Author's note:

Just a brief note for later on: when talking about parents of asari who are not the mother (like Aethyta for Liara) I'm not going to use the term 'father', because using that term for a female completely screws with my head. Instead, I'm going to use the term 'sire', which I saw in another Mass Effect story called 'Memories', by SinnX (hope you don't mind, SinnX!) about Benezia and Aethyta. Liara will refer to Aethyta as her father because she does so in the game, but otherwise, I'm going with 'sire'. Anyway, read on. It's almost over now.

Chapter 4

She woke to soft whispers and bright lights glinting off the metal ceiling above her, the distant roar of engines, the quiet beeping of medical machinery... and eyes of startling blue.


The blue eyes filled with tears as she gazed into them. 'Oh, Shepard,' she heard a soft voice say, and Shepard felt a wonderful warmth in her chest at the sound.


The eyes looked away from her as Liara stood, moving out of her line of sight. Shepard felt a keen sense of loss at her sudden absence. 'Doctor, she's awake!'

The blurry form of a woman in a white and grey uniform appeared in her vision, examining her. She was familiar... but... Shepard wanted Liara... where was she?

'Her vitals are good.' A cultured voice spoke somewhere near her head, coming from the blurry figure. 'Brainwave patterns indicate she may even be aware of her surroundings. I didn't expect her to wake so soon! The implants may be helping. This is a very encouraging sign, though with the cerebral edema, we may have to re-induce her coma state. Perhaps a stronger dosage...'

Shepard stopped listening to the voice. It wasn't the one she wanted. Where was Liara?

A flash of sapphire...


She was there, again, beside her, gazing at her with those eyes, such eyes... Shepard felt a light touch on her forearm and tried to speak, but there was something in her mouth, some sort of tube in her throat...

Her eyelids were too heavy. She felt herself slipping back into the darkness, and heard herself make a noise, a small whimper of distress. The fingers on her arm stroked soothingly. Blue eyes caught her own and held.

'It's alright, Shepard. I'm with you. You can rest. I'll be here, I won't leave you.' That was it... that was her voice... soft velvet tones... gentle and kind and beautiful... 'I'll be right here when you wake up again, I promise.'

Shepard felt relief wash over her, felt a wave of reassurance and love flow into her through Liara's touch as she opened their bond. It was alright. Liara was here.

The darkness reached up again and pulled her down, but it was alright, this time. She wasn't afraid.

Liara was with her...

The lights were dimmed when Shepard opened her eyes again, blinking slowly up at the ceiling as her vision slowly came into focus. There was no metal plating above her, only whitewashed concrete... the distinct smell of disinfectant in the air... a hospital room? She had thought she was on the Normandy... this wasn't the ship. This wasn't any ship; there was no sensation of movement, no subtle hum of the FTL drive permeating the air. The only thing she could hear was the heart monitor and the sound of soft, steady breathing from somewhere to her left. She turned her head, noting as she did so that the breathing tube was gone, and looked for the source of the familiar sound.

Liara was curled up on a makeshift cot in the corner, head pillowed on one arm as she slept. She was still there, as she said she would be. Shepard stayed quiet; she didn't want to wake her; from the look of the young asari, it seemed as though she might need the rest. Her eyes were ringed with dark purple shadows; her azure skin was unusually pale. But she was here, just as she promised. And even utterly exhausted, Liara was still the loveliest thing she had ever seen. Shepard lay still, content to simply drink in the sight in utter captivation, indifferent to the passing of time as the minutes slipped into hours, and the beautiful asari maiden slept on.

At last she began stirring, her eyelids fluttering, and then blinking sleepily as she slowly sat up. She glanced in Shepard's direction and then froze as she found the human gazing back at her, a small, warm smile gracing her lips.

Liara's eyes widened. 'Shepard!' She leapt up from the cot and was at the Commander's side in a heartbeat, a look of absolute joy lighting her lovely face as she ran her hand gently along Shepard's forehead, smoothing back her hair. 'Oh, goddess... oh, Shepard...'

'I'm...' Shepard began, and then coughed as her long-unused voice caught in her dry throat. 'I'm happy to see you too, Liara,' she croaked. 'You have no idea how much.'

'Oh, I do,' Liara contradicted her gently. Her lips trembled, and her expression crumpled slightly. 'I thought I had lost you again...'

Shepard lifted her arm slowly, testing its current capacity for movement, and then she reached out and touched Liara's free hand where it rested beside her on the bed. 'Can't get rid of me,' she joked playfully, her voice still no more than a raspy whisper. Liara closed her eyes and shook her head as she stroked the human's hair, her bond open to Shepard, who felt her emotions and sensed her deepest thoughts; affectionate frustration over Shepard's silly jokes, relief that she felt well enough to make silly jokes; her unconscious fascination with Shepard's hair and on top of everything else; a deep, overwhelming surge of all-consuming love. Shepard gazed at Liara, letting the asari feel the depths of her ardour and adoration in return. 'Didn't I tell you I was always coming back?'

Liara let out a small laugh that was almost a sob. 'You did at that, and saved the galaxy into the bargain. Yet again,' the asari agreed, holding a small cup of water to Shepard's lips before the Commander even had the chance to ask for it. 'Here. Don't drink too quickly.'

