DISCLAIMER: All the wonderful characters etc are owned by BioWare/EA - this is for fanfiction purposes only, no money to be made here, move along!
General notes: This fic is entirely spoilerrific and takes place at the end of Mass Effect 3. The Reapers have been destroyed, the Normandy is stranded on an unknown garden world and Commander Shepard is alive - barely. Enjoy :)
A short, sharp gasp for breath lifted the Commander from a sluggish darkness, replacing the deepest serenity with fear, desperation, mourning and life. Her eyes scanned the surroundings; grey rubble of a great city lay in towering, jagged ridges around her, the sky dark, charcoal, holding its breath. The scent of ashes lay thickly in the desolate air above, bitter even in victory, and it seemed for a moment that the whole world had been destroyed, leaving her in a greyish purgatory reserved for the worst of her kind.
Everything hurt – it was the one sensation that anchored her to a sense of reality, a reminder of a former life, of loss and sadness that glimmered dimly in the distance of her mind as more pressing urges occupied her. Her lips parted slightly as the need for air became more pronounced, her mouth dry, covered in grit and dried blood; a cough came without warning and echoed with sombre solitude into stony silence of the world above. She was alone, still, and back on Earth by the look of things, but the memory of how she had come to this place was overshadowed by the magnitude of the events on the Citadel. The boy who haunted her nightmares, the boy that wasn't even a boy at all – how could he have been on Earth, and on the Crucible? He had occupied her thoughts for so long that she couldn't be truly sure that the boy was not a figment of her imagination, the metaphysical embodiment of her efforts to leave no one behind, and the only part of her that was ready to admit that would never be possible. There was so much about the Citadel and the Reapers that she didn't understand; somehow trying to comprehend was worse than admitting that they were beyond all comprehension. To actively consider and study their actions was to step into the thoughts of a race so devoid of mercy that they defied moral logic, attentive only to their endless purpose. It was a fate worse than death.
The hope that it was gone, the war ended and the machines finally dead, burned brightly in her aching chest; the fires of Earth, Palaven and Thessia reminded her of her purpose, driving her to breath more deeply, to move an arm, tilt her aching head. Part of her wanted it to be the end of everything, so she could be handed to an infinite peace she could never experience and be done with it all, carried away on an empty tide where nothing could find her. The long, drawn-out process of rebuilding a shattered life was difficult to endure when even the remains had been burned to the ground. The order to retreat had come after her last bullet was fired into the Reapers' heart, followed by meaningless white noise – radio silence that told her she was presumed killed in action, left alone to die with those she sought to destroy. The need to see her crew, for Liara's soothing words and unbreakable spirit, was unbearable.
A ship screamed overhead, parting the blackening sea of cloud above her. She watched as the blazing engines grew dimmer, knew exactly what the pilot and Commander were doing as the Earth fell swiftly behind them, imagined herself doing the very same on the Normandy – this time, she would leave the world gleaming, reflecting itself on every surface, bustling yet peaceful, not alive with fear and violence as it had been when she left Vancouver. She made peace with the fact that she would have to move, to endure even further pain and emerge, staggering, through torn muscle and broken bones, from the smouldering wreckage. If nothing else, the need for survival in itself was too great for her to perish alone in a goddamned crater. Her fingers twitched, clasped as she willed her bruised fingertips into her palm.
"Small steps." The dry, cracked voice that escaped her lips did not seem like her own. "Easy does it."
"Liara," a soft, calm voice rang bluntly through the steel door leading to the asari's chambers. "It's Traynor. We need to…the memorial, it's time."
Traynor looked at her feet as they shuffled uncomfortably beneath her, hoping her tone didn't betray her brokenness. A lump clotted uncomfortably in her throat as she swallowed, a suppressed howl brought on by the persistent sadness that had refused to shift since the order came to retreat. The plaque was heavy, lifeless in her tired grip, a cold etching of letters representing everything Commander Shepard was. Except it didn't – a plaque couldn't even begin to describe what the Commander had meant to her, had no way of showing the galaxy how truly exceptional a woman she was. It was less than comforting, the palest of imitations; in the Commander she had found a hero, a confidant as inspirational as she was modest, a committed friend and leader. If thoughts of something more between them had ever swept breathlessly through her mind as she lay, quiet and pensive, in her cabin, they were dismissed as foolish now – fantasies that were both irrelevant and selfish. Her friendship was more than she had expected, and should have been more than enough.
