DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended; not for profit; written purely for entertainment, and so forth.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story may not make sense if you're not familiar with the ME universe. Assumes more Renegade-aligned Shepard. Some of the story is as it appears in the existing ME universe, while other parts are altered and/or embellished. Mass Effect is my favourite game series of all time. It's utterly brilliant. Unlike a lot of gamers I thought the infamous end of the trilogy was entirely fitting. However, that didn't stop me from envisioning it my own way (and then writing a surprisingly long story about it). In addition, I could hear you groan all the way over in the Southern Hemisphere the moment you read "Shepard/Ashley". Why Ashley of all people? Well, I'm a firm Shepard/Liara fan myself. However, while playing the Renegade option (which isn't what I usually lean towards), all of a sudden I understood why ME1's naive stuttering Liara might not be the first choice for a harder Shepard. Ashley, on the other hand, is a born soldier and fights back every step of the way. She provides a challenge. It's really only after her "I'll flay you alive" diatribe in ME2 that Liara seems tough enough to finally handle an impatient renegade Commander. Mull it over. It'll grow on you ;)
TITLE: Borrowed in a slightly different format from TS Elliot's "Little Gidding"
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To kalexy[at]webmail.co.za
The ash the burnt roses left
By karen alexander
They are stuck in a standoff. A moment that will likely only take a few seconds to resolve, but feels like an eternity. Four guns, unwavering; four soldiers, all convinced of their cause. Two counsellors looking in the wrong direction for the threat of betrayal; the true traitor within their ranks. Egging on his protector.
"She's with Cerberus." Counsellor Udina is at Ashley Williams' shoulder, careful to keep the newest human Spectre between him and Commander Jane Shepard's sights. "She's come to kill us all."
Shepard focuses on his head, on her breathing, on her posture. If he moves too far out from behind his guard she will shoot him. Then, Ashley Williams will probably shoot her, and either Garrus Vakarian or Liara T'Soni will shoot Ashley. There will no doubt be blood on the ground today. How much is the question, and that depends on her.
"Ash." Shepard moves a little to the right, but the soldier in front of her matches her step for step. "Udina's playing you. He's working with Cerberus. He's going to kill the other counsellors."
Ashley is not swayed. Shepard has worked for Cerberus before, and Ashley has not forgotten.
Udina does a small sidestep behind his human shield, flips open his omnitool. "Look," he urges her, "she's already killed the Salarian Counsellor."
Dalatrass Linron, shouting "No!", a shot, some blunt line from her mouth that is completely out of context. Shepard can only imagine what Udina has managed to cobble together from the truth, and the damage is confirmed by the way Ashley's eyes flicker sideways to the display, and then to her.
"But that's not the way it happened!" Liara insists from behind Shepard, and for the first time uncertainty flashes over Ashley's features. Shepard would say anything to get her way but not Liara. Liara believes in doing the right thing, always has, and Ashley has never known her to lie.
Ashley's dark eyes soften, shift from Shepard to Liara and back again, and for the briefest moment Shepard sees someone else there.
She sees the Ashley Williams she first meets on Eden Prime - that feisty young soldier hell-bent on not looking weak, so determined not to show how shaken she is. She sees Ashley's smile soften as she talks about her family, her sisters. She sees that lush dark hair sliding through her fingers. The hesitant hint of a smile as Ash breathes "this can't end well", even as she wraps her long legs around Shepard's body and draws her in for a crushing kiss. The way Ashley's eyes narrow on Horizon when indeed it hasn't ended well and Shepard is now working for Cerberus. With Cerberus, Shepard insists, which doesn't make a difference to Ashley. The way her breath catches, a little gasp uncomfortably similar to one contained within a previous memory, just before she ends their argument with a stinging slap and walks away, leaving Shepard with both the burden of inevitability and an unwelcome awareness of lingering desire weighing her down.
She sees all of these things at once, and the shifting in those dark eyes makes her think that Ashley is remembering too, how they once were. Shepard thinks that this is the closest to a chance that she will ever get.
"Ash," she tries again, levelling her voice at an intimate pitch to hold their connection. "Ash. Listen to me. There are Cerberus soldiers on their way up, and once those elevator doors open they are going to kill everyone except Udina. Please. Trust me."
She has her, until those last words. Because Ashley doesn't trust her anymore. In spite of their low-pitched and heated discussions at La Huerta Memorial where Ashley was recuperating, in spite of their fumbled attempts for resolution, in spite of those few moments of scorching desire that flared up and dragged them back into that blistering, blinding, fierce territory they once knew Ashley does not trust her anymore.
The Asari counsellor is stepping away from Udina now, towards the other counsellor, agreeing reluctantly that it's unlikely, but not impossible, but Shepard isn't listening to her. Shepard is watching Ashley, who is trying to watch Udina, the Asari counsellor and Shepard all at the same time. Shepard is waiting for a gap to take down Udina.
Udina makes the choice for all of them.
"This is ridiculous," he snarls as he storms back to the keypad to summon a skycab. "She's going to get us killed!"
Ashley tosses a quick glance over her shoulder, adjusts her position to cover him, fixes a now hard stare on Shepard.
"Lower your weapon, soldier!"
Soldier? It's not the time or place, but Shepard's ego flares up like a flashbang. Former gunnery chief Ashley Williams, her little Ash, telling her to back down? Like that? But the thought doesn't serve any purpose, and as with anything that will only get in the way Shepard discards it for the moment.
"Ash " and then Udina fumbles for a weapon, lifts it towards the Asari counsellor
There is no other way. Shepard pulls the trigger once, then again. Udina's head explodes into a million pieces and what's left of him slumps to the ground. Ashley has folded in on herself, dropped down heavily, clutching her midriff. Shepard is a brilliant shot, had aimed for somewhere incapacitating but not fatal but Ashley knows her too well. Ashley saw the shot before it happened, thought she was going for Udina first, and tried to get into the way. As a reward for her reflexes she is now bleeding out on the ground.
"Ash! Damn it!" Shepard drops down at her side, begins to fumble with her armor, begins to rip apart the material and shielding to get to the mess. She is tearing up her hands, her blood mingling with her dying former lover's, and she doesn't care.
Ashley bats her hands aside with weak intent. "Get away from me."
It doesn't surprise Shepard that Ashley doesn't want her near, but it does surprise her that it hurts. "Ash " She finds bare skin, covered in blood and things that shouldn't be there, and presses down. "You should have trusted me. He was Cerberus."
Ashley groans against the pain and her eyes flash. "So were you. I hope the Reapers kill you and send you to hell."
Those are the words that Ashley Williams leaves her with, before her head drops back and she is gone. Shepard reaches up, her hands covered in blood, and cups Ashley's head gently.
She slides her sticky fingers through Ashley's silky hair, rubs her thumbs over the soft temples, leans down. Presses her forehead to the other woman's for a brief weak moment.
There is a hand on her shoulder and she shrugs it off furiously, standing up.
"Shepard " Garrus indicates the elevator door, where a blowtorch is forcing open the metal from the inside.
Kai Leng? Has the assassin finally arrived to finish what he started with the Salarian? She will tear him to pieces. Drawing her Arc pistol Shepard indicates to Liara and Garrus to cover the door, as she steps in front of the two remaining counsellors. But it is Commander Bailey who steps out with two soldiers at his side.
"Bailey?" Holstering her weapon, Shepard advances on him. "Where's Kai Leng?"
"When Cerberus picked up the message that we were on our way they disappeared into the pipes." He indicates the elevator shaft. "We'll find them." Then, his eyes take in the scene behind her. "You saved the counsellors. Thank you, Shepard."
