A/N: This was a scribble in the margin for Better Angels while I was figuring out how I wanted that story to work, so I went back and fixed it up a bit while I'm plotting out some other stuff. It's probably not necessary to have read the main fic to read this one, as it's fairly standalone.
This one's for BA Tanglepaw, with much affection and respect.
Well Met By Moonshine
Rear Admiral Hannah Shepard stepped into the dimly lit canteen of the medical centre. She'd heard a rumour that someone had set up a bar down here, and she needed the distraction. Her worry for her daughter was taking its toll. It had been four weeks since Rachel had been found on the Citadel, barely breathing, life hanging by the finest gossamer thread. For four interminable weeks, Hannah had come to this dilapidated wreck of a hospital every day, trying to juggle the demands of her crew, the Navy, and humanity's survivors with her overwhelming personal concern. My little girl.
It was a miracle that Rachel had survived the damage inflicted on her, one of the doctors, Price, had confided. Dr. Lawson, the lead medic, had initially been rather more upbeat, but in a cool, professional manner that Hannah had been unable to translate into real hope. Survived she might have, and Lawson and Price had performed wonders in stabilizing her physical injuries, but neither had been able to offer insight into the persistence of the coma that kept Rachel prisoner. Lawson had noted a considerable amount of brain-wave activity, but Hannah's daughter remained unresponsive to any stimuli, and as time passed, the pretty Australian medic's optimism had slowly withered. She had refused to meet Hannah's gaze when she'd finally admitted there was nothing more she could do. "We'll keep looking for answers, of course, Admiral, but there's no way to tell how long this will last. She might wake up in half an hour, she might not wake up at all. All we can do is keep treating her injuries and hope."
No, there was no comfort for Hannah in the doctors, so she'd taken to wandering the hospital in search of a diversion, anything to fill the gap left by her diminishing hope. And that was when she'd heard about the bar.
Now, sure enough, she'd found it. Over on the serving counter, a selection of bottles had been put on display and a motley crew of cups, glasses, mugs, and medicine beakers had been assembled. An odd enough sight in a hospital, but the surreal sense of the scene was not helped by the personage standing behind the bar, industriously polishing a glass with what appeared to be a surgical mask. Hannah was accustomed to illicit grog stills and moonshine dens from more ships and bases than she cared to remember, often a customer, sometimes the distiller, and on one or two unhappy occasions, the enforcer charged with shutting it down, but never before in her career had she encountered a bootleg bar tended by an asari. As she watched, the alien set the glass down neatly in rank with its comrades, turned to the sink, fished a new receptacle out and began the process of drying all over again. The sight was so mundane and yet so out of place that Hannah couldn't help but smile.
Intrigued, she walked across the empty canteen, combat boots squeaking on the still-polished linoleum and pulled a stool up to the counter, planting her elbows and lacing her fingers together. "Getting much business?" she enquired.
The barkeep set the glass down, rested her hands flat on the countertop and leaned in slightly with a welcoming smile. "This time of day? Nah, not a lot. When the recovery crew shifts change, I usually get a few through the door. The things they see out there - they need to take a load off, y'know?" The asari sighed expressively. "So many of them have no one else to turn to, I figure the best help I can be is to provide a listening ear." Her rich, gravelly voice was vibrant with sympathy. "What brings you here, Admiral?"
"My daughter's a patient here. She was injured in the final battle on the ground. They managed to stabilize her, but she's in a coma. Been that way for four weeks now."
At the mention of a daughter, a squall of pain flitted across the asari's features. "Sorry. That's gotta be rough. I'm sure she's a fighter though."
Hannah nodded. Yeah, she thought. If there was one word the galaxy would apply to her daughter, fighter was definitely it. The asari took the gesture for a reply and gestured to the drinks on display.
"So what'll you have, babe?"
"Christ, it's been a while since anybody called me babe," Hannah chuckled, relaxing a little and unbuttoning her jacket collar. "What do you have?"
"Seeing as you're human, chances are I've got pretty much anything you might want. Sorry, no sex, though; I just cleaned the bar."
Hannah studied her for a moment, taking in the deep indigo skin, the midnight blue eyes, the lithe figure shown off to good advantage by the incongruous commando leathers, entertained the unlikely flight of fancy for a split second, then gave the asari's sardonic grin back with interest. "Well damn, that's me disappointed, sweetheart. Better give me a double vodka to help me get over it."
The asari laughed as she retrieved a bottle of vodka from the refrigerator behind her, a sultry, wicked laugh that matched the gleam in her eye. "Sure thing, babe." She poured a generous helping of vodka into a medicine beaker and slid it across the counter. Hannah fielded it deftly and raised it in salute, then paused as an idea struck.
"Have one with me?"
The bartender cocked her head to one side, considering, and Hannah felt as though she was suddenly back at OCS, bring assessed by the most stringent of her instructors. "Why not?" the asari agreed eventually, pouring a second shot into what looked like someone's best porcelain, and raising it. "Here's to still being here."
"Still being here," Hannah agreed, knocking half the shot back. It wasn't nearly cold enough, but the burn felt good. "So, what do I call you?"