The asari had often been a troublesome complication in those endless contemplations that, despite herself, she couldn't stop revisiting; Liara was the immovable object that rendered any unstoppable force she could offer impossible. Her blushes of pride and affection when Shepard spoke highly of her had been difficult to downplay – if Joker, content to remain holed up in his corner of orange glows and star fields of the cockpit, had been quick to notice and tease her about it, it was safe to assume that Liara knew where her affections lay. Light years from Earth across the black, empty nothingness of space, she'd have gladly welcomed unrequited love for eternity if she could just see the Commander rise, however battered, bloodied and bruised, from the ashes of London.
Another harsh impossibility; a pull of unceasing sadness through her body brought tears to her eyes yet again, an unwelcome response. She steadied herself, wiped her eyes with stubborn impatience – Liara's cabin was unlocked, and the green holo-switch hovered with expectance before her, wavering a little, as if reflecting the weariness and fatigue that had crept into her eyes, seeping into everything that she saw as if her whole world had become a new, soulless and impassive creature waiting to swallow her in its jaws, where she would be trapped in her endless sorrow. Bravery had been hard to come by, but she knew that she must move on with her grief, must do as Shepard would have done and take steps to regroup, to rebuild. Her humanity would keep her sane, the unflappable sail that would see her through the black waters of a life without Shepard; she knew then that she must stay close to herself and her own nature, had to seize that most indomitable human tradition – to honour the dead, in word and deed.
"I'm coming in," she warned.
There was no resistance: the door slid open, then closed behind her, the hissing pistons and gently fizzing circuits oblivious to the tension of mourning that filled both asari and human.
Neither of them moved; Liara sat upright, barely recognisable in her solemn stillness, gazing far past her own reflection in one of the dozen screens before her. There was something of the lost about her, a certain confusion uncharacteristic of the doctor that was both perplexing and unbearably sad.
For the asari, grieving was more difficult that she had anticipated. She had mourned for her Commander, for the woman she loved, for two years after the Collector attack; through every lead she chased, every information broker she threatened, in every endeavour she had taken before and after Shepard had been resurrected, she carried her memories. It had always been for her, after they had shared an unbreakable bond, reaching into each other's consciousness as their physical intimacies became more fervent and impassioned; they were a part of each other, and Shepard was an unshakeable influence in almost every decision she had made. Her grief had been a natural reaction to the rug that had been so cruelly pulled from under her feet after only a year together.
So what prevented her mourning now? It had come so easily last time. She had spent hours staring at the same damn screens, looking for answers in the dark recesses of her own young mind, trying to figure out what it was that stopped her from crying herself to sleep when tiredness fell upon her. She had been left alone since she came back on board after their crash landing, sending messages across the ship by text rather than voice or video, so it was not as if she was under pressure to maintain her normal demeanour. They had all been quite kind to her, considering the urgency of their repairs; Traynor was her first visitor since their crash, and the whole crew had allowed her ample time to piece herself back together.
When Shepard had died, Liara had seen the body herself; she had recovered it herself, had seen to it that it was given to the right people. She was able to let go and live in memories of the saviour of the Citadel, the woman who defeated Saren and Sovereign, the Commander who literally gave her life to protect her loved ones. By the time she had tracked down the body, it wasn't even Shepard anymore – just a burned out shell of a human, empty of life, not even nearly the same. She moved on, worked harder, smarter and faster, kept to herself as she always did. Things slowly returned to normal, though the Commander's rueful smile was never too far from her thoughts.
It wasn't just memories anymore. They lived within each other; they were bondmates in every sense but the term itself, had shared a multitude of adventures and intimacies. They had shared consciousness many times, exchanged memories in the most solemn and profound gift she could give anyone...she deduced it was possible, however unlikely, that Shepard was alive. There was no other explanation as to why she couldn't be left to grieve in peace, though again she couldn't think why or how she could possibly feel the Commander was still alive across the broad emptiness of space. She would not rest until she knew for sure.
"How are the repairs coming along Samantha?"