She turns, takes in Ashley Williams' still form, the spreading scarlet of blood, and walks away.
The cost was too high.
Shepard has no idea what she is drinking. She thinks that it might be Serrice Ice Brandy, the bottle she'd been keeping in her cabin to give to Dr Chakwas for her upcoming birthday, but she also thinks she might have mixed it with something else along the way. It tastes like pure alcohol, it burns going down, and she should by all rights already be unconscious, curled up in the shower like the pathetic piece of shit that she is. But oblivion isn't to be had. Just the memories.
That dark hair, spread over her pillow.
It doesn't help that her cabin here looks so much like the one she had before. That here, on this bench where she slumps now, she can still (erroneously) remember Ashley's naked thighs clamping down around hers. It was on the old Normandy, that time, but for Shepard one ship flows into the next, one battle into the next. One lover It's always about to end, and somehow it never does.
I hope the Reapers kill you and send you to hell.
The vehemence of it didn't surprise her. It is precisely why they incited such fire in each other because Ashley Williams demanded honour in everything, and Jane Shepard simply demands what she wants. And even as those last harsh words cut through her, slide right into the heart of her, she is absurdly proud that Ashley went out fighting.
But she shouldn't have gone out at all. If Shepard had always been truthful. If Shepard had always been fair. If Shepard had always put the greater good before her own demands, then Ashley might have believed her. Ashley might have lived. But Shepard is none of these things. Shepard does none of these things. Shepard is a half-machine half-heart half-hero who will save the world - whatever it takes.
And this time it took Ash.
Shepard takes another sip she is not getting any drunker, it would appear, but that doesn't stop her from trying and slams the bottle down on the small table, scattering the chess set. It was only a couple of days ago that she played a game with Comms Specialist Samantha Traynor at this very table, though it feels like a different lifetime. A time with Ash in it.
Traynor had tried to up the ante, had offered a couple of sly double-entendres that had made Shepard laugh, but she had not taken the bait - though she had wanted to, and very much indeed at that. The way Traynor's lips curve at the ends, the intentional glimpses of her caramel-coloured cleavage every time she leaned forward to make her move, the incongruence between her smooth elegant accent and the content of her conversation Shepard had visions of pinning her on that table, scattering the game pieces, finding out what that cool voice sounded like in the throes of desire. Of letting Traynor explore the shower she so admired, while Shepard explored the things she admired instead.
She'd thought about it, and she knew Traynor could see she was thinking about it, and in the end she had bitten down on that desire and walked the woman out, clenching her teeth in frustration and with some appreciative amusement as Traynor brushed firmly against her on the way.
She couldn't. It wasn't at all that she yearned for Ashley they had been apart for years, had only seen each other briefly before the accident that had put Ashley in hospital, and what they'd had couldn't ever be sustained. Wasn't anything like love but seeing Ashley reminded Shepard that she couldn't do that again. Couldn't use the idolization that came with being Commander Shepard to get entangled with another eager participant. Another woman who would submit and reciprocate and eventually walk away broken and angry, because the great Commander Shepard is single-minded, unapologetically mercenary, and empty.
Her life isn't made for anything lasting. Every time she leaves the Normandy it is in full armour, various weapons strapped to her body, ready to solve conflicts that more often than not end in bloodshed. Her kill count is absurdly high, so high that when the Krogan warrior Wrex sees her, his first words are always "How many have you got, Shepard?" He is a seven-foot warmonger, a vengeful creature designed for battle, his species the most blood-thirsty in the galaxy - and he can't begin to measure his kills to hers. When she comes back from fights her adrenaline levels are through the roof, her heart is pounding in her ears, and all she wants is a naked body bucking beneath hers.
And then comes the next fight.
Ashley happened back when she still thought she could be more. When she thought that one day all the fighting would end and she would be able to relax. Sit down. Knit? She doesn't know what the hell she thought she'd do when that day comes, because she's only good at three things, and a hobby isn't one of them. Entanglement seemed okay when she still had aspirations of being a person outside the persona.
Turns out that there will never be a day like that.
Now that she knows there's nothing beyond this, now that she is aware she will always be Commander Shepard who is meant to be more of an idea than a reality, she doesn't think it fair to draw someone else into that. Who really wants to be nothing more than an adrenalin-fuelled post-gunfight life-affirming fuck? Well, there are those people it comes with the name, she's seen some alarming fan mails even though Traynor manages to block most of them but she is way past thinking it has anything to do with her.
What they want is a piece of the legend. What she wants, she can't have. It's not what she's made for.
Dr Liara T'Soni.
"I don't need company, Liara." Shepard reaches for the bottle and takes another swig.
The hydraulic hiss of the door confirms that Liara has either not heard her, or has heard her and has chosen to ignore her. Shepard's money is on the second. Years ago, when they met just after Ashley Williams joined the squad, in fact Liara was tentative, soft and quiet. Now she is a little harder, a little more difficult to shake, a lot more insistent, and Shepard has had a part in that. It's not a good thing. It rankles that she has been the biggest part of disillusioning the Asari archaeologist; that she has played such a pivotal role in gradually wearing down Liara's gentle nature.
"There you are."
She doesn't bother to turn her head the sudden diminishing of light from the fish tank tells her that Liara is standing at the foot of the stairs.
"I told you I don't need company."
"I heard you. I just didn't agree."
"It doesn't work like that," Shepard snaps, and then shakes her head. "If you have to intrude, then at least sit down. Stop hanging over me like a nursemaid. You're making me nervous." Realising that she is sprawled over the seat she struggles into a sitting position in the corner, eyeing the Asari balefully.
Liara perches on the edge, her posture always so very proper, and glances at the table. "Ice Brandy?"
"I suppose." At the confused look she elaborates. "There might be something else mixed into it. It tastes like shit." Irritation wins out. "I don't know, Liara. What does it matter?"
"I'm just trying to establish whether we need to get your stomach pumped," Liara retorts.
There is a moment when annoyance wars with amusement, and then the latter wins out. "No. We're good."
"Good." Liara's eyes take her in, from her shoulder-length dark hair matted at the temples where she has run her bloody hands through it to her stained undershirt, to the heavy boots she never bothered to take off. "Here."
To Shepard's surprise the Asari is suddenly at her feet, kneeling, as she begins to unsnap the boot links.
"I can do that myself," she protests with very little vigour.
"Yes, I know. But I'd like to help you." A gentle hand behind her knee lifts first her one foot from its confines, and then the other. Liara remains on the floor, looking up at her. "Shepard. You're covered in blood."
"Ashley's," she says before she can stop herself, and her chest heaves with pain before she manages to tamp it down. She knows from the expression on the Asari's face that the other woman has caught the moment.
"I think you should have a shower." Rising, Liara holds out her hand and Shepard grasps it, pulls herself up before she has even thought about it.
"I don't want "
"It will make you feel a little better. Come on." And so she is led by the hand up the stairs, as if she is a child and not the fear-inducing super-special pain-in-the-ass-icon Commander Jane Shepard. She is stood by the shower and undressed, her bloody clothing slipped off her leaden limbs gently and efficiently, and herded under the nice hot water. She stands, passively, tired, as careful fingers massage shampoo into her scalp and rinses her hair smoothly.
"You need to do the rest." The soap is pressed into her palm, her fingers closed around it.
She lifts her hand, mechanically begins to wash herself. She has done this when she is exhausted, when she is hurt, when she is near asleep on her feet. This much she can do.
"Don't forget to wash behind your ears." There is a smile in the voice.
"I'm not a child." It's a childish petulant retort that she can't stop.
