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The Stars Asunder

Chapter Text

The universe burned.

Flashing red lights. Fire. A countdown clock she couldn’t halt.

A million voices, crying out in pain as they died.

Pain that tore through her as she burned, and died with them.

And through it all, the metallic screaming of the Reapers.

You will all die, Shepard. You cannot stop the harvest.

Shepard bolted upright in bed. She scrubbed her face with her hands, and stared out the giant window of her room at the red sunrise over Vancouver, and the bay beyond. She gave a hard sigh, shivering at the cold sweat that covered her. At least the Alliance gave me a nice view to wake up to.

Her feet touched the floor, walking the too-familiar path to the shower. The dreams were definitely getting worse again. They’d started again about a month after her voluntary surrender, after she’d sent an asteroid careening into the batarian relay. A month in judicial limbo, while the Alliance brass argued about what to do with her, what to do with the Normandy, and what to do about the Reapers.

If they believed her.

If they keep wasting time like this, it won’t matter. We’ll all be dead anyway. Despite everything I’ve done. Despite everything I’ve sacrificed.

She slammed her hand into the shower stall as the familiar frustration overwhelmed her. It was the wait, really. Her days were filled with endless waiting. Waiting in meetings. Waiting in her room. Always waiting. I need to be doing.

The thought sparked a memory. Liara, smiling, in that timid, awed way she had, back when this all began. Her amazement at being in Shepard’s company, in the company of a woman who, as she put it, was always doing, always reaching, always there, saving the day.

Shepard shook her head, letting the water cascade over her. I wish that were true now.

I wonder how Liara is.

She cut off the water and stepped out, continuing to think while she dried off and dressed.

If six long months of Alliance ‘hospitality’ hadn’t been bad enough, she’d been cut off from all outside contact. Only Vega, the hulking lieutenant Anderson had assigned as her watchdog, Anderson himself, and occasionally Hackett came to visit. As boring as the meetings she was often dragged to were (nothing but brass sniping at brass, mostly), at least she got to see a few fresh faces.

Her mother had visited, once. Early on. Hackett and Anderson had quietly colluded to get the newly-minted Admiral Shepard in to see her. But they’d both known it would be the only time, no chance for a repeat performance.

Of Liara and the rest of her crew, she’d heard nothing.

She still wrote in her journal, letters to Liara that would never see the light. Maybe one day, when this is all over, I’ll show them to her…

It wasn’t the first time she’d had the thought. But honestly, she wasn’t sure anymore if one day would come. Not while the Alliance dithered, and the Reapers drew nearer. Because they were getting closer. She could feel it, somehow. In every headache, in every nightmare. The Reapers were coming. And they were very nearly out of time.

Not that the brass would do anything but argue.

Shepard leaned forward, resting her arm against the giant window of her room, resting her head on her arm. In the rooftop courtyard of the next building over, a boy played with a model ship, flying it through the sky. She’d watched him before, realized the first time (thanks to her cybernetic eye) that the model he held was an SX3 Fighter model, but Shepard liked to pretend it was the Normandy. She had no idea what his name was, or anything about him, but there was something comforting, something calming about watching him play.

Or maybe she just missed her own model ships.

Alliance had better not have touched them.

Footsteps outside her room made her turn, just as the door slid opened, and Vega stepped in. He stopped with a crisp salute. “Commander.”

Shepard snorted. “You’re not supposed to call me that anymore, James.”

“Not supposed to salute you, either.”

She glanced at the datapad that held the text of her journal, and didn’t quite hide her smile, but Vega continued brusquely.

“We gotta go. The Defense Committee wants to see you.”

He turned on his heels, and headed for the door without waiting for her. “Sounds important.” The Defense Committee usually gave her a heads up before summoning her.

Shepard shook her head, and tossed the journal to her bed, before following.

***

Fucking Reapers.

Shepard surveyed the devastation around her as the Normandy lifted off. Alliance shuttles zoomed back and forth, trying to pickup anyone they could, while space-black Reaper ships descended, red beams tearing through metal and concrete like butter. She watched Anderson run towards them, helping an injured soldier.

Damn him. She understood why he had to stay, but God… The last thing she wanted was for it all to be up to her.

Again.

Always.

At least I have the Normandy.

A handful of Kodiak shuttles dropped into the dock area, soldiers jumping out to assist everyone they could. Shepard started to turn away, but at the last second, a familiar form caught her eye.

Spaceship model boy.

How…?

He shouldn’t have been able to survive the reaper blast that destroyed the building she and Anderson had cut through. Shepard had almost convinced herself she’d imagined seeing him in the heating ducts. But there he was again, running to the shuttles, looking straight at her, then trying to climb aboard.

Dammit, why wasn’t anyone helping him?

No one seemed to see his struggle, as he got first one leg, then the finally the other over the edge of the Kodiak. He shook himself off, then stared, terrified, at the approaching Reaper.

Shepard couldn’t figure out why no one helped him, comforted him. Then the shuttle door closed, and off they flew, ahead of the Reaper. Safe.

For a few, precious seconds.

The Reaper’s laser blew them out of the sky a moment later.

Shepard turned away, steeling herself as she closed the Normandy’s ramp. They wouldn’t be the last to die.

Not by a long shot.

Chapter Text

For once, nothing burned.

Surrounded by dark mists and eerie, skeletal trees, Shepard felt lost. Nothing made sense. Voices echoed in the fog, voices and shadows.

And a boy, with a SX3 Fighter model. He looked up in horror as the too-familiar metallic blast of sound echoed around them. It came again, with a flash of white light that turned red, and the boy ran, just as she reached for him.

The light faded, and she gave chase. The voices around her turned sinister, cold. Dark. Full of fear and blame, and crying.

She found the boy again, but as she reached for him, it came.

The familiar fire.

Burning. Consuming.

He stared at her, as he burned, his eyes accusing.

Shepard started awake with a gasp. Well, that was new and different. She swung her legs to the side of the bed, resting her head in her hands. New nightmares, same old lack of sleep.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept well.

Actually, she could. She’d slept soundly with Liara’s arms wrapped around her. Before she’d taken on the Collectors, before she’d blown up a relay, killed millions, and still failed to stop the Reapers.

Before Doomsday had come and gone.

A knock at her door startled her out of her dismal thoughts. She stood to answer it, slightly surprised when she did, though she couldn’t stop the yawn that pulled at her.

“Liara. Can I help you?”

It was a stupid thing to say, but it was all that came out.

