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The Smoke That Thunders

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Uncharted Planet.  Terminus Systems.  November 11th, 2183

Twenty-six days after the Battle of the Citadel

Shepard let out a deep breath as her eyes drifted shut.  There was simply no place in the universe like the bridge of a starship.  When you spent your days analyzing sensor data - planets and stars and moons all rendered into abstract shapes on the ship’s monitors - it was so easy to forget that there was a vast universe lying just beyond the hull.

Not so here. 

It was quiet too, much quieter than her cabin by the galley at least.  At night, a skeleton crew of slightly less familiar faces stood monitoring the ship’s systems under the soft hum of the Normandy’s engines, only without the typical daytime comm-chatter and hushed conversations.

Shore leave was many months away, and it wasn't hard to sympathize with the desire for a peaceful nighttime posting, especially after all they had been through.  Many of her crew had lost friends and loved ones when the Alliance fleet threw itself against Sovereign, and everyone dealt with that grief in their own way.

Sometimes, when sleep eluded her, Shepard walked the lonely halls of the ship herself.  The Normandy took on a rather different aura at these times: tranquil and tensionless, less a warship, but something rather more akin to a deep space exploration vessel.

There were times when she wondered if she would have been happier on such a posting.

With Liara T'Soni lying half naked on top of her in the pilot's seat, dressed only in Shepard's threadbare workout clothes, it was admittedly a bit hard to imagine. 

The monitors on the bridge had been dimmed to their lowest settings, allowing Shepard and Liara a spectacular view of the planet beneath them; a young world encircled by a dense ring made up of billions of tiny rocks.  Another stop on their search for that rumored geth fleet hiding in the Terminus Systems.

Three ships lost in just the past week, but naturally the attacks stopped as soon as the Normandy arrived.  Pirates were a more likely culprit then.  They’d turtle up on some distant asteroid until the coast was clear, or find some other quieter sector to harass.

Soon they would learn that a ship like the Normandy would not be so easily eluded.

Still, Shepard wouldn't have minded too much if the chase continued for just a little while longer.

Liara pointed to one of the many craters on this unnamed world.  Actually, it had a designation, Shepard vaguely recalled, something ponderous, involving a long string of letters and numbers.  Personally, she was leaning towards naming the planet Steve.

The crater could be called Udina.

"Right there, I think," Liara said.

She had to shift to allow Shepard access to the controls, which the Commander fumbled with, hitting the port thruster much too hard and sending the ship into a roll before she was able to kill the motion.  “Uh, right…”  Trying again, she adjusted the thruster power and the Normandy pitched up rather more gracefully until all they could see through the cockpit windows was the planet below.

Hopefully, none of the crew saw that.

Liara smiled at her.  “I think I understand why I’ve never seen you at the controls before.  You drive the Normandy like you drive the Mako.”

“Ha.  You want me to bring Joker up here?”

Liara hummed, stretching her arms over her head.  “His presence might kill the mood.”

She let her hand fall back to Liara's bare leg.  It certainly would.  “You’ll just have to suffer through my bad jokes then.”

Liara feigned a horrified look.  “I suppose if it gets too bad, the airlock is only a few steps away.”

Shepard feigned an expression to match.  “Ouch.  Is the airlock for me or for you?”

She hummed again.  "I doubt being spaced would stop you."

"From making bad jokes?"

"Well, yes.  That too."

Brief flashes of light lit up the cabin as they shared a smile.  Ever since they entered orbit, tiny meteorites were continuously hitting the ship's protective mass effect field and exploding with tremendous energy.  A hundred years ago, any one of those strikes would've doomed a human space mission.  Now, they just provided a pretty light show.

And beneath them was the remnant of something a little too big to ever be called a meteorite.  Udina, the enormous impact crater, easily spanned three-hundred kilometers across, stretching from horizon to horizon, with steep walls rising to the high plateau which made up the only landmass on this world that could truly be called a continent.  At the center of it all was a truly enormous lake of molten lava.

Much of the planet's surface looked like this: featureless rock, pocketed by impact craters and volcanoes and lakes of fire, all under a roiling sky.  Everything else was a vast ocean of acidic water.

Actually, maybe she'd call the continent Udina, and the crater Anderson.

