A/N: I guess this is the place where I'm supposed to give a quick recap of the events of Catalyst of Fate. I'm just going to say that you should read that one first. I threw in a few non-canon elements that you might want to catch up on. I don't want to spoil it for you...just hurry up and read it already.

For those of you who are re-joining the Fate party-train, a very huge welcome to the continuing story. Architect of Fate kicks off from where I left things at the end of Catalyst and continues from there. I haven't suddenly had a brain transplant, so expect more of the same - three parts angst, two parts action, one part humour, a dash of character death on the side and more than enough femslash to sink a battleship.

Chapter One
Natural Born World-Shaker

By the Goddess.

The asari invocation was an involuntary reaction. Other than 'holy fuck,' they were the only words that she could find to explain the myriad of emotions playing havoc with her fragile state of being upon seeing Liara. Slowly but surely an amazing warmth spread throughout her entire body. She tried to grin but found even that simple gesture was too taxing to sustain for more than a few seconds. Did we actually do it?

Liara was curled up in a chair positioned near the bed. It hardly seemed like a comfortable position to sleep in, but somehow Liara had managed it. Her face was pressed against the headrest, and a blanket was tucked so securely around her body that someone else had to have done it for her. From her limited vantage point, Shepard hungrily examined her bondmate with her eyes – desperately trying to confirm that she was unscathed. There were no wounds that she could see. The pigment alterations on her forehead and crest were still present - a remnant of Isini Aegir's madness. There were deep shadows around her eyes, but she otherwise appeared in excellent health. Her cheeks looked almost…rosy.

Shepard couldn't say the same for herself. Despite struggling intently for almost a minute, her efforts resulted only in her head lifting from the pillow. That small movement was enough to confirm that she really was as weak as she felt. She recalled feeling a similar helplessness once before - when she had woken on Lazarus Station to the sound of klaxons blaring and Miranda Lawson shouting at her. Don't tell me I fucking died again?

With that uncomfortable thought foremost in her mind, Shepard did her best to ascertain whether she was still in one piece. When she lifted her head, she could see nothing of her body beneath the light bedclothes that covered her. It felt as though she was in one piece. Fingers…check. With a slight grunt of satisfaction, Shepard realised that she could wriggle her toes. There were two arms and two legs, exactly where they should be. It was at that point that she looked across and saw that Liara was awake and staring at her. Her bondmate's mouth parted slightly in astonishment.

"You…okay?" The words emerged as a rasping croak. She sounded as though she had not used her voice for some time. "...look tired."

Liara suddenly sat up. The blanket slipped down slightly as she reached forward to take Shepard's left hand in her own. The simple contact sent a jolt through Shepard's body, eliminating any last suspicions that she was dreaming. However, when she tried to squeeze Liara's hand, she could only apply a slightly pressure.

"Goddess, Evan. It is me who should be asking you that question," Liara whispered breathlessly.

"Did I…die?" Shepard asked hesitantly.

"Oh!" Liara shook her head. "No-" She bit her lip, unsure of herself before she continued. "You were…missing."

Although her face ached slightly, Shepard was pleased that she could manage a frown. A gnawing disquiet was growing in her stomach. "How long?"

The pressure of Liara's grip on her hand increased. "Six months," she eventually answered.

Shepard's eyes widened. "Six…" With a grunt of effort, she struggled to try and lift her body from the bed. The dull ache increased until it radiated throughout her body in sharp stabbing pains. She gave up and slumped helplessly against the pillows. "Li-" she whispered brokenly.

Tears were welling beneath Liara's eyes and she shook her head. "Forgive me, Shepard. I promise I will explain everything that happened, but I do not want to talk about it now, not in this moment." Although she was crying openly, a light laugh bubbled on her lips. It lasted for only a few moments but it was enough to help Shepard find acceptance in the unknown. "I want to hold onto this feeling for a little longer."

"Hey," Shepard said quietly, sensing Liara's distress. Her trembling fingers were finally able to stroke Liara's hand. "Take as long as you need, I'm pretty sure I'm not going anywhere." As she became reacquainted with speaking, it became easier. "One question though, then I'll shut up. Are the fucking Reapers dead?"

Liara nodded quickly. "Thanks to The Shepard."

