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Only Hope Remains

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The space was prime real estate; an upper-level office with a large window and a full view of the entire trading floor. Through the window, the occupant had an excellent line of sight to the multiple entry ways, so it was very easy to monitor and record everyone coming and going on Illium. That was important in her business. The office was spacious, much more than she needed, really, with plenty of room for a large desk, various computer terminals and a comfortable seating area. There was also a separate receptionist area outside the main door to control traffic flow in and out of the office. The Matriarch had chosen well when she purchased this space, and what once belonged to Matriarch Benezia now belonged to Dr Liara T'Soni, Information Broker.

Liara sat at her desk, scouring the data feeds for any hints as to the whereabouts of the Shadow Broker or any news of Samantha Shepard's return, just like she had every day for the last two years, ever since she had turned over the charred remains of the commander to that frigid Cerberus agent, Miranda Lawson. Cerberus! Even if they did manage to bring Commander Shepard back from the dead, would it really be her? And if it was her, could Samantha ever forgive her? They were responsible for the death of her father! Goddess, what have I done? Her eyes closed momentarily to shut down the tears that threatened to emerge as her guilt tried to wheedle its way to the fore. Some days were better than others, some days were horrible. That would be a good description for Liara's current day...horrible. She didn't finding any new leads, and most of her Information Broker deals in progress were at a stage that did not require any immediate action, so she had no distractions. On those empty days without a focal point, the doubts gnawed at her subconscious. Her mind tended to wander and she had a tendency to remember... and many of those memories were far from pleasant.

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They had stepped onto Thessia with such promise for their future, the galaxy wide open to them. The week had been pleasurable, even with the stresses of handling the transfer of the T'Soni estate from Matriarch Benezia to Liara. The security plans Shepard put in place had paid off, and the one attempt made on Liara's life was discovered and truncated before it got off the ground. Capt Axoni and her commandos performed magnificently and Liara had been completely unaware of the danger until Shepard told her of it after the fact. At first, the revelation had angered her. Before she thought it through, the fact that Shepard had kept critical information from her made her instinctively question the trust she put in Shepard. As she got over the initial perceived hurt, she realized that very trust was exactly why she didn't need to know. She was completely submersed in dealing with the estate executor, busy laying out investment plans and funds disbursements, and that task required her undivided attention in order to be completed on time.

Liara knew herself well enough; she knew if Shepard had told her what was going on, she would have been totally unable to concentrate on her task at hand. Shepard had done her job and Liara had done hers, and it was Shepard's decision that had allowed both of them to complete their independent tasks to the best of their abilities. In retrospect, logically it had been the right call. Growing up, Liara's logic and instinct were seldom in such conflict, but life with Shepard had brought a whole new host of challenges into the Asari's life and she was still adapting. Shepard was her partner and soul mate, but Liara was still used to being independent and sometimes it was hard for her to give up control. Goddess, I'm just like Shepard in that regard. Shepard had been typically patient with her; as Liara ranted, Samantha didn't say a word.   Once Liara had talked herself completely through the events, she had turned her thoughts around and convinced herself that it was, after all, the right call and Shepard had just laughed. She had understood Liara's reaction completely, referencing an ancient human adage, 'old habits die hard.' Even for Liara that one required no explanation, and it had seemed particularly appropriate at the time.

