Chapter Two -the Silence in Between
For the first time in weeks, Shepard awoke from a dreamless sleep, completely and utterly content. Ever since she had blown up the Bahak system, she had been plagued by dreams of the dying; waking nightmares were her constant companions in the realm of sleep, introducing towering silhouettes and invading her senses with the overpowering stench of blood and excrement, the strangled cries of faceless victims ringing clearly in her ears. Each new scene that unfurled in her dreamscape brought with it a fresh set of scars seared underneath her flesh, three hundred thousand names inscribed within. If ever she thought that a cosmic balance existed now, she knew without a doubt that her crimes against the batarians far outweighed whatever crime they might have committed against the rest of humanity. Lady Justice would not be on her side this time, as she had been when Shepard had sacrificed thousands of Alliance soldiers to save the Destiny Ascension.
She should not have had to make that second sacrifice. If they had been more prepared, if she had not been so scared, perhaps...
Beside her, Liara stirred, pulling her closer and burrowing her face against the curve of Shepard's shoulder, tickling her out of her grim thoughts. Chuckling, she traced the contour of Liara's nose, making the asari twitch. Mesmerizing blue eyes opened blearily to stare at Shepard curiously. Shepard could feel the lingering tendrils of Liara's mind brushing against hers and flinched, drawing her hand away.
"Is everything alright, Shepard?"
The commander remained quiet, curling her hand close to her chest as she slowly disentangled the rest of her limbs from Liara's. The possibility of joining minds again with her beloved frightened her, especially now when her thoughts were of a darker shade, and lacked the warmth and joy of being in Liara's presence.
"Shepard," Liara spoke in a more forceful tone, tightening her grip on her commander. "You can tell me anything."
"Do you," Shepard whispered hoarsely and faltered. "I hope my mind wasn't so..." She waved her hand weakly, unable to say anything for once. What could she say that did not touch upon her recent guilt? "I hope I did not scare you away with the violence of my past?" No, no. "I hope my mind wasn't so—"
"Overwhelming?" Liara supplied, startling Shepard out of her bitter reverie. Fearful grey eyes flickered upwards to meet fierce blue ones. "I think your mind is beautiful, my love," Liara drawled, capturing Shepard's lips in a brief kiss. Moving her fingers through Shepard's curly dark hair, she continued, "It is so full of compassion, of heady, intoxicating determination, of calculated decisions, of beautiful ideas blossoming under caring hands," —Liara's fingers traced Shepard's jaw, before moving further downwards to caress her scar gently—"of broken memories against a backdrop of misery and tragedy, of mistakes and regrets—your mind is like a vast, unexplored star chart; I might have seen so much from a single glance, but I feel as if I know you less now than I did before."
Shepard's gaze wilted. "Oh."
Liara sighed at her lover's downcast expression. Kissing Shepard's nose, she teased quietly, "Sometimes I wonder if you have selective hearing."
"I just," Liara shook her head and laughed. "I take it, you don't know what a compliment is until I spell it out for you?"
Shepard flushed and mumbled an apology.
"Last night was wonderful." Liara punctuated carefully. "So wonderful in fact, that you are going to make the next few months difficult for me." Before Shepard could misinterpret her words again, she clarified, "I doubt the Alliance allows for conjugal visits."
The captain's cabin seemed so eerily empty—even the fish Shepard used to take care of were missing from their usual place. The display case where Shepard kept her model ships was hidden in a blanket of darkness, its surface peppered with data feeds, communication logs and the occasional blueprint of a ship or a machine component. Before the screen was Shepard's slouched form, her private terminal flickering insistently as new messages appeared in her screen. To the casual eye, the room seemed more like an office than a bedroom, with the couch and bed free of wrinkles, and the armour locker glowing dully from inactivity.
Shepard jerked suddenly from her sleeping position, splotches of sweat staining the floor a dark colour. Her chest rose and fell erratically, as if she had been running for a long time and was out of breath. Her vision darkened, and all she could see were the figures of barren trunks against a stark grey sky. Stumbling out of her seat, she fell gracelessly on the floor, arms stinging from a barely controlled roll. The slight incandescence coming from the fish tank's lights fell across Shepard's dazed expression, turning her skin into a shade of blue.
The mechanical door to her quarters slid open, revealing a concerned Liara who was about to knock. "S-Shepard?"
"Liara, can I help you?"
From her position on the floor, it was hard for Shepard to see just what kind of expression Liara was making. When Liara didn't answer, Shepard prodded with another question, "Am I in trouble?" She paused and found the query absurd. Of course she was in trouble! If she had to ask, then she was merely verifying an already established given. "Forgive me?"
"Sometimes I wonder if your bed serves a purpose other than to look extremely inviting to a subordinate unused to that kind of luxury."
"If you recall, it does serve another purpose, yes," Shepard replied lightly, fondly remembering their first night together prior to her departure for Earth. She caught a glimpse of Liara's blushing expression—apparently she had remembered too—before the asari took several steps forward, hiding her visage from Shepard's piercing grey eyes.
"I do recall," Liara spoke softly, a hint of wistfulness in her dulcet voice. She turned around and offered Shepard a hand, pulling her to her feet. The commander clumsily stumbled into her open arms, fatigue making Shepard bone-weary. "I'm tempted to ravish you right now," Liara whispered huskily, making Shepard shiver involuntarily, "but you're unlikely to satisfy me at your current strength."
"I am perfectly well-rested," Shepard protested.
Eyeing her commander leaning against her taller frame, Liara smirked. "I can see that." Shepard frowned, an irritated blush creeping on her cheeks, prompting Liara to laugh unexpectedly.
"You are incorrigible," Shepard sullenly declared.
"And you are such a child," Liara retorted playfully, leading Shepard to her untouched bed.