"What do you mean The Shepard?" I think there's something to be said for being a martyr as opposed to a hero of the living sort. "They can't possibly be trying to pin all of this on me. I had a shit load of help!" Shepard protested. Her eyes widened. "I know I promised no more questions-"

"Evan…you must remain calm." Liara scooted the chair a little closer to the bed. She was able to reach out and stroke the side of her bondmate's face. "They're all fine – the Normandy, Garrus, Tali, Samantha, Javik, Joker, EDI, Miranda and Ash…all fine."

"Thank the Goddess," Shepard whispered. She leaned into Liara's touch and breathed a sigh of relief that her companions had come through unscathed. She had not led more good people to their deaths.

"Your Mother was here yesterday," Liara added.

Shepard remembered the almost familial conversation they had shared on the Glasgow's CIC. For all their differences, she was relieved to hear that Hannah Shepard was alive. "Please tell me she was nice to..." The last part tapered off as she yawned widely. Merely keeping her eyes open was an exercise in determination.

"Of course she was." Liara nodded. "Although I think it came as something of a shock to find me in my present condition-"

Another yawn escaped Shepard's lips, cutting Liara's sentence short. "I'm so sorry," she said in exasperation. She desperately wanted to stay awake but her eyelids had other plans. They kept trying to droop down over her eyes when all she wanted to do was stare at Liara.

"Rest," Liara whispered. She stood, letting the blanket fall away from her body as she did. Her back was aching and she stretched for a moment. Shepard's eyes were still closed when she leaned over to deposit a soft kiss on her unblemished forehead. The Commander responded with a drowsy smile. "You're going to need all your strength for the next challenge," Liara added in a tender, hopeful voice.

"Challenge? I'm going to tell the Alliance to go to hell," Shepard replied, her head lolling on the pillow. "Someone else can rid the galaxy of ancient alien evil for a change. I'm having a holiday."

Liara laughed nervously. "There is no ancient evil – just fatherhood."

"Fatherhood?" Shepard mumbled. Her eyes jerked open and went wide when she saw that Liara was standing in front of her. Her bondmate wore a traditional asari dress that clung to every curve of her body – including the gentle swelling of her belly. "You mean…little blue children?" Shepard asked incredulously. Although her entire body protested at the sudden movement, she propped herself up on her elbows and stared at Liara with wide, almost childlike eyes. Her gaze lingered over Liara like a caress. "Our little blue children?"

"Child," Liara corrected gently. "But yes, Evan. You're going to be a father..."

The first inkling Shepard had that something was wrong was when she saw something odd on the wall just behind Liara. The fabric of the wall was warped and shifting – almost as though there was a glitch in the very fabric that made up the solid mass. No, this isn't a dream, she tried to tell herself. It's not-

"Liara?" Her voice was thin...pleading.

She focused on her bondmate. The overwhelming happiness Shepard felt was suddenly replaced by an icy, cold chill throughout her body as Liara's gorgeous features twisted and melted from her face. When she tried to extend her hand, unseen hands clawed at her and dragged her downwards. Shepard fought. She tried desperately to cling to the dream, but the harder she tried the faster it slipped through her fingers...

London, Earth

The last time David Codrington had held a naked woman in his arms, the Reaper War had been nothing more than empty scare-mongering. It had been a lazy afternoon with Amanda at their home in Surbiton. The kids had been packed off to Amanda's parents in Dorset for the bank holiday weekend and he had nothing more important to do than make love to his wife and decide what kind of take-out they would have for dinner. He was looking forward to watching the Gunners play in what was sure to be a heated London Derby the following day.

The match had never been played and that afternoon now seemed nothing more than a dream he'd once had.

Codrington had since lived through every minute of the hell that had eventually descended on them. He was no soldier, but he'd struggled alongside those who were. While he was only ever a fair shot with a rifle, his engineering skills had been called upon throughout the war. Despite his efforts, the Reapers had taken everything from him. Amanda and their three kids had been killed in a single, devastating attack on the Dorchester survivor compound. All he had left was his own life. As meagre as it was, it was a life that Commander Shepard had saved.

"Christ!" Hardy whispered beside him, still rubbing his thumb over the dog tags he held in his hand. "She's supposed to be dead ain't she, Dave?" Shocked beyond belief, Hardy fell back onto his haunches and just sat there staring at the limp body that Codrington held. "Never saw it, but they say the Crucible went up like a flamin' Guy Fawkes bonfire."