"Name's Aethyta. Asari Matriarch and best bartender this side of the galactic core. And you are?"
"Hannah Shepard. Best battle group commander in the Fifth Fleet."
The asari's eyes narrowed slightly. "Shepard, huh? That a common human name?"
"Reasonably common, for my cultural background. Why'd you ask?"
"Might be you're the second human I've met with that name," Aethyta replied. The assessing look was back on her face, as though she was trying to make up her mind on a course of action. Hannah met the look squarely, trying to remain impassive, give nothing away.
"Yeah? Well, the odds on that are reasonable. Like I said, it's not uncommon."
The asari chuckled, tipping Hannah a wink. "Relax, babe - your secret's safe with me."
"What secret would that be?"
"That you're Commander Shepard's mother. You don't look much like her, I gotta say."
"How'd you figure, then?" Rachel looked like Danny, so much that to see her lying in that hospital bed, bandaged, burned and bruised, was a living flashback to twenty-eight years ago, watching her husband slip further and further away in spite of hope, prayer, and abject supplication.
Aethyta shrugged. "Cos I happen to know the 'Saviour of the Galaxy' is laid up in here," she replied, laying a sarcastic emphasis on a title Hannah knew Rachel would hate. "I've seen her friends lurking around; Justicar Samara is hard to miss, if you take my meaning." Aethyta pushed her hands against the sides of her breasts, emphasizing her cleavage. "Add you, with your coincidental name, your daughter laid up in a coma, and that hangdog look - I've been around, kid. I can put two and two together."
"I'm kid, now?" No one had called Hannah kid for maybe thirty years. Reflexively, she ran her hand through her brindled iron and silver hair. A kid was about the last thing she felt right now.
"Yeah. Kid," Aethyta confirmed with a smile. "It's a good bet I'm the oldest living being in this star system now that the Reapers are history. Near on a thousand."
Hannah shot the rest of her drink to cover her shock; this woman had been born roundabout the time Richard the Lionheart had been on crusade? "You don't look it," she managed to wheeze through the choking fit the vodka provoked.
"Well, ain't you sweet. Still, like I said, been around. Recognise parental concern when I see it. Same again?"
Hannah held out her glass for the matriarch to refill. "So how'd you end up in a makeshift bar in a hospital on Earth? I mean, if you're a matriarch, aren't you involved in the asari government?"
Aethyta snorted derisively. "Not on your life. Tried that once, got nowhere. My opinion wasn't needed or wanted, apparently. So I decided I'd go where I thought I could help, drifted around, saw some more of the galaxy. You stay at home for a century or so, then you head back out, it's incredible what changes. Seems like only yesterday you humans came blundering onto the scene." The matriarch grinned. "Heh, ballsy little buggers, too, picking your first interstellar smackdown with the Turians."
"That wasn't ballsy, that was just stupid," Hannah chuckled. "One of our more persistent traits." She took a small sip of her vodka. "So, you said you'd met Rachel before?"
"Rachel. My daughter."
"Right, right. Yeah, nice kid. Rachel, huh? I didn't know her first name; everyone on her team just calls her Shepard, even..." Aethyta paused, poured herself a second generous shot of vodka. "I met her about ten months ago, on Illium. She was recruiting Samara for her mission to take on the Collectors, working with an intel broker in Nos Astra. I was working the bar near the exchange, and she helped us sort out an awkward situation, and we got to chatting afterwards. She seemed pretty well adjusted for a Spectre - half that breed are erratic as hell, and the other half aren't much better than thugs. She stopped by a few times after that, would always take the time to shoot the breeze, have a drink with me, listen to my war stories. Like I said, nice kid."
"Glad you think so. I did raise her to mind her manners."
"She your only family?"
"Yeah. Her Dad died when she was really young. Danny and I had been talking about having another baby, but he was killed in action before we really decided." Hannah shrugged. "Aside from Danny's sister, I haven't heard about anyone. Don't expect to, either, not now." She took a reflective sip from her vodka. "I left home when I was seventeen - my parents had plans for me that they never bothered to consult me about, so I decided I was better off on my own." She chuckled softly, bitterly. "Thing is, I promised myself that if I ever had kids, I'd back them in whatever they wanted to do, but when Rach said she wanted to join the marines, I nearly broke that promise. God knows I didn't want her to be a soldier - it took me everything I had to keep my mouth shut."
"It's a real bitch, ain't it?" Aethyta agreed sympathetically. "You want to protect them, but you want them to be able to make it on their own, because some day they'll have to, and you don't do them any favours by coddling them, but it's hard to let go."
"You've had kids yourself, then?"
"Hell, yeah," Aethyta grinned. "Six of 'em."
"Six?" Hannah gaped at her. "Wow."
"Well, I'm the father for three of them, so it wasn't so bad," the asari explained with a chuckle. "Two girls with my first asari partner, one with a hanar, two with a krogan, and the last one, my baby girl, with another asari."
"Do you know where they all are now? Are they safe?"