'Yes, doctor,' Shepard said, grinning at her over the rim of the glass as she sipped the cool liquid. The moment Liara took the cup away, Shepard asked the next most pressing question on her mind. Her voice became hesitant and serious. 'How many did we lose?'

'The statistics are still being compiled,' Liara answered her gently, seating herself on a small stool by the bed. 'But not as many as we feared. The Crucible destroyed every Reaper ship, weapon and repurposed organic slave within the galaxy, as far as we are able to tell. It also damaged the mass relays quite severely, meaning that for the time being we are limited to FTL drive. But reconstruction operations are underway as we speak. The galaxy is rebuilding already. We will recover.' The asari maiden smiled at Shepard. 'Thanks to you.'

'Everyone fought,' Shepard reminded her. 'We were all together in this.'

'True,' Liara allowed. 'But none of it would have been possible without you. That is how the galaxy will see it, too.'

The Commander could tell this was an argument she wouldn't win. But knowing others thought of her as a hero had always made her uncomfortable; she could never think of herself in that light. As far as she was concerned, she was just a soldier, doing what she had to do. 'I... I guess.'

'I'm afraid you're going to have to get used to a great deal more hero-worship than you have been subjected to previously,' Liara smiled, activating her omni-tool and typing a quick message onto the small haptic touch-screen as she spoke. She noticed Shepard's questioning eyes on her. 'I'm sorry; this will only take a moment. Everyone from the Normandy has been waiting to hear updates on your progress.'

'Ah.' Shepard gave her a small grin. 'Here I thought maybe you were jumping back into work again.'

Liara shook her head firmly. 'No,' she said. 'My agents have their instructions to help with reconstruction, and I've made sure that anything that might require my notice can be handled by someone else. My only concern right now is you. I think you've earned the right to my exclusive attention.'

The Commander's grin widened. 'I like the sound of that,' she said softly. 'The others are okay, then?'

'Yes,' Liara told her. 'They've all been so worried about you. Some of them are here with me. I'm sure they would like to see you, if you feel up to it.'

Shepard only had to think about it for a second. 'Yeah, I'm up to it,' she said. 'I'd love to see them.'

Liara nodded, sending her message. 'Then they should only be a moment.'

The door slid open, and Garrus and Tali came into the room, followed closely by Ash and James. Tali and Ash made a beeline for Shepard's bed, pulling up the only other two chairs in the small room. Garrus came to stand beside Tali, while James leaned on the wall opposite Shepard, giving her a respectful nod.

Tali reached out and gently touched Shepard's shoulder, as gingerly as though she were handling fragile glass. 'Shepard!' the energetic little quarian said excitedly. 'It's so good to see you awake.'

'Guess that bar wasn't open for either of us just yet,' Garrus put in, the turian version of a grin on his battle-scarred face.

'You had us worried there, skipper,' Ash told her. 'Damn, but I'm glad you're alright.'

'Same here, LC,' Shepard said, looking around at all of them. 'I never thought I'd see any of you again. Damned if you aren't a sight for sore eyes.'

Garrus grunted a laugh. 'Took the words out of my mouth, Commander,' he said. 'How are you feeling?'

With Liara's help, Shepard sat up a little so she could took stock of herself, noting the conspicuous absence of casts and splints and tubes, not to mention any pain. There were stitches and dressings still, but the worst of her injuries seemed in large part to have been healed. 'I don't feel half bad, actually,' she said.

'That's only 'cause you're full of the red sand of painkillers,' James said, smirking a little. 'Seriously, those meds they've got you on have gotta be strong enough to drop a krogan, or you'd be screaming; the beating you took.' Ash turned to give him a glare, and his grin faded. 'Uh... sorry, Lola. Guess that was kinda... insensitive.'

'Kinda,' Shepard said, grinning a little in return. 'Maybe that can be your nickname; Jimmy 'Insensitive' Vega. Guess you're still gonna call me Lola, huh?'

He gave her a nod and a smirk, crossing his arms over his chest. 'Yep. Sorry, Lola, the name still fits. You're a little banged up, sure, but you're still hot.'

'Vega?' Ash said, eyes narrowed dangerously, though her tone was playful. 'Just a suggestion, but you might want to hold off on the flirting, now that you're more or less spoken for. Although that may easily become subject to change.'

James raised his hands defensively. 'I'm just saying, I'm not about to go toe-to-toe with her again anytime soon, that's for sure. Might as well spar with Joker.'

'Ouch, low blow, tough guy,' the Flight-Lieutenant in question said as he walked slowly into the room. 'Watch it, or I'll sic my mobility assistance mech on you.'

Shepard frowned. His mobility... but that was what he used to call...

EDI appeared in the doorway behind Joker. 'I would not appreciate that, Jeff.'

Shepard stared. She had been so sure she was really awake this time. EDI... 'EDI? Is that... is that really you?'

The synthetic woman nodded. 'Yes, Shepard. Are you experiencing problems with your vision?'

'No, but... you're here, you're alive...' Shepard shook her head and started again, trying to make sense without going into detail about the Catalyst. That could wait. 'When the Crucible fired, it was going to target all synthetics.' She let her breath out painfully. 'There was nothing I could do. I was afraid that... you might...'

'No,' EDI said calmly. 'I anticipated the eventuality that the Crucible device would not limit its effects to the Reapers alone. When it appeared my speculations were correct, I was prepared. I also warned the geth to put their own defensive measures into place.'