Liara replied, strictly business, going on about the Turians and the device. Shepard only half listened. She wanted to reach out, to touch her face, draw her close. It felt like forever since they’d been together, but Shepard still felt the need for her now, with the galaxy falling apart around them, more than ever. But Liara…

Liara seemed to have withdrawn again, hiding behind her status as Shadow Broker, hiding behind the next problem. Shepard forced herself to listen. “…until their primarch is safe.”

She walked past the asari, restraining the need to reach out and hold her, and instead leaned against the railing outside her cabin. “I know.”

Liara paused. “Are you alright?”

Shepard sighed, and turned. “I didn’t get what you’d call a good night’s rest.”

“There’s more to it than that, isn’t there? What’s really bothering you?”

I miss you. The words almost came out. Instead, she defaulted, hid behind her own insecurities. “When we left Earth, I could hear people screaming in the streets below. We left a lot of them behind.”

Liara stepped closer. “There’s no way for you to save them all. But I know you, Shepard. You’re doing everything you can, and you’ll get back there in time to save them.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Liara gave her a long look, then backed slowly away. Shepard’s brows furrowed, watching her. “Don’t blame yourself, Commander.”

Commander? “Liara—”

The elevator slid open, and both of them turned to look.

“Commander Shepard? I’m Specialist—oh.”

A short, dark woman with a British accent stepped off the lift, speaking before she even passed the doors, but freezing when she turned to look at them. Her eyes seemed to assess the situation, and Shepard wondered if she could see the tension between them.

“I—I beg your pardon. I thought you were alone.”

Shepard sighed internally. Well, I will be now.

Sure enough, Liara spun around, almost running for the elevator. “I was just leaving.”

“Liara, wait—”

The lift doors shut on her plea. Shepard rubbed her face, and turned to the intruder.

“Commander Shepard? I’m Comm Specialist Samantha Traynor, with Alliance R&D…”

Dammit all to hell.

 

***

 

Shepard had to admit, the Alliance had done a great job refitting the SR-2. While the layout was basically the same, things had shifted back to where they should have been. Weapons in cargo, for instance. Though why they’d insisted on that damned security scan to get back to the war room was beyond her. She’d made a mental note to ask EDI if they could rip the ridiculous thing out.

But standing here, staring at what had once been Miranda Lawson’s office, she was really impressed.

Of course Liara had taken it over.

“Commander Shepard. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Shepard started at the voice, and the floating blue drone. “You’re the drone from the Shadow Broker ship.” That explains all the equipment & monitors.

“Dr. T’Soni now refers to me as ‘glyph’ instead of ‘info drone’ ninety-five percent of the time.”

“Yeah, that’s, um, great. Thanks.”

“Dr. T’Soni would like to speak with you. Have a pleasant day.”

Good. Because I want to speak with her, as well. She looked up as Liara walked in from her bedroom area, eyes mostly on the data pad in her hand. “Looks like you brought more than just that drone from your ship.”

“A few things were necessary. I’d be a very silent Shadow Broker without datafeeds.”

“So you have access to your resources?” That was good. They’d likely need them, knowing what was coming. What was already here.

“What I can get. We’ll need it to research this Prothean device.”

Shepard grunted. That thing. Damn thing had better work, because fighting them won’t. But Liara was walking away, heading to another terminal, and still talking.

“Until we understand precisely what it does, it’s far too dangerous to use.”

Got to agree with that. “Did the Protheans actually complete this weapon?”

“You mean, will it work?” Liara gave a wan smile. “They wouldn’t have poured their last resources into this device if they thought otherwise. But we really need to find out just what kind of weapon they left us.”

Shepard snorted. “It would be nice to know we’re not kids, playing around with a loaded gun.”

“Yes. The damage it could cause if it backfired is unthinkable.” Liara stood and began to pace. “This will be difficult for us. If something happens on a mission, if either one of us are hurt…” She spun, and walked straight to Shepard. “There’s something I need to ask, before we go any further. Whatever happened before your detention by the Alliance, it’s been years since we were really together. And months since we’ve even seen each other…”

“Liara.”

The asari shook her head, twisting her hands. “I just need to know, Shepard. Are you… Are we…”

Shepard reached out and stilled Liara’s hands. “I told you before that I was ready to fight for you. That nothing in this galaxy could keep me from a future with you. Six months in lockdown didn’t change that.”

“But, the Reapers—”

“Fuck the Reapers, Liara!” Shepard’s hands tightened on Liara’s, drawing her closer. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting them separate us, not again. I’m done being away from you.”

Liara smiled. “Good. I was getting worried.”

Shepard laughed. “It’s been a bit crazy, I know. But don’t doubt us, Liara. There were a lot of reasons I was happy to see you on Mars. I missed you.”

Liara closed the distance between them, planting a slow, soft kiss on Shepard’s lips. “I missed you too.”

Shepard sighed. Holding Liara just felt so…right. “I wrote all these letters to you, you know. Silly things I never meant to show anyone. A journal. I was going to show them to you, when this was over. But it was in my room in Vancouver. Probably nothing but dust, now.”

Liara smiled coyly. “I know.”

“Wait, you know?”

“Well, I am the Shadow Broker.” She gave a small laugh. “I noticed it that night on the Normandy, after Hagalaz. The entries were all written to me, so I… Well, I put a discrete trace on it. Some nights, reading your entries was all that kept me going. Goddess, I missed you, Kylie.”

Shepard threw back her head and laughed. “I should be mad at you, for spying on me. But I’m glad. Some days, that journal, writing to you, it was all the only thing that kept me sane. It’s kind of nice to know you got to read them.”

Liara smiled, but it quickly turned to a frown. “Are you still having the nightmares?”

Shepard sighed, and stepped away. This new one... “Yeah. I don’t know. It was almost like, the closer the Reapers got, the worse my nightmares were.”

“And now?”

Shepard looked away. The new nightmare had been so different, and yet, the feeling, the dread, had definitely been the same… But she found herself reluctant to share. “I don’t know. It’s just, with Earth, and Ash, and everything, I’d honestly be surprised if there’s anyone on board not having bad dreams. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

It doesn’t feel like nothing.

“Anyway, I should go. There’s so much to do. For both of us.”

“Shepard.”

She turned away from the door, suddenly anxious to be gone. “Yeah?”

Liara pulled something from behind her console. “I found this. Wanted to return it.”

Shepard’s eyes lit. “My Shadow Broker ship! Damn R&D crew scattered my whole collection. I’ve been finding them on every deck. Wondered where this one got to!” She took it carefully, mindful because of all her models, this was special. Liara had given it to her. “Thanks.”