Her smile faded at an unwelcome memory.  Batarian Pirates had created a crater that big when they attacked the Human colony of Taprobane out in the Verge.  Shepard's ship had been the first to arrive, but there were no survivors.  There weren’t even any remains of survivors.  It wasn't something she ever talked about, even with those who had been there.

Stupid, pointless destruction.

War truly was hell.  She would be eternally grateful to the men and women who died keeping Sovereign from starting another one.

Fingers stroked Liara's soft skin.  Her presence alone was enough to lessen the pain.  Always so steady.  Perhaps it was an asari thing, or maybe it came from being one-hundred-and-six?  She’d always had a thing for older women.  "What can you tell me about this place?"

Liara returned to resting her head against Shepard's.  “Well, it’s five-hundred million years old, give or take," she said, sighing happily as fingers resumed their journey up and down her leg.  "The protheans would’ve seen much the same world, if indeed they ever came here.”

On the rim of that crater were enormously tall metal spires, casting long shadows under the rising sun, nothing more than shells, stripped of everything of value either by ancient visitors, or by the unceasing winds themselves.

"You don't think those ruins are prothean?"

Liara shook her head.  "They’re over one-hundred thousand years old.  I read about them while doing my dissertation.  Each one is over eight kilometers tall.  The photos don’t do them justice."

"Two cycles ago."  Shepard let out a long breath.  "We don't even know the name of the species that built them."

All Liara did was wrap an arm more tightly around her.  That would be their civilization one day.

Reapers or no reapers.

Humanity had walked the edge of the abyss far too many times already, and all good things had to end one day.  She had paid enough attention in history class to understand that lesson.

Hopefully, it would at least be a good ride.

And hopefully, it would be a long, long time from now.  At least a few million years would be nice.

"Look," Liara whispered, her voice so soft in Shepard's ear.  "The tides are rising."

Shepard watched in growing disbelief as water rolled in from the west, inundating the whole plateau and rising higher and higher against the rim of the crater.  With a few taps of the display, Liara had the Normandy descending through the clouds for a closer look.

"Wait, uh..."   Shepard tried sitting up, but Liara wasn't making it easy for her.

"Pre-arranged flight program.  I put it together with Joker's help."

The tension in her limbs did not entirely abate with that new piece of information.  "Joker's help?"

"I asked him if I could borrow the ship for a few hours.”

“I can’t believe he agreed to that.”

Liara shrugged.  "He's keeping an eye on things from his bunk."

Shepard quickly scanned the bridge.  "He can't see us or anything.  Can he?"  Her omni-tool shimmered into existence.  An overload shock would disable any cameras… but it also might disable the controls.

Liara's smile widened at Shepard’s growing horror before she finally shook her head.  "Did you know he's got the ship's flight controls routed to his room?  He says that way the Normandy is never without her pilot."

Shepard blinked, hand dropping back to the armrest.  “That’s…. some surprisingly forward thinking.”  She would almost commend him for it, if it didn't mean acknowledging that Joker now knew entirely too much about her personal life.

Blue fingers rubbed the skin of her upper arm as Liara murmured, "Relax."

Her head fell back to seat.  "So," she drawled, allowing Liara's fingers to melt away any residual tension in her limbs, "Are those are the only ruins on the planet?"

"No.  There are ancient bridges, and cities, and mines.  All the things you might expect from a colony world.  There’s life in the oceans too.  Unicellular.  No one’s quite sure if it’s native to the planet or if it was brought here by the colonizers.”

"Mmm… Keep talking."

"Axial tilt, 59 degrees.  Atmospheric pressure: twenty-five hundred millibars.  Rotation period: just under ten hours.”

“What’s the surface like?”

“Not pleasant.  The atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and methane.  The temperature on the rim hovers around one-hundred and thirty during the day.  Of course, along the edge of that inner crater, it’s closer to a thousand degrees.”

“Mmm,” she sighed, breathing into Liara’s neck.  “That’s hot.”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Always.”

“You know,” Liara began, pulling away to look Shepard in the eye.  “Sometimes I think you only like me for my voice.”

Shepard raised an eyebrow.  "Would you rather I be distracted by other parts of you?"

