Disclaimer: I don't own Mass Effect or its sequels.
Warning: Mass Effect 3 spoilers up to Priority: Thessia as well as 'From the Ashes' DLC. (I chose not to use Eve's true name, because I felt that Shepard is the only one who is privileged to know her name. So at least there are no spoilers for that.)
I wrote this initially with the intention of exploring Shepard's feelings after her mission in Thessia. Personally, it felt like a missed opportunity for the rest of the crew, or at least for her love interest to give back to Shepard-be the emotional pillar for a change. So I wrote this.
This is for Lele, first and foremost, who introduced me to the series. And to Sean for beta-reading this despite being full of spoilers. This is also for the rest of the Mass Effect writing community out there, particularly to the Liara/Fem!Shep group that keeps my OTP alive. My heartfelt gratitude for making Mass Effect worthwhile.
Additionally, I prefer posting in Archive of Our Own, under the pseudonym sunset_moth. It's easier to edit there.
She was all cold bitterness and bristling anger. Her eyes darkened to an intense forest green. Her forehead crinkled slightly in a permanent scowl. Her jaw tightened. Her chest rose and fell in erratic bursts. Her stomach clenched. Her hands balled. Her strides took on a predatory stalk.
And all who got in her way quailed and rushed to their assigned stations, afraid of the wrath simmering within her—self-inflicted, self-contained.
The name of the asari home-world whispered treacherously amidst the firestorm of emotions that fluttered and tore against her iron will, stoking the brazier within her, spilling the coal from the edges, lighting the floor ablaze, burning, burning ever so fiercely, eating, eating away until there was nothing left, nothing but the empty shell of her body.
She leaned a forearm against the cool, uncaring steel of the elevator wall and pressed her eyes against warm skin, fighting back tears of frustration. Breathe, Shepard. You'll get through this. You always do. She fumbled for the elevator button and was relieved to hear the quiet of her personal cabin, welcoming her back to her solace, her refuge.
Her body feels heavy. Her gait is slow and awkward, her movements sluggish—slow like rusting clockwork, cogs grinding against each other, ruthlessly chipping the other away in silent battle of attrition. Around her, the trees are dark silhouettes against a dreary grey sky.
She stumbled towards her bed and faltered for a moment, staring at the fish tank with dull eyes. "We have to protect the weak," she remembered telling Javik once. She smiled ruefully at the words and brushed the tank's glass lightly with her fingers. "I will protect everyone," she promised. "As best as I can," she added, averting her eyes, the memories of Thessia still fresh in her mind.
The wind is harsh against her face. Dried leaves flutter. The sound of laughter is strident in her ears, child-like yet mocking.
She pushed away from the fish tank and sat at the edge of her bed, her shaking hands rifling through her hair. Ghost-pain shot through her arm, making her tense. With the pain came an overwhelming tide of sorrow that slammed against her weakening resolve. She found herself pressing the palms of her hands against her knees and breathing deeply, struggling to shake away the numbing pain that threw her thoughts in frantic disarray, fighting off the feral muzzle of rage that lashed at her, which had left pockmarks of guilt that penetrated past her skin and through her heart, tearing it piece by fucking piece.
He accuses her with his sad, fearful eyes, his creased brow, his frowning lips...
And then the eyes grow bigger, and become more prominent. His hair recedes and disappears, replaced by jutting horns. His lips grow longer, his nose fades...
And all too quickly she is blinded by a brilliant blue light. She blinks a few times and sees cylindrical tubes arching together towards the source of blue light. Flexible metal plates covered a head and hung limply from either side, glinting coldly in the darkness.
She bit her right knuckle—on the verge of tears—and fought, fought so hard not to let any weakness show, when the image had changed a fourth time, vividly painting in her mind's eye a lightly freckled face, blue skin, a strong jaw, playful lips—it was all too much. She could not bear with the idea of losing her of all people. Anyone but her. Anyone. It was a selfish wish, one she knew she would fulfill with her own bloody hands if she had to. That was the power of an indomitable will.
Or one that had been broken so thoroughly, that only that single thread of resolve remained.
She forcibly pulled her hand away and slid onto the floor, shaking uncontrollably.