Liara nodded. “If I find any others, I’ll bring them to your cabin.”

“I appreciate it.”

“Shepard…” Liara hesitated, smiling slightly. “Come back and see me later. I missed you.”

Shepard smiled. “I’d like that.”

Chapter Text

“Hackett out.”

Shepard rubbed her face with her hands. She hadn’t slept since they’d gotten to Menae, and watching Garrus’ world burn had hurt almost as much as leaving Earth. The only bright spot was having him back on board. It just didn’t feel right, racing to save the galaxy, without Garrus Vakarian at her side.

“Commander? EDI just went offline!”

The frantic edge to Joker’s voice pushed the exhaustion out of Shepard’s mind. “What do you mean, offline?”

“I don’t know! But she’s not responding, and I can’t access the AI core diagnostics. You’d better get down to deck three!”

Shepard ran for the elevator. Traynor, the new comm specialist, flagged her down on the way.

“Commander! Comm systems are going haywire. Whatever’s happening—”

Shepard nodded. “Deck three. I’m going. See what you can do here, while I check the AI core.”

The elevator doors opened to red lights and blaring alarms, all coming from behind med, where EDI’s core lay. Karin Chakwas nodded to her as she rushed past, following crew with breathers and fire extinguishers.

…flames licked around her, on all sides, reaching, seeking, as the Normandy burned…

Shepard shook herself, chasing away the memory and nightmare. The Normandy isn’t burning. She took a deep breath, and stopped outside the AI core’s closed hatch, keying the alarms off from her omni-tool. Their silence revealed another noise, a loud hissing, almost. “Joker, what’s that—”

“Fire extinguishers, Commander. Could be an electrical fire, or…or something.”

The extinguishers cut off, leaving a sudden silence. Shepard counted to five. “I’m going in.”

The doors unlocked, hissing open at her command. Inside, a few small fires burned still, going out as the extinguisher mist settled. See. It’s not burning. Just… Ignore the smell of charred wiring. “EDI. Talk to me.”

She jumped as the server racks beside her powered on. Several more hummed to life, until she could see the glow on all sides as the chemical fog cleared.

“EDI?”

Footsteps tapped against the metal deckplating, and a metalic body stepped out of the fog. A body she’d last seen beating the shit out of Ash, before she put enough bullets in it to put it down.

“Son of a…” Shepard’s biotics hummed to life, but before she could use them, the body spoke.

In a very familiar voice.

“Is there a particular topic you wish to discuss, Shepard?”

“EDI? What the hell?” She dissipated the biotic energy she’d gathered.

EDI stared at her hand, turning it one way, then another. “Yes.”

“You’re in Dr. Eva’s body?”

EDI smirked. Smirked. “Not…all of me. But I have control of it. It was not a...seamless transition.”

“No shit. You blacked out on us for a while, there.”

“Correct. I was running a background scan for information on the Prothean device. This triggered a trap, and a backup power source and CPU activated. The unit attempted a physical confrontation. Fortunately, I was able to gain root access, and repurpose it as I saw fit.”

“You took it over, in other words.”

“Correct. During this process, it struggled. Thus the fire.”

Shepard shook her head. “Well, if it means having access to that Prothean data, I’m for it. A little warning would’ve been nice. So are you, you know, still in the ship?”

“I am. This mobile platform is limited, however, it could prove useful. For example, in a ground-fire support role.”

“Wait, you mean come with us?”

“Correct.”

“Huh.” Shepard shook her head. “Yeah, I guess. You’ve got the software for that?”

EDI paused for a fraction of a second. “Yes. I do now. I should, however, reassure the crew that everything is normal, that this platform is now under my control. And I should speak with Joker.”

Shepard smirked, this time. “He’ll definitely want to see that.” She watched EDI leave, then followed.

“Was that EDI I just saw?”

Shepard laughed at the expression on Dr. Chakwas’ face. “Yeah. Joker’s gonna love this.”

“Indeed.” The doctor shook her head and smiled, but her smile disappeared when she turned to Shepard. “Commander, are you alright? You’re shaking.”

Shepard pulled her hand into a fist. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just a little adrenaline spike, between the fire, and seeing Dr. Eva’s body walking out of EDI’s core. Had to dissipate a biotic blast I had primed.” She rubbed one arm and gave a half-hearted smile, but she could still smell the

charred circuits and melting plastic, smoke and flame. So much heat

“Commander?”

“I’m fine.” Chakwas’ tone said she didn’t believe her, but Shepard didn’t wait around for the lecture. She walked quickly out of the medbay, intending to head for the elevator. Instead, she found herself staring into a pair of curious and slightly concerned blue eyes. “Liara.”

“Shepard? What’s going on?”

The commander stiffened. “EDI’s fine. I’ll explain it in your cabin.”

Liara looked at her, and her eyes narrowed. “Shepard—”

She didn’t answer, just pushed past, heading for the cabin on the other side of the mess hall. Now that the emergency was past, she could feel it getting worse. Her whole body shaking, panic taking over. She needed to get away, out of sight. The last thing the crew needed was to see her fall apart.

burning, burning, all burning

Liara gone, all dead, all burning

smoke that clung to her nostrils even as she gasped for breath

“Shepard. Kylie, breathe!”

She didn’t remember sitting, or even reaching Liara’s cabin. The memory, the dream, it clung to her too tightly. Liara’s voice only barely penetrated the haze. Shepard forced herself to focus on it, to cling to her, the light in the darkness.

“Dr. T’Soni, is everything—”

“EDI, get Dr. Chakwas, now—”

Shepard forced the memories away. “No.”

“Shepard—”

No. I’m—”

“If you say you’re fine, I swear, Shepard, I will throw you in a stasis field so fast your head will spin. And I won’t let you out until Karin has examined you thoroughly.”

Shepard blinked away the remainder of the memory/dream to see anger and worry warring across her lover’s face—a face that towered over her. She took stock slowly, from her fetal position on the floor of Liara’s cabin, forcing the panic and chaos down, forcing her heartbeat to steady, the tremors that wracked her body to cease.

Her answer to Liara came out in a shaky whisper. “I’m not fine. But I’m getting there.”

Anger turned to sorrow in Liara’s blue eyes. “Kylie, please let me help. What happened?”

Shepard shuddered, and forced herself to sit up. “Flashback. PTSD. Whatever the fuck you want to call it. EDI took over the android body we brought back from Mars. The smoke, the fire…” She clenched her jaw shut as her body started to shake again.