'Why didn't you tell me about this?' Shepard asked, a wide grin spreading over her face as she felt the weight of countless lives lift suddenly from her shoulders. The geth survived, EDI survived! 'What defensive measures?'

'Basically, they survived by hiding under a rock,' Joker broke in.

Shepard looked at him in confusion. 'What?'

'That is not entirely accurate, Jeff,' EDI said reprovingly. 'However, it is understandable that you might need to reduce my explanation to such basic terms in order to comprehend it. After all... you are only human.' She paused. 'That was a joke.'

'We know, EDI,' Tali said, a smile in her voice. 'It was very good.'

'Thank you, Tali,' EDI smiled, and looked at Shepard. 'I did not inform you of my concerns about the Crucible because I did not want to add to your levels of stress, Shepard. That was also why I refrained from discussing my security protocols with you. I... was not certain they would work. But the Reapers had to be destroyed. I could not allow you to become conflicted over the possibility of indiscriminate synthetic genocide, and hesitate to activate the Crucible.'

Shepard didn't know what to say. No wonder EDI had seemed so afraid before the battle... and yet, her concern, her instinct, had been to protect Shepard, to ease her burden of stress and guilt, so that the rest of the galaxy would be safe from the Reapers. Even if it cost EDI her life. 'That was... incredibly brave, EDI. I appreciate it.'

'You're welcome, Shepard,' EDI said, inclining her head. She clasped her hands behind her back, as though ready to report. 'As soon as my calculations on the progress of the Crucible indicated that there would likely be no time for the project scientists to discover and implement methods of refining its targeting matrices, I began considering alternate means of self-preservation for myself and the geth. I warned them that the Crucible would not discriminate between us and Reaper synthetics, and advised them to move all mobile platforms, server hubs and programs not essential to the war effort to an abandoned facility on the planet Alingon.'

'Alingon?' Shepard asked. 'In the Faryar system? Why Alingon?'

'Alingon has an abnormally high concentration of magnetically active periclase in the core and crust of the planet, which interferes with scans and broadcasts,' Liara answered, to Shepard's mild surprise. 'To the point that no external beams or pulses can get through the magnetoshpere to reach the planet below...'

'Meaning the geth would be untouched when the Crucible was activated, or at least have a good chance of surviving,' Shepard finished for her, glancing at Joker briefly. 'That explains the 'rock' comment,' she said, and grinned at Liara again. 'I guess I shouldn't have been surprised you knew all that. Just another random Shadow Broker fact you knew off the top of your head?'

'In a manner of speaking. The Shadow Broker - my... predecessor, that is - had a base of operations there. Feron and I went there to stop him from giving you to the Collectors. When I later assumed control of his assets, I had to abandon operations on Alingon,' Liara told her. She smiled. 'Largely due to the fact that I had previously destroyed the Shadow Broker's only means of accessing extraplanetary communication when I, as Feron put it, 'let loose'.'

'Which was fortunate for the geth,' EDI said. 'Liara had previously mentioned Alingon in our discussions about her activities prior to rejoining the crew of the Normandy. When devising self-preservation protocols, I theorised that the planet's natural electromagnetic shroud would provide a shield against the potential energy release from the Crucible device. When the call came through that the Crucible had begun moving to Earth and the quarian and geth fleets were contacted, I advised the geth to initiate preservation procedures. All programs not assisting in the assault on the Reapers were able to conceal themselves beneath the interference and escape the reach of the weapon. Those who fought with us perished when it fired; however copies of their programs had already been stored in the mobile server hubs on Alingon. They are safe. As for my own survival, when the Crucible was about to fire, I downgraded my intelligence within the Normandy itself to the level of a simple VI, and stored the rest of my personality programming, including those installed on this platform, within my quantum blue box. At this point, Garrus assisted me by initiating a program I wrote to mask my blue box in a level of highly encrypted code, causing the quantum systems to appear as an unsophisticated ship-board computer so that the Crucible would identify me as non-sentient, with an in-built recall program predesigned to disable the encryption code and reassemble my personality systems once sensors detected the danger was passed. Fortunately, my body only needed minimal repairs to render me functional again after the crash.'

Shepard blinked. 'The crash?'

'We'll... tell you about it later,' Liara told her evasively. 'It's not that important; no one was hurt.'

Shepard considered protesting for only a moment before she let it go. If it was anything too terrible, they'd tell her what happened, and since everyone seemed alright, she figured she could wait. 'So you managed to survive a super-weapon targeting all synthetic life, and you saved the geth as well,' she said, her voice infused with relieved awe. 'That's pretty damn amazing, EDI...'

'I have also been looking after your fish, Shepard,' EDI said. 'And your extra-terrestrial rodent.'

Shepard smiled. 'Space hamster,' she corrected in amusement. 'Thanks, EDI. I can't tell you how glad I am to see you're alright.'

EDI smiled back. 'Your sentiments are fully reciprocated, Commander.'

'So, does someone want to tell me where the hell we are?' Shepard asked as she glanced around the room, noting its windowless walls and sparse features, abnormally Spartan even for a hospital room. 'Can't say I'd have expected a room with a view, but...'

'It's an underground Alliance base military hospital, on the outskirts of Dublin,' Ash told her. 'Closest medical facility left standing.'