A few seconds later, the door whirred and slid open, revealing a young woman in parade rest. "Commander Shepard? I'm Specialist—Oh. Oh!" She took a step back and froze, like a deer caught in the headlights. "I-I beg your pardon. I thought you were alone," she exclaimed before beating a hasty retreat back to the elevator.
Liara buried her face against Shepard's back. "You are going to be the death of me."
Still seated on Liara's lap, Shepard could only shake her head wryly, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter. "EDI, please tell Specialist Samantha Traynor that she may properly introduce herself to me a later time. In the CIC perhaps?"
"I will, Shepard," EDI said amiably. "Would you like me to lock your door in case there are further intrusions?"
"No need, EDI," Liara replied, her voice muffled by Shepard's shirt. She loosened her grip on Shepard, allowing her grinning lover to sit beside her. "That will be all."
Meeting Shepard's adoring gaze, Liara found her agitation ebbing away. "Thank you for brightening my day, Liara," Shepard said warmly.
"Sometimes I wonder if that's enough." Liara frowned at her beloved. "You know, sleep isn't so bad, Shepard. You really should try it sometime. I'm sure our scientists in New Ilos can live without you for a few hours. More than a few hours."
"Hmm." Shepard let her torso fall on the unnaturally soft bed. "This room feels so empty without you."
Liara leaned closer, an arm pressed against Shepard's left side, her face hovering just a few inches away from her beloved's. "Is that an invitation, Shepard?"
Shepard's lips perked in a half-smile. "I wish it were."
Brushing back strands of Shepard's hair with her free hand, Liara asked, "What's bothering you, my love?"
There was a sharp intake of breath, followed by a grimace.
"When I close my eyes, I am dogged by visions of the dying," Shepard confessed finally. "We left so many behind, Liara. Why do we keep leaving so many behind? For the sake of some greater good?" A sigh exploded from Shepard's lips. Tugging at Liara's arm, she turned to her side and wrapped the arm around her shoulder. She felt her XO shift slightly behind her, moving to a more comfortable position, another arm snaking around her waist. "It's so easy to lose yourself in some colossal purpose—so damn immeasurable that you can only see parts of a bigger picture. It's so easy to put your faith in the Crucible, in the Alliance—if I could just be another soldier in this fucking war..." She shook her head fiercely. "No. It has to be me. Someone else will just get it wrong."
"It doesn't mean that you must carry the entire burden yourself."
"I know," Shepard yielded wearily. Lulled by the sound of Liara's even breathing against her ear, Shepard slowly relaxed, the knot of tension in her chest that had plagued her throughout the night dwindling to an insignificant mote in the presence of Liara's radiant affection. She fell into a light slumber, feeling secured in her lover's arms and stirring occasionally as she mumbled some arcane formula or algorithm. Liara, who was content to stay beside her, nestled closer, pressing her chin lightly on Shepard's collarbone.
"Pardon the interruption, Doctor," EDI murmured from the intercom a couple of hours later, sounding genuinely apologetic, "but Rear Admiral Shepard wishes to talk with the commander in her private channel in here."
"I believe that's my cue to leave," Liara said reluctantly, pulling away from Shepard. The commander blinked groggily, watching her beloved stand up and stretch effortlessly through squinted eyes. "I will be in my office if you need me, Shepard."
"Liara," Shepard called.
Eyes turned downcast as Shepard searched for the right words to say, one hand rifling through her hair. Finally, with a bashful grin she said, "I hope you have room in your office." Cloudy grey eyes wrinkled in faint amusement. "Because I think you're the cure to my insomnia."
"Are you implying that I am boring, Shepard?"
"Ah, this is so boring. The tension is killing me," James growled, throwing away the towel he was using to wipe his gun. "Can't we fucking get to Palaven already?"
"Technically, we're heading to Menae," Steve corrected him.
"Whatever, Esteban. I don't need you ruining my day too," James growled, leaning on the other side of the control panel to glare at Steve.
"Because you tried making a pass at the asari earlier and she stonewalled you?"
"I was just being friendly," James protested.
"I don't know, James," a new voice interrupted their light bickering. "With your hulking figure and perpetual grimace, others can take your 'being friendly' the wrong way."
James turned to glower at his superior officer. With any other CO, James knew that he would have gotten a cuff to the ear by now for a blatant show of insubordination, but Shepard was different; Shepard was loco. "Come here to play shrink on me again, Doc?" James asked ironically, bracing his hands against his hips.
Shepard waved his accusation aside and shrugged. "I'm afraid I don't have a Ph.D. for that, James."
"Doesn't stop you from psycho-analyzing me though," James grumbled. "But I suppose I should count myself lucky." At Shepard's raised eyebrow, he clarified, "Coz you'll always be shorter than me."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Shepard asked, punching James's shoulder playfully.
Catching Shepard's hand, James teased, "It means it's easier for me to kiss you."
"I completely agree, James," Liara interjected from the intercom. "And if you do try to prove that point right now, I will shove a singularity so far up your anus, you will be incapable of defecation for, oh, the rest of your short and miserable, human life."
"Ever get the feeling you're being watched, Lola?"
Shepard gently pulled her hand free. "All the time, James."
"Sorry, Blue," James announced. "Your woman's off-limits. Gotcha."
Steve, who had been watching the brief interplay, was bent over, laughing soundlessly. "Be wary of that one, Mr. Vega. Sounds like she meant what she said."
James snorted. "Don't need you to remind me, Esteban." To Shepard he said, "Now that we've filled the 'make fun of James Vega' quota for the day, what is it that you really came here for, Lola?"