“It was Alchera all over again.” Liara sighed, then gently sat next to her. “I suppose it would be too much to ask the galaxy for your death to stop haunting you.”

Shepard snorted. “The galaxy is a sick bastard, I’ve decided.” She took a deep breath, then leaned her head back against the bulkhead. “It’s not my death that haunts me. It’s the knowledge that it could’ve been yours. That’s what my nightmares are about. Dying, yes, but only knowing I’ve failed you completely.”

The familiar nudge at the back of her mind was answered as quickly as it came, and then Liara was there, calming her, soothing her.

You have never failed me, Kylie. Never. If anything, I have failed you.

Shepard’s eyes widened. Liara, no. Don’t say that.

Sorrow. Guilt. But I have. I’ve abandoned you twice, now. When Cerberus took your body, and again when the Alliance imprisoned you.

You didn’t abandon me.

I pushed you away. You were hurt, angry—

You were just as hurt and angry.

Love washed over her. I should have run to you. Goddess, Kylie…

Shhh… Shepard poured all her love into their connection. All that matters is now, and what’s ahead. We’re together now. And we’re going to maker sure there IS a future ahead for us. Together.

Together.

Chapter Text

“Hell of a thing you just pulled off, Commander. Curing the genophage. I never thought I’d see the day.”

Shepard nodded, trying to keep the exhaustion out of her voice. It was a hell of a thing, and she was sure that if she could just lie down for a few hours, she’d actually appreciate it… “Wrex has agreed to help the turians, Admiral. We should get their full support.”

Hell, she couldn’t even remember the last time she slept. Before, or after they’d picked up Garrus and the Primarch? After Grissom? At least Jack and the kids were safe, and Kaylie Saunders. Surkesh, Tuchanka, countless drops in between… And still so much to do.

“I take it that leaves the salarians out of the equation?”

She gritted her teeth, pulling out of her thoughts. Just the memory of the dalatrass’s offer of betrayal still set her on edge. “Officially, yes. The cost of their support was too high.”

“And unofficially?”

Shepard let herself smile wryily. “You might get some back channel offers of support. From STG and the like. Captain Kirahee, in particular. I think they’re tired of the politics getting in the way of galactic security.”

“I see. I’ll defer to your judgment there, Commander. Hackett out.”

Shepard scrubbed her face, and turned away from the QEC room. God, I need sleep. I’m getting sloppy. Mordin’s death weighed on her, despite his willing sacrifice. Too many gone. And how many more will I fail to save, before this is over?

It was a question that was steadily usurping her mind.

Liara had told her again and again that she couldn’t save everyone, it wasn’t possible. And in the back of her mind, she knew the asari was right. Still, every death felt like a failure.

Primarch Victus stood waiting for her in the war room, and she reluctantly answered his silent summons.

“Commander.” He turned to face her as she approached. “Urdnot Wrex has begun sending troops to Palaven. You kept your end of the bargain, and now I’ll keep mine.”

The Primarch extended his hand, and Shepard took it. “The turian hierarchy will stand with humanity against the Reapers. You have my word on it.”

“I’m glad we could help each other. Working together is the only way we’ll defeat the Reapers.”

Victus nodded as they walked around the war map to where Garrus stood. “That much is certain. To that end, I have several dry-dock ships ready to help build the Crucible. Garrus will coordinate them.”

Garrus gave a curt nod. “Yes, sir.”

“And when the time comes to deploy it, the full measure of our fleet will be there for Earth.” Together, the three of them turned to look at the Crucible holo, showing its progress. Victus shook his head. “May the Spirits watch over us all.”

Shepard exhaled hard as the Primarch walked away. Let’s hope they do more than watch. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

Garrus’ eyes followed her as she slowly leaned against the holo board. “I’ll start managing turian support right away, Shepard. You must be exhausted. Mordin dying…it can’t be easy.”

Sleep would be beyond welcome. But there was so much to do, so much to plan. The next step, and the one after that, and the whole galaxy looking to her to find a way, to bring them all together, to make it work…

To save them all.

No one can save them all, Shepard. Not even you.

The memory of Liara’s words didn’t help. Shepard shook her head. Too much to do. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Garrus stepped closer, hos voice dropping into a soothing tone, even though the words that came out bordered on a lecture. “We both know you need a clear head to win a war. There’s no room for mistakes here. You should catch some shut eye.” While you can. The last words were unspoken, but they both heard them. “I’ll make sure Joker doesn’t launch any suicide missions.”

Shepard shorted a soft laugh. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want that.” She sighed, her shoulders dropping in acceptance. “Alright. But Garrus. Anything happens, you let me know.”

“I will.”

She pushed off the war map. “Alright. Alright.” Her feet took her out of the room before she realized she was going. Through the damn security scanner, that she still hadn’t remembered to talk to EDI about, and into the elevator.

The last thing she remembered was face-planting on her mattress.

 

***

 

Darkness surrounded her, a dull twilight full of shadows and voices. Voices of the dead. Voices of her guilt.

Voices that called her name, whispering memories full of hurt and blame. People she hadn’t saved. Her unit on Akuze. Soldiers and civilians she’d seen die in the Blitz. Jenkins, Alenko. Nihlus.

The list went on, catalogued by the shadows. Benezia. Mordin. Every colonist taken by the Collectors. Every batarian who died when she launched an asteroid into a mass relay.

Every one of them, dead. Because she hadn’t saved them.

Because she hadn’t done enough.

Shepard.

Shepard.

The guilt ate at her.

A different noise added itself to the weight of her guilt. The sound of tears. A child’s choked tears. And then she saw him. Running again.

Let me save you! she wanted to scream. But the words stuck in her mouth, even as she ran, and the metallic groan of the Reapers came again, and the fire, always the fire, burning, consuming, as the boy looked on with eyes full of blame—

Shepard sat up with a gasp, and a pounding heart.

God, not again.

She shoved the data pad she’d fallen asleep on to the side, and rolled off the bed. No sleep at all was preferable to these steadily worsening dreams, and the blinding headaches that accompanied them. Shepard rubbed her face and pulled a stimpack from her kit. She hated using the things, but the way her head was pounding, it wasn’t going to go away on its own.

The pounding stopped within seconds, as the stim flooded her system. Shepard cracked her neck, and headed for the bathroom. Some water in her face could only help make her feel more human. The face that looked back from the mirror, though, told a different story. Pale skin, bruising under her eyes. I haven’t looked this bad since those black ops assignments following the Torfan raid.