"No, not always."
The door has closed behind Liara, but Shepard hears it. It's a challenge. Reaching out she slaps the door sensor and waits for it to open, to reveal the Asari waiting outside. She stands there, silently, until Liara finally turns to look at her.
"I'm anything but."
The tone of her voice deliberately invites it, the involuntary glance from Liara that takes in her slick naked body. A surprising wave of lust rises in those eyes before Liara flushes slightly a charming purplish hue on her blue skin and looks away.
"Finish up." There is an unusual heaviness in that customarily smooth voice.
The breath catches in Shepard's chest. She is watching as the Asari looks anywhere but at her. Wondering whether the light-headedness is from the alcohol or something entirely different, she slowly runs the soap over her breasts. Circling, over and over. "Liara "
Peripheral vision is a bitch. Liara is facing the fish tank, her face angled down slightly, and her jaw muscles are jumping wildly. Shepard knows that Liara can see her. She watches the elegant profile as she touches herself, the restraint in those even features, and she wants more than anything to be someone else. Someone who deserves more.
The Asari looks down, seems to be mulling over some decision, and then turns to her. "Stop that. This isn't the right time, Shepard. Ashley "
" is dead." Shepard finishes flatly. "I'm aware. I shot her. I don't need to be reminded, Liara. Right now what I need is to forget."
She thinks that Liara will walk away from her. It would be the right thing to do, and oddly enough Shepard wants her to walk away just as much as she wants her to step into the shower. She doesn't enjoy ambivalence, is not at all comfortable with holding two wishes at once. Shepard always knows exactly what she wants. So she finds it almost unbearable when Liara pins her with those blue eyes and then steps in, beginning to undo her jacket under the spray, and she notices uneasiness mingling inextricably with the desire. She can't tear her eyes away from the loosening buttons, from the slow revealing of smooth blue skin, and she feels like she can't breathe anymore.
"Liara " She hates that tone of uncertainty. Hates it. "I don't think I want this after all."
It's just more pain.
Liara's hands don't stop. She undoes the last button, her fingers slipping on the wetness of the surface, and then the jacket slides off her shoulders to the floor with a slick thud. Her skin is beautiful, almost luminous; her breasts full.
"I don't think you know what you want right now." It's gentle, but final, and then Liara is pressed up against her. Hands roam her hips, her waist, her lower back. "Let go."
She can't stop her own calloused hands from running over the cool foreign skin. Wants to step away, but there's nowhere to run. Their faces are so close together that she can feel Liara's breath on her mouth. She's so going to fuck this up.
"I'm going to hurt you."
The Asari leans in, her mouth brushing so lightly over Shepard's that she can't be sure she didn't just imagine it, and then runs her mouth over Shepard's jaw, up to her ear. Gooseflesh ripples over Shepard's body, and she shudders involuntarily.
"I'm an adult. Let me make my own decision."
Her mouth flits over Shepard's ear lightly, and then travels down her neck. Her skilful hands are stroking Shepard's back, caressing her sides, barely slipping over the edges of Shepard's breasts, and Shepard knows that not for the first time she is on the verge of losing a fight. She clenches her hands where they are splayed on Liara's back.
The Asari leans back and catches her gaze, holds it intently. "Shepard. Let go."
She's lost, in any case. Has nothing left to hold onto. Throwing her head back she invites that warm mouth back to her throat, groans against the almost-painful nips, lets herself be pinned up against the wall and overtaken bit by bit. She does not know when Liara divests herself of her final items of clothing, only that the feel of skin on skin sends her spinning, completely undoes her. Shepard looks over the Asari's beautiful form, and when she closes her eyes Ash is also there, sliding a hand up her inner thigh, brushing their breasts together urgently.
"You're insatiable. One of these days you'll kill me."
Her hands move down from the wall where they've been pushed, grasp rounded hips and pull them closer before Liara's hands grip hers and lever them back up above her head again. Their fingers entangle and Shepard pushes forward, flips them, traps Liara with her body.
She doesn't expect the Asari to use biotics here, like this. A blue glow briefly flares, and then she is back against the wall, the metal cold on her back and the skin covering hers suddenly hot.
Shepard briefly grapples for dominance, unwilling to be denied, but she is tired and drunk and no match for a determined Asari biotic. It feels as if Liara is everywhere, her hands skilled and just a little rough, and Shepard is fast burning up on the inside. She remembers long dark hair spread over strong shoulders.
It's no more than a breath. Liara rises, her eyes pure black.
And Shepard does, letting go, opening up as Liara takes her over and over.
She wakes up from the dip in the mattress as the Asari sits down on the side, opens sticky burning eyes to a beautiful naked blue back marred ever so slightly by a series of parallel scratches.
Liara slides her jacket back on, covering the evidence. "Shhh. Go back to sleep, Shepard."
"I " Her body is tender. She remembers very little, and what is there is urgent and angry and sad. "I'm sorry."
Liara buttons her jacket and then turns to look at Shepard. Her eyes are soft. "There's absolutely nothing to be sorry about, Shepard. Go back to sleep. You need some rest." She reaches out, her hand almost cupping the soldier's jaw, and then Shepard pulls back just a little. She's not sure what this is, and uncertainty isn't her forte.
With a slight smile Liara stands. "Go back to sleep."
Shepard doesn't think she can, but just after Liara walks up the steps she closes her gritty eyes and spins back down; into memories of Ash, visions of Liara, and then a final blessed darkness.
This is what it's like to be Commander Jane Shepard, hero of the Citadel, saviour to some, very bad news to others:
You strap on your dented and scratched armour. It looks battered but is in perfect shape, functionally speaking. You check and then strap on your weapons, whichever of the myriad of deadly things you foresee yourself using today. You pick a team, you get on the shuttle, you give a rah rah speech if you feel it's necessary. You tell them what they can do (We'll go in there and show them who they decided to mess with!) but not what they can't (Don't die. You're the closest thing to family). You slap a few backs, punch a few shoulders, and grit your teeth.
When the doors open you do what you're there to do. You get closer to death every minute than most will be their entire lives. You cajole, intimidate, fight and kill. Whatever it takes. When you are on the battlefield and you look over your shoulder, see your team still standing, your sense of relief has to do with nothing more than the success of the mission.
Once your mission has been dealt with you are extracted, usually by the shuttle. When you're sitting on that bench, taking stock of the results, taking stock of how much damage has been done, your sense of relief has to do with other more personal things. If everyone is alive you go on as normal. You slap a few backs, punch a few shoulders, make a speech. If someone is dead, you go on as normal. You punch a few walls. Grit your teeth. Make a speech.
When you get back to the armoury you clean your weapons and your armour, do damage control for whatever shit your mouth has landed you in, assess how much missing blood or flesh is too much. You punch a few shoulders, slap a few backs, talk some smack, discuss the next options. You go to the med bay (under duress, but for some reason you can't say no to Chakwas), or the crew deck, or the command centre, and you set the next course of action.
Then, you take the elevator to the top floor. You walk into your cabin, dropping gear as you go, check your personal messages, turn on the horrible repetitive music that seems to be your only choice. When the knock comes you either invite the Asari in, or you tell her to go away, and she either complies or she doesn't.
Sometimes you just get to it, depending on how high your blood is running, get her out of her clothes as fast as possible and forget yourself in her. Sometimes you sit down and pour some drinks, show her a list of the newest diplomatic hoops you have to jump through, and listen attentively as she lays out pitfalls and advantages. You liked Liara long before you wanted her, and the two things are separate. The capable hands that flip through data, pointing out strategies, aren't the same as the gifted hands that push you up against the wall. The mouth that is so serious when she's thinking an issue through isn't the same as the hot mouth that hungrily traverses your body.