Shepard nodded and beckoned for James to follow him. Heading for Kei-9, the Shuttle Bay's newly adopted pet, she squatted and offered the mechanical dog an open palm, making James raise both eyebrows in bemusement. "Are you just here to visit the damn dog, Shepard?" Well, he thought wryly, with Shepard, you don't really know for certain. She could be teaching it tricks, for all I care. Or installing portable lasers while I ain't lookin'.
"I'm not going to Menae," Shepard declared abruptly.
"What? So we're not saving the Primarch after all?" James raised both hands. "Okay. Didn't think you'd have the cojones to piss off the Council like that, but I guess I underestimated your level of loco, Lola."
"I may have a history of insubordination with the Council," Shepard retorted, "but that doesn't mean I'll look a gift horse in the mouth." She tilted her face upwards to look at James gravely. "You and Liara are going to have to extract the Primarch from Menae without me."
"Right-o, then. And I suppose you want me to follow Blue's orders and keep her safe?"
"Just the latter will do," Shepard said reassuringly.
James blinked, masking his surprise with a noncommittal grunt. "You expecting me to lead, Commander?"
"I'm expecting you to find a good friend of mine," Shepard replied evenly. "Goes by the name of Garrus Vakarian. Between the three of you, he has the most experience when it comes to combat situations. Liara will handle the diplomatic stuff, of course."
Remembering the asari's earlier threat, James smirked. "Of course." Offering Shepard a hand, he asked mildly. "And I suppose that leaves me with the toughest assignment of the three?"
"I suppose it's doable," Shepard ceded, taking the proffered hand. "Just keep your helmet on at all times."
James chuckled and saluted, "Aye." He continued to watch Shepard even as the woman retreated to her workstation, her hands moving quickly as she began to dismantle her weapons with surprising speed. She'd also made a point of modifying Liara's and Kaidan's equipment, though she kept a respectful distance from James's weapons locker, a move that James silently appreciated; he liked doing the repairs and modifications himself.
"I hope you don't mind me asking, Lola," he began, leaning against a support beam. "But where the hell are you going if you're not coming with us?"
The silence he received was startlingly unexpected. In the months he had been tasked to keep an eye on the Commander, he had always known her to eagerly jump to an explanation. Heck, there were times when he had entertained the idea of shutting that chattering mouth with a kiss on the lips, a threat he knew he could no longer make with Liara on board.
Grimly, Shepard set aside the M-98 Widow she was servicing—a strange choice of weapon, considering that particular sniper rifle was not meant for human hands—and folded her arms, her gaze sombre. "I'm going to stop two good friends from going to war against each other."
"...Your woman's off-limits. Gotcha."
"Thanks for the warning, Glyph," Liara muttered, turning off her comm. link to the Shuttle Bay.
"The pleasure is all mine, Dr. T'soni," the VI replied politely. Seated beside the other terminal across the room, Shiala did her best to maintain a straight face in case Liara turned to look at her.
It was... odd being here. She had no purpose, really. The colonists were safe in Virmire, preparing for the influx of displaced refugees who would eventually come, given time. They were also there to receive treatment from some of the best doctors in the galaxy, thanks in part to Commander Shepard, who had shown an interest in the Thorian's thrall over the colonists. Her doctors were years away from an actual cure that could purge their bodies of the Thorian's spores, but Shiala knew from experience that the medicine that they had created could at least chase away the nightmares that came with the Thorian's influence. Since accepting the commander's offer to move from Feros, Shiala had been able to sleep without interruptions. Catching a glimpse of the commander just hours earlier, Shiala couldn't help but wonder if Shepard's own sleepless nights had been the price she had to pay for working such miracles.
It had been good to see her again, of course, though Shiala was admittedly a little unsettled by the archaeologist's sudden change of demeanour. Gone was the shy maiden who burrowed holes in Matriarch Benezia's beautiful gardens in the name of science, and in her place was a confident warrior whose intellect and biotic potential could rival the most veteran of asari commandos in a firefight. Without a doubt, Shiala knew that the matriarch would be proud.
Shiala's frown deepened as she remembered yesterday's conversation.
"Is something troubling you, Shiala?" Liara asked lightly, taking a sip of the coffee that seemed to be perpetually by her side.
"Ah, I was just reminiscing," the matron replied vaguely. "It was not so long ago, when I was on another ship that was so full of purpose."
Liara nodded in understanding and returned to her work without a second's pause. "What was it like, being inside Sovereign?"
"Dreadful," Shiala admitted. "The food was edible, sure, but I'd rather not find out what it was actually made of. Their bathrooms left a lot to be desired and the air always had a faint putrid stench to it. The sleeping quarters were also cramped and even less comfortable to sleep in than a regular sleeper pod. If not for the fact that we were all indoctrinated, people would have mutinied. Or killed themselves." She paused. "Or both."
Liara snorted. "I can't imagine wanting to follow anyone while living under such horrible conditions."
"I can." Raw, visceral anger blossomed in her chest, stretching through the far corners of her body—a white-hot rage with an intensity of a dwarf star. As soon as it expanded, it quickly collapsed inwardly, compressing within her heart, her body drooping with sudden exhaustion.
Liara stopped what she was doing and briefly glanced at Shiala. "I'm sorry."
"No," Shiala raised a hand and faltered, realizing she had used a human gesture. Resting both hands on her lap, she added, "I should be the one apologizing. I was quite... frigid yesterday."
"I was being too forward," Liara rebuffed. "I shouldn't have—"
The dwarf star, which was previously in decline, exploded into a supernova of pent-up anger, releasing bitterness and regret in its wake.
"You shouldn't have to apologize for wanting to lay your mother's ghost to rest," Shiala retorted sharply. "You shouldn't have to apologize for all those airheaded vixens who called themselves followers of the matriarch, and then turned their backs on her the moment she was labelled a traitor by the asari government!" Breathing heavily, she hadn't realized that she had stood up until Liara had covered the distance between them and pulled her in a fierce embrace.
