"You are such an idiot," Tali says fondly, as she finishes putting medi-gel on the cut that bastard Elcoss' lucky shot opened up above the soldier's brow.
The human frowns and fidgets, making the bed bounce slightly. "Yeah, well, so're you. That would've healed on its own."
"And now it will heal in a sanitary fashion."
"God, vas Normandy, you're such a quarian."
"And you are such an idiot." The young alien leans in and runs her left thumb over the medi-gel covered gash. "What were you thinking?"
Shepard hunches her shoulders. "Who knows? I was drunk."
"You're a liar."
"Yes. Wait. Is that a bad thing?"
"I hate you."
"Just tell me."
"Why does it matter?"
"It was a stupid thing to do. You might be a lot of things, but you're not stupid. Not usually, anyway."
"The guy was an asshole, okay?"
"I know for a fact that you don't go around attacking every so-called asshole that you encounter."
"Yeah, well." Shepard sighs and looks up through the skylight, out at the stars. "Yeah, well, he had a big mouth. I did warn him," she adds sullenly.
"What did he say?"
"…Stuff. About Matriarch Benezia…"
"'Stuff.' About the matriarch?"
"And something about Liara."
"Ah. Well. In that case, I am more surprised by your decision to let him live than your decision to attack him."
Shepard lies down on her side, tucking her right hand under her cheek and bringing her knees as close to the rest of her body as she can. "It was stupid. I should've just let it go."
"It was sweet," Tali puts her hand on Shepard's arm, rubbing it gently. For once, the human finds herself grateful for the overly tactile nature of quarian culture. "Stupid, but sweet. You care about Liara."
"Don't tell her about this."
"What? Why not?"
"Just…please, Tali." Shepard closes her eyes. "Don't tell her."
"Commander, may I ask you a question about organic behavior?"
Shepard sighs as she looks up at the ceiling. There's a pile of datapads on her desk full of research conducted by Dr. Bryson and his daughter. (Also named Dr. Bryson). Even if she only reads the abstracts, she has to read each one two or three times and take notes before she even understands what the articles are about.
"Commander? I apologize if I have interrupted. I do not need—"
She makes herself smile. "No worries, EDI. Just let me grab some of these datapads and come up to the bridge. We can talk face-to-face, and then I'll hang out with you while I do some work. If that's all right." She isn't dead yet. She still thinks the galaxy is more or less a wonderful, amazing place. She has friends she cares about. Friends that care about her. Shepard can choose to wallow, to bury herself in work and pretend she knows that there's nothing left for her to do but die, or she can put on her big-girl uniform and shoot for happiness. Life doesn't have to be perfect.
There's a pause while the AI considers her proposal. "I would enjoy that. Most of the crew is absent. I…find myself missing their presence."
The commander scoops up several datapads. "See you in a couple minutes then."
For once, Joker isn't in the cockpit; EDI sits in the pilot's chair. Shepard slides into EDI's normal seat and stacks the datapads on the floor next to her. "Hey there, deep thinker. What's the latest question? Lay it on me."
"It is about the mating behaviors of the diverse sentient species. Some, like humans, turians, drell, and batarians have formed cultures that encourage the formation of monogamous, long-lasting romantic relationships. Most of the rest: asari, hanar, krogan, volus, vorcha, elcor, do not engage in this practice."
"You and Joker talking about a commitment?" Shepard grins. "Good for you guys."
EDI tilts her head to the side inquisitively. "No. My question is about your own relationship with Liara. I am curious as to how you came to accept her desire to apply asari attitudes towards monogamy to your romantic relationship. All my research would indicate that, as a species, humans struggle with possessive attitudes—"
"What are you talking about? Liara and I never talked—" Shepard thinks back to the way Kaidan and Traynor had looked at Liara last night. She bends over in her chair, trying to breathe, struggling not to get sick. She reminds herself that all of this is her fault. She reminds herself that this is what she wanted. For Liara. To be happy. With someone who wouldn't hurt her.
"Apologies, Commander," EDI says. If she were anyone else, she would sound uncomfortable. "I assumed that you were aware that Liara and Major Alenko—"
"No. I wasn't. But it's fine." She grits her teeth.