Liara had loved the opportunity to show her home world to Samantha. They had arranged to stay in the Armali townhome for four days while conducting business with the executor, Matriarch Mozia T'Sessi. She was a personal friend to Tevos, and handled many of her more delicate affairs when the Councilor was unable to return to Thessia to take care of them personally. They found the Matriarch amiable and professional, and she guided them quickly through the processes and procedures, efficiently bringing the business portion of their trip to a rapid close. With the estate plans in place and witnessed by a Matriarch Quorum, their final day in Armali was totally unencumbered. The townhome itself was not to Shepard's tastes; it was very luxurious, with all modern amenities, but it was too sterile. It was all metal and glass, and reminded Shepard of a commercial office space more so than a home. Of course, the Matriarch had used it for business in the city, so maybe that feel was by design. While the townhome itself was functional but not necessarily pleasing, the city of Armali was wonderful. It was a cultural center, so had a plethora of museums, concert halls and open gardens. Since their last day was entirely free, they had spent it with Liara showing Shepard the highlights. They ended their day with dinner at an amazing restaurant followed by a walk in a beautiful park near the townhome, enjoying the quiet and tranquility of a stunning star-filled sky. They ended their night perfectly naked, making sweet, tender love into the midnight hours, until they fell asleep, deeply entwined in both mind and body, content and at peace.

While the townhome in Armali was very much modernized, Shepard had absolutely loved the serenity and openness surrounding the T'Soni country estate. After spending the last three days of their week there, they decided that when the time came, the country estate would be their full time residence. It didn't have the attractions of the big city, but the home itself was constructed of wood and stone and had a more traditional feel, which Shepard loved. It was much larger, would be able to easily accommodate multiple guests, and had stunning vistas off the numerous verandas and balconies about the house. It was mostly surrounded by beautiful pastoral gardens, but the eastern side faced the ocean, with inviting white sand beaches that stretched as far as the eye could see. Their final night on Thessia, they had walked the beach after dinner, together with their thoughts. Shepard loved the soothing rhythms of the soft surf on the shore. The peacefulness made it almost easy to forget the Reapers, even if only for a little while. Shepard had stopped and watched the sun set to the southwest when she heard Liara ask if she cared to go swimming, saying, "The water is perfect this time of year." Shepard laughed, saying she hadn't even brought a suit. When she finally turned back, Liara was standing waist deep in the water, wearing nothing but a shy smile. Her clothing lay abandoned on the shore and her wet skin shimmered iridescent under the Thessian moon; it was the most entrancing sight Shepard had ever seen. Never taking her eyes off Liara, Shepard stripped down and entered the water, closing the distance to her love slowly, as if a rapid movement would scare away the beautiful vision before her. As their bodies came together, they both shivered with delight, Liara humming with contentment, the contrast of the cooling water and their now shared body heat exhilarating and stimulating. They held each other close in the glistening moonlight.

Their kiss, initially tranquil and welcoming, built quickly to express a need and desire for more, becoming deep and desperate. Liara pulled Sam close with one arm while her opposite hand went to the back of Shepard's head and played with her silken hair. Liara had always been fascinated with human hair, and she loved the way it flowed like a soft caress between her fingers. With one hand, Shepard stroked Liara's crest; her other arm snaked around the Asari's waist and her hand planted quickly into her lover's lower back, expertly searching out the folds she knew were so sensitive. Liara wasn't expecting it, and she gasped into their kiss as her knees buckled, Samantha catching and supporting her in the water. The speed of her arousal caught her completely unprepared and Liara had trouble forming a full sentence, but managed to stammer out, "Goddess... beach... please!" Shepard took pity on the vulnerable Asari and moved to the shore, folding gently down into the sand. She immediately resumed her administrations, and felt Liara collide with her mind, shamelessly begging permission to enter. Shepard welcomed her in, pushing back with a wave of trust and unending love. Liara's thoughts were jumbled, awash with swirling emotions. Shepard saw visions of the shore, the moon, and then of herself, and she realized Liara was sharing how she felt about Samantha, being with her here on Thessia, her home world. Until that moment, Shepard had not fully comprehended how deeply Liara cherished being able to share her culture, how much she treasured Shepard's support through all the issues regarding Benezia. Shepard finally understood just how much Liara loved her; for accepting her, for trusting her, for easing her loneliness, for giving her a new family and for giving her hope of a future. The love Shepard received in exchange for those things was exquisite.