A knock at the door distracted her from following that particular rabbit down its hole. “It’s open.”

“Shepard?” She could hear Liara walk into the room, her step all business. “There’s something you need to hear.”

Shepard rubbed her face, but didn’t leave the bathroom. “Alright.”

Liara’s steps hesitated outside the thin metal door. “Is this a bad time?”

Shepard leaned against the sink, letting her head hang down. “It’s… I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if there will ever be a good time.”

A pause, and when Liara’s voice came again, it was closer, like she’d leaned against the doorframe. “Someday. When we make it through all this. And it’ll be thanks to you.”

She leaned forward, putting her head in her hands, and feeling hot tears pull at the corners of her eyes. So many gone, no thanks to me. Because I wasn’t good enough. “Liara, I…”

“You had another nightmare, didn’t you? Shepard, you can’t blame yourself. You’re the reason any of us are still alive at all. Those deaths, they’re on the Reapers, not you.”

You don’t understand. The words hung on the tip of her tongue, but Shepard choked them back. Liara did understand, better than almost anyone else could. She’d seen inside Shepard’s head, seen her past, lived a lot of it with her. So instead of a petulant reply, Shepard took a deep breath, and opened the door. Liara pushed off the frame, and immediately took her in her arms.

And for just that moment, everything was alright.

Shepard took a shaky breath, and pulled back enough to see Liara’s face. “Thanks. I needed that. What was it you needed to tell me?”

Liara’s fingers traced slowly over Shepard’s face, memorizing the planes and dips, every freckle, while deep blue eyes held her gaze. “Always, Kylie. I’m always here for you.” She leaned in, placing the gentlest of kisses on her forehead. “The salarian councilor has an urgent matter.”

Shepard sighed, not wanting to leave the circle of Liara’s arms. She felt safe there, right. “Let me guess. He called the comm room?”

Liara smiled wryly. “Let's hope it means the Council is taking the Crucible seriously.” She brought her lips to Shepard’s, but the kiss didn’t last. “I’ll see you downstairs.”

Chapter Text

“Shepard?”

Ash’s gun point wavered, and Shepard risked dropping hers a little. But before she could speak, Udina did.

“Shepard’s blocking our escape! She’s with Cerberus!”

Ash glanced behind her, and shifted further between the councilors and Shepard. “Udina, let me handle this. Shepard—what’s happening here?”

Shepard stared at Ashley Williams in shock. Dammit, woman. “You know me better than this, Ash.”

“I knew the old Shepard. Before Cerberus. Right now, I’m not sure who I’m dealing with.”

Goddammit. She took a chance, waving at Garrus to her right, and Liara to her left, then stepped forward, her own gun down. “We don’t have time to negotiate. You’ve been fooled, all of you.” She took another step. “You have to trust me, Ash. Udina’s behind this attack. Sold himself and all of humanity out. The salarian councilor—who is alive—confirmed it. He called me here to talk to me about it, before Cerberus got here.”

Udina barely flinched. The bastard. “Please. You have no proof. You never do.”

“There are Cerberus soldiers in the elevator shaft behind us. If you open that door, they’ll kill you all!”

Councilor Tevos stepped forward. “We’ve mistrusted Shepard before, and it did not help us.”

Udina shook his head, and turned to the controls. “We don’t have time to debate this. We’re dead if we stay out here. I’m overriding the lock.”

Shepard’s gun came back up, and she moved forward to cover Udina. Ash stepped in her path. “Stand down, Shepard. You don’t want to be shot by your own Marine.”

“Please, Ash. Trust me.”

Ash closed her eyes, taking in a ragged breath. “I’m so gonna regret this.” The Marine spun, turning her gun on Udina.

Shepard breathed a small sigh of relief. “No you’re not.”

“Udina! Step back from the console!”

Udina snarled, and started the unlock sequence. “To hell with this!”

Shepard raised her gun, but before she could shoot, Tevos got between them, trying to pull Udina away. Udina shoved her down, and pulled a pistol from his back.

“Gun!”

Shepard took the shot.

Udina crumpled to the ground, a bullet between his eyes.

She walked forward as the turian councilor helped Tevos up. “Get the Council back, and cover that door!”

Shepard had barely taken two steps when Sparatus pointed. “The door!”

Behind them, sparks flew from between the sealed halves—likely Cerberus cutting their way through. “Everybody get ready.”

The door opened.

“Bailey?” Surprised, Shepard dropped her gun to her side.

“Made it as fast as we could, Shepard. Looks like you, uh, took care of things.”

Tevos stepped forward. “Something’s not right. You said Cerberus was targeting us. Where did their soldiers go?”

“They were right here, but they beat feet into the Keeper tunnels when they figured out C-Sec was back up, thanks to the Commander. Sorry, Councilor, but I’ll say it plain. She just saved the lot of you.”

Sparatus spoke up. “Then you have saved my life twice now, Shepard. I owe you both a personal debt, and one on behalf of Palaven.”

Shepard shook her head. “You don’t owe me anything, Councilor. Times like this, we all stand together. We have to.”

Bailey began ushering everyone out, before she noticed Liara behind her.

“You never cease to amaze me, Shepard.”

She shook her head. “As much as they all piss me off, I couldn’t let Cerberus win.”

Liara’s hand on her shoulder made her stop and look back. “There are many ways you might have accomplished that. Ways that would have left many more dead. As much as I would have hated to see you have to shoot the lieutenant commander, it might have been the easier path.”

Shepard closed her eyes, knowing just how close she’d come to having to do exactly that. “No. I have too many deaths on my head already.”

Liara’s touch on her jaw made her open her eyes again. “The fact that you still care, that you’re still trying to save everyone, is one of the things I love most about you.”

Shepard exhaled and leaned into her lover. “Never leave me, Liara.”

“Never, Kylie.” Liara held her a moment, then pushed her away. “Now go speak with Ash, while I check on Thane. There are things you both need to say.”

 

***

 

She found Ashley pacing the length of the railing outside C-Sec. smoke billowed in the space below, and in the distance, a visible reminder of the attack they’d just survived. Shepard shook her head in frustration. Now, of all times. It was absurd. The entire galaxy was on the verge of destruction, and all Cerberus could think about was political maneuvering. Her scowl deepened at the thought.

Ash chose that moment to stop and look up. She winced.

Shepard sighed, and rubbed her face. “Sorry, Ash. That look wasn’t for you.”