Liara looked down, a smile growing on her face as she pushed up the hem of her shirt.  "My breasts, you mean?"

Shepard nearly choked, forcing Liara to pat her back until she stopped coughing.

"You think about them a lot."

'Right,' she thought.  It was hard to keep secrets from a woman who could read your mind, and did so practically every night.   "The rest of you is nice too though,” Shepard offered weakly.

“I bet you say that to all the monogendered aliens you sleep with.”

"Yes," she said, rolling her eyes.  "All one of them."

Liara smiled, butting her head lightly against Shepard’s.

“Oww.  You really are part krogan.”

“And you really are hilarious,” Liara replied with equal sarcasm.

“Aww.  I try.”

“Mmhmm,” she sighed, resting her head against Shepard’s again.  “That’s the scary part.”

Shepard laughed as they laid together.  An enormous cloud of smoke was billowing up from the lake of fire as the flood poured down the crater walls and rushed in.  At this altitude, it was hard to appreciate just how enormous that volume of water truly was.  All the waterfalls on Earth put together couldn't match it.

“It would be something, wouldn’t it?”

“Hmm?”

“Just sailing between the stars, like this.  No reapers… no geth… just exploring the galaxy.”  Doubtless there were a million worlds even more stunning than this one.  A person could search for a thousand lifetimes and not see them all.

“Hmm… That would be nice.”

It wasn’t going to happen, but with Liara at her side, that revelation wasn’t as unpleasant as it might have been.

She had no idea how long the two of them sat there, pressed against each other as the waters filled the crater, then began to recede, flowing out through a break in the crater wall on the far side.  It wouldn't take long before the lake returned to its fiery glory.  And when the nearby moon returned to its former position in another few hours, the tidal forces would ensure it would happen all over again.

"We'd better not stay here too much longer.  I don't want my pilot nodding off in his chair when his shift begins.  And we have nine more planets to survey tomorrow."  Then it was off to the Amada system.  She couldn’t wait to see the look in Liara's eyes when she caught sight of the ruins of Eingana.

"I think," Liara began, nudging Shepard's chin until they were face to face, her hands sliding across her stomach, lower and lower.  "We have time."


Southern Zambia.  Earth.  February 21st, 2190

Three Years after the Fall of London

The grass tickled her skin as she laid upon it.  All the nearby trees were scarred, burnt until they were little more than blackened skeletons, shedding ash even under the light breeze, but the grass was already blooming again.

The Earth had witnessed it all.  Fifty-thousand years of rising and falling tribes and nations and empires.  Slavery and murder and genocide.  Arrows and cannons and nuclear fire.  Humanity was like a person fully grown, finally understanding the consequences of its actions, only to have it all taken away much too soon.  Perhaps that was the story of a million worlds.  Perhaps it would be the story of every world.

Still, it was warm, it was home, and it would always be here.  Humanity came and went but the Earth and the grass and the birds and the clouds would continue on as they always had.

How could they not?

A strong jolt brought the dream to an end, blue sky melting into yellow, partially obstructed by the cracked and dirty windshield of the Mako, the half-remembered rustling of grass already morphing into a faint hiss that never left her waking hours.

Years had passed since she'd heard anything real with her own ears.  Not since Lagos.  Shepard swallowed before quickly composing herself.  Harsh sunlight poured in from the hatch above.

“Commander?”  Text passed before her eyes, along with a visual clue to indicate where the words were coming from.  Of course, she already knew who was speaking.  It was always the same person.

"I'm here, Ash," she said as she unfastened her belts.  "Just give me a sec."

Through the Mako's rear camera, the long trail of rising dust was impossible to miss.  A mile long train of men and women followed in their wake, and behind that a mass of refugees. 

Day or night, it didn’t much matter.  If the reapers were still looking for them, they wouldn't have to search very hard.  Ever since they arrived, the reapers controlled land, sea, and air; and the Alliance forces - what was left of the Alliance forces - were fighting blind and rudderless.

Once the belts were off, a thin hand reached down from the hatch, and Shepard grunted as she took it and pushed herself out onto the roof.  The young soldier hovered over her as she always did.  Many of them were like this, treating Shepard like something between a living legend and a hundred and thirty year old woman who refused to use her walker.

She thanked her anyway, earning a smile even though neither of them spoke the other’s language.