"Well she's obviously not dead," Codrington replied. Although he regarded himself as a level-headed guy, he was at a loss as to the best course of action. A few seconds later, he was startled speechless when Shepard's eyelids fluttered open. Beyond the pale blue gaze, Codrington saw no trace of awareness initially. She blinked slowly several times. When the fog cleared, he thought he saw her frown in confusion. He found a quiet voice. "Commander? Commander Shepard?"

Her pale lips started to move ever so slightly. They jerked up and down as though she was struggling to make them work properly in order to form words. Eventually a thin whisper emerged, but the faint sound meant little to him. Codrington lowered his ear closer to her mouth so he could hear what she was trying to say.

The hoarse whisper barely carried even the short distance, but he could just distinguish the syllables. "Li…ara…T-" Codrington could sense the palpable desperation in her voice. "T'Soni. Li-"

Suddenly her eyes rolled back into her head. Her previously limp body stiffened and started to spasm uncontrollably. A series of awful gasping sounds escaped her mouth as she apparently struggled to draw a breath.

"Shit!" Hardy shrieked. "What the 'ell do we do?"

"Remain where you are, Mr Hardy." Codrington was still cradling Shepard's shaking body when he heard the unfamiliar voice behind him. He looked over his shoulder to see the Alliance captain, Prowse, bringing up his omni-tool. "This is Captain Prowse of the four-oh-second, I've got a situation at my coordinates. Send immediate back-up and medical evac…and I mean fucking immediate!"

Prowse dropped to his knees beside Codrington. His military first aid training recognised the symptoms of severe shock. "Give her some space!" he snapped urgently. "Get your medic in here stat and clear the rest of your people the hell out of here."

Codrington reluctantly lowered Shepard onto the packed dirt of the tunnel floor. Although the tremors had subsided somewhat, she was even paler and breathing in short, sharp gasps. When he hauled himself to his feet, he found his legs barely able to support his weight.

"And, Mr Codrington?" Prowse gave him a hard stare. "It would be in your best interests not to breathe a word of this to anyone. That applies to you and your pal there."

"But it's Shepard," Codrington pointed out in disbelief. "People will want to know!"

"Not a goddamn word, or you'll wish you had been Reaper fodder," Prowse replied in a strange tone.

Codrington merely nodded as he backed away from Prowse. Although the Captain had seemed normal enough during their brief initial interaction, he now found him to be intimidating. He did not doubt for one second that Prowse would draw the pistol he carried and shoot him if he refused to move. He cast one last, desperate glance down at Shepard. By now her skin had taken on a bluish tinge even as she continued to struggle for breath. Her black hair fanned out around her in the mud and the crystalline fingers of her left hand clawed at the mud beneath her.

"Hold in there, Commander Shepard," he whispered. "Earth isn't done with you yet."

MSV Steinbeck

Commander Ashley Williams arrived at semi-consciousness with the acidic taste of vomit in her mouth and the sensation that she was being dragged. Eventually a splitting headache also made itself known. The vomit taste was joined by smoke when she tried to draw a deep breath. She coughed violently and discovered that other parts of her body hurt as well. Her eyes opened slowly – at first she saw nothing but the smoke. With full consciousness returning, Ashley realised that she was being dragged. Strong hands gripped beneath each of her armpits, hauling her roughly across a deck.

The Steinbeck. Ashley tried to remember what the hell they had been doing on board the ship, but the only images in her mind were of naked, mutilated bodies. Entrails hung from their corpses like some sort of grotesque funerary arrangement. She desperately wanted to vomit again but she was too busy coughing and trying to breathe. When she tried to move her limbs, all she could manage were several weak spasms.

"Hang on…we're almost there, Ash."

That's Garrus. It was Garrus who was dragging her. Some of her fear dissipated, but at the same time she saw a pair of pale eyes tinged with green. Something had been taunting her in the moments before she had lost consciousness. She could not remember who or what it was.

"Move faster!"

The urgent voice was Tali's. The quarian was somewhere up ahead of them. Ashley detected fear and strain in her voice, much as she had with Garrus' a few seconds earlier. Whatever the situation, it was bad. Ashley tried to remind herself that she was the commander of the Normandy, and that she should be the one on her feet dragging crewmembers out of harm's way. Instead she was just a limp sack of meat, her armour steadily grinding on the metal of the Steinbeck's deck.