Aethyta grimaced. "My oldest died about two centuries back, in a passenger transport crash on Thessia. That was a real shock - they're not supposed to go before you do, right? Even if they are five hundred at the time."
Hannah shook her head in disbelief. "I can't imagine how it must feel to know someone, love someone for that long and then have them torn away. It must have been difficult."
"It was. Athame's sacred ass, I was angry for what felt like forever. I met my last partner - my bondmate - a few years later, and she helped me work it out, but you never really get over it." Aethyta blew out a breath. "As for the rest of them, one's an officer on one of our warships, the Nefrane, and she's fine; I talked to her yesterday. Damn, does that ship ever have a lucky star and a lucky skipper; she was relatively undamaged in the battle."
Hannah nodded, remembering how the colossal Asari dreadnought, impeccably commanded, had wrought havoc with the Reaper fleet, resolutely defending the Crucible even though it was a magnet for the enemy forces. "Lucky and smart," she corrected. "I've rarely seen such skill in handling a cap ship in an engagement."
"Yeah, the crew of the Destiny Ascension owe the Nefrane's skipper a crate of Serrice ice brandy for pulling our asses out of the fire too," Aethyta chuckled. "Anyway, three of my girls were on Thessia; I got them out of there, but I haven't heard from them since. I hope they're OK, but I have no way to contact them for now, so I'm assuming the best." Her gaze clouded with sudden pain. "My youngest...Liara..." the asari paused for a moment after mentioning the name, as though waiting for some reaction, "...ah, she was involved with the ground assault on Earth. I know she got evacuated, but her ship is missing, and..." she knocked her shot back, "ah shit. It's wrong to have favourites, and I don't, not really, but that kid... she's really something special. And she's so young, just past her first century. But she was adamant, she wanted to help, and she was head over heels in love. And, shit, there's no talking to them when they get that way."
"I don't think that's ever happened to Rachel," Hannah reflected sadly. "She's had a couple of serious boyfriends, but she never seemed properly head over heels about any of them. Broke up with all of them in the end, usually acrimoniously. Always the same broken record, too - 'she loves the Corps more than she loves me'." Hannah chuckled. "Sad thing is, that they were all right about that." Aethyta's expression had become steadily more astonished as Hannah spoke. "What?"
"Uh...nothing. Suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a soldier like Shepard would be so focused. Did she have any fun as a kid, or was she always polishing her salute?"
The subject change was blatant, but Hannah didn't know the asari well enough to call her on it. She was definitely missing something, but she couldn't put her finger on what it might be. Shrugging mentally, she dismissed it. "Oh, she had fun. God, she could be such a brat. Loved practical jokes, too, and she usually found some enlisted crewer to indulge her in her mischief." She smiled as a memory surfaced. "This one time, she got the engineering crew to help her rig a sting for the XO, who'd chewed me out unjustly about some petty bureaucratic crap the week before, I don't even remember what any more. She was outraged, so she took vengeance on my behalf. She borrowed a tool kit and rigged the guy's cabin door to give him a small electric shock. Not every time, she was too smart for that, just every so often. The engineering ratings swore blind there was nothing wrong with the door, and it went on for about a month before our weasel of a chief engineer figured it out and called it in. The Captain laughed his ass off even as he confined her to quarters for two weeks."
Aethyta laughed, an evil smile lighting her face. "Ah, see, I knew I liked her. Glad she's not as stiff-assed as she tries to make out." She tipped her head to one side. "You know, your kid is the reason we're all still here, all still walking and talking. So I'd say you did good, and you can be damn proud of what she's achieved. And she will wake up. I've known a few Spectres over the years - never liked many of them, but the one thing all those hard-assed bastards have in common is that they just do not know when to give up and die. It's not in them to be quitters. So I figure your gal is working through some stuff in her head. She'll wake up when she's ready, you wait and see."
Tears blurred Hannah's vision as the asari's kind words slipped the catches on her fear, already loosened by the alcohol. Dashing her hand across her eyes, she knocked back the rest of her drink, the shock of the alcohol enough to override the sob rising up her throat with a fresh coughing fit. As she fought to breathe, she thought she heard the asari mutter "She'd damn well better wake up, or I'll kill her myself," before one strong blue hand caught her in a gentle hold across her chest, and another pounded on her back. Heaving up one last cough, the paroxysm subsided, and Hannah dragged in a long, shaky breath.
"You OK there, kid?" Aethyta asked, stepping back and bending slightly to peer into Hannah's eyes. "Get you some water?"
"I'll be fine," Hannah declined, getting to her feet. "I think I'm gonna go say goodnight to my girl. I'll tell her you were asking for her. And thanks so much for the drink, and the talk - I needed both."
"Anytime, babe. Don't be a stranger, OK? I'm here most days. Come on by whenever you need to."
Hannah nodded. "I'll do that, Aethyta. Thanks. See you around."
Aethyta tipped her a wink, and Hannah buttoned her jacket as she headed to the door. She was still deathly afraid for Rachel, but the asari's words had rekindled a little hope. Maybe, just maybe, it would be enough. Squaring her shoulders, newly resolute, Admiral Shepard returned to her post to stand the watch.