Tears sliding down her cheeks, Shiala murmured, "I tried to contact them, you know. I tried to tell them what really happened. They wouldn't listen. They thought I was just spouting silly propaganda for the commander. The great Matriarch Benezia? Indoctrinated?" She laughed bitterly. "What an absurd tale, Shiala! Surely the Reapers cannot be real. Shame on you for using a mere myth to rationalize the matriarch's reprehensible actions!"
"It is their loss."
"I know," Shiala agreed, guilt clogging her throat. "I know."
Almost on cue, the door to Liara's office opened. "Ms. Shiala, Dr. Chakwas wanted to talk to—Oh."
Specialist Samantha Traynor, Kasumi decided, had the worst luck on the Normandy. She wondered if the young woman had angered some trickster kami in another lifetime, or if she just had a natural knack for embarrassing herself. I almost feel bad for scaring her yesterday. Almost.
Kasumi watched in amusement as the red-faced specialist escorted Shiala to the med-bay, burning holes at the datapad she held in her hands—the poor chit. The woman hadn't done anything wrong, not really. Her timing was just really off. Or really spot on—if she was part of a comedy troupe that is. Nevertheless, Kasumi did not envy her position as Shepard's new glorified secretary. Besides, she had better things to do.
"Are you ready, Kasumi?"
Like kicking some ass and taking some names.
"Always, Shepard." She deactivated her cloak and grinned at her commander, who was standing restlessly by the elevator, carrying the case that contained her armour. "How did you know I was here?"
"Your stealth cloak needs more calibrations. I was able to detect uneven heat emissions in this area of the ship." Shepard explained without a moment's pause. She turned on her omni-tool, and with her free hand, began making notes on how to improve Kasumi's stealth cloak. "When I have time, you can come by the captain's—Liara's office and I can make the necessary changes for you there."
Kasumi raised a delighted eyebrow at Shepard's sudden correction. "Did I hear that right, Shepard? Liara's office?"
"I don't need to repeat myself twice," the shorter woman huffed.
The thief's grin turned into a full Cheshire. They both knew that Kasumi was a terrible gossip, always jumping at the opportunity to glean some juicy detail from an unsuspecting crew member. The commander hadn't been lying when she said that Kasumi would be an invaluable agent for the Shadow Broker; her insatiable desire to learn more about others and her attention to detail allowed her to write very comprehensive profiles that other agents could then later use to their advantage. The best thing about it was that it was never her primary job. Often, when Shepard sent her to do missions through the Shadow Broker, she was actually doing things that she enjoyed, like sabotaging Cerberus facilities and stealing tech from them. The commander knew very well where Kasumi's true heart lay and had the forethought to give her assignments that best suited her. It's one of her more endearing traits, Kasumi thought fondly.
They stepped out of the elevator and into the CIC, walking past the galaxy map and towards the airlock which was currently connected to the entrance of the ship that they were about to board, a frigate modelled after the SR-2's design that their captain had named 'SSV Virmire'.
"See ya, Commander," Joker shouted from the ship's helm. "Don't come crying back to me if their pilot makes you space sick. I can't help it if I have the smoothest ride on the galaxy."
"I don't know about that, Joker," Shepard replied lightly. "Virmire's been fitted with experimental parts the Alliance haven't even green-lighted, mostly because they haven't heard of them yet."
Hearing the door close behind them, Kasumi leaned forward and asked, "Is that true?"
"Nah," Shepard smirked and whispered back. "I was just yanking his chain."
"I can still hear you, Commander."
"I know." Shepard paused dramatically. "Virmire does have a bigger gun though." Leaving a sputtering Joker behind, they moved through the narrow hallway connecting the two frigates in companionable silence. Kasumi, who was used to the commander lapsing into silence, hummed a jaunty tune, even as she discreetly appraised Shepard's condition. The commander's lips were slightly upturned, and her normally drowsy eyes were alight with quiet pleasure. Her stance was relaxed and, for once, she didn't seem weighed down by some monstrous problem.
I hope you're not playacting for my benefit, Shepard. The last time she had seen the commander like this, they were about to pass through the Omega 4 Relay, just hours before the Normandy's crew were taken by the Collectors.
...and just hours after Shepard had visited Liara in Hagalaz.
Is it strange that I feel jealous of Liara? Kasumi smiled bitterly. Is it strange that I wish I could somehow cheer her up too? Damn it, Shepard. Do you even know how many of us are bloody in love with you?
Unaware of Kasumi's sardonic thoughts, Shepard stepped into the other ship's airlock and rested her case down against her thigh, saluting smartly as a salarian appeared from the adjoining door. "Captain Kirrahe. My mother told me I'd be seeing a familiar face. It's good to see you again."
Kirrahe saluted back. "Commander Shepard, it is good to see you too. Although, it's major now."
"Virmire, I suspect?"
Kirrahe's eyes crinkled with pride. "Yes, indeed. However, as I am currently the head of this space-faring vessel," he said, beckoning for them to follow him, "I suppose captain is the appropriate rank."
"The SSV Virmire isn't an Alliance ship, Major," Shepard protested. "There is no need to abide by our ranks."
Kirrahe simply tilted his head and flashed a smile at their direction. "I serve under you now, Commander. I can abide by your terminology."
"I don't know about you military types," Kasumi interjected. "But this ship isn't really under any command structure, so I don't see why we even need to uphold rank."
"She is right, Commander Shepard," Kirrahe acknowledged. "In here, we are equals."
"If you say so, Major Kirrahe."