There had been a child. Ashley distinctly remembered the long blonde hair flowing and the fear that had subsequently gripped her entire body. Everyone else on the freighter had been brutally murdered; there was no way in hell she was leaving the little girl to die. As her memories returned with some clarity, she remembered her desperate struggles to move the crate aside so she could grab the kid.

It wasn't even a fucking kid. The pale green eyes that lingered behind Ashley's eyeballs had belonged to a V.I. In some fucked up pantomime, the thing had started laughing at her. Ashley remembered the disgust that had gripped her body as she realised that the MSV Steinbeck was about to go nova and take her sorry carcass with it. It had been accompanied by the sharp stab of pain that came with the knowledge that she would not see Miranda again – not even to harangue her for not bothering to get in touch. Not to mention the fact that she'd ordered Garrus and Tali to leave her the hell behind.

"What the hell, Garrus?" Ashley choked. It was difficult for a limp sack of meat to sound authoritative. "I ordered you-"

"With all due respect, ma'am," Garrus replied.

It was all he needed to say. He'd taken a leaf out of Ashley's own damn book and thrown it in her face. Somewhere she heard EDI's voice locked into some sort of countdown. Ashley wished the A.I would shut the hell up. During her time in command of the Normandy, Ashley had come to appreciate EDI as something more than an A.I. She usually recognised the subtle, almost imperceptible nuances, in her voice - especially when she was referring to the loss of her mobile platform. It had been destroyed by a Brute during the Battle for Earth. Even though her program lived on within the Normandy, EDI had effectively given her life to save Sam Traynor. However, as she counted down – probably toward their imminent deaths – she had never sounded so artificial and cold.

Garrus suddenly hauled her to her feet so he could lift her over the airlock seal that kept the Normandy locked in a death-grip with the Steinbeck. Ashley pushed out feebly with her feet and managed to gain some sort of traction. With EDI's countdown ringing in their ears, the three of them made the last awkward, desperate scramble for the airlock. All were only too aware that making it off the ship before it blew was only half the challenge. They also needed time for the Normandy to get clear, else they, the crew and the ship would likely be torn apart as the Steinbeck's fusion plant went nova.

Getting your first command blown to hell? Not going to look good on your service record, Williams. She was already having a bad day, it sure as hell didn't need to get any worse.

As soon as the away team was safely in the airlock, Tali slammed her fist against the controls to seal the Normandy behind them.

"Joker, get us the hell out of here!" Garrus barked as he lowered Ash gently to the deck. "Doc, we need you in the CIC stat!"

Although Ashley appreciated the sentiment, she felt fine. Even as Garrus hovered over her, she managed to shake her head stubbornly.

"You're going to be fine, Commander," he reassured her.

"I know," Ashley growled in response. "And I'm going to kick your spiny butt for disobeying a direct order."

The lack of clarity she had felt on the Steinbeck was largely gone. The headache was still there, pounding between her ears like an assault rifle firing with a dirty barrel, but she could deal with it. It was just pain. What she couldn't deal with were her perceived failures as commander of the Normandy. The same thought was constantly running through her mind – what would Shepard have done?

She felt the distinct shudder throughout the superstructure of the Normandy as the inertial dampeners failed to compensate fully for the freighter's explosion. Her heartbeat stopped for a few moments as the entire ship groaned against the external forces trying to tear it to pieces.

SSV Normandy SR-2

{Hey, Commander, the next time you feel like giving me a challenge why don't you see how many hard-boiled eggs I can eat?} Joker's annoyed voice sounded over the comm. {Just a suggestion, you know, instead of giving me ten seconds to make minimum safe distance from an exploding ship.}

Ashley did not dignify Joker's blithe comment with a reply, otherwise the pilot would have been on the receiving end of a string of expletives more reminiscent of a drunken Terminus merc than a naval commander. Nevertheless, she was extremely pissed - both at the whole unpleasant incident with the Steinbeck and herself. She had barely waited for Chakwas to give her the all clear before making her way down to the armoury to divest herself of her kit. Garrus and Tali followed closely. Despite the Doc's assessment of her physical condition, neither was convinced she was fine.

"Tali, I want a full report on the contents of the Steinbeck's logs – any transcripts, diagnostics, anything that looks remotely out of the ordinary, and I want it goddamn yesterday!" Ashley barked at the startled quarian.