You like to think that you are dominant. That you are driving the choices made here, as much as you drive them outside this door. But it cannot be denied that sometimes you start out raging and end up placid and sated, and sometimes you start out cool and end up sweat-covered and shaking. You like to think that you are always in control, even while you acknowledge the hubris of that attitude, and by rights it should worry you that someone else is pulling your strings so easily.
It does worry you increasingly that you're not more worried.
And then, when whatever has transpired is done, you watch as the Asari leaves with a hip-rolling and smooth gait that you are only now beginning to notice is quite mesmerizing. You don't always go to sleep broken nightmare-filled nights are a staple so sometimes you go back up to the Command Centre, stand on the bridge, watch the Galaxy map shimmer as you plan for the next day.
Then, you strap on your dented and scratched armour, clean your weapons, and spit in fate's face all over again.
Liara ducks as another bullet whizzes past her head so close, that time and then chances a quick glance around the metal wall her back is pressed against. The old ship's deck is crawling with lurching husks, weaving marauders, grotesque cannibals, and in the background the heart-sinking outline of an approaching Brute. Off the side of the ship the gunmetal grey ocean thrashes violently.
No sign of Shepard.
One of the husks explodes with an ugly pop and she twists back behind cover, looks to her side to see a pleased grin flash over James Vega's face before his brow furrows. "Where the hell is she?"
Liara ducks back out, carefully aims, watches as a marauder's head recoils sharply. She pops up a stasis field in front of two stumbling husks, briefly closes her eyes as James finishes off a cannibal with a carnage blast, gauges the distance of the Brute, and slips back behind cover.
"This isn't good." She knows she isn't voicing anything new, but she's worried and she has to say it. "She should be out by now."
James nods his agreement. "I knew this was a bad idea." He twists from behind cover, takes out something, and comes back with a scowl. "Shit, there's another Brute coming."
She doesn't say anything. Doesn't have to. Brutes are bad news. They're huge, massively strong, and they have a tendency to charge. One is a handful, even for two squad members. Two? That's a problem. Leaning out of cover Liara takes out two husks with her pistol, watches as James destroys one with a carnage blast and shoots another in the head, and then she warps the last one with a sharp biotic blast from her fingertips.
She is about to take a shot at the nearest Brute when there is an explosion of water and the Mech pops out of the ocean onto the deck with a hard mechanical clunk. The cover lifts with a hydraulic hiss to reveal Shepard slumping inside, and even from here Liara can tell that the Commander is alarmingly pale. Shepard moves slightly, shifts as if to climb out of the big Mech, and then simply falls forward onto the metal floor. Behind her the Mech hisses, rattles, and then falls straight backwards into the water. Pushing herself to her knees, Shepard tries to rise, lurches forward a few steps, and then drops down again.
Shepard is back. Shepard hasn't died in a watery grave, thousands of meters under the ocean among mysterious ancient creatures. Shepard isn't moving, but she's where Liara can reach her.
Of course, Shepard is also lying directly in the path of the approaching Brutes, and they've both just expressed an interest in her unmoving body.
Can't things ever be simple in Shepard's world?
Liara hears James' shouted "Shepard!" as she ducks from cover and begins to run, in a desperate race with the two hulking Brutes. It's not a race she can win, no matter how fast she is, because she is nowhere near close enough and the two beasts are already looming over that alarmingly still figure.
There is no explanation for what happens next. One of the Brutes lifts its arm, ready to smash Shepard into pieces, and the other turns and blocks it. They begin to grapple, two huge beasts suddenly at odds, and without giving it further thought Liara slides in under their thrashing limbs, wraps an arm around Shepard and levers her up. The Commander is not a complete dead weight, though her heavy stumbling and white-knuckled grip on her midriff aren't exactly helping. There is a roar and a heavy thump behind them, and then James is in front of them, hoisting Shepard's other arm over his shoulder as he shoots at an approaching marauder. They drag her into the shuttle between them and James picks off one last husk as Cortez lifts off. In the background the Brute is now charging at a group of cannibals, tossing them aside like kindle.
"What the hell was that?" James spits out, confused.
Liara doesn't care. Shepard is lying in front of her, a trail of blood leaking from her nose down her cheek, and her face is so pale that she looks almost blue. Clasping her icy cheeks between trembling hands, Liara leans down.
"Shepard? Goddess, she's freezing!"
James bends over her, running a medigel. "Come on, Shepard. Come on."
Nothing. Liara leans closer, puts her ear to Shepard's faintly blue lips. She's not sure if she imagines the faint puff of warm air just because she wants to feel it so desperately. "Come on, Shepard," she begs as she slides her hands up over the still woman's hair, cups her head. She presses her forehead to Shepard's and immediately sits back up as she realizes that this is how Shepard said goodbye to Ashley.
It's a hoarse whisper, and then suddenly Shepard jolts back to awareness, her limbs jerking as she comes to. "I'm okay," she snaps as she sits up, but it's clear from her drained face that she almost goes right back down again. Between them Liara and James manoeuvre her to the bench seat tactfully and then both withdraw immediately. They know her so well by now. She rubs shaking hands over her face, smooths back her hair, and begins to tell them about Leviathan as if she hasn't almost just died. And they listen as if she hasn't almost just died.
They watch the screen, the strange scene playing out all around them. Everywhere they look enemies are attacking each other, instead of focusing on their little shuttle as it moves unhindered towards the Normandy.
With that on their side the war is one step closer to well, not won. It's never that simple with Shepard. But one step closer to realistic, maybe.
With that on their side Shepard is one step closer to maybe, perhaps, conceivably not ending up dead this time.
The door hisses open without any announcement, telling Shepard all she needs to know.
"I'm not good for anything right now," she mumbles, burrowing deeper into her blanket to still the chills. Chakwas wanted to keep her in the med bay for observation. She didn't want to stay. For once, she won the fight.
"I don't want anything." The bed dips as Liara sits down on the side. "Are you in there?"
Feeling hands on the mountainous heap of blankets covering her, Shepard pokes her head out unwillingly, to be met by the pleasant sight of the muscles shifting under Liara's skin as the Asari pulls her shirt over her head.
"Shepard, please keep quiet and go to sleep. Let's skip all of the repartee about sex that I'm sure you're just desperate to enter into." Liara isn't taking any prisoners today.
"Enter into?" Shepard tries for a lurid laugh, but a shiver overtakes her, twinging the muscles in her tender back just a little.
"Keep quiet." The blankets shift, send a slight gust of air over her skin, and then the Asari's skin is against hers, their bodies curved together. Wrapping an arm around her, Liara rests her cheek against Shepard's shoulder. "There."
Shepard has felt perpetually cold since they've come back from the Leviathan mission. The heat that now subtly begins to infuse her leaves an almost tingling sensation. "Liara?" She tries to look over her shoulder, but their position makes it impossible. "Are you using biotics on me? Again?"
"Yes." The soft breath on her ear sends shivers of a different kind skittering down her spine. "Relax, Shepard. Try to get some sleep."
She lolls in that space between sleep and wakefulness for a while. She's warm, safe, and comfortable, which in her world isn't all that common. Liara is coiled around her, a wave of gently rolling heat. She wonders if the Asari is asleep just before the other woman softly speaks.
"You said my name."
Shepard is almost too lazy to speak. "What are you talking about? I say your name all the time."
"Yes, but you said my name on the shuttle. After Leviathan."
"Of course I said your name. You were there, and that's what you're called." She knows exactly what Liara means, but she refuses to give in so easily.