"They're dying by the millions!" Liara whispers fiercely. She aches to touch the asari's face and gently wipe the tears away—pull her in an embrace and take the burden of those words away. "I told those people on Thessia we'd save them! How many asari died because I demanded their help?"
"None," she muttered a second time that day, though the words rung hollow to her eyes, void of the resolution she had mustered earlier to drive away Liara's pain and steer her towards a path where she could feel useful. "None."
"What?" The former archeologist snapped, glaring at the speakers mounted on the wall just above her. Her fingers continued to type out a response to one of her agents as she stared expectedly at the speakers.
"Perhaps it is in our best interest if you visit the Commander's personal cabin sometime today," EDI answered evenly.
"Did Shepard call for me?"
EDI was silent for a moment. "Normally I would respect the Commander's privacy, but Joker has voiced his concern about the Commander; thus I felt compelled to observe her in her quarters. What I saw was," EDI hesitated, "somewhat troubling. I believe she was reliving the memories of the Skyllian Blitz. She was clutching her left arm, which I believe was damaged during the fight—"
The words were cut short as the door of Liara's office swooshed shut. Liara kept her chin up as she headed purposely towards the elevator, even as a sudden weight pressed against her chest. Had she overestimated the Commander's own emotions? Shepard had seemed so confident earlier, so sure of herself—a stalwart pillar to her crumbling self. It was hard to imagine Shepard now in a state of weakness, in any state of weakness. She almost bumped into Garrus who was standing idly next to Tali, staring at the memorial with her.
"Oh, Liara!" The quarian exclaimed nervously and seemed to jump apart from Garrus, who had been patting her shoulder gently in a show of sympathy. "A-are you feeling better now?"
She remembered the strength of Shepard's gaze and the soothing calm that she had felt in front of her terminal, coordinating with her agents to bring refugees out of Thessia and feeling generally more useful than she did after coming back from her home-world. "Yes," Liara said, smiling slightly.
"That's good," Garrus added. "I ah, I better go back to the main battery and do some calibrations."
He retreated hastily towards his quarters before Liara could say anything further.
"We were worried about you," Tali admitted. "We didn't know what to do. Keelah, I'm just glad Shepard appeared when she did! If I had gone to talk to you, I might have just made things worse."
"Please don't sell yourself short, Tali," Liara spoke gently, lightly touching her friend's arm. She refrained from adding "I'm sure you could have done something," knowing that she could not muster the certainty that it would take to make the lie into a passable 'truth'. Instead, she said, "Thank you for being so thoughtful."
"Hah! I wish I could do more than just be thoughtful," Tali grumbled. "If my thoughts could somehow translate to something beyond real-time processes and simulation, we wouldn't be in this damn mess in the first place."
"Careful, Tali, you're beginning to sound like our geth friends," teased Liara.
Despite the mask, Tali still managed to look flustered. "Well, once this war is over, we'll have to start living with them. I suppose learning their terminology is the least we can do..."
Liara chuckled and gave her friend an unexpected hug, "Thank you," she repeated. She reached for the elevator's up button and gave her friend another rare smile. "I mean it."
She entered the elevator and quickly pressed the button for the Commander's cabin, turning her gaze away so that Tali would not catch a glimpse of her faltering smile. "Once this war is over..."
She steeled her questioning resolve and shut any lingering doubts in a time capsule, buried deep within her heart. The Commander needed her. It was time to return the favour.
The Commander's cabin was as bare as she remembered it, the last time she visited. That had been months ago, when Shepard was still working for Cerberus, although for Liara, it felt more like a lifetime had already passed. The memories of that time brought a slight blush to her cheeks, making her heart flutter. "Shepard..."
A soft moan escaped from the Commander's lips, drawing her attention away from the room.
"Shepard!" Liara quickly moved towards her commander, lifting the woman gently from her foetal position on the floor. Shepard tensed and reacted from her touch. Before she knew it, she was on the floor with Shepard on top of her. Normally, she wouldn't mind being in such a position, but the knife hovering a few inches above her throat and the smarting pain spreading from her shoulder told her that her commander's intention was far from sexual.
"Liara?" Shepard squeaked in surprise, her green eyes focusing on Liara's own ocean blue. She released Liara of her hold and sat cross-legged in front of Liara, sliding her combat knife back in her boot in that same fluid movement.
