancer. But from my understanding the superiority of anyone's dance skills in comparison to yours was never in question."
Shepard smiles faintly, splitting her lip in the process. She runs her tongue along the cut on her lower lip. Her jaw and nose are still swollen, purple and red. There's a fist sized bruise on her stomach. She isn't as tough outside of her armor. Shepard turns to face her. There's an instant where Traynor looks terrified but it's quickly hidden. Traynor's getting better about hiding her emotions. Shepard isn't sure whether that's a good thing or not. She remembers when Liara was easier to read. That was all long ago. "He was just pissed about how round one turned out." How long ago was that? Months ago? Near a year ago…? "I'll get him back."
"You might want to let some of the swelling go down before you give it a try. I prefer the women I keep company with to be shaped like women, not masses of bloody pulp. Unless this is the Alliance's idea of make-up." She goes closer, the back of her fingers grazing her cheek carefully. Her touch is cool against the heat of her skin. "You may have forgotten but there's this menace out there called the Reapers. You might have heard of them. I'd prefer you save your ass kicking for them, not cute lieutenants."
"You think he's cute?"
"Sure. But he'll be prettier than you soon enough if you keep this up." She takes a seat on one of the couches, delicately crossing one leg over another, settling her back against it. "So do you want to talk about it or do you want me to pretend getting yourself beat silly was really about giving Lieutenant Vega a confidence boost?"
"Maybe I just wanted some down time and a cute nurse."
Traynor takes Shepard's wrist and pulls her down beside her. "Not satisfied with Dr. Chakwas anymore? You're a bit of a scoundrel, aren't you?" she leans over and pecks her on the lips. "Tell you what. After all of this is over… you find me one of those old timey nursing uniforms and we'll see what I can do. You'll owe me, though."
"Saving the galaxy not enough to impress you?"
"No, I'm afraid I'll want something to really brag about. Maybe a dog. You have no idea how much time I spend on extranet sites looking at puppies. Strictly during off hours, of course." She shifts on the couch, slipping an arm along the back of it, turning to look at Shepard. She rests her face on her palm. Shepard is glad to be sitting. "Now are you planning on talking to me about what's going on or are you going to remain satisfied with playful banter?"
"What's wrong with my playful banter? Not enough to distract you?"
"I'm afraid your battered face is a little more distracting." She teases, though Shepard doesn't miss how her eyes shift away as she says it, a sad smile. She touches her arm, looking back at her. "You spend a lot of time in front of the Memorial Wall."
"Yeah." Shepard ducks her head before sighing. She leans back against the couch and closes her eyes. "Been thinking some about Kaidan. That along with Mordin and Thane… Nearly lost Ash on Mars. Still might the way things are going." She takes a breath. "I knew this would be hard. I knew people would die. But. I don't know how much more of it I can take." She opens her eyes and looks at her. Traynor gazes at her, expression somber. "I'm tired. Please don't tell anyone I said that."
"I can't fall apart in front of them. Sometimes… I feel like I'm in a fog. I need to wake up. A hard hit. Something."
"And by hard hit you mean getting yourself half beat to death in the shuttle bay?" Traynor asks.
"That's an exaggeration," Shepard mutters.
"There are plenty of things eager to do that. Don't seek it out on your off hours. How is that going to help anybody?" Shepard narrows her eyes, knowing she's right. "I might be able to arrange a spanking if you're looking for punishment. But before I do that you have to promise me that you'll take care of yourself."
"You saying I can't?"
"I know you can. But you haven't been doing a great job." She traces a finger over the cut on Shepard's lip, the purple of her cheek.
Shepard takes a shaky breath. "Everyone's expecting a lot from me. All the soldiers think I'm an exception, not the rule."
"They're sort of right."
"I can't have people thinking like that if we're going to win this. I'm just a soldier. I'm not meant to be doing any of this." She waves around. "I'm no diplomat."
"But you managed to unite the Turian and the Krogan after how many years? 1500? Something like that? Look, Shepard, I think amidst all of this you're forgetting what's really important." Traynor looks at her, dead serious. "It's been a long time coming and I've got to ask."
Shepard waits apprehensively. They'd have a rough night several days ago. Since then Traynor seemed to have dropped the questions and the insecurity. Shepard wonders if she only pretended to have put it away or if she's still full of doubt. "What is it?"
"When are you going to take me dancing?" She settles a hand on Shepard's hip, squeezing gently. "I've heard stories. And I'd love to show you up at something other than chess."