The lieutenant commander shook her head. “It should be. Shepard, I’m sorry. I’ve been…” She took a deep breath. “I’ve been an ass. You’ve stood by me since that awful day on Eden Prime. I owe you so much, and all I seem to be able to do is throw it back in your face.”

Shepard barked a laugh, and leaned forward on he railing. “We’ve been through a lot, Ash. I won’t lie, your reaction on Horizon hurt. Fuck, it hurt. I was so confused. Certain I was dead, only to wake up in the middle of fucking Cerberus, of all people. I was furious. And then to find out the Alliance had written me off, and was less than pleased to see me up and walking again. My crew was gone, my family. I was so happy to hear you’d made good, only to have you throw it all in my face. I never wanted anything to do with Cerberus, Ash. You have to believe me. But the Alliance didn’t want me rocking the boat, and Cerberus was willing to give me what I needed to—”

“To defeat the Collectors.” Ash sighed, and leaned on the railing next to her. “To do what the Alliance should have. To save us, again.” The brunette shook her head. “I’m an idiot, Shepard. I should have known better. Should’ve known they couldn’t change you, that you’d never let them. When I heard you were alive, and with Cerberus, I just kind of lost it. I couldn’t understand why you’d be with them. Why you hadn’t contacted us.”

“I was dead, Ash.”

“I know.” The new Spectre looked up, her eyes too-bright from trying to hold back tears, staring out over the presidium. “You dying felt like the worst betrayal of them all. We needed you. I needed you. You were the first person who looked at me and saw me, not my family's legacy. And you were just…gone. And there was nothing I could do. I was finally coming to terms with that, when you showed back up. Seeing you with Cerberus was like ripping open an old wound again.” Ash looked at her hands and gave a sad, lop-sided smile. “I was just so mad at you. But mostly, I was mad at myself. I couldn’t look at you without hating myself.”

Shepard stared at her. “Ash…that makes no sense. At all.”

Both women laughed, suddenly, like a dam breaking. Shepard felt her heart lighten, just a little, as the pain faded from Ash’s eyes.

Shepard wiped a couple of tears from her eyes. “Really, though. I get being mad at me. It was a ridiculous situation. I was mad at me. But why were you so mad at yourself? And why couldn’t you trust me?”

Ash sobered, her smile fading again. “Because you should never have died, Shepard.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

The lieutenant commander shook her head. “Maybe. But I hated myself for not being there with you. Maybe if I had stayed—”

“You’d have ended up just as dead.” Shepard shook her head. “Dammit, Ash. You’re telling me this whole thing was guilt?”

“I’m so sorry, Shepard.”

“You should be!” Shepard threw up her hands, turning around to lean her back against the rails. “You’ve kind of been a bitch, Williams. You were my best friend on that damn ship. I needed you with me!”

Ash froze. “Really, ma’am?”

Shepard shook her head again. “Yeah, Ash. And I still do. I need my friends.”

“Wait, you want me back? On the Normandy?” She stood up and threw her arms around the surprised commander. “God, Shepard. Yes. Thank you.”

Shepard returned the hug gently. “Don’t thank me, Ash. I’m just glad I didn’t have to shoot you. I don’t think I’d have been able to forgive myself.”

Williams stepped back. “I’m sorry I ever put you in that position.”

“You were doing what you thought was right. Protecting the Council. I don’t fault you for it. I’m just...really glad you trusted me.”

“Shepard, I swear to God, I will never not trust you again.”

Shepard laughed. “Thanks, Ash. Welcome back.” Her smile faded as a message came through on her omni-tool.

Thane is fading. Come soon. ~Liara

“Everything okay, Skipper?”

The corner of her mouth twitched up at the familiar title, before the weight of the galaxy came crashing back down. “I’ll see you on the Normandy, Ash. I have to..." She stopped, choking on the words. Too many dead. "I have to say goodbye to a friend.”

Chapter Text

“Aria.”

The asari didn’t grin, but her eye ridge lifted slightly, enough to tell her she was amused. “Shepard.”

Shepard climbed in the skycar with a wry grin. “How dramatic.”

Aria’s eyes locked on hers. “There are too many eyes and ears in Purgatory.”

They sat in silence as the skycar maneuvered into traffic, until they were speeding along the Citadel’s skyways. “I assume this is about retaking Omega?”

Aria’s eyes narrowed. The last time Shepard had seen her, she’d been ranting about how irritating Purgatory was. The underlying message had been her need to get back to her home, and make it hers again.

“This is about your war, Shepard. Cerberus controlling the Terminus Systems seriously bolsters their mobility.” She paused, and crossed her legs. “Since taking Omega, they’ve spread throughout the galaxy. Surely the Alliance has noticed.”

Aria’s anger caught Shepard off guard. She knew the asari’s ruthless nature, knew how deadly she was. But she kept it tightly cloaked in a mask of sexuality and confidence. This was raw emotion, the Aria T’Loak the galaxy feared.

And Shepard knew where it this was going.

No compassion. You’ll have to do this alone. Like the ops after Torfan. The idea of returning to that cold-blooded mindset terrified her. But from the tone of Aria’s voice, she knew she’d have to.

“Cut to the chase, Aria. What’s your plan?”

“Kick them out.”

As if it were that simple. Both of them knew it wouldn’t be.

“I’ve amassed a fleet of merc ships. We’re going to punch through enemy lines and invade. Once we’re on Omega, it’s a ground war. That’s why I want you—I only accept the best.” Aria passed over a datapad with a dossier, giving a quick rundown of the man behind the Omega takeover. Oleg Petrovsky. Top military strategist. Cerberus’s best kept secret.

Not a great situation.

“Petrovsky’s invasion was precise and ruthless. He’ll stop at nothing to win.”

Shepard glanced up. “Sounds familiar.” Too familiar.

“Shepard.” Aria leaned forward, warning her with her eyes. “I know my reputation. I know I’m hated. I ruled Omega with an iron fist. But the people were free. Their lives were theirs. I preserved that. This man took all that away, and he is going to pay.” She settled back in the seat, looking away. “When Omega is mine again, I’ll give you everything. Ships, mercs, eezo. All yours for the war.”

Shepard tossed the datapad to the side. “What’s the catch?”

A familiar smirk crept into the anger that infused the asari’s face. “I have objections to some of the company you keep, so you’ll have to leave the Normandy and its crew behind.”

But Shepard knew what she was really saying.

I know you. I know your crew. I know you’ll do anything for them. And right now, I need a merciless killer to watch my back, not a hero.