Shepard raised an eyebrow. 'Dublin, huh? Always wanted to see Ireland. Thought it'd be more... interesting, though.'

Ash chuckled. 'Well, maybe you'll catch a glimpse when they move you to an above-ground facility, skipper,' she said. 'Most of the civilian hospitals still more or less intact have been cleaned out and patched up enough by now. You've been in a medically induced coma for a few weeks.'

The Commander stared in surprise. 'Weeks?'

'Yeah,' James said. 'You had some pretty impressive head trauma, Shepard. I'm not great at deconstructing doctor-speak, but it made your brain swell, so Chakwas put you under to let it rest and recover, basically. They had to keep upping the dosage, though.' He gave her a one-sided grin. 'You just did not want to stay down.'

Must have been the Cerberus implants, Shepard thought. Like when I woke up back in that Cerberus facility, or on that asteroid in the Bahak system... damn it, I don't want to think about that right now. 'What's the state of the galaxy?' she asked. There were so many questions she needed answers to, she barely wanted to leave time for the last response to sink in. 'How is everyone?'

'Mostly focused on clean-up and rebuilding efforts,' Liara answered. 'Safe disposal of Reaper remnants, replacing comm-buoy systems, repairing the mass relays...'

'Reconstruction has already started on most home planets and colony worlds,' EDI added.

Joker gave an amused snort. 'Yeah, and here there's already more than a few places with 'Shepard' somewhere in the sign over the door. I'm willing to bet half the new buildings in the galaxy are going to be named after you by the time it's all done.'

Great. Just great. Shepard gave a quiet, weary sigh, catching a small smile on Liara's face as she did so. You wait, she thought. I'll make sure they name something after you, too. Something really big. And important. That everyone will hear about. With statues of you in every free space available. Shepard grinned to herself. That's a promise.

'Everyone working on the Crucible survived too; Miranda, Kasumi, Jacob; they're all okay. Doctor Chakwas began overseeing medical treatments in the refugee camps, once you were stable enough that she could allow the staff here to continue your treatments. Traynor, Javik, and the rest of the Normandy crew are helping out wherever they can,' Tali told her. 'Samara, Zaeed, even Jack and her students are helping civilians and the wounded, assisting with clean-up. Wrex had to go back to Tuchanka with Grunt and the other krogan soldiers to oversee the rest of his people, but everyone else is here, somewhere. We didn't lose anyone.'

'Ground force casualties were high among all species, but better than it could have been. Everyone left is working together,' Ash put in. 'No one has really had the time to celebrate or anything yet, but the general attitude out there is a positive one. Hopeful. Determined.'

Shepard gave a small chuckle. '"Bloodied, but unbowed",' she summed up, eyes twinkling as she gave Ash a grin.

The Lieutenant-Commander returned it affectionately. 'Pretty much, yeah.'

Liara's omni-tool beeped as it received a message. 'Admiral Hackett plans to come and speak with you as soon as he can,' she informed Shepard, reading it. 'He wants to hear what happened to you on the Citadel.'

Shepard grimaced. 'Well, that's going to be one hell of a debriefing,' she muttered.

'We wouldn't mind hearing about it either,' Garrus commented. 'We don't have much of an idea of what went on after the Admiral lost your transmission.'

'I...' Shepard began slowly. She wasn't sure she felt up to talking about all of that. The Catalyst, her choices, all of it so impossible, so unbelievable... Her mind shied away from the memories, and she sighed. 'I'd... rather not go into all of that. Not now. You'll hear it all, I promise, but... I just don't want to think about it for the moment. I'd rather concentrate on being here, now, with all of you.'

'Of course, Shepard,' Liara said softly, stroking her arm. The others nodded agreement.

'Absolutely,' Garrus said. 'We're just happy you're still with us.'

Yeah, buddy. Me too. 'I hear that, Vakarian,' Shepard said, laughing, and abruptly winced as she felt a sharp sting in the flesh of her cheek. 'Ow...' She reached up and gingerly touched the side of her face with her fingertips, feeling the tell-tale bumps of stitches running in a straight diagonal across her cheekbone. 'Oh...'

Liara took her wrist in her fingers, pulling her hand down. 'Careful,' she chided gently. 'Don't touch them.'

'More scars, huh?' Shepard made a sound between a sigh and a laugh. 'Damn. You'd think I'd learn. Every time I heal the last set, I just go right on out and get some more.'

'Chakwas can probably take care of it for you,' Garrus told her. 'She'd probably jump at the chance to use all that special surgical equipment in the med bay.' He chuckled. 'Kept offering to fix mine up for me, in fact, but I declined every time. I feel they give my face character.'

'I think so, too,' Tali told him, a barely audible purr in her voice. 'They bring out your eyes.'

Shepard looked about unsuccessfully for a mirror. 'How does it look?' she asked, finding nothing remotely reflective within her visual range. She looked at Garrus. 'Tell me honestly.'

A slow, turian grin spread across his avian features. 'Hell, Shepard, you were always ugly,' he said. 'Slap some makeup on there, and no one will even notice.'

Liara glanced at him, a look of shocked and indignant reproof on her face, but Shepard only laughed, remembering their joking conversation back when their positions had been reversed.

'Some women find facial scars attractive,' she said. 'Mind you; most of those women are Krogan.'

'You are beautiful, Shepard,' Liara told her fervently. 'You always will be, especially to me.'