Once upon a time, her omni-tool would've translated Yoruba to English for her, but Shepard's hadn't worked properly in three months.  Spare parts were in short supply, and military-grade 3d printers in even shorter supply.

She coughed.  The air was so dry and stale out here, and the wind was blowing the dust from the rest of the convoy directly into their faces.

As the young soldier quickly set about climbing down the hatch, Shepard slid down to the front tire, trying to stretch the stiffness out of her limbs as a repair team circled the Mako, kneeling to get a better look at the smoking engine. 

She felt like shit and looked even worse.  She knew it, everyone else knew it.  Dirty and bruised, muscles constantly aching, hair turning prematurely gray.  In short, she looked and felt like every other human being out here.

Shutting her eyes to settle her stomach, she could still see her soldiers, all hurrying about, going through the motions of maintaining their equipment, patrolling the perimeter, and setting up camp for another night.  So many people doing the best damn job they could.  So many people she couldn't save - but that was the terrible reality of this war - she couldn’t save anyone.

Dreams and reality had long ago intertwined themselves into some kind of endless nightmare.  A never ending march to nowhere across a depopulated wasteland.  Even for a woman who had survived the Blitz, had watched Palavan burn from the surface of Menae, had seen the reapers swarm over Thessia and Vancouver and Surkesh, even she couldn't fathom the horrors of what Earth had become.

Yet now when she slept, she only dreamt of peaceful green fields under a vibrant blue sky.  And always, the gentle rustle of grass in the wind.  The images, and the sounds, clear as day, taunting her with what she could never have.  She honestly didn’t know which visions were worse.

A heavy truck shook the ground as it rumbled slowly past, AA turrets loaded in its hold.  In less than an hour, sentry posts would encircle the entire camp.  Standard procedure for the last three years.  The troops could set it all up in their sleep.

Mindlessly going through the motions with all the regularity of machines.

Another way the reapers were winning.

“Commander?”

At last, Ashley Williams appeared before her, helping her gently down from the tire.  The days of any Spectre-like acrobatics from Shepard were long over.

“Liara was asking for you,” Ashley said, pointing in the direction of a faded sign across the road.  "That way."

It was an easy thing to miss amongst the broken asphalt and overgrown vegetation: a narrow path that cut its way through a forest of dead trees.

Shepard nodded.  “We’re here then?”

Ash inclined her head.  “Heard it used to be the most beautiful place on Earth.”  She frowned, taking in the brown, desiccated trees to the west, and the barren plains to the east.  “Not sure I see it.”

Despite the change in color, the sight brought back a lot of forgotten memories for Shepard.  Fifteen years ago she had gotten off a bus at this exact spot.  Right next to that trail across the road was a familiar, but faded sign.  ‘Knife's Edge Trail overlooking Mosi-oa-Tunya.'  They were here all right.  The Smoke That Thunders; one of the most striking waterfalls on Earth.  “It was… once.”

Ashley said nothing else before turning away.  Every place on Earth had been beautiful.

Shepard took one last look around, noting the deep valley of the Zambezi River and the wind-swept wreckage of a city across the border to what was once Zimbabwe.  Victoria Falls, she believed it had been called.  She'd stayed there overnight, in one of those flattened mounds whose twisted metal beams now sparkled in the low sunlight.

A few hundred clicks beyond was the capital city, Harare.  Reapers were rumored to be in the area, but that’s all they had to go on; rumors.  There wasn’t any official Alliance intel.  Not anymore.  It was up to Shepard to lead an army of a few thousand tired and disillusioned soldiers against an enemy that controlled an entire galaxy.

All they could do was keep fighting, no matter the odds.

So that was their convoy's destination, once the bridge over the lower canyon was repaired at any rate.  Already, engineers were working on that too.  Not a single order needed to be given.

As always, the reaper’s exact plans were inscrutable.  They wiped out entire nations, and left others untouched.  They killed some unarmed humans on the spot, and sacrificed huge numbers to capture others alive.  There was no logic behind any of it.  All anyone could be sure of was that they were all going to die.  And if they didn’t die?  Well, she remembered the Collectors.  Perhaps that was even worse.