She practically launched her Valkyrie at the weapons bench. The rifle skidded and teetered on the brink of falling to the deck. A gentle nudge from Garrus ensured that it did not fall, but the action also reminded Ashley how close to losing it she was. A marine did not throw her weapons, regardless of how pissed they were.

Ashley lowered her gaze. "Who the hell makes a VI of a goddamn kid like that?" she asked no one in particular. "It's almost as though they wanted to take out any ship responding to the distress signal."

"Who would have the motives for such an attack?" Garrus shook his head. "The Galaxy is trying to rebuild-"

"Doesn't mean there aren't psychos out there," Ashley remarked more coldly than she had intended. "Get on it, Tali."

"Aye-aye, ma'am," Tali replied quickly.

Tali cast a quick glance towards Garrus, who responded with a reassuring nod. Ashley caught the movements out of the corner of her eye. She knew exactly what to expect when the Turian approached her quietly. Instead of waiting for him to speak, she held up a curt hand to indicate that she was not interested. She wasn't interested in personal reflection or a heart-to-heart, the only two things she wanted on her mind were a scalding hot shower and a glass of brandy – straight up, without a single goddamn rock.

{Commander Williams.} Ashley's entire body stiffened with dread and frustration. It was Traynor. {There's an urgent encrypted communication for you via QEC.}

"Liara?" Ashley asked hopefully as she halted the elevator. It was only now that the asari was on her mind that she realised how much they all needed her.

{No, the message has an Alliance signature,} Traynor replied.

Great, probably Admiral Hackett, Ashley growled inwardly. Do I have to tell him I almost fried the Normandy?

The image that manifested within the QEC a few minutes later was not the grizzled visage of Admiral Steven Hackett. Only a few minutes ago Ashley had felt hollow and numb, now the entirety of her being came alive within seconds. Her body responded predictably – at the same time her eyes widened in surprise, her skin bristled with nervous energy, and her core descended rapidly into the fierce throb of repressed sexual desire. Her emotional response however descended into a tangled gamut – from relief to anger. The slightly grainy image of Miranda Lawson stood in the centre of the QEC. Gone were the days of skin-tight cat-suits and waves of hair settling down around her shoulders. She was wearing an Alliance uniform, her hair was bound back into a lose ponytail and she looked almost as exhausted as Ashley felt.

Thankfully the mottled bruising across Ashley's face would not show up on the corresponding image that Miranda was seeing. She did not think that she could withstand Miranda's own brand of concern. Mostly it involved berating her for being clumsy enough to get wounded in the first place.

"How the hell did you get access to the QEC?" Ashley demanded. "And don't tell me you have permission either, because I can tell by that smug expression on your face that you don't."

Miranda's eyebrows lifted in mild surprise. Her expression shifted to an indulgent smile. "It turns out that the comms officer in charge of the watch is a very lonely man."

Ashley scrubbed hard at her forehead with the pads of her fingers. "I don't have time for this, M."

"Come on, give me a little credit here, Ash. I have a five-minute window and I'll scrub the logs when I'm done." Ashley was about to interrupt when Miranda held up a curt hand. "Before you go giving me a lecture on why I can't operate how I damn well please in this chicken shit outfit, hear me out. I miss you…and I need to apologise for trying to make another excuse to get out of meeting your sisters. I have a week's leave between passing out of OCS and my first posting…maybe we can arrange a get together then?" Her tone shifted as she spoke, from defensive to hopeful as she finished and searched her lover's face for a reaction.

Ashley did not give anything away in response. "You're treading on thin ice calling the Alliance a chicken shit outfit."

"Seriously?" Miranda replied stormily. "I've made a meal out of every single one of the instructors on the fucking base. They've got officers trying to teach combat tactics who wouldn't know how to make use of a biotic Sentinel if their lives depended on it. I lie awake at night in one of those ghastly bunk beds and realise that there's nothing they can teach me."

"Humility?" Ashley offered.

Miranda's expression softened at her lover's quiet tone. She folded her arms over her chest defensively. "Not exactly an easy lesson for yours truly."

Shaking her head, Ashley felt her anger dissipate. "I know I've said all of this before but you don't have a bloody thing to prove to anyone – least of all to the Alliance...and certainly not to me." She knew she was revisiting well-worn ground. They'd fought for a solid three days about Miranda's decision to enlist. Granted she'd been immediately accepted into the Officer Candidate programme, but Ashley - the consummate soldier – did not believe that her lover was suited to a career built around discipline and following orders.