Kasumi pressed her fingertips against her forehead and shook her head wryly. Well, I suppose that is an improvement at least. She turned her attention towards the other members of Kirrahe's Virmire. Just like with the Normandy, the SSV Virmire was a multispecies vessel. Salarians and asaris were at the bridge, coordinating with the helmsman and the engineers in the lower decks, and making minute changes to the ship's trajectory. She even saw a glimpse of an elcor lumbering around, a genius strategist, she would later learn, who was in charge of the ship's VI combat system.
The one who piqued her interest the most, however, was the ship's pilot: Feron, Liara's second-in-command. Kasumi had interacted with the drell before and had sensed an uneasy tension between him and Shepard. Was it because of his close friendship with Liara? Kasumi wondered. Certainly, it seemed plausible. Besides, Kasumi knew that Shepard tended to rein in her emotions quite well, despite the various, irritating characters she had to deal with on a daily basis. For her to sound so stilted whenever his name was brought up—well, it made Kasumi quite curious, to say the least.
"Welcome aboard, Commander," a rumbling baritone interrupted Kasumi's thoughts. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
"Thank you, Feron," Shepard spoke graciously, eyeing the nearest intercom speakers passively. "It is good to hear your voice."
Watching her commander discreetly, Kasumi angled her head slightly, hiding her visage in the shadows of her hood, and smiled. This was going to be an interesting trip.
The reports Liara had read on Palaven did not prepare her for the horrifying visions of destruction she now saw aboard the UT-47A Kodiak. Ugly pockmarks were scattered across the surface of Palaven as well as blistering, red lines which trailed across the gentle curves of the turian home-world, intersecting with each other like spindly spider webs, mapping the blaze of carnage that the Reapers left behind. Her hand brushed against the Kodiak's hatch as she gaped at the once beautiful planet now stained with fire and violent silhouettes of towering monstrosities. "What are you waiting for, Blue?" James demanded from behind. "Let's move!"
Steeling her resolve, she pulled the modified M-6 Carnifex from its magnetized holster and nodded soberly. "Follow my lead," she commanded softly. "Take care of yourself, Mr. Cortez." Two singularities blossomed amongst a cluster of approaching husks, bursting into flames from a hail of gunfire from the lieutenant. The turian soldier near the outpost was taken aback by the efficiency of their attacks and saluted belatedly. "If you are looking for our commanding officer, he's just around the bend."
Liara nodded her thanks and jogged lightly towards the fort the turians had built, her eyes tangentially glancing at the hulking figure of a Reaper Destroyer in the distance. Several turians from above the rocky walls saluted her, a novelty, considering she wasn't exactly military. "Hold your fire! Friendly inbound," a voice shouted from behind the sturdy fortifications integrated into the fort's natural defences.
"Was it like this on Earth?" Liara finally spoke, in a voice husky with emotion.
"Worse," James replied acerbically. "At least Palaven looks like it has a fighting chance."
The stench of the dead assaulted their senses upon entering the large fortress. From inside one of the roofed enclosures, Liara could see body bags strapped against the floor, a deceptively small number, when you consider how many of the dead were usually left behind.
They found the commanding officer a few metres away, giving orders to his men. He was a striking figure in red and black, the sharp hooks of his mandibles particularly prominent against the turian equivalent of cheekbones. The white and gold paint marks along the ridges of his horns and his mandibles shone even more conspicuously against the dark carapace, making him a handsome specimen by turian standards. "Tobesik, get your men up on that north barricade. Sergeant Bartus, find a way to get that comm. tower operational."
"General Corinthus," Liara greeted the turian officer as she climbed up the ramp and holstered her pistol.
"I heard Commander Shepard was coming." Penetrating green orbs stared at them icily. "Neither of you look like her."
"We are her envoys, General," Liara rebutted stolidly. "We've come here to get Primarch Fedorian."
"Envoys?" Corinthus snorted. "Can't be bothered to come here herself, eh?"
"She's heading to the other side of this damn galaxy to stop another war from happening," James retorted defensively. "Be grateful she even sent us."
Liara pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Please, General. We have no quarrel with you. We just want the primarch."
"Well he's dead," Corinthus growled. "His shuttle was shot down an hour ago as it tried to leave the moon." Glancing away, his shoulders drooped as weariness seeped into his rigid posture. "We just lost about four hundred men in half an hour," he added in a milder tone. "We set up camps on this moon as an advance position, to flank the enemy—a sound strategy. Just..."
"Bloody, fucking pointless against those damn Reapers," James interjected.
"Exactly," Corinthus agreed. "The sheer force of those Reapers seems to make them immune to that sort of tactic." He met James's gaze squarely. "The primarch and his men found that out the hard way."
Liara, sensing the pain of his loss underneath the angry visage, touched his shoulder gently. "We're sorry to hear that. Shepard told me he was a good man, and a very capable strategist."
Corinthus closed his eyes and inhaled sharply. "He was also a friend. He would have made an outstanding diplomat."
"Well what the hell do we do now?" James asked impatiently. "Do we kidnap the General here instead?"
Liara shook her head. "The turian hierarchy provides very clear lines of succession. General Corinthus?"
"With such heavy casualties, it's hard for me to be certain who the next primarch is. Palaven Command should know." He waved his omni-tool across the three-dimensional map and grimaced. "However, at the moment, contacting them is impossible. The comm. tower is still out."
"I heard Sergeant Bartus—?"
Corinthus shook his head. "Husks are swarming that area. My sergeant and his men need backup if they're to repair the tower successfully."
"Leave that to us, General Corinthus," Liara promised. "We'll give them a clear path to the comm. tower."
Corinthus regarded both of them silently. With a tilt of his head, he said grudgingly, "Don't get yourself killed out there. I'd hate to have to break the news to your commander that her lover and her new pet marine were killed by a bunch of husks."
"Pet marine?" James cried incredulously.
"How in the Goddess's name—?"
Corinthus smirked. "Gossip spreads like wildfire amongst us turian soldiers. A legendary figure like Commander Shepard?" He chuckled. "It's nice to know she's as turian as the rest of us."