The shift in conversation is unexpected. Shepard laughs. "When'd you get so cocky?"
"Something else of yours that must have rubbed off on me." She gives her another quick kiss; it's gone too quickly. "I'd love to rub it back on you. Cocky looks good on you, Commander."
"I'm sure we can find a way to arrange that."
"The dancing or the other thing?"
"Oh goody. You had me worried for a moment there."
"So… how serious were you about that spanking?"
"Oh ho, desperate for another beating? That depends on how bad of a girl you've been. I don't punish indiscriminately, after all." Traynor presses her hand against Shepard's chest when she leans in close. The small distance between them is a gulf. "Not on good days, anyway."
"What kind of a day is this?"
"Not bad. It's getting better," Traynor smiles. Shepard's eyes half close as Traynor's hand trails along her neck to delve into her hair. Shepard is dizzy with anticipation; the moments before their lips meet, the longest in her life.
The Citadel is a mess. Sovereign's attack years ago and now Cerberus' have returned it to a disaster zone. The recovery process will have to begin all over again. Shepard wonders if the Reapers will allow them the time. She tries to understand the reason for the Cerberus attack and the senseless loss of lives but comes up empty. What the hell is Cerberus up to? What about Udina? Was he really the power hungry cliché he appeared to be? Had he always been working with Cerberus?
Had he been indoctrinated…? Shepard turns her head, seeing a shadow from the corner of her eye. No one is there. Had there been a way to peacefully resolve the matter? No. She had to pull the trigger. Hadn't she? The questions fester. She can't afford to doubt her every move. There's no time to analyze every decision. If only she had the lifespan of the asari.
She winces inwardly, taking the thought back. Who knows what she'd see if she lived that long. Maybe the Reapers won't give her the chance to reach her next birthday.
She's sluggish. She makes her way to Apollo's Café and picks up a coffee, black, no sugar. Liara isn't sitting among the other café patrons. A lot of familiar faces aren't around anymore. Shepard doesn't want to think of the possibilities. They're either hiding away, scared, in which case half the battle has been lost or they've been killed. Maybe they're preparing for war. Better that.
It's still strange to not have Emily Wong around. Maybe she should have given her that interview earlier? The poor kid. Anger at the Reapers stirs, raging, before cooling and Shepard is left numb again. She wanders the Presidium Commons, intervening in petty arguments. Everyone is turning on each other. People are unused to living in under so much stress for prolonged periods of time. This can't continue.
She finds Liara in the arboretum, leaning against a railing, staring out. Shepard pauses to follow her line of sight. Endless skies. The sun is shining. It's a beautiful day. The Reapers haven't hit the Citadel—if it hadn't been for Cerberus everyone here might have continued an idyllic existence, oblivious to the woes of the rest of the galaxy. Shepard wonders if the Reapers are clever enough to want the Citadel kept in the dark. But why? For what purpose? She has a headache. It's hard to think. She takes a long drink of the coffee. Maybe she only needs caffeine.
She's mid-drink when Liara turns her head. Their eyes meet. Shepard is still. Liara shifts her eyes. "Hello, Shepard."
"Hey." She doesn't dare take another step. Liara doesn't move. Her hands remain draped along the railing, clasped in front of her. Eventually she moves to sit on the bench beneath the tree. Shepard counts to thirty, mustering the little courage she has left before taking a few tentative steps forward. "Mind if I join you?"
A long silence follows. "If you'd like."
Shepard sits next to her at the opposite end of the bench and maintains a proper distance. There's nothing in particular that she has to say to her. She would like for them to be friends. It's possible she's only being selfish. She doesn't deserve Liara's friendship. She thinks of the project that Liara created. Shepard takes another drink when her throat tightens. "Nice day."
"I suppose. We should enjoy them while we have them." Liara says. Shepard bites her tongue. "I'm here for business. Several of my contacts haven't checked in."
"Think something happened?"
"You were here when 'something happened'." Liara narrows her eyebrows.
"Yeah." Liara has snapped at her only twice before. Shepard watches the Presidium visitors walk. Some of them weep; others talk excitedly. Everything feels as if it were happening to somebody else and she's only watching. "I guess I was."
Liara looks at her and then away again. She has an arm draped along the back of the bench as if no one else were sitting beside her. "I am sorry about your friend, Thane."
"It all happened… so quickly." She runs a hand through her hair. Kai-Leng had impaled Thane as if it had been nothing. If Thane had been healthy, Kai-Leng would have never defeated him. Then he'd run, the coward. She will kill the bastard. She winces, her head throbbing from the headache.
