The day Shepard is finally released from the medical centre is one that I will look back on as the definition of happiness. Rachel is still not entirely fit, still not entirely healed, but healthy enough to pass Karin's stringent standards for release from therapy, and Miranda's altogether more pedantic fussing over acceptable performance of her implants. (It took Jack threatening to set Eezo loose in the lab to make Miranda capitulate.) She bears Miranda's mother-hen routine with good grace, and laughs until she can't breathe at Jack's contribution to the cause, but the release of tension from her stance as we walk hand in hand from the hospital is almost tangible, like a mild earth tremor, gone before you realise what it was.
Steve Cortez has commandeered a shuttle for us, and is waiting at the emergency transport point. He hugs Shepard fiercely, tears in his eyes. She reciprocates, her own eyes shining, and then Steve's arms are around me, crushing me to his chest. "It's good to see you too, Liara," he almost chokes. "I'm so glad you guys all made it home."
"And I am glad you survived that awful crash," I reply. "It is good to see you safe and well, Steve."
He wipes his eyes and nods. "OK, hop in. I got your message, Shepard, co-ordinates are plugged in. It'll take us about two and a half hours with a quick sub-orb spurt."
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"It's supposed to be a surprise," Shepard replies, looking a little embarrassed.
"Oh. Well then, forget I asked." I step up into the shuttle and offer Shepard my hand.
The trip passes comfortably, Shepard and I chatting idly with Steve to pass the time, filling the pilot in on the well-being of all of our friends. They have all been more or less constant fixtures in Rachel's hospital rooms for the past two weeks, and the boost her recovery from having us all around has been remarkable. I sit with my head against Rachel's shoulder, her arm slung possessively around me, and I revel in the simple joy I receive from just being close, listening to her talk and feeling her breathing. Lulled by my contentment, I nod off, to be awakened by Shepard gently shaking me. "Hey, sleepyhead, we're here."
We thank Steve, collect our bags, and hop off the shuttle at the head of a dirt trail leading off into a forest of tall, dark green trees bearing needles rather than leaves. It's sunny, but there's a slight chill to the clean, crisp air that suggests we're somewhere further poleward, or at higher altitude, than London. Shepard lifts her rucksack onto her shoulders and tightens the straps. "C'mon, Li, we have a little walk ahead of us."
"You're making me very curious," I admit as I pick up my own bag and slip my arms through the straps.
"I know," she replies smugly.
"You realise I could activate Glyph and have GPS co-ordinates and an analysis in seconds?"
"Sure, but you won't."
"Oh, won't I?"
"No." Shepard's tone is earnest. "Because somewhere deep down beneath that ice-queen information broker shell, there's an inquisitive kid who loves surprises and making discoveries." She winks at me. "And closer to the surface is a hopeless romantic who would never dream of spoiling my plans for today, because she can see how much it means to me."
"Well, when you put it like that," I lean in and brush a kiss across her cheek, "I find I can be patient."
We walk for perhaps half an hour at a gentle pace, climbing steadily through the lofty ranks of the forest, shielded from the bright glare of the afternoon sun by the high canopy of branches. We don't talk much, but I make a point of keeping hold of Shepard's hand, maintaining the physical contact I have missed so much since she was torn from me.
Abruptly, the track curls away to the left, dropping down over a steep edge, and as we reach the apex of the turn I gasp in shock. The forest gives way suddenly to a spectacular aquamarine lake ringed by towering, snow-capped mountains. The sun dances on the water, silver sparkles reflecting back into an endlessly clear blue sky. "Goddess," I breathe, almost lost for words. "Shepard, it's..."
"I know," Shepard agrees, her tone similarly awed. "I used to come here on school holidays with my grandparents, when I was too young to be left unsupervised on a ship. It must be ten...twelve years since I was last here to visit, but it's just as beautiful as I remember." She throws me a sly glance. "It was one of the early reasons for blue being my favourite colour."
My quip has the desired effect; Liara laughs, a pure, carefree laugh the like of which I haven't heard in far too long. She steps close and throws her arms around me to bestow a hug and a quick kiss. "This was a lovely surprise, Shepard," she murmurs in my ear. "Thank you for sharing this."