Shepard reciprocated, showing Liara images of the happy times Liara had given her, just by being with her, supporting her through her trials, her pain, her insecurities. Liara was her love and her light, the one who kept her from the road of despair. The one that gave her hope and a beacon that allowed her to always find her way home. Liara was her home. During all the exchanges of emotion, the meld had deepened to the point where their emotions, thoughts and physical pleasures had intertwined to become one. Shepard had not stopped with her physical ministrations to her lover's body, and had moved into the wet folds between Liara's thighs. Liara had whimpered as two fingers had penetrated deep within her, followed by repeated soft cries of pleasure as Shepard increased the tempo of her efforts. As Samantha had shared thoughts of thankfulness for Liara's support, Liara started to rock her hips in rhythm with the physical thrusts, climbing close to the brink. The swell of emotions accompanying Shepard's final thought, {No matter where, you are my home!} sent Liara over the edge, stiffening into climax. She arched her hips off the sand and the two came together as one, sharing each other's pleasure, each intensifying the other's orgasm as shared ecstasy claimed them.

They lay on the beach next to their pile of clothes, trying to catch their breath and holding each other tight as the aftershocks tapered off. Liara cried tears of joy due to the release of the overwhelming emotions that had been bottled up for so long. Still connected via the meld, Shepard tried to capture the tears off her lover's cheeks as they fell, not upset because she knew they were happy tears, and her frenzied attempts to catch every teardrop with her lips made both of them start to laugh. If anyone had seen them, they would have thought them crazy; two naked people rolling in the wet sand after dark, laughing and crying at the same time. With a breath shuddering from fatigue, Liara finally let the meld dissolve and they finally rose, to rinse off and throw their clothes back on for a leisurely walk back to the house. They walked side by side, Liara's arm around Shepard's waist, Shepard's arm around Liara's shoulders, heads leaning in and meeting in the middle, two as one, even without the meld. Liara and Samantha had become 'we.' It was a foregone conclusion, so natural and easy; circumstances had brought them together, and there was no longer any doubt in their minds as to them having a shared future.

During their time on Thessia, they had accomplished all of their major goals. They had worked with the staff of both locations, made sure the homes would be redecorated to their tastes, and that the commandos had the discretionary funds to acquire the upgrades and improved equipment Shepard had selected. Between the overhaul in the armories and a few joint training sessions, by the end of the week they had built a solid relationship of trust and reciprocal admiration that instilled both confidence and loyalty. They all parted on the best of terms, everyone looking forward to a long and mutually beneficial partnership. The week had passed all too quickly, and soon it was time to return to the Citadel and the Normandy. They traveled with heavy hearts, knowing the tasks still before them would be difficult. They had no clues, no leads. How were they to stop the Reapers, when they didn't even know where to begin looking? All they knew for sure was that they had each other, and that would be enough. The same two commandos who joined them for their trip to Thessia still traveled with them, the pilot Judea Voni, and Huntress Riana Iregos. Judea would stay with the transport at the Citadel, getting recommended refits and weapons system upgrades, but Riana would travel with them on the Normandy. She would be a fine addition to the ground teams, and she could provide Liara security and companionship while Shepard was tied up with military duties and otherwise indisposed. Until they were positive the threat to Liara's life had been nullified, Shepard felt better with a little additional protective assistance.

When they arrived at the Citadel, the Normandy was nearly ready, updated with all the latest retrofits and gleaming with its new paint. They literally just had to sit and wait for the paint to dry. Those few days were spent engulfed in a public relations campaign, with numerous interviews and award presentations. Shepard hated every moment of it, and the peace and tranquility they had found during their two weeks of leave was ground to dust by frustration. The days were taken up by personal appearances; the nights by dinners with every known politician who could find their way to the Citadel for a photo op with the great Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy. By the time the Normandy was ready, four days later, Shepard was more than eager to take on the mantle of Spectre and take to the stars once again. Their only direction was to pursue the Geth, in hopes they would somehow reveal where Sovereign had originated or at least initially contacted them. If they could find that point in space, they would at least have a starting point for their search.

