"Just through here." Liara muttered as Garrus stopped and scanned the length of the brightly lit room.
There was a small, sterile, u-shaped counter just inside the entrance, manned by a single salarian and covered in data pads and monitors. Along the far wall, separated from each other by just a few feet of space, were fifteen beds. Each Spartan looking frame contained a genderless, featureless form dwarfed by dispassionate machines. Liara looked away.
"No one knows she's here." The asari continued as she guided Garrus towards the bed furthest from the entrance. "I told admiral Hackett the lead was false and all we found was a damaged shuttle filled with the surviving keepers."
Liara stopped when they reached the final bed and took a deep breath, trying to shake the eerie sensation of having stepped into a nightmare.
"You lied?" Garrus spoke softly, as his gaze scanned the bed in front of him. A free standing machine was pulled up next to Shepard, numerous tubes and cables ran from the side of it and up to the bed, disappearing underneath the sheets. A hard plastic tube protruded from her mouth and a heavy bandage covered the entire left side of her face and eye. She was immobilized by soft restraints that bound her to the bed frame and numerous intravenous lines ran from the inside of her arms.
"Why?" He continued.
"Because this way, it's up to her, facing people, facing this, is left up to her." Liara muttered.
"She will recover?" Garrus asked, trying to ignore the soft monotone beeps and flashing lights on the machine.
"Karin tells me she is heavily sedated, but stable. She will need time." Liara sighed. "Physically and mentally."
"I wonder what happened up there." Garrus mumbled.
"Only she can tell us." Liara folded her arms, and shivered, suddenly cold. She was about to say more when her attention was suddenly distracted, drawn away from Shepard and towards the small video screen mounted in the wall at the end of the room. The channel was showing a live video feed of London, interviews with soldiers and survivors. After a few seconds the recording flickered to one of admiral Hackett. She leant forward and listened.
It was some kind of news special, the admiral was in full dress blues and stood behind an imposing lectern, the flags of the Alliance and combined fleets draped behind him. His voice was measured and calm. He spoke of duty and opportunity, of new beginnings and future promise. But when his eyes looked straight into the camera, Liara could only feel an irrational anger at the man.
"I hate that man." Garrus spoke suddenly and Liara couldn't help but smile. "Honestly, I don't even know why, I just never liked him."
"Neither did Shepard." Liara walked forwards and turned the video screen off.
"Have you eaten?" Garrus asked, watching as the asari turned her back on him, moving with greater ease now. The window's reflection showed one of the doctors speaking sombrely to the salarian near the entrance. She reached out, her fingers glancing across the bitter cold glass. From where they were, in the morning light, she could make out the remaining buildings and walls of the inner city. Bent steel and twisted cable here, missile- smashed brick there, the blue-grey flint of a high rise partly destroyed and still pouring black smoke into the air. She could see nowhere left unmarked by destruction.
"Liara?" Garrus prompted again.
"Have you eaten?"
"No," She paused, thinking. "Not for some time."
"Come on." Garrus reached out and took her arm, drawing her with surprising force into a walk. She stumbled slightly, wincing and catching her balance as Garrus persisted, walking her out of the room and down through a long, quiet corridor. "When Shepard wakes up, I don't want her chewing my ass off because you've fallen apart." Liara smiled at that, suddenly finding some emotional balance as she looked at him. She relaxed a little, the unspoken bond between them returning to some semblance of normality, as if they were on the Normandy, back together, almost family. "Tali is going to meet us in the canteen." He added.
"Tali is here?" Liara asked surprised, feeling suddenly out of the loop.
"Couldn't get rid of her." Garrus sighed, smirking a little, "I did try."
"Of course you did."
Tali drummed her fingers on the mess table. She'd taken off some of the heavy armour plating she'd reinforced her suit with during the past few weeks and her body felt blissfully light. It was a strange feeling, being suddenly naked and defenceless, but she liked it. She glanced up at Liara, who sat opposite her, playing with her soup and found herself looking into tired, reddened eyes. The asari wore an unreadable expression, but she looked aged, worn by nights spent awake.
"Wish they would shut up." Garrus grumbled, nodding his head in the direction of three clean cut soldiers on the table next to them.