Liara knows she knows, and Liara still isn't taking prisoners today. "You said my name, Shepard. Not Ashley's."
"She wasn't there, remember?" she mumbles into her pillow, but they both know that Liara won't fall for the manipulation, and that she's already lost this fight.
There's a soft kiss to her shoulder. "Okay. No discussion."
"Too late." Her sulkiness elicits a half-chuckle.
She lies there, caught between this warmth she had never imagined she would want so much, and something infinitely more uncomfortable, until she almost can't breathe. Releasing the hand that she has unconsciously, she will maintain pulled to her chest, she rolls over to face the Asari.
The other woman shifts back ever so slightly to look her in the eyes.
"Liara " It wouldn't have hurt to say this a year ago. "I don't have anything to give you."
She wouldn't have wished that she did, a year ago.
Liara looks into her eyes for a long time, searchingly, and then smiles gently. "I haven't asked you for anything, Shepard."
"But you can't not want anything! You're worth more than me." Even as she says it she cringes, but it's out and she can't take it back. What if Liara agrees? She and her big mouth.
But Liara apparently doesn't agree. Liara looks at her, that solemn big-eyed look that gets her every time. "I want you, Shepard. However much of you I can have. And if this is it, then this is it."
Shaking her head, Shepard scowls. "This can't be it!"
Never get into a verbal sparring match with an Asari. They have centuries of experience, and that's what they come up with. Infuriating.
"Damn it, Liara." Shepard sits up and grimaces, gathering the blanket to her fleetingly exposed chest. Not because of modesty she has very little of that - but because without the warm body curled around hers the chill comes crawling back almost immediately.
"You've got to want more."
"Why shouldn't you? You deserve more, Liara!"
Propping up her head on her hand, Liara looks up at Shepard, her eyelashes throwing dark shadows under her eyes. "What should I want, Shepard? Forever?"
"Isn't that a ridiculous notion, when you consider the disparity between our lifespans? Your entire existence is but a tenth of mine. What is forever to you is just a blip in my life cycle."
"A blip? I'm just a blip?" Shepard is hurt. Irrationally so, she is well aware, and she doesn't give a damn.
"Not you. Your lifespan. Don't obfuscate the issue." Liara reaches out, runs a finger over Shepard's arm briefly, and then pats the bed. "Lie down. You're getting cold again."
"Your entire back is exposed, and you're shivering. You're not fine."
She sulks, but she lies back down. Reaching over, Liara pulls up the blanket to under her chin, and then traces the line of her cheekbone gently.
"Of course I want forever, Shepard, but unless it's with another Asari, that's simply not possible. We've had to develop different ways of seeing the world, and our place within it. I have never had any illusions that you and I would grow old together. Even if you survive every single crazy suicide mission you invariably get yourself involved in," her touch stills for a moment, "and even if you did want to spend the rest of your life with me, sheer biology would win the day." Her fingers linger over Shepard's mouth, tracing the curve of the upper lip.
"I have to live for the moment, Shepard, and this is the moment I've chosen to live for."
Shepard closes her eyes against the gentle touch, turns her face, and kisses Liara's hand softly. When next she looks at Liara, her expression falls somewhere between wistful and teasingly exasperated.
"So I'm just a one-night stand to you, Dr T'Soni."
"Mmm." Liara's eyebrows twitch. "But what a night."
James doesn't turn to the procurement station, where Liara has positioned herself. His impressive triceps bunch and release rhythmically as he dismantles his semi-automatic rifle and then puts it back together mechanically at the weapon bench.
"Somethin' I can help you with?" James adds a little upswing at the end of every question. For Liara, this creates an image of shyness that is charmingly at odds with his massive bulk and brash attitude.
"I placed an order for a stabilizer a couple of days ago. They were out of stock, but " She taps the interface, scrolls through a screen, and finds what she is looking for. "Ah. Marvellous."
"The five millions screens in your office aren't connected to the interface?" His laconic delivery makes her smile.
"Yes, at least one of my five million screens can indeed easily access the procurement interface, but I do enjoy stretching my legs every now and then."
He makes a vague sound, something that indicates both agreement and amusement, and cocks the weapon. "Couldn't sit in there staring at all those screens the whole day myself either. Would drive me nuts."
Click. Unclick. James is an experienced and effective soldier, but sometimes Liara can't see him as anything but a small boy with a crew-cut, playing with his favourite toys.
Logging off the interface she closes it and turns to the elevator, ready to return to her cabin.
Click. "Doc?" Unclick.
She turns. His back is still to her, but he's stopped moving.
"You and the Commander " He turns to face her, leaning back against the weapon bench. "Uh " Liara knows how little James likes sensitive discussions, so when he folds his burly arms she knows it's just one more sign of his extreme discomfort. However, understanding his reaction doesn't automatically make her more amenable to the topic.
"Yes?" She leaves it purposefully open. He'll have to work for whatever it is he's looking for.
For a moment he looks much like a startled rabbit, his brown eyes widening before he can compose his expression. "Y'know." He looks away and back again. "You really think it's a good idea?"
She folds her arms in turn, cocks her head. "Do I really think what is a good idea, James?"
He looks down, reaches up to rub his neck, and then shakes his head. "Aw hell." Liara can't help the slight smile that flits across her face, and when he catches it his mouth twitches at the corner for a moment. "Doc look, I saw the way you were looking at her in the shuttle. And when she looks back at you, it's look, don't get me wrong, it's muy caliente " Machismo slinks in for a moment when he remembers who he's supposed to be. "But with this war I just don't know that it's a good idea."
Liara walks closer and rests a hip against the counter. "Do you think I'm distracting her?"
"No. Well yeah, sure but not in a bad way. She's a little less stressed, if you know what I mean." He grins and then immediately winces. "Sorry, Doc, me and my big mouth. I don't mean anything by it, you know?"
"James, I don't understand what you're trying to say."
"I'm just " He shrugs and drops his gaze to the floor. "Worried someone might get hurt."
"I see." Looking away from him, Liara studies the interior of the armory thoughtfully. "We're getting hurt out there every day, James."
"Yeah, but that ain't the same. Bruises and broken bones heal, y'know but hearts " He is blushing ever so lightly. "Well, they don't always shake it off."
Liara is absurdly touched by the sentiment she would never have thought this big man had.
From the moment that James first set his huge boots on the Normandy, it's been speculated that he has a crush on Commander Shepard. His glances are undisguisedly admiring, his comments sometimes fall just this side of indecorum, and he is as crushed as a kicked puppy when she does not pick him to accompany her on missions. In a way, this has always comforted Liara, because she knows that with him Shepard's safety will always come before his own.
But now, it seems to be a problem.
"James, I know you've always felt a certain way about Shepard," she begins cautiously, "but I can assure you "
"A certain way? You mean " he interrupts, and then grins to himself. "Aw hell, doc, I just talk that way. It doesn't mean anything. Sure she fills out a uniform like nobody's business, and she hits like a freaking tank, which I like in my women " His blush climbs a little, and he shakes his head to get himself back on track. "Okay, so she's damned near perfect, but if she gave me the time of day I'd run a mile. I'm comfortable enough in my manhood to say I sure ain't tough enough for all of that. And besides she's got you."
Liara grins briefly at what amounts to lyrical waxing in James, and then cocks her head. "James, so what exactly is your point?"