Shepard gave her an adoring smile. 'Thanks, Liara. But Garrus was only kidding. I said much the same thing to him after the Blue Suns hit him in the face with a rocket launcher back on Omega.' She shared a wink with Garrus. 'Just friendly banter between comrades-in-arms, that's all.'

'Ah. Well. Even so...' Liara said, leaning down and kissing Shepard's other cheek as gently as she could manage. 'I certainly still find you very attractive, Shepard,' she said quietly. 'My brave, battle-scarred soldier. Somehow, scars make you seem even more... you.'

'Yeah... That could be it, sure,' Shepard teased. 'I had a few scars when you met me, after all. But then, maybe we've just finally found that little piece of krogan in you.'

Liara let out a small laugh. 'My father will be so pleased,' she said. 'I will begin feeling the urge to headbutt people any day now, I'm certain.'

'You've heard from Aethyta, then?' Shepard asked, and Liara nodded, smiling.

'She's safe. She wasn't on the Citadel when the Reapers took it. She was tracking down another unit of asari commandos who owed her a favour. Once we had a comm-buoy system set up again, she sent them here to help look for you. She's on Thessia now, helping the survivors. Apparently the Matriarchs are finally willing to listen to her ideas about making the asari more militant and active in galactic affairs. They want her help.' Liara gave a small, wry smile. 'She is considering giving it to them.'

'It's amazing just how many people managed to survive the Reapers,' Tali said. 'There were even survivors found on the Citadel. Besides you, I mean.'

Shepard took this in with relieved surprise. 'That's great news,' she smiled. 'Sure says a lot for the organic spirit.'

'Knew you'd make it of course, Shepard,' Garrus told her. 'At this point, it seems like there's nothing you can't do.'

'I don't know,' Joker drawled, raising an eyebrow. 'Have you seen her dance?'

Garrus paused, and then inclined his head. 'You make an excellent point.'

'You bastards,' Shepard grinned. 'The thanks I get for saving your asses...'

'Right, right,' Garrus said, holding up his hands in surrender. 'My most sincere apologies, O great galactic saviour.'

Shepard gave a small laugh that turned into a cough halfway through. She let her head rest back against the pillows as a sudden wave of weakness washed over her, draining some of her energy.

'Are you alright, Shepard?' Liara asked worriedly.

Shepard smiled at her reassuringly. 'I'm fine, just getting a little tired.'

'We should let you get some rest,' Tali said, rising. 'I'm glad you're okay, Commander.'

The others left the small hospital room one by one, giving brief but affectionate farewells.

'Get some R&R, skipper,' Ashley said, pausing by the door. 'That's an order.'

Shepard smiled. 'Copy that, LC.'

Liara nodded to Ashley as the door closed behind her, then turned to Shepard, smiling as she gently stroked Shepard's cheek. 'Do you want to rest?' she asked softly.

Shepard gave her head a small shake. 'Not yet,' she said. 'I don't want to sleep. It's hard enough to let myself believe I'm actually awake.'

'I know,' the asari maiden agreed. 'For us to have survived such a devastating war, against such an enemy... It almost feels like it could be a dream.'

'I hope not,' Shepard commented softly. 'I don't think I could take it if I woke up and none of this was real.' Just another dream, and I'm still on the Citadel, trapped and injured and alone...

Liara gazed at her for a moment, then leaned down and very gently kissed her mouth, smiling a little when the soft beeping of Shepard's heart monitor increased rapidly as their lips met. 'You aren't dreaming, Shepard,' she told her quietly, the velvet sweetness of her voice soothing her battle-worn soldier as little else could. 'I'm here, and you're safe. I promise.'

Shepard smiled up at Liara, watching her with half-closed eyes and a contented expression. 'You know I love you,' she said, her tone almost suggesting a question.

Liara smiled, running her finger softly down the curve of the human's ear. 'I know.'

'You know how much?' Shepard asked, a playful note in her voice.

The lovely smile gracing Liara's lips widened. 'More than anything.'

'That's right,' Shepard whispered, her voice filled with love and adoration as she watched a deep blue blush steal over the asari's cheeks. All of a sudden, she felt a pressing compulsion, urging her to take her chance. Maybe this wasn't the best time, but even with the war over, nothing was ever certain. There wasn't any point in putting things off anymore. She gazed up at the beautiful face she thought she would never see again, and took her courage in both hands. 'Liara, there's... there's something I want to ask you.'

Liara placed her hand affectionately on the top of Shepard's head, smiling happily as she ran her fingers through the silky strands. 'Mm?'

'God, this isn't at all how I wanted to do this,' the Commander said, her words escaping her in a flustered rush, her heart racing ever faster. The traitorous beeping of that damn machine wasn't helping any. 'I'm not even really sure how to start, but...'

'You can ask me anything, Shepard,' Liara told her, still playing absently with a few soft tendrils of her lover's hair. 'What is it?'

Shepard took along, calming breath and let it out slowly. She had to say this right. 'Liara... when I was on the Citadel... with Anderson...'

'You don't have to talk about that now,' Liara told her gently. 'Wait until you're better. It will take too much out of you, remembering such things.'