Initially, Tali hadn't really been paying them too much attention, but now she found herself desperate to ignore them. The youngest looking one was talking animatedly about the final attack in London, criticizing the mission and its execution. Waste of lives drifted to her, reinforcements too slow, badly executed, and relied too much on the infamous commander Shepard. Tali sighed and tried to control her irritation. The young man was simply ignorant, immature and trying to make a name for himself, that much was obvious, but that wasn't an excuse.
He hardly knew what hit him as Liara launched herself towards him, covering the few meters with a biotic lift.
"What do you know about it?" Liara seethed as she grabbed him around the throat, lifting him effortlessly from his chair, a cloud of purple biotic power wreathing her forearm and fist. The noise of his chair toppling echoed in the silence. "Tell me, how much time did you spend out there?"
He said nothing, his eyes wide with fear as he clawed at the hand wrapped around his throat.
"Liara..." Tali stood up and placed her hand on the asari's shoulder. A calming gesture she'd used many times on Shepard in the past. She felt Liara sigh, felt the tension in her shoulders relax, and then suddenly the boy was on the floor, choking and gasping for air. Liara glanced down at him dispassionately for a few seconds and then turned on her heel and left the mess.
"Well." Tali put her hands on her hips, "That could have gone worse."
Garrus shook his head, put his hands on the arms of his chair and shoved himself up onto his feet. The heavy armour that he still insisted on wearing clattered and he made an unconscious body-adjustment to settle it into place. He jerked one long talon in the direction of the soldier. "You should watch your mouth from now on. Nobody gives a fuck about your opinions." He grunted and then promptly followed Liara's retreating form.
Tali wasn't really too sure what had just happened. Some part of her had assumed that once the war was over, everything would return to normal, life would go on, but she was starting to realise how naive she'd been.
Traynor nodded slowly as the Alliance officer walking alongside her gave directions.
"How many casualties did they recover from the beam site sir?" Traynor asked, watching as the man indicated a room at the very end of the hall.
"Oh," He limped as he walked, "It would be easier to tell you how many survived." He sighed. "The site is dead ground, the area is saturated with dead troops from both sides. It's just about the worst thing I have ever seen."
"I can't imagine it." Traynor shook her head, the motion sending pain down to her arm. She cautiously shifted the sling against her body in an attempt to ease her discomfort. "Were you there?"
"At the start." He stopped walking and looked at her, his face smeared with dirt. "The Reapers tore people apart, went through them like wolves through a herd. It was chaos down there." He grimaced. "And they're all still out there, just laying on the cold black earth. Doesn't seem right." He shrugged and pointed at the door ahead of them. "Chapel is in there." He muttered.
Traynor thanked the man and then pushed open the sterile looking door to the hospital chapel. There was a smell of burning candles in the room, and with the window shutters closed, and the faint lights, she couldn't even make out the back of the room. She made her way to one of the pews and stopped suddenly, surprised to see Liara sat at the end of the seat, head bowed.
Traynor glanced around before sliding into the pew. When she glanced across again the asari was watching her.
"Am I disturbing you?" Traynor asked. She didn't speak loudly, there was no need. Other than her voice, the only noise came from the stuttering candles and the dim whine of the air conditioning.
"No," Liara shook her head. "In all honesty, I am not really sure why I'm here. I find human religion baffling." She paused, her mouth twitching slightly. "Actually, I find all religion baffling."
"I think that's probably the scientist in you."
"Probably." Liara agreed. "I came here because it was quiet. It seems like a long time since I was somewhere truly quiet."
Traynor leant back in her seat and allowed the silence to stretch out between them. "How is the Commander?" She murmured eventually.
"No change." Liara answered quickly.
"And you?" Traynor glanced back at the asari.
Liara looked surprised by the question. "I have a formidable headache." She sighed.
Traynor had no response for that, so instead she just sat, silently, her eyes glancing over the asari. Until now, Traynor had never really had the time to think about the cost of the war on those around her. With Shepard, the price she paid to fight had always been so obvious, but many of the crew carried their own wounds hidden away, and Liara was a perfect example. She was a shell of the woman Traynor had met in the CIC all those weeks ago. It seemed as if her personality had evaporated, as if she had collapsed in on herself and retreated. Shepard had always been the passion, courage and strength of the crew, but Liara had always been the heart and soul, and now, that heart and soul were completely absent. Traynor had always imagined a fantastic celebration at the end of the war. A monumental party filled with fireworks and back slaps, but all she could feel now was an incredible loneliness that had settled inside her. It was like nothing she had ever felt before. The crew would dissolve, the fight was over, and somehow they would have to put behind them the weeks of blood, fear and combat.