"I'm not at school with kids almost two decades younger than me to prove something to the Alliance...I have something to prove to myself," Miranda replied evenly. "All my life I've been set apart...and different. What if I don't want to be that woman anymore?"

Ashley almost snorted disparagingly before she caught herself. "That's the whole point, your talents...your gifts-"

"Count for absolutely nothing if I don't have the resources to use them," Miranda interrupted. "After the hell we've been through I want to give us every chance at living a real life. We can't do that if the Galaxy is falling to pieces around us. Are we seriously going to do this again, because I'd rather not waste this time rehashing arguments we've already had? So, your sisters?"

Ashley managed a small smile when she thought of the dozens of messages that had flooded her inbox when the Williams' sisters learned that her love life had taken a major detour. The initial disbelief had soon given way to incessant and somewhat intrusive questioning. "I'll get in touch with the girls and set something up. Their curiosity is already through the roof."

"I'm looking forward to it." The tone in Miranda's voice clearly indicated that was not entirely true. She studied her lover's expression. "You look tired."

Ashley did not say anything in reply. Instead she sagged against the console in front of her. She pressed her palm against the edge until it was sure to leave an indentation.

"Ash," Miranda said softly. "Are you okay?"

Ashley shook her head. "Today was rough...incredibly rough. I'm not cut out to have my own ship, Miranda. A squad I can handle, but a whole damn ship? The Normandy needs a commander, not some half-baked marine who starts vomiting at the sight of a little blood and viscera."

"Do I even want to know?" At Ashley's stubborn shake of her head, Miranda continued, "You're not her, Ash. You need to stop this constant self-appraisal, trying to judge yourself against her standards isn't helping you to make the Normandy yours. You'll never replace Shepard, but that doesn't make you any less capable of assuming her command. Give yourself a chance…and remember I'll be seeing you in two weeks."

"You're so damn bossy," Ashley replied petulantly.

"Guilty as charged." Miranda stared longingly at her lover for a few moments. "Give us a couple of days before you throw me to the mercy of your sisters, Ash, because I need you to throw me down somewhere – bed, deck…bare earth, I don't care. I want you to fuck me for hours on end until I'm nothing more than a puddle beneath you."

"I think we're definitely on the same page with those thoughts," Ash replied.

Miranda sighed wistfully and looked over her shoulder as though she thought she had heard something. "I need to go. I need time to scrub the logs, otherwise the brass will hear a little more than they needed to. So, go eat something, sleep…because you'll need all the strength you can get."

"Are you trying to give me orders, Second-Lieutenant Lawson?" Ashley asked as she lifted one eyebrow.

Miranda scowled. "You're never going to get tired of saying that, are you?"

"Nope. Now piss off before someone realises you've commandeered their QEC."

"I love you too, Williams."

Location Withheld

Dr Liara T'Soni woke to a soft glow falling across her face. Her eyes opened to see the spherical form of her V.I hovering at the foot of her bed. Save for the blue light radiating outwards from Glyph and a faint glow from the tank on the far side of the room, the rest of her world was in darkness. She stifled a slight groan as she peeled the covers away from her body and exposed herself to the cool air. The N7 t-shirt she wore did not ward off any of the chill that coursed through her bones.

"Dr T'Soni, it is now 0600 hours, your requested rising time," the info drone informed her in its self-important tone. "So it is," she said softly, speaking for the sake of hearing her own voice. She used it so infrequently these days that it never failed to sound odd to her ears.

Ignoring Glyph, she swung her legs over the side of the bed. The icy cold shock that radiated upwards through the soles of her feet succeeded in completely shaking her free of sleep. Glyph continued to hover, spinning almost anxiously as she stood with the intention of making her way toward the shower. She had long since learned to ignore the vehement protests of her stomach first thing in the morning. Food could wait until she smelt slightly more respectable. I'm not sure why you bother, T'Soni. There's no one here to smell your stench, let alone protest about it.

Liara did not bother to turn on any lights, relying instead on Glyph's soft, blue glow.

"Several new messages were received during the night." The drone floated along behind her, even following her into the bathroom. When she turned, and regarded it with an annoyed expression, it merely bobbed up and down. "You may want to prioritise the one from Agent Vikos, it concerns the SSV Normandy."