"Oh, I'm just getting started, Doctor," I assure her, squeezing her backside gently before breaking her embrace. "C'mon, it's just down here." I lead my beautiful asari bondmate down the path to a well-appointed timber house on the shore of the lake. "My Granddad was a Park Ranger after he retired from the military," I explain, "and so he got to live on site here. When he died, we got first refusal on purchasing it." Stepping up onto the deck, I walk round to the shore side, where a jetty runs out into the bright jade water. "Mom and Aunt Kate keep it maintained between them - Mom comes here on holiday a lot. She suggested we take advantage."
"Your mother is a wise woman."
I take Liara's hand and we walk around the veranda to the lake-facing balcony, where two chairs wait at a table laden with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket, and two champagne flutes. God bless Aethyta, Miranda, Karin, and my Mom. Guiding Liara to one of the seats, I carry on with my news. "So, I spent most of yesterday talking to Tevos, Sparatus and Hackett, and we came to an understanding. But I made it clear to them that my acceptance depended on having your blessing."
I shrug as I take my own seat across from her with some relief, stretching my tired legs out. "I'm not making any final decisions until you have a chance to hear the options. Ever since we met there's been the mission, the Navy, the Council, the galaxy, the greater good, always something or someone keeping us from deciding what we want our future to be. Our future. Together." I look out over the lake for a moment, then back at my bondmate. "I want that to change. I want us to make decisions for us. So, the offer on the table is this: I'm resigning from the Alliance, effective two weeks from today." Liara's eyes widen, and she opens her mouth as though to speak, and I hold up one hand to forestall her. "I can keep my rank, and I have the option to continue to serve as a Spectre. I would be accountable only to the Council, not to Earth. We worked so hard to bring everyone together, and I think we should to try and keep it that way. But if I'm going to be labelled as Saviour of the Galaxy whether I like it or not, then I'm going to be answerable to the Galaxy, not just to one race." Liara is shocked; she knows how important my naval heritage is to me. "I would get to keep the Normandy, and be given permission to put together a team to work with me, a multispecies crew who will enjoy Spectre privileges. And I have a pretty good idea who my first recruit would be. There's an asari of my acquaintance that I believe would be well-suited to my team." Liara grins at me, and I grin back. "But I will turn them down flat if you don't want that life." I lean forward to take Liara's hands. "You asked me once what would happen if the war ended tomorrow. Well it has, and now we have to decide what tomorrow will be. It doesn't have to be the same as yesterday."
Liara doesn't answer immediately, taking her own turn to gaze thoughtfully out over the lake. "You love being a Spectre," she says after a while, "and you love the Normandy, and you love me."
"For the record, I love you far more than the other two," I clarify.
Liara flashes me a coy smile that racks up my heart rate several notches. "I know," she agrees assuredly. "And I know that if I asked you, you would throw everything else away. But I can't ask that of you. You were born to be a soldier, you are happiest... no, you are the purest form of yourself in command of your ship, on a mission to help those who cannot help themselves. That's who I fell in love with, and while I'm sure I'd love you equally well elsewhere, I want you... us... to be able to live without regret. As long as I can be with you, I don't care where we are or what we're doing. Besides, I see some fascinating possibilities for doing good in allying the Broker network with a Spectre operation, in the specific circumstance of my being the Broker and you being the Spectre." She tilts her head to one side. "There's so much to rebuild, so much to repair, so many people in need of help; I can assist with that best under the auspices of the Council."
"And the fact that it'd make you immune to prosecution in no way sways your view, right?" I grin, and Liara dips her head, looking at me with that faint, confident smirk that never fails to set my blood boiling. "Don't do that."
"Look at me like that. You know what that does to my blood pressure, and I'm still technically on sick leave. You could put me back in hospital." Liara grins, raising her hands in fake surrender.
"You have me. You were right all along. It's not you I love, it's the perks." She gets up from her seat and moves to lean against the balcony, looking out over the water. I lever myself carefully out of my own chair and hobble across to lean beside her, the short stop after the walk having caused my legs to stiffen up already.
"Glad we clarified that," I murmur as she lays her head against my shoulder. "So is that a yes?"
"Is it what you want to do, Rachel?"
"Yes. It is. You're right - it's who I am."
"Then that's a yes," Liara agrees. "The Normandy's our home, and I'm not ready to move on just yet."