In the early days, intel had been full of reports on what the reapers were up to.  Camps had been set up all over the planet, and Shepard and her makeshift army had seen what happened there first hand as they went from camp to camp, trying to liberate the survivors.

Even among the unindoctrinated, there were many who didn’t want to be freed.  After all, what hope did Shepard’s army really have to offer them?  A life trailing behind a convoy, being shot at by god-machines?  She couldn’t blame them for collaborating.  Hunger was a powerful motivator.  It was a fact of life she understood all too well now.  Her own soldiers killed practically every creature they came across in order to keep it at bay.  There was no other way to survive.

She made her way across the road, trucks and soldiers on foot all stopping as she passed, saluting her, or paying their respects, or just doing what they thought they were supposed to.  It was hard to tell anymore, not when every single one of them seemed a thousand miles away, caught up in their own memories of a better life, haunted by the things they had seen, just as she was.

Her optical implant fed a constant stream of information to her eyes.  It pointed out recently disturbed grass on the overgrown path before her, giving her something to follow.  Once in the dried up forest, Shepard let herself breathe again.  For a second, one could almost imagine the world as it used to be: green, full of life, endless, ageless...

The Earth would always be there.

Now she wasn't so sure.

As she ascended the path, the gentle vibration of the ground began to still.  All was silent except for the faint never-ending hiss in her ears.  Just her and her memories.  Her steps quickened.  Thankfully, it didn't take long to pass through the growth of trees and beyond to the edge of a high cliff. 

Less than a hundred meters across the chasm stood Mosi-oa-Tunya.   An impressive drop, but it was no waterfall anymore.  Not an ounce of water could be see trickling over the edge from where she stood, and this during the rainy season. 

It shouldn't have come as a surprise.   She hadn't felt the rain against her skin in months.

The Smoke that Thunders.  A fifteen-hundred meter long torrent of water, roaring continuously for over a hundred-thousand years, as ancient as humanity itself.  One of the Earth's natural wonders - now just a canyon.  An ancient bridge straddled the edge to give long-forgotten tourists a better view, but to Shepard the vista looked more like a quarry than a world heritage site.

She hung her head.  As horrifying as it was, the reapers were doing something beyond processing humans to build their ships.  They were stripping their homeworld of every resource, from the minerals in the soil, to the water in the seas, to the air in the sky.  Already, the rains came less frequently, and that ever present sickly yellowish tint to the air had come on so gradually that sometimes Shepard wondered if she even truly remembered how it had used to look. 

But her optical implant was there, keeping her constantly appraised of the changes.  Oxygen at nineteen-percent.  Air-pressure six-hundred and fifty millibars.  Highly elevated sulfur dioxide levels.  Air as dry as the Atacama Desert.

Shepard rubbed her hands as she walked across the bridge to the Knife's Edge promontory.   Barely recalled faces came to her mind.  She remembered the laughter most of all, as the fall's spray soaked every one of them to the bone.  They had all been on leave then; a year into Shepard's first posting and on a welcome break from the confines of a cramped Alliance destroyer.

At the other end of the bridge was a stone path leading on to a high grassy clearing.  Shepard still remembered standing there, marveling at the enormous torrent of water across the valley, so wide it felt like it had no end.  For a woman who had grown up in a city of twenty-million, it was, at that time, the most amazing thing she had ever seen.

And perhaps returning here really was just like returning home.  The shabby house with its stained carpets and leaking roof, so much smaller than she remembered.  The old rusty swing-set that would collapse under her weight if she tried to sit on it now.  The passing strangers who looked at her suspiciously as she walked by. 

Only, no, she remembered the roaring waters.  That had been real, dammit.  She was sure.

Pretty sure.

2174 was such a long time ago.

So many friends, all of them long gone.  Nothing but memories now, just like the Earth.

And there, silhouetted against the distant and barren cliffs stood Liara T'Soni.

She stopped in her tracks.  For one heart-wrenching moment Shepard was reminded of Tali and Rannoch - and, god, how long had it been since she'd thought about her? - but Liara was only lightly tapping something out on her omni-tool.  Just beyond the path was a perfectly square hole in the dirt, and it became clear what her bondmate was doing here.  Another time-capsule for the next cycle.