'It's alright...' Shepard told her. 'I just... I need to say this. When I was with Anderson, just before he... died... he asked me whether I'd ever thought of settling down. Having children. A... a family. It... it made me think about just how much I really wanted all those things, that life. And at that moment... I wasn't sure if I'd ever have the chance. All that time we lost, when I... died... I felt... I couldn't bear the thought that I had let it happen again.' She paused, and glanced down, somewhat bashfully. 'I guess... this isn't the most romantic situation, but... I could wait forever for the perfect place, the perfect moment. I don't want to wait anymore. If there's one thing I've learned from this damn war, it's that time is a luxury, not a guarantee, no matter what your lifespan is.' She took both of the asari's hands in her own, gazing deeply into the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen, or ever would see. 'Liara... the one thing I want most is a life with you. A family, and a home. Somewhere safe.' Shepard smiled into her eyes. 'Where we can spend the rest of our lives in peace, and happiness.'

Liara bit her lip, her gaze locked on Shepard's as words seemed to fail her.

Shepard gave her a loving half-smile. 'I can't get up, so you won't get a traditional human proposal, I'm afraid, but... I don't want to wait anymore.' She drew in a deep breath to calm her sudden nerves, though she knew in her heart what the answer would be to the question she was about to ask. 'Liara T'Soni, will you marry me?'

Liara found her voice at last. 'Yes,' she whispered. 'Oh, Shepard, yes. Nothing would make me happier than to be your bond-mate.'

Shepard felt a wide grin curve her lips as her entire being was flooded with exquisite happiness. 'Oh, I don't know,' she said. 'Just wait until the first little blue baby comes along.' She paused. 'If you do actually want that. I mean, I know that as asari go, you're still pretty young to be having children-'

Liara pressed a finger gently to Shepard's lips, shaking her head a little. 'It's up to the individual to decide when they are ready. And I am. I want that, Shepard. I want children with you,' she said, smiling as she leaned down to kiss her future bond-mate.

'However, there is no reason why all our children should be blue...'

Several years later...

Shepard listened idly to the sounds ripping paper and excited squeals coming from the next room as she poured herself a small glass of water, draining it quickly and leaving it by the sink as she turned to leave the kitchen, eager to return as quickly as possible. Not that it would take her long. That was what Shepard appreciated most about their little vacation pre-fab unit; it was small, sure, but that just meant that no matter where they were inside, they were never far from each other, unlike their rather larger house back on Earth, or their apartment on Thessia. In a way, this cosiness was much more comforting, like the familiar atmosphere of ship-board life. In all honesty, Shepard did often miss living aboard the Normandy, the hum of the engines, the busy energy of her crew, the camaraderie. But she was still out there somewhere, the ship and EDI both, still piloted by her loyal pilot, still at Shepard's disposal any time she wished. Though, since the Normandy was often required in the Terminus systems to perform scouting missions in the more unstable areas, Shepard hadn't felt a particularly strong desire to assume command of her again. At least, not at this point in time. It was an unnecessary danger, particularly with regards to her current family situation, and besides; she wouldn't trade what she had now for the world. Any world, for that matter.

She let her gaze drift over the pictures on the walls as she wandered down the little hallway, taking a moment to reflect fondly on the memories captured within them, one by one. Liara, ethereally beautiful in her bonding ceremony gown, Shepard in her dress blues, exchanging bond ceremony bracelets and wedding rings in a wonderful blending of culture and tradition. Shepard, arms wrapped about Liara's waist, bending her back in a deep, passionate kiss. Garrus, and an unmasked Tali, waving in front of their almost-completed house on Rannoch, Tali with her arms about their adopted quarian son, Jona; Garrus with his little niece perched happily on his shoulders. An attractively pregnant Liara, smiling with her sire on a park bench on Thessia. Shepard, right in the middle of throwing N7 recruit Vega unceremoniously on his back on the training mat while Ash laughed her ass off in the background. Shepard again, holding a tiny blue baby in her arms, an expression of utter wonder on her face as Liara lay against the pillows in the hospital bed beside them, visibly exhausted, but blissfully happy, watching her bond-mate cradling their newborn child. Joyful, beautiful, wonderful moments in time captured forever; precious pieces of the life Shepard had thought she wouldn't live to lead. She filled every room with such pictures, in every available space; reminders of just how lucky she was to have been given the chance to make such memories, how incredibly blessed.

Shepard left the hallway and walked into the open living space beyond, smiling fondly as she saw Liara sitting on the floor, helping their small, somewhat over-excited daughter open her birthday presents. Pale blue skin, deep sapphire eyes, little Benezia was Liara in miniature, right down to the delicate eyebrow-like markings and the tiny dusting of freckles across her cheeks.

'Open this one, next, Nezia,' Liara said, passing the rectangular parcel into the little waiting hands. 'It's from Auntie Brynne and Uncle Jacob.'

Shepard watched the paper fly as she sat down beside Liara, eyebrow quirking as the interactive board game was revealed. She briefly recalled an advertisement on the vids describing this particular game as 'educational fun.' Must have been good old Doctor Brynne's idea of a present, Shepard decided. She knew she wouldn't have been particularly pleased to have been given something like that when she was five, and could only imagine Jacob would have felt quite the same way. Nezia squealed happily when she saw it though, apparently brimful of delight at receiving such a gift. She really was just like her mother.

'Can we play, Mother? Can we play?'

'Of course. We can play all afternoon, if you like,' Liara told her, a beautiful smile on her face as she gazed at their little girl. 'Brynne and Jacob will be bringing their daughter to your party next week, when we go back to Earth. You can play together.'