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A raven-haired woman, Miranda Lawson, stood in front of a huge window, with a red supergiant star in visible through the viewport. In the center of a room, a man sat at a small desk with various holographic displays open in front of him, smoking a cigarette. He was Jack Harper, better known to his associates as the Illusive Man.

Miranda was facing out the window as she spoke in a gentle Australian accent, "Shepard did everything right, more than we could have hoped for. Saving the Citadel, even saving the Council. Humanity has the trust of the entire galaxy..." She then turned toward the Illusive Man. "...and still it's not enough."

The Illusive Man looked up from his display to look at Miranda, shrugging his shoulders. "Our sacrifices have earned the Council's gratitude, but Shepard remains our best hope."

Miranda was angry, her voice rose as she walked toward Jack. "But they're sending her to fight Geth. Geth of all things! We both know they're not the real threat. The Reapers are...and they're still out there!" She stopped in front of the man, waiting impatiently on some form of reply.

Jack took a long drag on his cigarette before responding. "And it's up to us to stop them."

He calmly watched Lawson, probably his most reliable operative, as she crossed her arms in frustration. She sneered, "The Council will never trust Cerberus. They'll never accept our help. Even after everything humanity has accomplished." She dropped her arms and turned back to the star outside the window. "But Shepard...they'll follow her. She's a hero, a bloody icon. But she's just one woman. If we lose Shepard, humanity might well follow."

The Illusive Man's face hardened into granite and his voice became ice as he put out his cigarette and focused on Operative Lawson. "Then see to it that we don't lose her." It was not a request. It was an ultimatum. Miranda Lawson was very much aware of what happened to people who disappointed the Illusive Man, and she did not plan on ever being one of them.

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It had been just under a month since the attack on the Citadel, and the Normandy was once again headed for deep space. They were headed to the relay, to make a series of jumps out to the fringes of Citadel space, back toward the Terminus Systems and the Perseus Veil. To quell the rumors and stop potential panic about the Reapers, the Council had officially blamed the attack on Saren and his army of Geth, with no mention of Sovereign other than as a massive Geth dreadnought. As such, the Normandy's official task was to wipe out the remaining pockets of Geth resistance. The classified Spectre portion of the mission was to find any clues as to the origins or locations of the Reapers. Their entire crew returned, with the exception of Wrex. One of their anti-pirate side missions had turned up an old family relic, one of Wrex's ancestral Clan Urdnot suits of armor, and it made him start considering a return to Tuchanka, the Krogan home world. With the defeat of Saren and Sovereign, Wrex thought the Normandy would lack worthy enemies, so he had decided to return home in an attempt to unite the Clans and find a cure for the Genophage. After what he had witnessed on Virmire, he felt restoring the pride of the Krogan people would be a worthy, and necessary, goal. Wrex offered no goodbyes. Instead, he told Shepard, "If you find any big monsters, you call me. The Krogan will come help you kill them!" As the ship left its moorings, Commander Shepard and Dr T'Soni stood side-by-side on the Bridge behind Joker, shoulders just barely touching, watching as the ship started to slip in amongst the stars. With the now familiar deck of the Normandy under her feet, with Shepard at her side, it had felt like bliss.

For two weeks, the Normandy hopped from system to system, ferreting out small pockets of Geth and eliminating them. Wrex had been correct; they had not proved much of a challenge. Without Sovereign, their resistance was disorganized and ineffectual. That all changed at Alchera. They had been searching in the Amada System of the Omega Nebula after receiving reports of three ships having gone missing in the same area. They had found nothing for four days...and then something found them. An unidentified ship appeared on the long-range scanner, huge in size, matching no known profile in the Systems Alliance database. Even though the Normandy's stealth system was engaged, the unknown vessel changed course to an intercept trajectory. Joker quickly realized the ship could not possibly be Geth, they didn't possess that kind of technology, and shouted out. "It's not the Geth! Brace for evasive maneuvers!"