The Normandy. With her shower quickly forgotten, Liara instead made her way out of her small living quarters and passed into her work space. She did not bother waiting for Glyph, she knew every step by route. The intricate technology that made up the heart of the Shadow Broker's network had changed somewhat since it had been shoe-horned into a much smaller space on board the Normandy. Her bank of monitors was spread out in a semi-circle in front of a sophisticated HI console. Given that the Broker essentially never went offline, each monitor was currently occupied with a different element of her network. Liara ran her gaze over several, noting key developments, before turning her attention to the holographic interface at her fingertips. With a few rapid swipes of her fingers, she brought up Agent Vikos's message.

Attican Traverse. 0400 hours. Incident with civilian freighter MSV Steinbeck. Normandy suffered minor damage, no casualties.

Vikos's rudimentary report indicated that he did not think the Broker would be overly concerned with the information. Although Liara had subtly tasked a dozen of her agents to monitor the Normandy, she had given them no purpose beyond that – simple monitoring. None of them were to know that her interests went beyond mere information gathering into actual concern for the vessel. Although Liara had essentially disengaged from their lives, she could not simply sever her emotions. The crewmembers were her family.

She had been channelling Ashley Williams useful information for the past several months – just often enough to give her a sense that she was actively doing something to support her friends, not enough to make her feel as though she might as well have still been on board the Normandy.

Liara suppressed a shiver. It was bitterly cold but she delayed showering and eating until she had fired off messages to Vikos and several other agents within close proximity of the Normandy's location. The shower that followed was perfunctory. She kept the temperature lukewarm lest she be tempted to linger beneath the faucet for more than a few minutes. If she allowed herself to close her eyes Liara knew that her mind would wander...and nothing good ever came of a wandering mind. She dressed warmly in one of her favoured black suits.

Her meal she ate mechanically standing in her small kitchen. Bread, cheese and cold meat were washed down with a glass of icy water. Liara had never cared for human food, but the simple fare was flavoursome and far superior to MREs or protein bars. With her relentless hunger sated for the time being, Liara filled a canteen of water and returned to her work station.

She was pleased to see that two of her agents had already responded with the requested information. She opened their messages and began to draw together the data to extrapolate the extent of the incident in the Attican Traverse. It would have saved Liara time and effort simply opening two-way communication with the Normandy itself, but her stubborn adherence to maintaining the web she had woven around herself would not allow her even that small contact. Instead she continued to work from afar, utilising her resources as best she could.

The Shadow Broker's network had been vastly compromised in the wake of the Reaper War. Over seventy-five percent of her agents had simply gone off line. In most cases Liara did not know their fate – no doubt many would have perished in the war, others would have lost their own resources. Following Omega and her brief partnership with Aria T'Loak, Liara had spent the past five months painstakingly re-establishing and rebuilding the network. So far most of her efforts had reminded inwardly focused, but she was finally reaching the point where she was able to offer discreet support to key projects. It was merely a drop in the ocean but, in the quest to ensure that her life remained meaningful, Liara had to feel as though she was doing something.

Pausing only long enough to take small sips of water, Liara continued working until she lost all sense of time. At one point Glyph had attempted to raise the blinds and shed some light into her darkened world, but her curt response – a harsh growl as opposed to actual words - had sent the little info drone scurrying into a corner.

By the time Glyph emerged, Liara was beginning to develop a headache from staring at her screens for too long and her water had long since been drained. When she straightened her neck, it gave a very audible crack of protest.

"Dr T'Soni, you have been working for eight point five hours without nutritional sustenance," Glyph informed her. Had the drone been self-aware, no doubt it would have approached its task with something approaching trepidation. "It is highly recommended that you-"

Without pausing a beat, Liara simply powered down the drone's program. Glyph winked out of existence and she was left bathed in the light from her screens and the interface in front of her. She continued working until the headache eventually drove her backwards as though an invisible force was pushing her away from her work. Despite having reached a critical juncture in one of her analyses, Liara was desperately hungry. Once again, she ignored her instinct for food and instead chose to move into the largest room in her compound. For the first time that day, she brought up the lights, illuminating a largely vacant space. Located behind her workspace and living quarters, there were no windows out onto the world beyond. The floor, walls and ceiling were all bare thermocrete, the only signs that the room had any purposes were a series of projectors mounted on the ceiling. After bringing up the lights, Liara tapped a few more commands into the control panel. She paused for a few seconds, and then decided on 'programme 13.' As the main lights dimmed and a series of moving targets winked into existence, Liara felt a new sense of purpose descend over her mind. The headache was forgotten as soon as the first mass effect field danced on her fingertips.