"Liara?" Traynor waited for tired blue eyes to track to her. "When Shepard is well, what will happen?"
"I have no idea." Liara shrugged slowly.
"I've never been attached to a combat unit before." She twisted the end of her sling in her fingertips nervously. "But suddenly, all these people I didn't know have become friends the like of which I've never had. Family, really. It's like I've shared a lifetime of emotion with them. Although I'm glad beyond words that the war is over, I also feel a little sad."
"I can understand that." Liara unconsciously massaged her thigh. "After the battle at the Citadel," She swallowed, as if the mention of it caused her pain, "The crew diverged. I thought I'd never share that closeness with any of them again... how wrong I was." She smiled sadly.
Traynor took a deep breath and titled her head back, knowing that she would never be as close to the asari as they were in that moment, knowing that they had shared the toughest of experiences and were both incredibly lucky to get through it alive.
"It's been tough hasn't it?" Traynor asked.
Liara nodded, dropped her head and looked back up. "Yes." Her eyes closed. "Yes, it has been."
The hull of the ruined ship bowed a little on the one side. The technicians had fitted lights around the edges of the hole in the ceiling above the CIC; reflections glowed from the swirled and distorted interior, bounced off the few remaining stumps of equipment.
"We're looking at the remains of the crashed Normandy, the famous ship of Commander Shepard," A small salarian looked towards the camera and then indicated the interior with a sweep of his hand. "The Alliance has made a bold stand by decommissioning the ship in honour of the fallen crew. Rumours are that it will remain here as the central piece in a new memorial garden."
Vega threw his arm over his face and groaned at the vid screen. "You've got to be fucking kidding me?" He glanced across at the forlorn looking human who was spread out in the low chair next to him. "Can you believe that? Decommissioning the Normandy to make it a fucking ornament? It's only been days, for crying out loud!"
"Do you ever think about what happened to Shepard up there?" Joker asked, watching the vid screen with a look of disgust on his face.
"No." Vega shook his head, "All I care about is that Shepard stopped the Reapers."
"Yeah." Joker muttered, uncrossing then recrossing his legs. "I was watching some vid program this morning and some turian journalist was making jokes about how Shepard is now the biggest killer the galaxy has ever seen."
"What?" Vega slammed his glass down on the table next to him.
"Wiped out the Reapers, the geth, the Collectors and practically the batarians too."
"Hang on, we don't really know what happened to the geth."
"They were speculating."
"Well, they can fuck off!" Silence. Vega picked up his glass again and took another long swig, inspecting the pilot over the rim of his glass.
"Didn't say I agreed with it." Joker mumbled, "Damn, I just wish I knew what happened. If we just knew, maybe something could be done to help EDI."
"Nah." Joker looked briefly troubled and then sighed. "Tali has the main AI core isolated and some technicians looking after EDI. Nothing yet though."
"Well." Vega brought the glass toward his lips, then seemed to think better of it, and cradled it in both hands instead. "If anyone can figure it out, Sparks can."
Joker watched as Vega had a mental debate over his drink. "Should you be drinking that?" He asked. "Should you even be out of bed?"
Vega started to make a gesture with one hand that meant the same as a shrug, but pain cut him off. "I bribed a nurse." He burped. "I said I needed some recovery time."
Joker closed his eyes briefly, a smile spreading on his face. "Yeah, I bet you did." He changed the channel, but all there was was more news. A film reel ran, showing footage of Alliance troops in London. The city burnt in the background, refugee lines snaked, and bodies were shown. There was a brief interview with a tearful family of a soldier missing in action. "Jesus, this is grim." He shook his head. "I'd rather be out there fighting again than watching all this shit. Where are the parties, the celebrations?"
"Do you feel like celebrating?" Vega asked.