Shepard had lost count after the first dozen or so, but now there were caches scattered all over central Africa, from the Niger delta to Lake Tanganyika.  The reapers would see to it that no humans would survive to find these, but one day others would come, searching for human artifacts the same way her own people had once searched for prothean ones.

With a practiced hand, Liara lifted a mound of dirt with her biotics, allowing it to fall and fill the hole before tamping down the soil with her boot.  Most of her capsules would not survive the next fifty-thousand years, but perhaps this one would.

They had to try.

Shepard stepped slowly forward until they were side by side, staring off into the distance together at the once great river.  Further to the west, small trees and shrubs hung from the cliffs, inexplicably green amongst so much brown.  The Zambezi was still dribbling what little water it had left over the edge, like a faucet someone forgot to close all the way.

Her eyes shut when she felt a hand on her shoulder.  Upon opening them again, the world had unfortunately not changed, the sky was still yellow, the trees still brown, the air devoid of birds, but the trickling waters, and the wind... she could hear them again.

It was like a weight had been lifted from her chest.

Liara's eyes were as vibrant as the sky had once been, but Shepard knew that back in the real world they were as black as the night.

It was just something Liara did instinctively whenever they were alone together.  The bond kept Shepard going, kept her from forgetting what she was fighting for, kept her from forgetting what it meant to be human.

Liara was so quiet these days, but then so was everyone else.  Shepard missed her voice.  Missed so much.  This was the only way she could experience it.

"I've always wanted to take you here," she said finally, cringing at the sound of her own voice.  Had it always been so rough?  Though Liara kept her eyes on the horizon, there was still the faintest hint of a smile on her lips.

"It is very beautiful," she replied, rubbing calming circles into the tense muscles of Shepard's neck.  "Like the canyons of Varasi in the Western Desert of Thessia."

They stood there in silence, as they tended to do whenever they were alone these days.  There were simply too many subjects that hurt to talk about.  The old days were filled with memories of the dead, places that were nothing more than smoking craters now, and the new?

"I'm glad to see that even the reapers cannot touch this place."

Shepard's expression fell.  Liara had never seen the falls in their prime. 

She remembered staring out the forward window when the Normandy was orbiting that distant planet in the Terminus systems.  Below her, a nameless world, crossed with the wind blasted skeletons of ancient roads and once great structures.

Shepard thought of that night often.  A few days later she would be dead.

At the time, she'd wondered if this had once been the homeworld of some long-forgotten race.  Nameless and ancient even when the protheans ruled the galaxy.  Now she wondered if in fifty-thousand years, another captain would look down on Earth with the same thoughts running through her mind.

Already her world was dying.  The fires set by the reapers had thrown unimaginable quantities of dust into the air.  Temperatures around the globe were falling steadily and Europe and North America lay paralyzed under endless blizzards.  Every field they had passed in the last year lay fallow, the farmers long gone.

Nothing could stop the tide.

'They take everything.'  Even during Earth's greatest war, no side had been able to destroy nature itself.   Tens of millions had died, yet life soon returned to Warsaw and Stalingrad and Hiroshima; but even nature itself was no match for the reapers.  They would see to it that Earth would never rise again.

A hand pressed against her cheek, the pad of a thumb brushing against skin.  Liara had caught her crying again.  It was something that never happened in front of her troops, but the bond made it so much easier to lose control.  There was no hiding anything from her.

She never even tried.

Shepard brushed away the tears and was astonished to see the waters rise, pouring over the cliffs in greater and greater volume, the sound intensifying as the spray kicked up.  It left her mouth agape, and it wasn't long before her hair was soaked and beads of water began to drip down her face.  Just like her memories.

"Thank you."  Had their minds not been linked, her whispered words would've been lost in the roar.   "I'm…" her voice broke.  For an instant she was nineteen again and the worst thing she had to look forward to was disappointing Captain Anderson during her upcoming N1 evaluation.  Just a teenager with a galaxy's worth of possibilities stretching out before her.  "I'm glad you're here to share this with me," she said finally.

"Me too."

Shepard glanced at her for a moment.  Only adoration could been seen in those sparkling blue eyes.  In spite of everything, Liara still looked just as young as she had when she'd been freed from that bubble on Therum.  It made Shepard's heart ache.  "I wish it was under better circumstances."