The two exchanged startled looks. "The fuck," James exclaimed succinctly.
They headed towards the left of the main barricade where the comm. tower was located. Climbing up a rocky incline, they went past another gate, jogging towards a group of turian soldiers near the cliff. "Sergeant Bartus?"
"We need you to repair the tower, soldier. Think you can do that?"
Bartus looked at his companions. "Ma'am, with all due respect, we can't take out all of those husks on our own."
"That's what we're here for," James growled. "Your men should go back to the barricades and regroup with the others."
Bartus saluted resolutely. To his men, he said, "You heard the man! Fall back!"
The trek towards the comm. tower was a slow one, despite its reasonably short distance from the fort. Bartus was a good soldier, if a bit set in his ways in conventional battle. After taking out another wave of husks, Liara took a moment to modify Bartus's assault rifle—allowing for incendiary ammo—earning her a grateful look from the sergeant. She waved aside his murmur of thanks and focused on another group of husks, throwing a stasis field for James's convenience. The modification had been easy enough, partly because she had managed to pick up a mod or two in the fort, partly because James's gun already had the necessary codes to unlock that particular feature in Bartus's assault rifle, and partly because of Shepard's influence. Wistfully, she remembered those halcyon moments in between missions when Shepard would visit her in the med-bay storage area, asking after her well-being, teaching her how to mod a gun, watching her with unbridled fascination as she showed the commander simple biotic manoeuvres...
Even back then, Shepard had already loved her.
Others might scoff at her for making such assumptions. The commander? In love with a bashful archaeologist who forgot her biotics half the time and couldn't shoot a charging krogan if it was right in front of her? And an alien to boot?
But Liara knew.
There was something about Shepard, something unique about her that allowed Liara to feel the commander's emotions as if they were her own, even before they had first made love to each other just months before. It had started as a tingling sensation the first time they had met in the crumbling walls of the dig site on Therum and gradually intensified until she could anticipate the commander's irregular visitations with startling accuracy.
And yet, despite the commander's blatant affection for her—
"Sergeant Bartus, the comm. tower is yours," Liara said, stuffing that last memory at the back of her mind. There was no time to wallow in unhappy memories. Shepard had given her a task to do, and she intended to see it through.
Since the husks were incapable of gunfire, James and Liara positioned themselves around the comm. tower, each facing another direction so as to ensure that none of the fleet-footed husks could sneak up behind them and overwhelm them. Liara was glad for the M-6 Carnifex Shepard had lent her. It was heavier than her old pistol, but could easily take the husks down in one or two well-placed shots. From the seemingly endless number of husks swarming them, she knew that using her biotics every single time to neutralize the enemies would eventually drain her. It was better to rely on her pistol, her wits, and her teammate, who more than made up for the lack of biotic explosions.
"Ma'am, I've repaired the tower," Bartus called from above.
"Hear that, General?" James asked. "The comm. tower's now good to go."
"Much appreciated, you two," Corinthus replied from their shared comm. link. "Contacting Palaven Command now."
"Thank you, General."
"In the mean time, we'll be here cleaning up this Reaper shit storm," James said a little breathlessly. "Team Shepard out."
"Tiring already, Mr. Vega?" Liara teased, sending a team of husks flying with a flick of her wrist.
"Are you kidding? I'm just getting warmed up!"
With the added back up of turian snipers shooting from above the barricades, Liara was relieved to note that the pressure of husks was finally abating. Sagging against an outcrop, Liara nodded her thanks when Bartus came back with some thermal clips he had found in a case nearby. Slapping a fresh clip on, she took a moment to take down some husks, the constant recoil of the heavy pistol tiring her arm. Eventually, Corinthus called them again after a moment of inactivity from the enemy. His voice sounded grave on the comm. link as he asked all three of them to return.
"Hey, Blue, what do you think happened?" James asked, as they returned to the fort, easily keeping up with the turian sergeant who was built for speed.
"Palaven Command has likely found difficulty in contacting the next-in-line," Liara guessed. "Either that, or there's been too many dead, and they're just as lost as we are."
"Can't they just play rock-paper-scissors or sommat?" James grumbled under his breath.
"I believe it's hard for them to distinguish between paper and scissors with only three fingers, James."
"So it's James now, eh?"
"A slip of tongue—forgive me," Liara said, feigning apologetic.
Bartus left their three-man team once they had arrived inside the fort's walls once more, heading for higher ground where the rest of his group was stationed. He gave them one final salute before scrambling up the metal ladders, proudly carrying his modified assault rifle with one hand.
"What's wrong, General Corinthus?"
"It's worse than what I expected." Corinthus spoke somberly. "Succession is usually straightforward, but with so many dead or MIA, the hierarchy's a bloody mess right now."
Liara's heart fell. The primarch was dead, and Palaven Command was in chaos. Surely there was something they could do? The Shadow Broker in her reared its defiant head. No compromises, Liara. "Well I need someone," Liara spoke in a tone that would not take 'no' for an answer. "I don't give a damn who he or she is, as long as this primarch can get us the turian resources we need." And because she was still Liara, who cared about being nice and polite to others, she added imploringly, "Please, General."
"Well, when you put it that way, how can this turian refuse?" Garrus asked, his mandibles quivering in amusement.
Corinthus was momentarily surprised by the newcomer. "Vakarian—sir, I didn't see you arrive," the general apologized and saluted smartly.
"At ease, General," Garrus said, inclining his head.