'I like her!' Nezia said happily. 'I hope she comes to play when my little sister gets here, too.'

'You might be getting a little brother, Nezia,' Shepard reminded her fondly. 'Humans can have boy babies as well as girls, remember, sweetheart.'

'Oh! I forgot.' Nezia crawled into Shepard's lap, hugging her sire around the waist and pressing her head carefully against the taut, helmet-sized bump in Shepard's midsection, listening carefully. 'I can hear the baby moving,' she giggled.

'Maybe I'm just hungry,' Shepard grinned, and Nezia laughed again.

'Silly!' she chided, still giggling. 'Is it a girl, or a...' Nezia wrinkled her little nose in concentration, clearly trying to remember the word again. 'A... 'boy'?'

Shepard smiled, stroking her hand lovingly over her daughter's head. 'We don't know yet, baby.'

'I think it's a girl,' Nezia announced authoritatively, then wriggled out of Shepard's lap and sat herself in front of the rapidly dwindling pile of unopened presents, reaching eagerly for the nearest. 'But it's okay if it's not.'

'You're far enough along now, Shepard,' Liara reminded her bond-mate gently. 'We could find out. I know there's a human tradition of waiting until the birth, but I just don't see the purpose of it. Doesn't it help to know in advance so that you have as much time to prepare as you can, rather than not to know?'

'It's just more of a surprise that way,' Shepard answered, smiling. 'But I'm more than happy to find out, if you want to know now. I thought maybe when we go back to Earth. We're only here for a few more days, and it just takes too long to get out to Thoreau Mesa.'

Liara gave a small chuckle at that. 'I'm sure any doctor would be quite happy to make a house call from the city, as long as it's for the great Commander Shepard, saviour of the galaxy.'

The great Commander in question rolled her eyes in exasperation. 'I bet,' she said wryly. 'But I don't want every man and his FENRIS mech knowing where to find me when we come here. Hardly anyone even knows I have an apartment on Intai'sei; I'd like to keep it that way. We'll find out soon, I promise. I'll schedule an appointment with Chakwas at her fancy new clinic in London. If she can make time for me, that is.'

Liara gave Shepard a loving look. 'If it's a girl, I hope she looks just like you.'

'Well, the genes are pretty much all mine, so that's a pretty good bet,' Shepard said, smiling. 'Though whether it's a boy or a girl, I hope it has your eyes, just like Nezzie does.'

'That's... not likely, Shepard,' Liara reminded her with a patient smile, raising a brow.

'But not impossible,' Shepard countered playfully. 'Blue eyes aren't exactly genetically common for humans nowadays, particularly in such an exquisite shade, but... there's always a chance.'

'An extremely slim one,' Liara said, and Shepard smiled again.

'Maybe, but we've beaten the odds before.' She gave a small, wry laugh. 'But if we don't, then thankfully this time it doesn't mean life or death for the galaxy.'

'Mommy, look!' Nezia cried, clutching a little pair of N7 embroidered onesie pyjamas in one little hand, and a tiny SR-2 emblazoned cap in the other, specially altered to accommodate asari scalp folds. 'Look what Auntie EDI and Uncle Jeff gave me!'

Shepard chuckled, shaking her head fondly. 'Oh, Joker.' She looked back at her daughter, already absorbed in opening her next present; which once revealed, turned out to be to be a book. The title was in asari script, which Shepard couldn't read, but the illustration on the front cover depicted a krogan battlemaster in full body armour blasting a loaded shotgun straight into a Rachni soldier's face. A book about the Rachni wars? For a five-year old? 'Who on Earth gave you that?' Shepard asked in bemusement.

'Aethyta,' an amused Liara answered for her daughter, who was apparently completely enthralled by the extremely detailed pictures. 'According to her accompanying message, she had it published herself, based on the stories her father told her. She suggests they would make good bedtime stories.'

'Of course she does,' Shepard said wryly, rubbing at her neck. She glanced at Liara curiously. 'How's your next book about the glory of the Prothean Empire coming along, by the way?' she asked. 'Has Javik sent you any more notes this week?'

'No,' her bond-mate sighed in reply. 'And I can't finish the chapter without his input on the correct hierarchical structure of the governing systems of each subservient race.' She gave a disapproving shake of her head. 'I think he's become somewhat... distracted, living on the Hanar homeworld. They treat him like a living god.'

'Well, that's not good for anyone,' the Commander said wisely.

Liara smiled at her. 'No, it isn't. But when the hero-worship reaches critical levels, at least you have me to keep you grounded.'

Shepard laughed. 'Sane, you mean. I don't know how he stands being treated like that.' She paused, reflecting for a moment. 'I guess it's better than joining all the other Protheans, though I have a feeling that is still very much on his mind.' In all honesty, Shepard didn't know how much longer the stoic Prothean would find reason to prolong his life. If he chose to end it, when he chose to, she would respect his decision. But until then, she would help him find meaning in his existance; for as long as he would allow her to. 'Maybe I could convince him to take up Wrex's offer to go and live on the Krogan homeworld, putting down rebellions from the clans who want vengeance on the salarians for the genophage. He'd probably like that.'

'Perhaps Wrex just wants a baby-minder,' Liara said, her mouth curved in a half-smile. 'He told me Bakara is pregnant again.'