The asari smiled wryly and accepted the proffered hand, easing herself against the foot of the bed. "I saw you lying on the floor so I thought you were injured. I guess I was wrong."
Shepard flushed and looked away. "I hadn't meant for anyone to see that."
"I'm sure you didn't," came the sardonic reply.
Shepard made a non-committal sound and continued to examine the floor intensely.
Liara sighed. Lifting Shepard's hands, she noted the bite marks along the curve of her knuckles. She pressed her lips against Shepard's wrist, catching the commander's sudden attention in full force. She continued her ministrations along Shepard's palm, glancing sideways at the stockier woman, and smirking when she saw the animal ferocity present in Shepard's gaze, restrained by her infamous iron will. 'Terrier' they had called her, partly due to her petite frame, but also because of her tenacity during a hunt. Sometimes, Liara thought she could see a more savage beast lingering behind that intense, forest green gaze.
Liara moved closer and teasingly kissed the edge of Shepard's lips, her hands sliding around Shepard's waist, encompassing her commander in a comforting hug. "Tell me what's wrong, Shepard," she whispered, resting her cheek against her lover's neck.
Shepard shifted uneasily and pulled Liara on her lap. Her expression remained passive, appearing unaccommodating and cold to those who did not know her well. But Liara knew better than to make conclusions based on her expression alone.
Rather than answer Liara's question, she asked, "Are you reading my mind again, Liara?"
"No, just your body," Liara murmured, her lips tracing the curve of Shepard's neck. "I am well-read when it comes to that, you see."
Shepard chuckled. "I thought you were a Prothean expert."
"Javik turned me down first," Liara replied. "So I turned to the closest Prothean organic I could find. A walking Prothean cipher."
"I am hurt," Shepard said faux-mockingly.
Liara pulled back and met her gaze squarely. "I know," she spoke earnestly. "Tell me what's wrong, Shepard."
"Thessia," Shepard said guardedly.
Liara flinched at the mention of her home-world. "I thought we've gone over this already, Shepard."
Shepard remained silent.
"Our home-world might fall, Shepard, but as long as my race still thrives, Thessia remains within us," Liara insisted. "You said so yourself."
"I know what I said, Liara," Shepard snapped and grimaced. In a more apologetic tone, she added, "I just, I can't fail, Liara. There's too much at stake now for me to start failing. Especially to Cerberus. Even after what I said, the deaths of those asaris still hang over my head. Mordin, Legion, Thane..." Shepard pulled Liara close, taking comfort in the warm presence so close to her own body. "And I have more to lose this time around. When I led a small resistance force against the batarian pirates in the Skyllian Verge, I thought I was going to die fighting them. At that time I thought, 'It's alright if I die here. There's no one left alive to go back to anyway.' That was years ago. The memory of Mindoir had still been fresh in my mind then."
"Now you have us."
"Normandy is my family now, yes, and I can't lose anyone else," Shepard admitted. Smiling slightly, she added, "Joker can be the grumpy uncle; EDI the eccentric aunt; Garrus would be the kids' favourite, of course; James would just be bad influence; Ashley can share her love of poetry to them; everyone will ask Tali for piggyback rides..."
"You make it sound like we have children on board."
"Someday," Shepard promised. "And you'll be their beloved mother: the kickass biotic warrior who is usually overworked and rarely leaves her room—"
Liara punched her shoulder lightly. "You are just so infuriating sometimes, you know that?"
"Oh, and Wrex and Grunt can teach them how to head-butt properly and maybe even adopt them as honorary members of Clan Urdnot. Fitting, considering their mother is one-fourth krogan," Shepard said, a full grin on her face now.
"You're never going to let me live that one down, are you?"
Shepard hummed contentedly. "Did I mention I like my lady-warriors tough and strong?"
"Then you should have romanced a krogan, Shepard."
"Eve turned me down first—said she was needed to repopulate an entire nation. So I turned to the next best thing."
To those who have finished the ending: I know it can be very disheartening to continue writing for a fandom with an ending that doesn't give us what we want. I get that. But that's why having an active fan community is such a brilliant thing. Right now, I think fanfic is really important, because it gives us something to fall back to. It gives us a variety of other possibilities that the game cannot give us, with its numbered choices.
For the sake of Shepard's future, for the sake of the unsatisfied, let us continue writing.