The massive ship had some type of energy weapon, and a single shot dropped the Normandy's kinetic barriers, caused multiple hull breaches and took the weapons off-line. The entire ship shook, and the warning klaxons started blaring. Liara scrambled through the ship, trying desperately to locate Shepard as the Normandy burned around her. As multiple explosions rocked the ship and crewmen died around her, Liara finally found the Commander, a picture of controlled calm in the middle of the storm, standing at a console trying to get the fire suppression system on line. Approaching the commander from behind, Liara urgently called her name as she watched Shepard put on her helmet. She immediately followed suit as the commander turned to her and said, "The distress beacon has just been launched." Liara, her voice pitched with anxiety, queried, "You think the Alliance will get here in time?" Somehow, Shepard remained calm, and as she grabbed a fire extinguisher, she gently responded, "Of course they will. I'm not doing this just so they can find our frozen corpses. Get everyone to the escape shuttles."

Shepard's calm control flooded its way into Liara's consciousness, and as her breath started to smooth out, Liara added, "Joker is still in the cockpit. He won't evacuate...I'm not leaving you, either." Shepard snapped around, "Liara! There's no time! I need you to get the crew onto the evac shuttles. I'll take care of Joker." As another explosion rocked the Normandy, Liara hesitated, looking at her lover and spoke her name like a plea, "Shepard..." Samantha turned one last time to the Asari, grabbed her shoulders and turned her, giving her a little shove toward the shuttles. "Liara. Go. Now." Liara glanced back one more time, and steeling her resolve, said "Aye aye," then ran for the shuttles. Now committed to leading the evacuation, Liara moved from one shuttle to the next, urging people in and hitting the launch controls as fast as they could fill them and get the doors closed. When it was apparent no one else was coming, Liara jumped in and secured her restraints, nodding to Karin Chakwas, who punched the eject control. Liara gripped her harness and closed her eyes as the explosive charge blasted them away from the Normandy. By the Goddess! Please hurry, love. Please hurry.

Shepard worked her way to the cockpit as fast as she could, hearing Joker still on the comm repeating a Mayday call. As Shepard watched the Normandy disintegrating around her, she wondered what the hell he was still doing in the pilot seat; there was nothing left to fly. When she got to the Bridge, Joker still insisted he could save the Normandy. Shepard was out of patience, and grabbed Joker's arm, shouting, "The Normandy's lost! Going down with the ship won't change that!" Against Joker's pained protests, she physically moved him to the Bridge evacuation pod and shoved him through the door as another explosion rocked the ship, throwing her backward and causing a loss of gravity. Shepard clung to the remains of a bulkhead, near the pod ejection controls and realized there was no way she was getting back to the pod in time. She heard Joker shout her name as yet another explosion caused her to lose her grip. She punched the ejection control pad just before the force of the blast roughly tossed her from the Normandy into deep space.

Shepard grunted as she felt her body get slammed against a bulkhead on her way out of the ship. Her N7 training included zero-gravity combat and deep space survival, so she was sure she could survive this, assuming their mystery enemy didn't blast her out of space first. She tried to look around; tried to see if she could find any of the escape shuttles, thinking if her trajectory got her close enough to any of them she could use a magnetic tether to clip on. Being attached to a shuttle would greatly improve her chances of recovery over being a single lone body floating in space, personal recovery beacon or not. It was then that she realized her ejection had blown her toward Alchera, and much to her dismay, she was within the gravitational well and would be pulled into the planet. Just then, she also heard a pressure alarm go off in her helmet, indicating she had a leak in her suit. Well, Alliance won't be here in time to pull my ass out of the fire this time.