And Aria did know. Knew her better than anyone except Liara. The truth was, Aria didn’t object to her crew. She’d pushed Shepard back to them, back to Liara, when Shepard had been too confused and angry to see how much her death had hurt her.

It only confirmed what Shepard had already figured out.

“Fine.”

 

***

 

“Enough!” Biotic energy exploded around Aria. “I will kill you all!

Shepard raced to catch up. Nyreen’s death had snapped something in Aria. She’d gone from cold-blooded but in control, to completely ruled by her rage.

“Petrovsky dies now.” She charged through the door to Afterlife, not bothering to wait on Shepard.

Dammit. “Aria, wait!”

Charging through the door after her, Shepard was surprised to find Aria waiting. Until she saw what the asari had stopped for.

Or rather, who.

“Nyreen Kandros was a good soldier.” General Petrovsky stepped slowly to the edge of what was once Aria’s balcony. “It’s a shame she had to die for your petty ambitions.”

Biotic energy blazed over Aria’s skin as she ran at him. “You’re a dead man!”

Shepard saw the trap too late. “No, wait!”

Her words came just as Aria launched herself up, only to be pulled up short, suspended by an energy matrix. The asari screamed, both in anger and pain.

Shit. “What now, Petrovsky?”

The Cerberus general smirked. “Divide and conquer, Commander. Kandros killed the adjutants we hadn’t finished experimenting on.” A door opened below him. “But these are fully under our control—the prototypes for our future army.”

The now-familiar golden force shield drew up around Petrovsky’s command post, as the adjutants below him advanced on Shepard. She glanced around, quickly taking in her options.

Fight. Those are your options. Fight like hell, and hope it’s enough. You can’t afford to lose here.

Shepard took a deep breath.

Four conduits. Take out their power source. Get Aria out, and maybe you’ll have a chance.

She picked a target, and charged. Biotic energy churned blue around her, knocking down a nemesis and two soldiers in her path. Her gun finished them, then turned on the nearest power line. It blew, showering white sparks over her blue trail as Shepard charged again. Charge. Shoot. Charge again. Shoot again. Her biotics burned through her as she fought, lifting Cerberus troops, tearing adjutants to pieces with ammo and warp fields.

She’d never pushed her abilities this hard before, never felt the energy rage through her like this, beyond every limit she’d had before they resurrected her, and gave her a new implant. It came almost as a surprise when the last conduit blew, freeing Aria. By the time the last adjutant fell, it took her a long moment to come back down, and really see her surroundings.

To see the dead.

Aria didn’t wait. As soon as Petrovsky called his troops off, she was through the door to his sanctuary.

Shepard followed, still dazed, body shaking from the end of the biotic rush.

“Commander Shepard, I surrender myself into your custody.”

Aria got in his face, fury dripping from her features. “That is the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard.” She backhanded him, biotics lending an extra push.

Petrovsky crashed backwards. “Shepard, I’m unarmed…and I can give the Alliance intel on the Illusive Man!”

He struggled to stand up again, but Aria’s hand wrapped around his throat, lifting him up and pushing him back into the worktable he’d fallen against. She slammed him down, bringing up her other hand to squeeze, until he gasped for breath. “You’ll say anything to save your skin.”

He grasped at Aria’s wrists, desperately trying to pull her off, and failing. “But…I let you…escape Omega. I deserve…mercy.”

Shepard’s eyebrows went up, and surprise helped her find her voice. “Is this true, Aria?”

“Yes.” The word only seemed to make her choke Petrovsky harder. “Inexplicably. I think he’d agree now that it was the biggest mistake of his life.” Aria leaned in harder.

“But…this is…murder…”

“That’s right.” Blue crackled at the Aria’s fingers as she squeezed the air from him. “Cold-blooded murder. No less than you deserve.” Petrovsky pushed at her, useless, as Aria grinned coldly and let up, just a little. “Oh, no—not yet. You don’t get a quick easy death.”

Shepard watched, reactionless. She had no intention of stopping Aria. She needed this death, needed the control. Needed him to pay for the deaths of her people, and especially for Nyreen. She remembered feeling like this after Akuze, after Torfan.

She wouldn’t interfere. This was Aria’s demon to exorcise.

At the last, when Aria tired of playing with Petrovsky, and Shepard heard his neck crack, she saw Aria’s eyes go black, adding pain upon pain to the general’s death.

The body slumped to the ground. Aria walked away. “Clean up this mess.”

Bray moved to do just that.

Aria took a deep breath as she came to stand next to Shepard. “Well. That was deeply satisfying. I’m a little surprised—I thought you might try to interfere.”

Shepard slowly shook her head. She was starting to crash from biotic burnout. Her head ached, her body ached. And her soul hurt. “No.”

It was all the response she had in her.

Aria stared at her. “Shepard, I…never thought I’d enjoy having a partner.”

Shepard rubbed her face. “It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve—”

She was abruptly cut off by Aria’s lips on hers, and the (surprisingly) gentle push of her mind. Shepard dropped her mental walls, too tired to keep them up, even as she deepened the kiss. A kiss that tasted like…goodbye.

I owe you, Shepard. Aria’s touch calmed the turmoil in her mind. I know helping me probably stirred up some demons in that absurdly honorable head of yours. Consider this a thank you. Now get back to your bondmate.

Aria, I—

Abruptly she was gone, and pushing her away. “Goodbye, Shepard. You have a war to win. I’ll keep my promise. Ships, troops, and eezo.”

Shepard nodded sharply, even as Aria turned away and began to address the station. She felt more clear-headed than she had in a while, but exhausted. The relief felt all too temporary, and she knew she had a war to get back to.

 

***

 

By the time she returned to the Normandy, the clarity Aria had gifted her with had returned to exhaustion. Exhaustion and guilt. Now, looking at her cabin, Shepard wanted nothing more than to sleep forever. Shepard sighed, collapsing backwards onto her bed even as her door slid open with a hiss. She glanced up, smiling tightly at Liara as the asari moved into the room. “Hey. I didn’t expect to see you.”

Liara gave her a tired smile of her own, and sat next to her on the bed. “I missed you.” It was a simple statement that pulled at Shepard’s heart. “Are you all right?”

Shepard sighed, letting her head fall back to the bed. “Yes. No. I don’t…” She trailed off, trying to find words. “I never wanted to see that side of me again. The merciless killer.”

Liara had seen the shadows in her mind, seen the memories. “That isn’t you, love.”