"This war, it's not going really well for us, you know?" He shrugs his massive shoulders. "Shepard, she's done some pretty damned amazing things to try and shift this our way, and little by little she's changing the direction, but it's a mess out there. She nearly died with this Leviathan mission, and that's just an everyday thing for her. I nearly burst out of my skin when she fell out of that mech, so I can't even imagine how it felt for you. I mean, we all know she's damned impressive, but even Shepard can't stop the Reapers with the force of her will, and the chances of it ending well " Dropping his head, James sighs. "It's not my place to say anything. I should have kept it to myself. It's just y'know this'll probably only lead to more heartache."
With as gentle a smile as she can muster, Liara reaches out and puts a hand on his forearm. "James, I appreciate your concern, and I would never do anything to hurt her. Not consciously, at least."
She has already turned away when he responds. "Doc?"
This time she doesn't turn back, just stays where she is. "Yes, James?"
"I'm not worrying about Shepard. I'm worrying about you."
Chaos. Burning buildings, burning bodies, screaming soldiers. The metallic buzz of the Reaper's beams as they pass by; the sizzling hiss as they slice through limbs. More screaming.
Shepard hunkers down behind an abandoned Mako and wipes blood out of her stinging eyes. "Liara, James, you okay?"
To her left the huge Marine nods, a sharp brief motion. To her right, Liara repeats the motion, her blue gaze focused on something nobody else can see.
"We're going for the beam. Three, two " and then they are running. Ahead of them, their target the blue beam that should take them up into the Citadel where they can connect the final piece of the puzzle; where any one of them will have to figure out how to connect the approaching Crucible to the Citadel and create the ultimate weapon. Destroy all the Reapers. Save the world.
Right now the Reapers are obliterating them, mowing down their ranks as wave after wave of soldier runs, falls. Dies. Shepard ducks her head to let a piece of shrapnel fly by harmlessly, and chances a quick look over her shoulder at her team. She wouldn't have done that a year ago. Then, she'd have kept her head low, her legs moving, and worried about the rest afterward. Now, she almost pays for it would serve me right, she berates herself irritably as a Hammerhead in front of them gets caught in a Reaper beam, flips, and comes straight for her. She curses under her breath, slides sideways, skids under the crashing chunk of metal, and turns back just in time to see it come to a juddering halt. Right where Liara and James had been a mere second earlier.
Her heart is pounding in her throat as she scrabbles back, ducking another hurtling projectile, and skids around the side of the Hammerhead. James is rising haltingly, one hand pressed to his ribs. There is a bloody gash down the right side of his face that will leave a scar he'll likely be proud of. From the steady stream of cursing she has to infer that though bruised and battered, he's going to be just fine.
But Liara Shepard moves past James, patting his shoulder as he waves her off with a grimace, and drops into the mud where the other woman is hunched over, crumpled.
When the Asari looks up her blue eyes are almost all pupil. She's clutching her midriff rigidly.
"Liara." Shepard slides a hand under Liara's arm and tries to lever her up gently, gritting her teeth against the pain in the Asari's face. "Come on." Sliding a gentle hand around Liara's waist, Shepard switches on her omni-tool. "Normandy! Come in! I need an extraction!"
"Aye aye, Commander coming in for extraction now," Joker's disembodied voice responds.
James stumbles to Liara's other side and pulls her arm over his shoulder, and between them they drop back. It's not long before the Normandy touches down behind them and the hatch opens. Garrus and Tali storms out, covering the three of them as they limp up the ramp. Halfway to the top Shepard stops, steps away from her squad members and turns, looks at the blue beam and then back at the rapidly paling Asari.
"I have to go."
"Shepard," Liara interrupts urgently, "I'm all right. I'm all right."
Even if the rapidly spreading blood stain didn't make a liar of her, Liara's death-grip on James' broad arm certainly would.
"You're not. Get to the med bay." Shepard holds out a cautioning hand as James beckons to Garrus to take Liara. "You too, James."
He opens his mouth to complain, catches her concerned glance at Liara, and changes his mind promptly. "Okay."
"Good. Now go." Shepard takes one last look at Liara What can she say? This is exactly what she didn't want to happen and then turns back to the carnage. She has taken four steps when Liara's panicked voice reaches out to her.
One foot in front of the other. Just go. That's the way it happens.
Maybe a year ago.
Now? Now there's no fighting the compulsion that makes her turn back, walk up the ramp, lay a dirty blood-covered hand on her lover's cheek, stare deeply into wretched eyes.
"Liara, whatever happens know that I will always love you." She holds Liara's brimming gaze for a moment, and then leans in for a soft kiss. For the briefest moment she rests her forehead against the Asari's before she steps back.
One last glance at the big soldier propping her up, one last look to convey her final orders to him, and then she turns her back and starts running.
"Everyone's gone. Everyone." Admiral Steven Hackett's emotionless voice cuts through the tense silence hanging like a pall in the Normandy.
In the med bay Liara folds in on herself, finds strong arms around her, James and Dr Chakwas cradling her between them as they lower her to the floor.
"Shepard," she keens, broken, beyond caring about decorum.
"I've got you, Liara. Damn it, Shepard. I've got you," James mumbles against her temple, his voice thick, and she can feel the warmth of tears falling on her skin.
Just give up. You should be dead anyway. Should have been years ago. Just stay here. Give up.
The buzz of that last Reaper beam - the one that came too close resonates in her skull as if it's still happening, and she jerks, snaps her head up.
Wishes that she didn't.
She's been bruised before, shot before, stabbed before. She even died once.
This is so much worse.
She can't tell what the damage is. More accurately, she can't tell what's not damaged. Her entire body is engulfed in throbbing agony, fire from nerve ending to nerve ending, and she wishes she were dead right about now. The slightest shift of muscle and she can feel herself on the verge of throwing up. Passing out.
She lifts her head a little more, gritting her teeth against the tempting lure of unconsciousness, and there it is. The beam, right within her grasp. That is, if she were theoretically capable of grasping.
You're dead anyway. Just lay down your head and give in. You're not getting out of this one.
"But Liara can."
She can't hear herself. Realizes that she can't hear anything. There's just the muffled silence that tells her the last beam was way too loud. Clearing her throat she steels herself and begins the slow agonizing process of standing up. Her left arm isn't cooperating; her right leg is numb and weak; her vision swims incessantly. This time she doesn't do her usual physical inventory. No place for the truth. She's choosing to believe what she wants to, and so she unclips the pistol that should be too heavy for her devastated body now by rights, and goes.
One step. Such pain. The litany: You promised Liara forever, Shepard. Make sure she has it. You promised. You promised. Another step. And another. The pain doesn't go, but she manages it, manages to channel it into a consistent stream and push it to the back of her mind. Husks she shoots and the recoil nearly knocks her on her ass. Three down, another step. For just a moment she loses her focus and the pain pulls her breath from her, knocks her to the ground, sends her sprawling in the mud.
Up, grab the pistol, stumble forward. A marauder rises from behind a barrier of dead bodies and points his rifle at her. She sees his hand jerk back, feels the impact in her right side, and squeezes the trigger of her pistol just before she falls backwards. It's so nice lying down, even in the filthy mud. So nice and warm.
I keep my promises.
She pushes herself up, grapples for her pistol, and is gratified to see the marauder lying at an angle across another body, his rifle far enough away from his hand that she's satisfied he's not setting a trap. Just to be sure she takes another shot, gritting her teeth at the fresh waves of pain it sets off.
The beam is there, right there, and if she can just get to it Gathering her last strength she leans forward, stumbles onwards, begins to stagger faster.
"We have to leave!" Samantha Traynor hangs over Joker's seat, her dark eyes following the adept motions of his hands over the navigation panel. "We have to go!"
"I can't leave her I won't " He looks at his screen searchingly, watching in desperation as one ship after another around them is destroyed by the Reapers.