"Oh fine, yes, thanks," she replied, her hands a little restless as she squeezed her fingers together. "Joker thinks we should be back up in a day or two. Would've been easier if –"
Liara lowered her head a little, a sign of respect she had picked up, without realising, from the human crew she knew so well. "EDI. She was willing to give her life just as the rest of us were. She'll be remembered – I hope Jeff is alright."
It was difficult to know what to say. She had never been too familiar with the asari for numerous reasons, and she'd be lying if she didn't admit that she was a little intimidated.
"He'll be okay," she replied, her platitudes already well worn and fraying at the edges, but sincere nevertheless. "How are you holding up?"
A number of possible answers presented themselves, most of them lies. She looked away from the Specialist for a moment, gathered her thoughts. If there was one other person on the ship lost enough to believe as she did, it was likely to be Traynor. The love she held for Shepard was as palpable as her own.
"Would you sit for a moment?" She gestured to a comfortable seat next to her bed, underneath a window through which the unfamiliar silver glow of two moons fell upon the hard steel floor. The human obeyed, nodded without uttering a word, as Liara seated herself on the edge of the bed.
It was hard to find the words to explain. "I believe Shepard might still be alive."
The sympathetic glance Traynor offered was not exactly what she had expected; perhaps, Liara thought, it was normal for humans to believe that their loved ones never died – it was likely she was meaning to be kind, though that naturally inferred disbelief. The silence persisted for a moment as the human searched for the right words.
"You saw the Crucible, all that energy…" Just talking about the terrifying, explosive events of the Reapers' destruction, and the suffering Shepard would likely have endured, was enough to drive her to tears. "There's no way anyone could survive that. Not even Shepard."
"I've given this a lot of thought," Liara replied, somewhat surprised with her enduring patience. "What if she managed to get back to the beam that connected the Citadel with Earth? I haven't slept; I can't shake this feeling that she's still out there. I can feel her in my consciousness, I just…I just know."
"Of course you haven't slept. You loved her – "
"I loved her before Cerberus brought her back. You don't understand, I knew then that she had gone. I knew even before I saw what remained of her body – I couldn't feel her anymore. When she came back, she filled an emptiness in me, as if she were part of my essence, like a piece of your human soul. There are stories," she explained, pacing the small space of her office as Traynor watched, helpless, wary of the doctor's increasingly frantic gestures. "Ancient myths of the asari talk about this. I thought it was only a possibility with another asari, but it can't be, there's something about humans, their minds – you're similar to us in so many ways. I refuse to believe that she's gone. She's alive."
"If you really believe this, why are you telling me? What can I do?"
Liara paused, fixing her clear blue eyes on the human before her. "I need you to help me look for her. We need to get back to Earth."
Traynor shrugged, listless with sorrow. Even if all they found was a pile of dust and bones where the Commander once was, at least it would give them both closure. That image of Shepard rising from the ashes, the idea that her death was not an absolute certainty – to say it was a tantalising, enthralling idea was to understate the full impact her loss had proved to be. "But how are we going to get back? Without the mass relays, it could take us decades. I don't have that sort of time, neither does Shepard."
For the first time in days, Liara felt a smile cross her lips. "I have a lot of data on the relays. I'm quite sure there's a way to fix them – we just have to make sure the Alliance look for the information I gave them before the Reapers attacked."
"I hope you're right," Traynor replied, breathing deeply as she spoke and, now standing, she headed for the door. "Send me what you have on the relays to my omni-tool – I'd rather get out of here sooner than later."
The Specialist left, with a single, swift backwards glance at the asari, leaving the plaque behind her. Liara propped the thin, metallic rectangle against one of her monitors, leaving Traynor's last small, sympathetic gesture unnoticed. She switched on her terminals, bringing the vivid light of a dozen energetic screens back into her small room.
"Hello, Dr T'Soni," a familiar voice droned from the corner of the room, bathing her skin in an electric blue light as the round VI moved gently towards her.
"Glyph, get me all the data we have on the mass relays."
Lines of data, blueprints and calculations filled each screen, one by one. The embers of hope she had maintained since their escape blossomed into a blazing fire, warm and all consuming, just as her work had always been. This day was not for remembrance.