"You do not share typical human attitudes towards monogamous relationships."
"I want her to be happy. And safe." There is no monogamous relationship to have an attitude towards. She'd stopped just short of constructing an elaborate, illuminated sign to warn Liara away. Shepard wastes a moment wishing she'd been born just a little bit smarter. Just a little bit more selfish.
"I see. Willingness to tolerate what are regarded as a loved one's flaws is a common human attitude, although it is unusual to see the concept extrapolated to quite the degree that you have done. I was aware that incidents of perceived infidelity may be forgiven, depending on the individual couple, but—"
Shepard nods. "Hey, EDI, I have to—to work. I have to be…not…here." She stands, picks up her datapads.
"Of course, Shepard. Oh!" The AI goes to the corridor and returns with a package. "This came for you. It was delivered by an employee of Aria T'Loak. I find it interesting that she has left agents behind on the Citadel now that she has regained control of the Omega station."
"Thanks. Thanks." Shepard puts down the datapads and takes it. It's soft. She knows what it is. Who it's for. "Thanks, EDI."
"I apologize if I have upset you."
"What? No. I—No, it's okay. It's fine. Everything's fine."
The package has been staring accusingly at Shepard all day. For all its luxuries, the loft doesn't have a closet for her clothes, or a drawer deep enough to hide the package in without crushing it. She ends up putting the package on the desk by her bed. Liara's desk. Liara's former desk.
She's tried to forget about it; she's spent the entire day in here, working diligently at her own desk. That faces Liara's desk. Former desk. Where the package sits.
She keeps imagining that the package is talking to her; a sure sign she should've asked Dr. Chakwas if they could schedule an extra check-in today.
Why are you punishing me? the package asks Shepard. I didn't do anything. Deliver me already.
She ignores it.
You're being a baby, the package tells her, sternly, asari aren't like humans: they look at things differently, they mature differently, they act differently. You knew that. You were expecting it.
If Shepard wasn't ignoring the package, she would point out to it that Liara had implied that she'd loved the human for a long time.
Even if that's true—
Shepard doesn't tell the package that it is true. She remembers the way Liara said 'I love you.' She also remembers the way Liara had promised that no one was going to get hurt. She remembers the way Liara said Shepard never sees her. It doesn't—That doesn't matter. Liara said she loved Shepard.
Even if that's true, you wanted things to be over. Maybe you never said it that plainly, coward, but everything you did made it damn clear.
Now the package is being a little unfair. Shepard didn't want to end things, but she had to. It was safer. Even if she can't remember exactly why it was safer, she knows that it was.
Liara and Major Alenko—
Shepard gets up from her desk, goes to the package, grabs it. She has to get rid of it. It isn't hers, anyway.
Shepard is too afraid to try the door; this isn't a dream. It might not open to her. Or maybe it will, and Kaidan will be in there. With Liara. She should just leave the package and go. Who needs to knock? Who needs to see Liara?
She knocks and waits. Nothing happens.
"Liara?" She knocks again, "Can you open up?" There's an ironic question. Shepard should have told Liara that she loves her. That she needs her. That she doesn't have to remind herself to breathe when she's with Liara…although maybe that's the same thing as 'needs her.' Liara hates redundancy. And bad grammar. And Shepard, but you can't really blame her for that last one.
She decides to drop leave the package here and go. If Liara wants to put it in the garbage compacter and shoot it into space, she can do that herself. Shepard paid good credits and begged more than anyone should have to before T'Loak would agree to help her.
Oh, shit. Deep breath. Another deep breath. One more deep breath. Last one. Okay, this one is the last one. Turn around. Smile. Can't smile. Liara doesn't look angry. That's a nice surprise. Shepard loves Liara. "Hey. Um. Hi. I was—This is yours. I was on the bridge. EDI said it was safe to deliver."