"You heard Admiral Hackett, Joker! I don't want to do this either, but it's done. It's over."
"I " He flips one button, clicks another. "I "
"Someone made it!" Hackett's voice booms through the Normandy. "Someone made it in!"
In the med bay Liara twitches against Dr Chakwas' skilful touch.
Laying a gentle hand on her shoulder James shakes his head. "Doc, we don't know "
But they do. She's always done what she sets her mind to.
"Shepard " Liara breathes. "James, help me up."
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
She's crawled through a mass grave, had a mind-controlling idiot mess with her brain, been forced to shoot someone who was not a friend - but also not a stranger, and bled all over the place as she tried to assemble a mass weapon that Will. Not. Work.
And now she's standing barely at the side of a snotty child made of stars who is demanding that she make one of three impossible choices that will impact the universe forever. She wanted to click the Crucible into the Citadel and BOOM! blow away every last Reaper, and instead she has to stand here and argue the merits of philosophy with a fucking child while she's heading towards death at a brisk pace.
"Damn it all to hell," she mutters, and makes her decision.
It's impossible to explain afterwards in which order things happen after the green glow explodes from the Crucible and races through space, engulfing everything in its path.
There's Hackett's voice, triumphant and just a little unstable: "She's done it."
There are the Reapers, suddenly motionless, their red lights supplanted by a mild green glow.
There's Traynor, her knees buckling as something sweeps through her; there's Steve Cortez, reaching up to touch his face in wonder as his eyes shine a faint red.
There's Liara bursting in behind Joker, yelling that they have to go back and get Shepard; and there's Joker not pausing for a second as he begins to flip switches and turns the ship around.
There's noise, and there's silence; there's chaos and there's stillness; and amongst it all there is suddenly, inexplicably
She's lying on her back, her right leg twisted awkwardly underneath her, and for all the falling debris and the certainty of death she feels as warm and comfortable as she can't remember being in years.
Considering her circumstances, it's a very bad thing.
The Crucible is slowly coming apart, bursting in on itself, and all around it ships are pausing, faltering, stopping. It's pretty, in a weird out-of-body abstract way, and Shepard can feel herself drifting towards the welcome darkness.
One of the roof struts comes loose with a slow groan and drops heavily on the ground a few feet from her, sending a flurry of dust into the air. She doesn't bother to try and move away from it, doesn't bother to turn her head as flecks of ash drift down onto her face.
"Well, this looks like trouble. Now I know what you're going to say, Skipper 'do I look like the kind of girl who asks for help?'" Williams is sitting at her side as if summoned, a slight smile playing around her lips.
"No, Ash, that's you." Shepard takes in those infinitely deep eyes she so loved drowning herself in once. "I'm all for asking for help when I need it. Only, this time it's pointless. I'm fucked."
"I think you may be right, Shepard." Ashley studies the state of her body, and then their surroundings. "Sorry. After everything you had to go through to get here it sucks. I'd drag you out of here if I weren't a figment of your imagination, you know."
"The last time we were together like this I was the one on the floor so hung over - and you were looming over me, threatening to test the fire alarms. Remember that?" Ashley grins. "You were being such a bitch."
The memory brings a wistful smile to Shepard's face. "I remember. But that wasn't the last time. The last time was with Udina, when you died in my arms."
"And I damned you to hell." Looking away, Ashley bites her lip. "Yeah. Okay. You know I didn't mean it, right?"
"Yeah, I know. You always were a hard-ass. I wish you'd just listened to me. But you didn't deserve what you got."
"Hmm." The other woman appears to consider her words for a moment. "What I got? Hey, I got to be a part of history. I got to spend a few powerful months with a heroic, amazing, stubborn-as-all-hell woman who drove me wild when she wasn't driving me crazy. I got to be the second human Spectre, albeit for a few short moments. From where I'm sitting what I got isn't half bad."
"When you say it like that it isn't. Except that I was talking about the way you died."
"Oh." Ashley shrugs. "Well. I died the way I lived: With conviction. I turned out to be totally wrong, of course, but I didn't know that then. That's what counts. You, on the other hand, got exactly what you deserve."
It's irrational to have your feelings hurt by a vision, it really is, but that doesn't stop the words from cutting through Shepard's already shredded body. Ashley's dark eyes alight on her face, on the wince she doesn't bother to hide now, and the other woman's brows contract.
"Shepard. Oh no. Not this. I'm talking about Liara."
"Oh." It's all she can get out.
"You know how I felt about her in the beginning. Thought she was setting us up. And she's so stuck up. And so blue. But the more I got to know her, the more I realized what a good person she was. I mean " She shakes her head with a slight measure of self-deprecation. "Look, I'm not going to gush about little miss alien archaeologist. Point is, she went from a naïve eager girl to a powerful self-assured woman not to a small degree because of you and I respect that. I'd even go so far to say that and if you repeat this, I will deny it on the grounds that I'm dead Liara is the only one who could possibly handle you."
"You always handled me pretty well."
"No, we disagreed and shouted and fought, and then went at it like wildcats. It's not the same thing, Shepard. Liara listens and considers, argues her point and then compromises. She soothes the savage beast, if you will. And she loves you much more than she should. For all the stupid things you've done, you've done a whole lot more that's truly remarkable. And for that you deserve to be happy, at least a little bit."
"Oh." She's beginning to wonder whether this lack of proper words is permanent, or whether it's just because she's haemorrhaging and starting to drift away. Concentrate, Jane. "Sad thing is I wasn't."
"Wasn't what? Happy?"
"Yeah. I was too busy worrying about what was going to . go wrong. Ow."
Ashley's brow contract sympathetically. "That's a lot of blood on the wrong side of your body, Skipper."
Shepard almost laughs before she manages to stop herself.
"That's my girl," the other woman says affectionately. "Always too busy checking for thorns to stop and smell the roses."
"Yeah. I have many regrets." Another strut comes loose and crashes to the floor a few feet from Shepard's legs. She watches absently as flecks of ash puff up into the air and then drift down again. "Looks like this is the end, then."
"Yeah, Skipper." Ashley looks around. "Sure does."
"Listen, Ash " Shepard cannot recall it ever having been this easy. Apparently impending death improves one's communication skills. "Listen. I love you."
She never said it back then, never even thought it, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Hallucination Ashley smiles and reaches out, and Shepard can almost imagine fingers brushing the hair from her forehead. "I know, Shepard. Now do me a favour."
"A lot of people died to get you here. Don't give up now. That would suck."
"Ash that's so unfair."
"I know, but I don't care." Ashley smiles down at her. "I'll do what I have to. And so will you. You always have, and you'll do it again."
Shepard can hear herself breathing, an ugly raspy sound that trickles from her mouth. "Not this time, Williams. I'm done. It's over."
"It's only just beginning." Those phantom hands touching her face again, before Ashley rises and looks over her shoulder at the quiet chaos outside. "Consider your job done, Commander Shepard. Now hold on for your reward, damn it."
"Huh." Shepard grimaces. "I don't have space for another medal."
The slightest grin crosses Ashley's face. "I wasn't talking about a medal, Skipper. I was talking about happiness." With a last fond smile down at Shepard she turns and walks away.
"Captain, my Captain."
Ashley Williams is gone.
Jane Shepard blinks slowly, her eyes getting heavier by the moment, and ponders what it must be to follow Ash down that path. Wouldn't that be some sort of happiness? Wouldn't giving in and letting go be so good?
She thinks of what lies ahead. Of everybody she might see again, presuming such a thing even happens, if she just closes her eyes and lets it in.