"Always at your side, I believe I promised."

She nodded.  "Some promises are better off forgotten."

Liara hummed, purposefully bringing their hands together.  "Not this one."

Shepard had made a promise once too.  ‘Every day after.'  Those were her words that long ago night on the Citadel.  Only there weren’t so many of those left now.

Blue hands continued to hold onto her own and Shepard closed her eyes.  That too was a night she’d never forget.

The euphoria of the party, the softness of skin, the unexpected passion Liara had shared with her.  They made love until they could hardly move, and Shepard had whispered her dreams of a thousand more nights like this after the reapers were destroyed.  She would take Liara all over the galaxy, explore with her every hidden secret that a hundred-billion systems had to offer.  She would leave in Liara's long life a swath of joy and color that she would remember fondly for the rest of her days.

The Citadel, with its beautiful shining towers, endless streams of traffic, and its millions of people.  Shepard could feel the warm atmosphere of the Sunset Strip as though she were physically standing there, could see its dazzling lights, sense the vibrations as hovercars zipped by, could even smell the fresh air.  Hints of conversation flittered just at the edge of hearing, people discussing dinner plans, dancing, and love - humans and asari, turians and quarians all acting as though the war would never come to this place - a galactic community the likes of which humans would’ve dismissed as science fiction only fifty years before.  A utopia in space.  Portal to a million even more beautiful worlds.

Every visit was torture, and Liara knew it, felt it just as keenly, but she never denied a single thing that Shepard asked of her.

No matter how much it hurt.

Liara missed those days as much as Shepard did.

And just as quickly it was gone, and grass again brushed against her boots.  But still, the mist fell and the roaring continued.

No reapers, no military caravan, no responsibilities.  The only two people on the planet.

Shepard blinked, feeling the lump rising in her throat.  She wanted to see the passion, to see the light in those fathomless blue eyes one more time, the light of uncovering some long hidden secret, of discovering something new, but this war had taken so much.

So many regrets.   Sometimes Shepard wondered if they should've joined one of the Hider outposts beyond the fringes of the system, naively hoping that the reapers wouldn't touch them out there, not if they stayed dark and turned away from the endless pleas for help from Earth, and Mars, and all the other worlds the reapers had swarmed.  What she wouldn't give to spend the rest of her life bonded to Liara, just like this...

"That wouldn't be you," Liara's voice reminded her.  Always so gentle to her ears, no matter what dark direction her thoughts took her.

Shepard sighed.  "I know..."  To abandon her people to save herself.  It was unthinkable.  The universe she wanted for Liara was simply beyond her power to give.

A hand travelled up her arm to cup her cheek, and she leaned into the touch.   Shepard remembered the feeling amongst the crew of the SR-1, that Liara was weak, that she was attracted to Shepard only because she offered the strength that Liara lacked.

The truth was nothing like that.  Without Liara, Shepard feared to imagine what toll this endless war would’ve taken on her.

She probably would've died in Lagos. 

They'd landed there during the assault - crash landed, really - tearing off the starboard wing of the Normandy, already trailing fire after the Reaper beam had knocked it far off its approach to London.  Instead, they found themselves in the business district of the largest city in Africa.  A population of twenty-six million, scattered to the hills, or dead, with the last remnants of the Nigerian army fighting a losing battle.  And the Normandy, trailing its last reserves of eezo from an enormous gash on its underside, bringing a reaper destroyer down on them all.

It was a split second decision.

With Joker's help, they had taken the reaper down, but the cost was his life, and the lives of everyone still onboard.  Liara and Vega had to drag her off the ramp before he took off and literally threw the Normandy at their pursuer, otherwise she would’ve have gone up in flames with him.

She’d begged for aid, for a transport, a shuttle, anything to take them on to London, but nothing came.  All she had were the reports, choppy and distorted in the chaos of battle: the advance on the reaper beam, the disappearance of Anderson, the docking of the Crucible.  Then minute by agonizing minute, nothing. 

All the while, she rallied what forces she could, and flushed the reapers from the city.  It was the only way to keep her mind off her failure.

They had needed more ships for the enemy to shoot at, more allies to distract them, and more weapons to throw back in their faces.  But every minute they spent out there in the wider galaxy, begging with aliens and terrified humans for help, was another minute the reapers were slaughtering her people. 