"Shepard told me you'd be here, but I didn't think—"
"I'd make it?" Garrus inquired mildly, accepting Liara's brief hug enthusiastically. "What? And miss out on all the fun? Come now, Liara. This old battle junkie? I wouldn't miss this action for all the world." Liquid silver eyes with a hint of blue turned to stare at the Reaper Destroyer screeching in the far distance. "Besides, if we lose this moon, we lose Palaven. Since I'm the closest damn thing they have to an expert—well, I'm advising." He caught a glimpse of James watching them, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in a show of discomfort.
"Ah, you must be Shepard's new pet marine," Garrus said, offering a hand to the frowning lieutenant. "Whatever did happen to Kaidan?"
A sudden, tense silence fell on the group. He turned to gaze questioningly at Liara who explained, "He's in Huerta Memorial Hospital right now, receiving treatment for his wounds."
"Oh." Garrus adjusted his grip on the M-92 Mantis sniper rifle he carried. "How is the LT?"
"We believe Major Alenko will recover eventually," Liara replied in an equally solemn tone.
Garrus scratched a cheek awkwardly. "Well," he began and cleared his throat. "General Corinthus filled me in while you were gone. I'll help once Palaven Command—"
"—has finally gotten their act together," Corinthus cheered. "They tell me the next primarch's General Adrien Victus."
"Victus?" Liara scrunched her forehead thoughtfully. The name sounded familiar. "He's crossed my desk before. On Taetrus, during the uprisings, his squad discovered a salarian spy ring about the same time the turian separatists did." Emboldened by Garrus's approving nod, Liara continued, "Rather than neutralize the ring, he fell back, even giving up valuable fortifications to the rebels. The rebels attacked the salarians, and when both groups were worn down, he and his squad moved in. Didn't lose a man."
"Yes, he has a reputation for playing loose with accepted strategy," Garrus supplemented. "Popular with his troops though. Gets results, which is more than I can say for the rest of the higher ups—no offense, General Corinthus."
"Actually, I was just fighting alongside him this morning."
"Well, he sounds like my kind of turian," James smirked. "When can we ship him back to the Normandy, Uncle Scar?"
"...Uncle Scar?" A perplexed Garrus inquired.
"Liara! Do you read me?"
Liara raised her hand, silencing her two companions. "Can this wait, Joker? We're in the middle of a war zone."
"We've got a situation on the Normandy, and I can't contact the Commander! Liara, it's like the Normandy's possessed or something, shutting down systems, powering up weapons—and I can't find the damn source."
The asari looked helplessly at her companions. What could she do? Go back to the Normandy and try to contain the problem until Shepard came back? She barely knew the SR-2's layout, let alone its internal systems! "Have you tried contacting EDI?"
"She's gone offline!"
"If I may, Liara," Shiala interrupted. "I do not know much about star ship technology, but I might be able to help."
"Alright, but until we get back, the Normandy is standing by. You got that, Joker?"
Joker sighed audibly from the other line. "Fine, I shall limit my forays into the extranet's more dubious websites."
"Joker," Liara growled threateningly.
"...See you later, Liara! Joker out!"
"I wouldn't be surprised if the Normandy caught some extranet virus from one of Joker's 'dubious' activities," Liara muttered to herself.
"EDI would be appalled if she heard you now," Garrus replied brightly.
"Too bad she can't." Liara massaged her forehead. "You said you were with Victus this morning?"
"Yeah, but we got separated. He went to bolster a flank that was breaking. Could be anywhere out there."
"We're trying to raise him, Liara. We're hoping he could rendezvous with you here."
"Understood, General Corinthus."
A startled cry drew their collective attention to the main barricade. One of the last turian snipers from that wall had fallen to the ground—pulled down by a particularly obstinate husk that had managed to evade their gunfire. With an unspoken agreement, Liara, Garrus, and James ran towards the main barricade, climbing up the metal ladders and inspecting the bloodied land below, full of the husks' decaying corpses. "By the spirits," Garrus hissed, peering at his scope. "How do they expect us to last in a fight like this?"
"What else can you do?" James scowled at the dead below. "Until Shepard comes up with a sure-fire plan to rid us of the Reapers, we can only hold out like this."
"If the Reapers breach our main barricade, this area is done for," Corinthus interjected. "If you could keep their damn pets at bay until reinforcements arrive, I'd appreciate that."
"Do you even need to ask?" Garrus pointed at the mounted turret. "James, think you can use this thing?"
James gave the turian a bemused look. "Do you even need to ask?" He parroted sardonically.
Between Garrus and James, there were very few husks left for Liara to take down on her own. Garrus remained as efficient as ever, leaving headless husk after headless husk on the battlefield. James, for his part, enthusiastically pointed the turret at all the clumps of husks he could find, shouting triumphantly as he brought a seemingly endless barrage of gunfire at them. Exchanging her M-6 Carnifex for the M-12 Locust, a submachine gun with a lower recoil and a longer range of fire, she took down the few stragglers climbing up the jutting crags on either side.
The problem, she realized quickly, after watching husk after husk go down, was the bodies. There were just too many of them. If before, it would take a while for the husks to climb up the barricades, the mounds of the dead made it considerably easier for their trek upwards. Not only that, but the corpses were convenient cover for them as well—not because they were sturdy; rather, the decaying bodies of both the turians and the husks were making it harder for others to find them and shoot them down. Could the Reapers reuse the dead? Liara wondered. A chilling thought, one that had to be addressed.
"General Corinthus," she called from her comm. link, "do you have any spare fuel that we might be able to use?"
"Certainly, Liara," Corinthus said a little belatedly, taken aback by the sudden inquiry. "What did you have in mind?"
"We need to burn all of these corpses, General. The Reapers might have some use for them again."
"That's a lot to burn, Liara," Corinthus observed quietly after climbing up the main barricade to stare at the dead below.
"Better to have them gone, then to have them rise again, General," Garrus replied. "I personally haven't seen it happen. But it is likely. Considering these Reaper foot soldiers came from the dead originally..."