Shepard's smile lights up at my agreement, and I feel the warm pulse of her happiness through our bond. "Excellent," she sighs. "I'll let Tevos know tomorrow. But before I do anything else, I am taking a holiday. A long, boring holiday with nothing to do, hundreds of miles from the Council, the Spectres, the Alliance, and everything else. Everything... except you." She drops a kiss on my crests and moves back to the table, removing the bottle of champagne from the ice bucket. Popping the cork with a flourish, she pours the sparkling wine into two glasses. We drink, then she opens her backpack, rummaging around in the numerous pockets. She lets out a small, triumphant exclamation as she fishes out a small square box. "Ha! Found it." Turning to me, I'm surprised to see her hands are shaking, and her cheeks are flushed red. "I really never thought I'd be the one doing this," she mutters, then she takes a deep breath.
"Rachel, are you all right?" I ask, concerned by her odd nervousness.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Li. This is maybe a little late and all, what with us already being bonded..." she winks at me to reassure me of my forgiveness, "but God knows you deserve a grand romantic gesture if anyone does. OK, it's a human grand romantic gesture, but I didn't get a chance to research, and your Dad... no, I couldn't ask your Dad..."
"Shepard, what are you talking about?" I interrupt, nonplussed by her nervous rambling. To my surprise, she lowers herself to one knee, grimacing at the pain it causes her still-recovering body. "What are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Li, don't fret," she soothes. She looks down at the floor, shakes her head with a wry grin, then looks up and takes my hand. "Liara T'Soni, you're the centre of my life. I can't imagine living the rest of my days without you. I made you a promise that I'd always come back; now, I'd like us to share another promise. A commitment to stay with each other for as long as the universe will allow. Liara, I love you. Will you marry me?"
Tears sting my eyes as I look down at Shepard's earnest, nervous face. She proffers the box, which contains a simple ring of a curious iridescent metal set with a single diamond. "Yes, of course I will," I reply, dropping to my knees in front of her. "I love you. Whatever time we are granted, I want every second of it."
Shepard's smile would shame the sun as she pulls the ring from the box and slides it onto the fourth finger of my left hand. I roll my hand from side to side slowly, entranced by the way the stone catches the light. "It's beautiful," I whisper.
"EDI gave it to me," Rachel says softly, sadly. "They were selling them on the Citadel just before the final battle. Victory rings, they called them. The band's an alloy of different metals from the council homeworlds. This one's predominantly asari and human, so EDI bought it for me on her infamous shopping spree. It seems an appropriate symbol, on a personal level."
"I think she'd be pleased," I agree, "but do I recall correctly that if we are to be married, we require two rings?"
"Yeah, that's right," Shepard confirms. "Only one for an engagement, though, which is a little one sided."
"Well, in keeping with our being bondmates, could we add some extra metals to make two rings from this one? Two parts of the same whole?"
Rachel nods, her smile reigniting. "Li, that's a fabulous idea. Some from Earth, some from Thessia?"
"No. Just from Earth, so we'll always remember this." Leaning in, I kiss Shepard passionately. "I love you, Rachel Shepard."
"I love you too, Liara T'Soni."
I get to my feet, but Shepard stays where she is, a frustrated grimace etching slowly into her brow. "Are you OK, Rachel?"
"Cramp," she admits with a sheepish grin. "I can't get up." She rolls to a sitting position and I drop back to one knee, massaging her thighs to ease the tension and get the blood flow going. "Damn, I hate being this unfit," she grumbles.
"It'll pass," I assure her, helping her to stand. "You'll be charging down Reapers... no, wait, Rogue Spectres... no, wait, Cerberus... no..." I grin at her. "There are no more bad guys."
"For now," Rachel sighs mock-morosely as she shoots me a sly sidelong glance, a grin quirking the corner of her mouth. "You know... I'm going to be monumentally bored."
I grin, then jerk her feet out from under her, swinging her up into my arms and carrying her toward the house. "No, Commander Shepard," I disagree confidently, "you're not."
A/N: Well, gee, what a blast I had doing this. Thanks so much to everyone who has read, favorited and followed over the past couple months - I hope you've enjoyed the ride, your support has meant so much. To all of you who left reviews and PMs, my heartfelt gratitude - you have helped make me think, and helped make the story far better than the original draft. Honourable mentions to Robb1068, SherryE, ReavansMask, Riptide Monzarc and OriginalAlcy, and, last but by no means least, a citation for going above and beyond the call: take a bow BA Tanglepaw - cheers pal, you're awesome.
I've had so much fun I'll definitely be back. Till then, happy reading and writing!