"Kai-Leng is infamous. You're lucky to have made it out alive. Still, better Thane than you or Councilor Valern. If either of you had perished the repercussions for the war could have been astronomical. A bureaucratic nightmare. Not to mention how morale would have plummeted." Liara says thoughtfully. "I suppose if one of you had to be lost, it should have been Valern. He could be replaced by Dalatrass Linron and we could have maintained their small military. Salarians may have good intelligence but my network is better. Yes. Your loss would have been the bigger setback." She pauses, catching Shepard looking at her. "What?"
Shepard finishes her coffee and considers getting another one. "I can't tell if you remind me more of the old Liara now… or someone else. Remember how you used to talk about everything, like it was a science experiment?"
"Maybe that explained my interest in you." Liara returns. Shepard stands, not immediately realizing that she's crushed the cup in her hand. "I am glad you're alive, Shepard. For more than just tactical reasons. Does that make you feel better?"
"Not if it isn't true." She chucks the coffee cup into a nearby trashcan. "You're not here to make me feel better."
"No. I'm not." The words are neatly clipped.
Shepard knows that Liara is holding back. She wishes that Liara would say all the hurtful things she may want to say. It would be a relief. "I wish the Collectors had never attacked the Normandy that day. You were different before all of this. You were happier. You were—"
Shepard glares, hating how she keeps putting words in her mouth. "You didn't have to carry so much goddamn weight on your shoulders. This," she sweeps an arm around, "is all because of me, because of the mess you got yourself into trying to bring me back. You weren't jaded and cynical. Waiting for contacts, using Aethyta because she's sympathetic, using everything you can for the cause, spying on everything—"
She crosses her arms, scoffing. "You're lecturing me for employing the means necessary to stop the Reapers? You're too idealistic. You're lucky to have the Shadow Broker in your pocket. You're grateful. Shepard," she stands. "You're…upset about how things have played out. I understand that. But you're not the only one capable of carrying weight. This isn't about me. This is about your hurt feelings." Shepard begins to walk away, "But you know that you're the one who did this."
"I know," it takes everything to not shout the words, as it is, there's a growl that she can't manage to bite back entirely. "Damn it, Liara, can you act for one second as if you were more than just a goddamn commodity to me? I care about you. You've been more to me," her voice aches, "than you could ever know. I'm not perfect either. I screwed up. I hurt everybody. I don't expect you to give a damn about my feelings—I know I don't have that right. But don't pretend that you're nothing more than just a tool of military efficiency to me."
Liara frowns. She walks to the railing and folds her arms alongside of it. "I know I'm not." Shepard maintains her distance. Liara cocks her head for her to come closer. Shepard goes to stand beside her. "So much has happened. Sometimes it all does feel like too much. But I'd do it all over again, Shepard. When the Collectors took you… it wasn't your time. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't let things be. Contrary to popular belief—I don't intend on flaying you or Samantha alive. EDI told me about the 'joke' she told you and Samantha." She smiles. "I laughed." Shepard doesn't. "It's funny. How much I still care about you, Shepard. Maybe I got complacent." Shepard shakes her head. "Time… doesn't quite mean the same thing to us, does it? Who was it that said human years are like dog years?" she smiles again.
"I thought that was about Salarians?"
"To asari it's the same thing. And now I've built this conversation up to nothing." She looks at Shepard. "We were both wrong. I got caught up in everything… and you." She bites her lip and bows her head. Shepard leans into the railing. "To be honest… since the beginning… I've always been so afraid. Of what you do. Of what we have to face. I sleep a little better now."
"I'm glad someone's sleeping."
"What's Samantha like? I know you maintained your distance in the beginning but after I gave you the silent treatment for long enough, you went back to her." Shepard sighs. There was never any 'going back to'. Their roles force them to spend time together. "For the record, I wasn't going to change my mind. I think that's fair. Is it?"
"Yeah," Shepard says palely.
"Mh." Liara looks at her. "So. Tell me about her." Shepard fidgets. She scratches her face. "She's not shallow." She smiles. "You're looking a little… rough around the edges." Shepard laughs. "There. I said it."
"Shouldn't you build me up before you tear me down?"
"I already did. Or have you forgotten?" Liara bumps her shoulder gently. Shepard smiles. "How long do you think you can avoid the subject? You owe me that, at least. Tell me about her. She's attractive. I understand the other humans aboard the Normandy are taken by her voice. She's well qualified. Plays too much chess, though. She could stand to get out more."
"This from the Prothean archeologist?"