"I get what you mean," Corinthus conceded with a nod. "I'll send some men up to douse the bodies. Until then, I'm still radioing various outposts, looking for our new primarch."
They made short work of the battlefield, spraying as much of the fuel as they could across the sea of corpses, no more than shells for the Reapers to repurpose for their ruthless cause: the eradication of all advanced, sentient life. Watching the other soldiers at work, Liara visibly relaxed. As the Shadow Broker, she had the unquestioning loyalty of hundreds of agents across the galaxy, who used their wits and their resources to find the information she needed. As Shepard's unspoken second-in-command, however, she knew that she had more to prove before others would willingly take her lead. It was therefore startling really, how easily the others seemed to trust her judgement and her instructions. Still, she couldn't help but feel that if there was anyone who was worth following, it should have been Garrus, who had more combat experience than she did, despite her longer lifespan.
...And in a way, he was the one leading this fight. He kept the husks off the barricades, giving James insightful advice and prompting Liara to send a well-placed singularity, if needed be.
But the decisions were hers to make. And sometimes, she had to take initiatives like this too. It was admittedly, a little daunting and a little exhilarating all at once.
Besides, if it meant getting to know another side of Shepard—understanding her thoughts, her motivations and her burdens a little better—it was all worth it.
Touching the lump near her collarbone, she tapped the short form of the words, "I love you," in Morse code. It would be a while before Shepard received the message, but it was the thought that counted. Wistfully, she wished she could convey her thoughts directly to Shepard. But that was a vain wish. Even if they were to fully open themselves to each other, the distance would still be too great. She tore herself away from her idle musings and nodded at Bartus. "Set it ablaze, Sergeant."
The turian grinned. "With pleasure, Ma'am." Flames blossomed from the hail of gunfire he left behind, sending the new batch of husks scattering to all four directions, screaming their collective death throes. Liara turned away, unable to watch the near-blinding blaze, a crude funeral pyre that would wipe out the existence of numerous soldiers who had given up their lives to protect their home-world, leaving nothing but ashes behind.
"Damn! What is that thing?" Liara heard James cry out. Before she could react, a violent force slammed against the main barricade, throwing her off-balance. As she plummeted towards the hungry flames below, she saw James, one foot over the railing, preparing to dive after her. "Liara, I got you!"
Liara closed her eyes, a chuckle escaping her lips. Why is it that, even heartbeats away from the unbearable heat, all she could think about was Shepard's confident form, extending a hand towards her, urging her to grab it?
Oh, how far I've fallen.
Omake time: In which a certain turian cultivates the local grapevine...
Harsh, grey wisps of smoke curled upwards from a distant one-man fighter that had crash-landed against the jutting outcrop of unforgiving stone. The strident battle cries of Reaper Destroyers rung clearly across the barren wasteland, sending shivers down Garrus's spine. A faint wind brushed against his mandibles, bringing with it the rotting stench of the dead.
"Garrus, sir, you have a message in your private terminal," one of the new recruits said as he climbed up the tower overlooking the vast battlefield below. "I can take over for you."
"At ease, Private," he said serenely and slipped his sniper rifle on his back. "And thank you." He slid down the ladder with ease and ambled towards one of the enclosures, nodding at a group of passing soldiers who were watching the Reapers tensely. "Lights out," their general had told them earlier, but everyone was too wound up to get some decent shut eye. Garrus couldn't blame them. The sounds of the Reapers howling alone were enough to keep even the deafest man from falling asleep. It was truly ground-shaking.
He reached the private terminal—which was a bit of a misnomer considering anyone could use it—and turned it on, going into his account. "Garrus," the letter read simply, "I'm sending Liara and James over there to fetch the primarch. Keep an eye on them, will you? Sorry I couldn't come myself. Have to keep the quarians from doing something stupid. Love, Shep."
"Is that a love letter, Vakarian?" Victus asked, leaning on Garrus's right shoulder. "She's not a krogan is she?"
"It's a message from Commander Shepard, actually," Garrus replied casually, closing his email and turning around to grin at his general.
"So you're sweet on the commander, eh?" Another turian soldier asked, his curiosity piqued.
"Shepard?" Garrus snorted. "Puh-lease, if I so much as flirt with our commander, Liara would have me flying straight back to Palaven with a biotically charged lift. This poor turian isn't built for flight, General."
"One of the finest asaris I have ever had the pleasure of fighting alongside with," Garrus confirmed. "Of course, she didn't always start out that way. But she did have good teachers." The pride in his voice told Victus that Garrus had been one of them.
"What was the letter about?" One of Victus's subordinates asked.
"Apparently, Liara and James, Shepard's new pet marine, are coming over to our moon to fetch the primarch."
"What good would that do is beyond me," one of the soldiers growled. "Playing diplomats at a time like this? By the spirits, we're at war! We should be out there giving the Reapers all that we've got. We don't have time to make nice and hope that a miracle happens."
"What? And miss the opportunity of getting the other races to help us? If anything, now is the time to 'make nice', as you call it," Victus said mildly. "I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind having a krogan or two with me right now, watching my six."
"Peculiar words coming from a turian general," Garrus observed.
"Not so peculiar when you're faced with a monstrous threat like them," Victus replied coolly, nodding at the Reapers surrounding Palaven. "Anyway, what's the commander like?"
"In bed?" Garrus chuckled. "Now you're just mocking me, General."
"I mean, in a fight," the general retorted, struggling to maintain his poker expression.
Garrus paused and considered Victus's request, eyeing the growing crowd of turian soldiers off-duty. Perhaps hearing a tale or two about the commander would put them at ease. Or at least win them over to Shepard's side. Rubbing his cheek thoughtfully, he began in an amused tone, "Well, there was that one time Shepard drove a taxicab..."