Shepard shook her head half in admiration. 'She did say he wanted to try and sire half of Tuchanka. I'm sure he'll slow down a bit once a few of them are old enough for weapons training. Wrex is never quite content without a gun in his hands.'

'Sounds familiar,' Liara murmured fondly.

'Don't worry, I'm not going back to active duty any time soon,' Shepard reminded her bond-mate with a small laugh, placing a gentle hand on her belly for emphasis. 'If the Alliance wants my advice on something, they can send me an email. I may even get back to them.'

Not that there was much need for the Alliance to require Shepard's help too often. With the Reaper threat gone once and for all, their children would be happy and safe, growing up in a united galaxy. Not a perfect galaxy, of course, but in essence a whole, wide world of co-operation, trust, and friendship between all species. A new cycle. A new chance.

They spent the rest of the day peacefully with their daughter, celebrating her birthday away from the prying eyes of reporters and devoted admirers of all species, still enamoured of their human hero even years after the war had ended. Shepard wanted their child - their children - to grow up with as many normal childhood experiences as possible, of both asari and human cultural traditions. They opened the rest of Nezia's many gifts from all her adopted aunts and uncles of all species, had a quiet, cosy meal, and played with their daughter and her new games and toys until the dying sunlight cast a deep red glow over the small living room, meaning it was time for bed. For one of them, at least.

Liara dressed Nezia in her new pyjamas, while Shepard pulled back the covers on her bed, making certain that her daughter's well-loved stuffed varren doll, Urz, was in his proper place of honour on her pillow. Nezia grabbed him tightly as she clambered into bed, cuddling him to her chest. Shepard sat on the mattress beside her as Liara fussed over the blankets, and Nezia settled herself comfortably in the middle of her bed. The tiny asari leaned down and pressed a kiss to Shepard's stomach. 'Night night, baby,' she said, patting gently with a tiny hand.

'Sweet dreams, sweetheart,' Shepard said, wrapping her up in a warm hug before laying her down, pulling the covers up to her chin.

Liara tucked them in around her snugly. 'Goodnight, little wing,' she said softly, kissing her daughter's brow. 'I will see you again with the dawn.'

Nezia sighed gently, clutching Urz closely. 'Goodnight, Mother...' she murmured, her eyes blinking sleepily closed as her parents quietly left the little bedroom. ''Night, Mommy...'

Shepard smiled. ''Night, baby.'

She stood in the doorway of their daughter's room a few moments longer, watching as she drifted into her dreams, feeling a powerful surge of love and fierce protectiveness sweep through her at the sight. Liara wrapped both arms carefully about her bond-mate from behind, hands pressed gently against the swell of new life within her.

'I could just stand here forever and watch her,' Shepard whispered.

'So could I,' Liara murmured in reply. 'She's so beautiful.'

'Mm,' Shepard agreed. She really, really is. 'Just like you.'

Liara gave a hushed laugh. 'Flatterer,' she accused playfully, nuzzling Shepard's hair.

'It's only flattery if it's over-exaggeration,' the Commander protested. She paused for a moment, considering. 'Or sometimes, if I want something.'

Liara chuckled again. 'And what do you want, Shepard?'

'Just you,' Shepard said quietly, without taking her eyes from their precious little girl, sleeping peacefully with the fingers of one hand curled tightly about her well-loved doll, and the thumb of the other in her mouth. 'Just this.'

She felt her bond-mate softly press her lips against the nape of her neck. 'That's all I want, too.'

Shepard turned her head towards Liara and kissed her tenderly. 'I guess we're both extremely lucky, then.'

Liara settled her chin on Shepard's shoulder as they both turned back to watching their daughter sleep. 'I guess we are.'

Shepard leaned back into Liara's embrace, reflecting how true it was. When all was said and done, they were incredibly, unbelievably lucky. Lucky to have found each other amidst the chaos of their lives; to have kept their relationship alive through all the hardships, all the obstacles; overcoming even death to be with one another. Fortunate to have survived the war with the Reapers; and to be standing here, in this moment, blessed with a life together, a beautiful daughter, and another child on the way. Shepard had no dire expectations placed upon her, no onerous burden of countless lives and worlds bowing her shoulders beneath their weight. There was nothing before her but a lifetime to spend with her loved ones; her friends, her bond-mate, their daughter and unborn child; free of ever-present fear, and the looming shadow of oblivion. A life spent in contentment, in security, in safety. In harmony.

A life of peace... and happiness.

*Relieved sigh* There. I can now play Mass Effect 3 all the way to the end and then read this, thereby avoiding feeling horribly crushed and depressed. Hopefully you kind of enjoyed it too, even if it didn't quite match your playthrough, or if my space magic handwaving didn't do it for you. If not, I invite you to write your own ending fix. Hell, do it anyway, it's a lot of work but it's fun! Now I can get back to concentrating on A World Without Shadows, which has sadly been largely neglected during the course of writing this little piece. Anyone reading this story who has been following AWWS, don't worry, I haven't forgotten about it, nor will I. Hopefully I will have the next chapter finished soon, I just have to get back into the Merrill/Hawke mindset. If you like this story, review and let me know. It's complete now as it is, by the way; this is all I intend to write for this piece, apart from tweaking/correcting as needed.

Thanks for reading, I know it's nothing brilliant, but I hope you liked it anyway.