1.8 million humans per day.

75,000 per hour.

21 per second.

Perhaps it would not have mattered in the end.

The Crucible never fired.

And no one would ever know why.

She stayed up all that night, and the next, listening as the reports continued to come in, watching the lights in the sky, the horrible flashes and falling stars.  Standing there on the ruins of the city’s central bank, the crew watched as the Kilimanjaro, the Destiny Ascension, the Everest, every last ship in the fleet, was destroyed one by one.

And finally, as the flagship burned, Hackett issued his final order: proceed as you see fit, but stay away from London.  Scores of capital ships had swarmed the city by that point.  It was little more than a meat grinder.

Then silence.

So Shepard assembled all the soldiers, vehicles, and weapons she could find, and headed east to Cameroon and the nearest human processing camp.  There was no front line to join in this terrible war, no great redoubt for humanity’s last stand, but maybe the knowledge the reapers were gathering from humans could work both ways.  Maybe there was a way to kill them with some kind of bioweapon, or an EMP pulse, or something.

That particular thread of hope was quite frayed these days.

The memories flashed between their shared minds, but Liara did not amplify them, did not bring them to life.  "You did all you could," was all she said.

Anderson would've agreed with her, but it didn't make the failure any easier to live with.

"I'll always be with you, no matter what happens.”

“No matter what,” Shepard repeated, burying her head in Liara's shoulder.  Nothing was so permanent.  Not anymore.  Not in this universe.

“If given the choice between being here with you for just one more night, or another nine-hundred years without you, I would stay right here.”

She wrapped her arms around her all the more tightly and nodded, wishing that she’d never have to let go.

Shepard and her people were being ignored.  There would be no great final battle for the future of humanity.  They would die out gradually, like all the species mankind had snuffed out in the last two-hundred years.  Tools to be used and then discarded.

Wind whipped her hair as the thunder receded, and the moisture disappeared from the air.  The wind was so dry and stale, so dusty and cold, it made her ill.  Reality was so very horrible.

"Tell me," she said into Liara's ear.  "Tell me we've made a difference."

Flecks of water splashed against her cheeks.  "We have.  You have.  Without you, the secret to the Crucible would've been lost on Mars.   The cycle that finds these records, the one that puts the last few pieces together and finally defeats the reapers, they will owe their victory to you."

"They won't even know our names."  She remembered the prothean VI they had found on Ilos.  Distorted beyond all recognition.  Who had built it?  What were their names?  No one would ever know.

Fingers scratched lightly at her back.  "Does that bother you?"

Shepard shook her head.  "I don't want there to be another day like this."  Again, she pictured Tali, with the ruins of her people streaking through the sky above her.   Her species had died that day, and finally she understood the simple truth: Shepard could do nothing to stop it, there was nothing anyone could do to save them.  Behind her mask, her face was all but invisible, but Shepard would never forget the way Tali's voice broke.  Trillions had experienced the exact same sight in the past three years.  "No more cycles.  No more death... no more..."

 So damn naive.  Who could possibly stand before the tide and stop it from rolling in?  But that had been her job.  Stop the reapers.  But she couldn't .

"You take on so much..."

"You deserve it all, Liara."  And she knew it, had felt it through their link.  Shepard would do anything for her.

"I have all I want, right here."

"It should last forever."

"It will, in its own way."

Liara was in her mind again.  She imagined a beautiful garden world, a mix of Earth and Thessia, all lush rolling hills, purple cliffs, and bright blue seas.  Tall spires glimmered on the horizon, with twinkling lights dotting the morning sky.  And in the distance stood two indistinct figures on a high ridge, one with dark skin, the other blue.  Shepard’s lip twitched despite herself.  "They'll live long, full lives because of how you've lived yours.  They’ll never have to witness the things you've seen."  They'll never have to watch their homeworlds burn.  They’ll never know what it's like to lose all hope.

"Liara."

She pulled away, eyes still shining even in that pale yellow sun.  Even now, after all she had endured, Liara hadn’t given up.  Shepard smiled, the first honest to god smile in what might have been years.  “Here's to the future," she said before leaning in and kissing her.