Liara cups a mug in her hands; there's something wedged under her arm, a dark, odd—Shepard almost smiles. The first time she noticed the tea box was when Liara had grabbed it from the small pile of supplies in her saferoom-turned-prison on Therum, the first and only thing that the asari had wanted after being freed. Seeing that had made Shepard willing to give the scientist the benefit of the doubt, even though she had more education then anyone else on the Normandy, even though she was older than any of them, even though her mother was a traitor working with Saren. Anyone who understood that sometimes you had to move on from what your life had been and could only keep one thing to remind you of how things used to be was someone Shepard could relate to, no matter how many more degrees or birthdays someone had had.
"I—Ah—Your hands are full. Do you want me to—Or I can—"
Liara blinks, looking confused. Her eyes narrow, as though she's suspicious of something. Of Shepard. Shit, Shepard loves Liara.
"If you would not mind, it would be easier—"
"Yeah, no, sure. I don't mind. No problem. No worries."
Liara moves past Shepard and presses an elbow to the door to open it; the human is suddenly glad that she didn't try to see if she could access the room. At least this way she can still pretend. Not that she deserves that. Or wants it, she reminds herself. She put the package down on Liara's desk—her real desk—and starts to leave. This is what she wanted. Safety. So what if in some ways it's identical to loneliness? She's never felt alone before. Things will feel normal again eventually. She can decide to be happy.
Shut up, she can.
"Thank you." Liara's voice is quiet, hesitant. As if she's afraid her simple politeness will be rejected. No one else cares this much about others while thinking so little of themselves. Shepard wishes the asari could see herself the way Shepard does. What's the point of being pretty much perfect if you don't even know that's what you are? Someone should tell Liara.
Shepard should tell Liara.
The soldier turns, hand on the doorway for support. She glances at Liara, thinks about Kaidan, wonders whose idea—"Can I say something?" Without waiting for a reply, she plows ahead. "I see you, you know. Always have. Maybe not—Maybe I didn't always know…but I always saw you. Still do. I'd see you even if I was blind. Actually blind, you know, on top of being stupid-blind." Shepard fidgets, uncomfortable and relieved in one, not sure she likes how too-late honesty tastes. "Instead of standing there like an idiot the other day when you said I don't see you, I should've told you that. I see you." She lets herself look at Liara's face before she nods. She said what she had to. What she should have. Too late, maybe, but she realizes that she doesn't care. Shepard can't let Liara keep thinking that she's the kind of person it's all right to overlook. Shepard can't let Liara keep thinking that the asari is the kind of person it's possible to overlook.
"I kissed Kaidan."
The words ram into Shepard like physical blows. She freezes, clenches and unclenches her hands, runs her thumbs over her knuckles, takes deep breaths to bury everything. She reminds herself that Liara doesn't owe her anything, not even the small courtesy of those three words. "Yeah, I know," she finally admits. "EDI had questions."
Liara—Liara apologizes? For what? She didn't—Shepard—All Shepard's done since they've met is screw things up between them. First by not realizing how she felt about the asari, then by dying and not realizing how she felt, then by acting like a complete ass by the time she finally did realize—Shepard loves Liara. Liara never has to apologize to Shepard for anything.
"Don't apologize, Liara. You don't have any reason to apologize. I messed up. Everything—What happened with us is my fault; not yours." Shepard loves Liara. Shepard hurt Liara. Liara shouldn't apologize to Shepard. There's no universe where that makes sense.
Shepard doesn't know how she ends up standing in the middle of Liara's cabin, her hands on Liara's face, holding it the way she does when she's trying to convince Liara that whatever she's crying over isn't worth her tears. She does know what she sees glimmering in the deepest part of those Alliance blue eyes. She does know that she could kiss Liara, could lie down on Liara's bed and pull Liara on top of her and that Liara wouldn't mind. She does know that Liara wouldn't stop Shepard. But she also knows that after that Shepard would do something—Shepard would hurt Liara again. Somehow. She would. She knows she would.
So instead, she kisses Liara's forehead. Like a friend would. She will always be Liara's friend, even if the asari hates her. Shepard loves Liara.
"If you do it, it can't be wrong." It's that simple. There's nothing to forgive. There never will be. That's how it works when you're perfect, Liara.
Shepard leaves. Shepard loves Liara. Shepard will always love Liara.
Author's Note: All my thanks to WordKrush and Owelpost for their help, and to all of you readers for your patience!