Joker's thought's went to EDI. "Well, now that you mention it, not really." He rested his head on the seat back and breathed deeply, switching the vid screen back to its original channel. He muted the commentary and watched as the camera panned up and around the inside of the Normandy. It looked as though the footage was now showing the crew deck, which was relatively unscathed. There were various indentations on the walls and a scattering of dents and holes, but none went all the way through the hull material, and most looked like they had been caused by electrical fires. The camera panned up to where a few dangling tubes and wires hung from an empty light fitting.
"Look at them." Joker snarled, "Pulling my baby apart." He wanted to look away, but morbid fascination kept him watching. Damaged, empty and lifeless, the Normandy looked forbidding and haunted. He sat forward in his seat, chin on hand, elbow on knee and stared at the screen, praying to see some flicker of life from within the ship, some hint that a presence still existed within the computer systems.
It would be too much to ask, he thought to himself. The chances are too remote, it would be a miracle. To hope as he was hoping, hoping against likelihood, was human nature, but it was almost certainly forlorn. His heart craved something his brain knew was not going to happen and neither could give up, and neither could give way. The heat of their battle burned in his mind. Maybe there was still a chance, maybe all the technicians had been wrong and there was something left in the AI core worth salvaging. "Fuck!" Joker muttered, heat coming to his eyes.
"I'm sorry man." Vega whispered, "I'm really fucking sorry."
Commander Shepard rolled a little from side to side, and as her head turned, with the bandages removed, the shaved patch across the left of her swollen skull was vivid and angry. She was hot, with a fever and restless. Sometimes she could hear angry voices over her, raised tones and swearing. Someone trailed cool water over her forehead and it rolled down the bridge of her nose and over her stitched cheek.
She cracked her good eye open and winced at the brightness. Light from the window slanted in bars and shook from the surface of the water jug next to her; dancing in blotched reflections on the white tiled ceiling. She tried to speak but something was in her mouth so she raised her hand instead. In one instant the roar of pain through her flesh almost pushed her back into darkness. Her leg, damaged arm, battered body and hand jerked in their restraints.
"Calm down." A deep, sonorous voice, soothing, familiar.
Fingers freed her and she desperately felt for as much of her body as she could reach. Body, whole; no more damage than on the shuttle. She touched her head which flared with pain. Warm hands stopped her prying.
She lay for a second, fighting sleep for as long as it took for the tube down her throat to be removed. Memories of darkness pulled at her, of a black star filled sky and an endless descent.
"Don't fight it Commander."
"But…" Her voice was too soft a croak. Sleep took her down hard, and so fast that the rest of what she said was slurred and incomprehensible to anyone present.
Next time she woke, she was sweaty and warm, and a dream of terror slid away from her like water through sand. Shepard opened her eyes as delirium became sudden clarity. Water was at her lips and she sipped slowly, the cool liquid pricking its way through her dehydrated sore throat.
"How..." her voice cracked and she tried again. "How long?" She focussed her gaze on doctor Chakwas as she tried to shuffle herself awkwardly further up the bed.
The doctor pinned her with an angry stare before gently assisting her into a sitting position.
"Not as long as you think." The bed dipped as Chakwas perched next to her. "Nowhere near as long as you need." Strong fingers took her forearm and Shepard watched as the doctor injected something onto her intravenous line. The world went foggy.
"Liara?" Shepard murmured.
"Team?" Barely a whisper.
"Recovering, now sleep."
Shepard wanted to ask more, but suddenly time blipped as she faded out and in again. She was sure she felt another body in the bed besides hers, felt the frame creak as extra weight was added, then realised that the warm torso and breasts under the thin fabric pressed against her side were Liara's; and that the asari was curled up next to her. Shepard took as deep a breath as she could manage and revelled in the scent and comfort of the woman. She felt as weak as water. She wanted to cry.
"You are awake?" Liara's quiet voice buzzed in her ear.
"I don't know." Shepard mumbled, her throat still sore, "Am I?" Is this a dream? Shepard asked herself dimly. The bright white ceiling swam before her eyes and she moved her head slowly, looking across at the woman next to her.
"You are." Blue eyes filled with raw emotion locked onto hers.
"I thought I was dead."
"I thought you were too."
The weight of their two bodies was pressing them together on the clinical mattress, into a valley in the centre of the bed and the pressure of the asari's arm resting on her stomach felt blissfully welcome.