"I get out more," Liara points out. "Usually, anyway. So?"
"She's…" Shepard thinks of Traynor. Her smile, her voice, the way she grounds herself firmly to a sitting on a couch, or the way her eyes sparkle mischievously when she's about to make a smart assed remark. A feeling, light and happy, difficult to put into words washes over her. Are there words? Is there a way to describe the soaring inexplicable ray of hope that consumes her? So many little things that amount to nothing, to everything. "She isn't what I expected."
"What did you expect?" Liara looks at her questioningly, curiosity brimming in her eyes. Shepard's eyes burn. She closes them and takes a shaky breath, covering her face, nearly bent over the railing. "I see."
"I'm sorry." The words are a hoarse whisper. Her fingers are wet with scalding tears. She's embarrassed. What the hell is this? For the first time throughout all of this, she's crying? And she's crying in the Presidium? Everything she's been reining in so tightly snaps away at last. Her voice is steady at first. "I never meant for any of this…"
Liara's hand lights delicately on Shepard's back. She leans in close. "It's okay, Shepard," she kisses her hair. "You can let go now. It's time to let go."
The shower is running when Shepard enters the cabin. Shepard pauses to unzip the hoodie she wears and throws it over the back of the desk chair before sitting. She browses through the mail terminal and reads the little news that she can. The Reapers are gaining more ground by the day. Many of her contacts have stopped responding. Colonies are going offline, systems being wiped out of existence.
Shepard covers her face with the palms of her hands and takes several deep breaths. Shake it off, Shepard. She straightens, focuses on the terminal and sends several distracted emails before giving up.
The falling water of the shower beckons her. It was a late night like this, months ago, that changed everything. They haven't spent any more time in the shower, both of them no doubt burdened with guilt about the incident. They haven't discussed it past the first initial conversation when Shepard came clean about it. Shepard rubs her forehead. A bottle of whisky rests at the corner of her desk.
Shepard screws the top off and pours a small amount into a lowball glass. She stands, paces, picks up the glass. She hasn't drank like she did when the Reapers first attacked. She can't afford mistakes. Traynor keeps her from the vice. After everything that happened, Shepard might have argued that Traynor is a alcohol would have better served her.
Shepard thinks of Traynor's smiles: teasing, shy, brave, confident. Traynor is no vice. Each night that Traynor spends with her is a night of interrupted sleep for her. Yet she remains at Shepard's side with talks of remarkably normal, every day things; the things Shepard craves hearing about: the things worth fighting for.
Shepard sets the glass back down on the desk. Moments later Traynor turns to her, quizzical surprise on her features when Shepard steps into the shower. Traynor pushes the ebony strands of hair back from her face. She turns away from her, facing the wall. "Can't a girl get a little alone time?" she asks. Shepard can hear the smile on her voice. "I didn't invite you to join me. It's very rude to walk into a subordinate's shower. I'll have your stripes."
Shepard knows no reason why the water beneath her bare feet should feel any differently than it ever has. Has she engrained so completely what happened last time with Traynor? "Complaining? It's my shower."
"You forgot your clothes." She grins when Shepard takes hold of her waist and swivels her around. Shepard traces Traynor's sides before her fingers wrap around her wrists, pinning them beside her on the wall. "You know how I love a woman in uniform."
"Mh." She steps closer, her voice lower. Their bodies press together. Traynor audibly inhales. Shepard has come to love the sound of her sharp breaths. "How about out of uniform?"
"I'll have to think about it."
"You'll have to think about it?" she brushes her lips below her ear, along the curve of her jaw. "You're hard to please."
"You're just used to everyone kissing your ass. I can't believe you got your last yeoman to feed your fish." She rolls her eyes.
"Let's not talk about her."
"What should we talk about?"
"Us. In the shower."
"Oh, right. Well," she looks her over approvingly, "you've learned how to take your clothes off before stepping into a shower, like a big girl." Another teasing smile, "I suppose that deserves some kind of reward. I can make an exception, just this once."
"Just this once, huh?"
"Yeah," she says softly. "Don't get used to it."
Hot water showers over them as their lips meet in tender, heated kisses over and over again. Thick billows of steam surround them, making everything dreamlike. Only sensation exists. Shepard's tightly coiled emotions are stretched taut beyond their limits, overflowing with everything she thought dead and silenced. The world melts away. Guilt melts away. All that remains is Samantha Traynor, holding her close, closer than a secret, closer than voice and blood in her veins, closer than the air in her lungs, closer than her heart.