When the first target rocketed toward her, Liara responded by throwing Warp, first one and then two more in rapid succession as the targets kept coming. She missed only one, it swooped in close but she forced herself into a diving roll to avoid it. And they kept coming, arcing towards her in a simulated combat that bore absolutely no resemblance to the gritty, bloody world of war that she knew intimately. However, this was all she had. Her exertions succeeded in creating a thin sheen of sweat over her body, quickly wicked away by her suit but it gathered on her forehead. Soon drops were sliding down over her temples and cheeks. Still Liara kept going, pushing herself without ever taxing her abilities. She had long since learned that, without real danger, she could only ever achieve a dull sort of exhaustion that left her sweaty and gasping for breath.

Liara wanted more. She hungered for the metallic taste of blood in her mouth, for the sound of screams filling her ears and the deeply satisfying noise created only by the sound of flesh being torn apart. Here in this lonely place the only sounds were the primal screams torn from her own throat as she pretended to fight. The only blood was violet, dripping from her knuckles where she had misjudged a punch and slammed her fist into the wall instead of a target...or at least that was what Liara tried to tell herself. The subsequent second, third and fourth punches could most definitely not be said to be such a mistake. It was only when Liara stared down at her bloody, raw knuckles that she acknowledged what she had done. She had a limited supply of medigel. It was for emergencies...not losing her temper.

With her wounded hand dangling limply at her side, Liara switched the program off and padded back out into the living spaces of her compound. She paused momentarily by the blinds. The thought that perhaps she should go outside and take in some fresh air seemed sensible until she realised that night would have long since fallen – shrouding her surroundings both in darkness and a claustrophobic cold.

Instead she chose to shower again. She lingered longer than she had that morning. It was oddly satisfying watching her blood run down the drain until even her lukewarm water ran out and she was punished with an icy blast.

Naked, with droplets of water threatening to freeze on her skin, Liara crossed to the chest in which she kept her clothes. This time her fingers instinctively went not to the drawer holding her suits, but to a small one at the top. Drawing in a deep breath, she slowly inched it open until she could see the soft grey material that lay within. Well-worn, it was faded in places, but the N7 logo on the right breast of the hoodie was still bright. Liara reached for it, gently running her fingers over the embroidery. Drawing in a deep breath, she burrowed her cold fingers beneath the garment. Her fingers touched the edge of the object that lay hidden beneath and she started to draw it out slowly. Liara froze when the frame was half way out. She could already see more than enough to know that she could not face the photo today. Hurriedly, she jammed it back beneath the hoodie and slammed the drawer shut.

The violent movement startled the little blob of yellow in the tank nearby - the only other living thing in the compound. Liara crossed the room and pressed the palm of her hand against the glass. Other than her own personal possessions and clothes, this creature was all she had taken from the Normandy. Horatio darted back and forth in front of the glass, blissfully unaware of the turmoil simmering beneath the skin of the shape on the other side of the glass. Liara scattered a small pinch of food into the tank. With his goal achieved, Horatio paid her no further attention.

With her skin icy cold, Liara turned to survey her world – made up of cold greys and utilitarian furniture. It was a meagre existence, but she told herself it was what she wanted. As she lingered in the silence, for a few awful seconds she felt the familiar burn of panic and grief starting to take hold of her body.

"I love you, Liara. No matter what happens today, I'll always love you."

With nothing more than an impressive display of willpower, Liara forced down the sob that attempted to escape from her throat. She had made the mistake of allowing herself too much time for reflection. She moved as though on auto-pilot. After throwing on a t-shirt, Liara made her way to the bed. As her ice cold limbs settled beneath the thick covers, her body began to warm. Before lying down, she reached across to the bottle at her bedside. She tipped one of the small, green capsules into her hand. After a moment's reflection, she added a second. Both were washed down in a single swallow of water.

Liara's head hit the pillow. The pills did their work and she entered a deep, dreamless sleep less than a minute later.