With the knowledge she was undoubtedly going to die within the next few moments, either through asphyxiation or burning to death during reentry, a surprising calm fell over the commander. She no longer worried about slowing her breathing or using any of the meditation techniques from training to prolong her suit oxygen. She was willing to use it up; she'd rather pass out from lack of air than burn. It seemed a remarkably easy choice. She thought about the rest of the crew on the Normandy and hoped everyone had made it to the shuttles, at least those who weren't already dead. Tears started to run down her face as she thought of Liara. With her decreasing suit pressure, it was starting to get cold, and the moisture fogged the faceplate so she could no longer see the stars twinkling around her. She bumped into something and grappled to hang on to whatever it was, thinking that maybe it would shield her enough that they'd at least be able to find a body to send to her mother...and to give Liara closure. Oh, my beautiful Blue. I wish I had one more chance to tell you how much I love you. We had so many good times, we should have had so many more...I love you, Blue. Oh how I love you... Her thoughts drifted to that night on the Thessian beach and she fell asleep one last time, dreaming of Liara.

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Five hours had passed, and every minute of it had tortured Liara. When the first half hour passed uneventfully, it was actually a relief, because it meant the attack was over and for some reason the enemy had abandoned them instead of killing or capturing them. It did make Liara curious as to the purpose of the attack if that was the case. Her curiosity did not last long, however, before her mind turned back to thoughts of Shepard. What if she had not made it to the bridge? She could be somewhere out there, free floating in the vacuum of space. Liara fully understood the strength of Shepard's will, and if anyone could do it, it would be her. "Goddess, what would that be like?" She hadn't meant to, but she had said that out loud. After a bit of explaining the thought process leading to her remark, Karin had tried to comfort her by telling her about the commander's N7 training, that the suits carried an eight-hour supply of air, and that a well trained operative like the commander had breathing techniques that could stretch that to nine hours, maybe ten if they had no other distractions. Liara did not want to listen. She knew Karin was trying to be helpful, but all it did was make the minutes crawl by, because now instead of blind hope there was an actual time limit on Shepard's life. Every minute that went by without a rescue ship showing up was another minute taken away from Shepard's chance of survival; it was tormenting to endure. Her fists were clenched and her eyes squeezed shut in a vain attempt to not think about Samantha, floating free in space, but it was impossible. She tried to think back to the start of the mission; Liara now looked back on that day with bitterness. Standing there on the Bridge of the Normandy, having Shepard at her side had been blissful alright; they had been nothing but blissfully ignorant! She could not find the self discipline inside herself to redirect her thoughts and she hated herself for her weakness.

As the sixth hour neared, they felt and heard something metallic hit the hull. Liara's head jerked up with realization that someone had made it to them, and she prayed it was the Alliance and not some merc band, pirates or slavers. The evacuation shuttle bumped around, and soon the door popped open. Alliance soldiers helped the crewmen out of the pods and directed them to an information officer at the other end of the shuttle bay. It was the SSV Madrid, a cruiser that belonged with the 63d Scout Flotilla, a part of the 5th Fleet. They had counted ten evacuation shuttles, four had yet to be retrieved, and one Bridge pod that they hadn't gotten to yet. Liara heard a familiar voice ring behind her, "Thank the Goddess! Lady T'Soni!" Liara turned and hugged her commando, Riana, as she asked if she had seen Shepard. Riana saw the desperation in Liara's face and looked down at the floor, "No, Mistress, I have not..." She looked back up, encouragingly, "...but there are more shuttles yet, and the command pod. Surely, Shepard will be in one of them." Liara only prayed she was right. The command pod from the Bridge was the last item retrieved, and Liara hovered eagerly in the shuttle bay, waiting on the door to open. When it did, a very somber looking Joker hobbled out, and when his eyes found Liara's he simply said, "I'm so sorry..."

Liara let out a primal scream and her knees hit the deck. She hunched over as sobs wracked her body so hard she could barely breathe. Riana knelt down beside her and wrapped her strong arms around her in support as Liara continued to sob and mumble, "Goddess, why? Why Sam? No, please, no..."