"Crucible?" Shepard asked, closing her eyes.
"It worked." Liara nodded. She fought down her emotional response to seeing Shepard this way, to seeing her in so much pain. The line of medigel across her skull was clean but looked angry and stood out against the fine, soft downy hair that had started to grow back around the wound already. Her eye was still covered but a line of purple bruising crept out from beneath the bandage. "The Reapers are completely silent."
"The geth?" Shepard didn't open her eye, but Liara felt the tension in her shoulder.
"Also silent." The asari worried her lip. "The shockwave from the Crucible seems to have disabled them as well."
"I know." Shepard took a pained breath. "It was disable them all or nothing."
Liara heaved a sigh that Shepard felt against every rib. She shifted a little, twisting to lay her head fully on Shepard's shoulder. Blue fingers traced ideally along the seam on her gown.
"I think you are waiting for me to tell you that you made the right choice."
"Maybe." Shepard whispered. "I..."
"Shh," Liara said softly, two fingers briefly covering Shepard's lips in the most delicate of touches. "I know you Shepard, I know you will carry this for a very long time. Nothing I can say will change that."
"Anderson is dead." Shepard winced, as if committing her thoughts to words caused her physical pain. "The Illusive Man killed him."
Liara closed her eyes. "I'm so sorry."
"Me too." Shepard shifted in the bed and then tried to tense her muscles to sit up. Her face screwed up in pain and she flopped back down. "Fuck."
"What are you doing?" Liara asked, frowning.
"Why?" Liara lay her hand on Shepard's forehead and grunted, vaguely dissatisfied. "Shepard, there is no war any more. The Normandy is out of commission, the crew all either medically unfit or reassigned to recovery. Why do you need to get up?"
Shepard's foggy brain tried to make sense of what Liara had said. "Admiral Hackett will want to speak to me, I need to debrief him about what's happened."
"Admiral Hackett still thinks you are missing in action."
"We never told him we recovered your shuttle." Liara closed her eyes. "Please do not be angry. Karin said you needed time, she was worried. If we announced you were alive, we would have had to move you." Liara shifted slightly closer. "You're a hero, there would be crowds, reporters, officials. We…" She paused, "I wanted you to have time."
"I'm not a fucking hero." Shepard grumbled, her eyes heavy.
Liara licked her lips, mouth dry. "That may be how you see it, but that is not how the galaxy sees it. It's up to you now though Shepard, you can contact admiral Hackett in a day, a week, a month..."
"If that's what you want."
"I want to forget." Shepard shifted her good arm and grasped Liara's hand, lacing their fingers.
"Tell me Shepard." Liara squeezed the hand in hers, "Tell me what happened."
"I can't." Shepard closed her eye and swallowed her grief.
"Then show me."
Shepard sighed. "Because right now, it hurts too much and I am so damn tired Liara."
"Then sleep." Liara shifted closer still and brought her hand up to Shepard's face, combing her hair away from her eye.
"I'm sorry I left you." Shepard mumbled, already starting to doze.
"Shut up Shepard." Liara replied, her voice soft.
Shepard's head rolled sideways and she shuffled, trying to get comfortable. She exhaled slowly as Liara moved in the bed, shifting to curl around her, tucking the commander's head below her chin in a protective embrace. "I Love you." She whispered, her fingers squeezing the asari's. "Always have."
Liara froze as Shepard mumbled those words and slipped into something closer to unconsciousness than sleep. She placed a gentle kiss on the crown of the Commanders head and tried to fight the tears that welled in her eyes. It was pointless. She cried as hard as she had ever cried, hard tears wrenched deep from inside that emerged as gasping sobs. It was all finally over.
Well that's it, end of, game over, story complete. Thanks for reading, thanks for all the reviews and follows, you've all been absolutely amazing. The long term plan is to continue this with an epilogue at a later date, a 'six months later, where is everyone?' theme. This is mainly because my personal circumstances won't enable me to write anything for the next 4-5 months and that's not really fair on my followers.
Thank you all, so so much, you have no idea what your words have done to insire and encourage. Special thanks to Planetar, - this story wouldn't be complete without you, you have no idea of the power of your influence. You are all amazing. Thank you.