Mordin Soulis. Thane Krios. Kelly Chambers. Legion. Steve Cortez. Anderson. Ashley.
And then she thinks about who she'll never see again. Of what she needs to hold on for.
"Here!" Garrus is trying to push a fallen beam out of his way, and also falls when the Krogan appears next to him and lays a shoulder into the heavy object, shifting it almost immediately.
James comes up behind them, his arm wrapped around a limping Liara. "You shouldn't be here. You should have stayed on the Normandy."
"Would you have been able to stay?" She's talking to him, but her eyes keep scanning the debris around them with near panic.
"No. But you can't do anything in this state."
"I'll do what I have to. Garrus, what have you got?"
"Nothing yet, but looks like we should be getting to the " He falls quiet for a moment.
"Garrus?" James cranes his neck to try and see what's going on up ahead. "Problem?"
"I'm not sure. There's " The Turian's voice cracks. "Grunt? Get up here!"
"Garrus?" Liara chimes in, and now they're rushing towards him as fast as they can.
Up ahead, Grunt is straining to lift a large piece of concrete. Looking over at Liara for confirmation James lets go of her arm and rushes in to lend his muscle. Garrus is crouched on the other side of the concrete, his hands somewhere under the jagged edges, and when he spots Liara he motions her closer with a sharp movement of his head.
She hobbles around and almost collapses when she rounds the edge and sees his hand wrapped around limp bloody fingers. Somewhere in there, somewhere under the weight and dust and broken things, is a person. And Liara knows that person is Shepard. She crouches down, groaning at the pain it provokes in her mid-section.
Garrus shifts over. "Here." He almost reverently opens his hands to let Liara take hold of the fingers. "So she knows someone's here. I have to help get this off her."
"I wish I could "
"I know," he interrupts gently, "but you can't. Won't help if we lose you over this too."
Liara sits there, oblivious of the pain, her hands both cradling what they first found of Shepard, and when the concrete block moves a little and reveals more, she moves her one hand up to the pale wrist and then to the torn up forearm.
It takes them a while but they finally get most of the debris off the fallen woman. She is lying on her back; her head to the side, an arm and a leg twisted so badly that they can't be anything but broken, and a sticky black pool of blood drawing an edge around her body. There is dust and wire and so much blood, but above all there is Shepard.
Liara has willed each bit of rubble away, has tried with her waning strength to help lift where possible, and has stretched out her awareness to Shepard's as many times as possible. There is nothing. No warm tendrils of the other woman's mind creeping around her own, no wash of pain, not even a flicker of responsiveness.
Liara wants to hang on as much as anyone else. More so, probably. Wants to believe that Shepard will do the fantastic as Shepard always does. But this time it may be a little too much to ask.
"Give her the medigel," Garrus prompts, his voice tight as he pushes a piece of pipe to one side. "Quickly, Liara."
"I " Liara does as she's told, her vision blurry with tears. "Garrus, I She's "
"Don't," James interrupts shakily. "Another one."
Liara obeys, her heart sinking within her. Finally able to join her, the others drop to their knees at the fallen woman's side. Garrus runs a hand over her legs, hesitating as he gets to the broken bits.
James doesn't touch Shepard. He just sits there on his haunches, his hands balled on his massive thighs. "Liara?" He may be embarrassed by his shattered tone later, but right now nobody cares. They'd all sound the same. "Is she in there?"
She runs a hand over Shepard's cold face, cupping the hollow cheek, mindless of the sticky smears of blood which mar that pale skin. For a moment, nothing, and then She folds double and almost retches, but her hand doesn't move from Shepard's face. Reaching over, James almost touches her shoulder, his broad brow furrowed with concern.
"By the Goddess," she grounds out, almost nothing more than a breath, "there's so much pain." She looks up, and they're all thinking the same thing: Not this time. Maybe not this time.
Then Liara lifts her hand from Shepard's face and tries to rise, with a sideways nod to Garrus when he hikes an arm under hers to help. "Let's pick her up. Let's go."
"Liara, I " Garrus pauses, looks down on the broken body, "we're going to hurt her more if we move her. Are you sure it's worth it for her?" He covers his eyes with one hand and shakes his head. "Is she going to ?"
"We have to try."
That's what she says. What she doesn't say is that somewhere inside that head, somewhere beyond the pain and the muck and the darkness in a place that she can only see in her periphery, there is a word drifting around. It's faint, and it's soft, and it's blurred, but it's there.
"Okay. Here's how it's going to go," Grunt takes over, and they all happily let him. James alternates between carrying Shepard and helping Liara over the worst parts, and it takes them a long time, but Commander Jane Shepard does finally return to the place they all think of as home.
In spite of what once happened there, Horizon was a planet that Shepard always thought beautiful. It is for this reason that the Normandy lands here its final resting place and the remaining crew begin the task of setting up a life that doesn't involve fighting Reapers.
There's no fight left. Shepard made sure of that.
Liara and James sit side by side on a bench, their backs to the buildings slowly being restored, and look out over the hills.
"It's so beautiful here," Liara says with a sigh. "I wish Shepard could see it."
James nods and shoulder-bumps her gently. "Yeah. Me too."
"Hey, make space for me," Shepard interrupts as she squeezes in between them and sits down. "I still have my imagination." She limps, her body is a patchwork of scars, there's still pain most of the time, and Chakwas says her vision will probably never improve beyond the murky blur it is now.
But she is here.
Reaching out, Shepard wraps a hand around Liara's, her eyes fixed in the distance.
"Hey, you could always do that thing you guys are doing together all the time," James begins helpfully, and then blushes a bright red. "I mean, that mind thing with the where you two get together with the merging and the I mean, with the visions that could show you what Aw shit. I'm done."
Shepard chokes with laughter and roughly pats his broad thigh as it passes by. "Attaboy, Vega. Quit while you're behind."
"Yeah yeah," he mutters, mock-sulkily, as he walks away, "I liked you better when you were concentrating on saving the world, Shepard."
"Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it." Shepard tightens her fingers around Liara's and leans into the Asari. "So tell me what the day looks like."
Liara sighs and puts her other hand on top of Shepard's. "Do you want me to show you? I can, you know."
"Nah." Shepard smiles into the heat of the sun. "Like I said, I still have my imagination."
Liara is looking over at Shepard, at her dark hair shifting ever so slightly in the breeze, at the tilt of that obstinate chin, at the way she's thrown back her head as if she doesn't have a care in the world. The prickle of tears shoots into Liara's eyes and she clears her throat. "Why don't you tell me what the day looks like to you instead?"
There's a moment when Shepard tilts her head and Liara knows the soldier can hear the thickness in her voice, and then Shepard sighs. "Rolling green hills, a slight breeze moving through the trees and ruffling the leaves, a crisp blue sky with a feathered cloud here and there. Bright warm sunlight. And "
She pauses, seems to think.
"And?" Liara prompts.
Shepard smiles. "A couple of little blue children, running around just over there."
The sound that Liara makes is somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. Her hands tighten around Shepard's. "Well, four out of five isn't bad."
"Give it time" Shepard murmurs just before she leans in for a slow, soft kiss. Liara runs a hand through the soft hair, taking care not to put pressure anywhere on that banged-up skull, and lets the love wash over her. They have nowhere to run, nothing to fight.
There's finally just this.
Finally, Shepard pulls back with a deep contented sigh and puts her forehead against Liara's.
"We should get back." Liara stares into the eyes so close to her own, eyes that are just a little more distant than before. "You shouldn't be so far from the house."
"Just a little while longer, Liara. It's so nice and warm outside. Will you stay a little while longer?"
There is only one answer. Has always been only one answer.
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