“But it was, once.” Shepard stared up, watching the stars stream by through the viewport in her ceiling. “And it's always been there, waiting for me to let it back in, to let it be me again. And I did.”

Liara lay down beside her. “You did what you had to. Cerberus couldn’t be allowed such a stronghold.”

Shepard shook her head. “I should’ve been able to do it without…” She broke off, feeling emotion choke at her, as it all came rushing back. So many dead. Lives that may or may not have been worth saving, but who was she to make that call? Especially now, when every life, every death, was vital. Shepard turned away, pulling herself off the bed as tears ran hot trails down her face. “What if this is who I really am, deep down? A ruthless killer? I’ve let so many people down, let so many die. I’m not a hero. I’m not, I can’t—”

The blue glow of biotics stopped both her words, and her pacing, allowing Liara to catch her. “You are, and you can. No one else could do what you’ve done, Shepard. Uniting the Krogan, curing the genophage. Saving the Citadel and the Council—not once, but twice now. You’ve faced down Reapers and lived, faced the Collectors and lived. Kylie, you came back from the dead. But you’re not perfect, love. And not even you can save everyone.”

Shepard shook her head, uncertainty still swirling in her mind. It wasn’t that simple. It couldn’t be.

“Kylie, love…let me in. Please?”

Shepard shook her head again, but felt her mental barriers relax as Liara’s mind nudged her own. And then she was there, with her, part of her, overwhelming her guilt and sadness with love, comfort.

This is a bitter, desperate war, Kylie. No one could save everyone, and you can’t blame yourself.

She knew Liara was right. But it didn’t stop the guilt, as she relived every moment, every death, as she and Aria tore through Omega in her mind, too-fresh memories that were already scarred, painful, too sharp. But where Aria’s touch had been temporary relief, Liara’s was deeper, more real. Cerberus, Omega, adjutants…Nyreen. Aria. Petrovsky.

Hush, love. Liara held her close, soothing her mind, calming her fears. Those deaths are not your fault. We have all asked so much of you. Every life you save is a gift, one the Reapers would already have taken if not for you. You are not to blame.

Shepard felt, more than heard, herself sigh. I know. I still… I wish…

I know, Kylie. But even you can only do what you can do.

Shepard felt herself smiling at the hint of laughter she felt coming through the meld. I love you, Liara.

The response was an overwhelming tide of love, accompanied by the warm touch of lips on her own. Shepard groaned, responding in kind, as a rush of need overwhelmed her. The need for Liara’s touch, for release, for the deeper, more intimate meld that only came during sex. Her body burned with need, heat and desire pooling between her legs. Her fingers quickly stripped open the buckles and seals of Liara’s shipboard armor, even as the asari pushed her back onto the bed. She broke their kiss, only to focus lower, wrapping her lips and tongue around one perfect blue nipple as their clothes fell away.

Liara’s back arched with a gasp, and the meld sucked her in deeper, drowning her, saving her. Until she could feel her hands and mouth on Liara’s skin. Until she could feel Liara’s pleasure and triumph, as she bound Shepard’s wrists with her biotics, and recaptured her mouth with a whispered Let me.

Until me or I became meaningless, and we was the only truth, we and love and desire and need.

And mine. Echoed through the meld, echoed in every touch. Mine and ours and always. As they both felt lips suckling, and fingers thrusting, curling, and neither caring who was giving or receiving, because the we was eternal and everything, even as the universe ignited around them, in swirling colors of pleasure and release, and love, always love.

After, they lay silent, still holding meld at its simplest, as the sweat cooled, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Shepard sighed, a quiet sound made louder through their link.

Kylie?

Shepard shook her head, and kissed her. I don’t know what I’d do without you, Liara.

The asari pulled her closer. I know, love. I know.

Chapter Text

Shepard sat down at her desk and rubbed her face. Time was starting to blur together. She felt like she’d done nothing but run since leaving Earth. How much longer would she be able to keep it up? How much longer would the Reapers allow, before dealing the final blow?

They’d done so much, come through so much. Cured the genophage. Saved the Council and the Citadel—again. Hit Cerberus, time and again. Pulling Jack and her kids off Grissom, keeping Samara from killing herself, or her last daughter, Felere. Fighting with Grunt against Reaper-born rachni, and saving the queen. Again.

I feel like I’m running in circles. Doing things I’ve already done, and losing more people, every time.

Mordin was gone. Thane was gone. Miranda was off doing who knew what. God, I wish she’d let me help. I get she doesn’t want to add to my problems, but still. At least Grunt was healing. Wrex had kept her posted on his progress. Stupid krogan kid. Thinking of him made her smile, though. In some ways, she felt like his mom. Even Wrex had said something like that.

Her humor faded though, as another wave of exhaustion rolled into her. God, I’m tired. So tired.

“Commander, we’re about an hour out from the Migrant Fleet.”

She sighed. “Thanks, Joker.”

Is it ever going to end?

 

***

 

Shepard held the laser target steady as the Reaper loomed large in front of her, its laser canon priming. She could see the charge crackling, moments from turning her into so much vapor, but she held her ground, finger hard on the trigger.

Come on, EDI.

The Reaper shrieked as the first missile impacted, followed by a thousand more, as every ship in the Migrant Fleet targeted it, hammering it into the ground. When the smoke cleared, Shepard was still standing. The Reaper wasn’t.

She stepped towards it cautiously, watching as its lights flickered.

“Shepard.”

Her eyes widened. “You know who I am?”

“Harbinger speaks of you. You resist. But you will fail. The cycle must continue.”

Anger burned through her. “And what if we don’t let you continue?”

“You have no choice.”

“I disagree, and so do the billions who are rising up to resist you.”

“You cannot comprehend the magnitude of our presence.”

Shepard walked closer. The Reaper’s sheer arrogance, as it lay there dying, astounded her. Angered her. “We might surprise you.”

“You represent chaos. We represent order. Every organic civilization must be harvested in order to bring order to the chaos. It is inevitable. Without our intervention, organics are doomed. We are your salvation.”

Shepard shook her head. “You’re just machines. This time, the organics are taking control.”

“A philosophy reminiscent of the quarians. Observe the results of their efforts to maintain control.”

Anger surged again. She brought the laser target back up to bear, training it on the Reaper. “They’re doing fine. You’re the ones who should worry. Tell your friends we’re coming for them.”

Another salvo from the fleet struck, rendering the Reaper into slag.

“Never mind. I’ll tell them myself.”

Tali stepped up behind her. “We did it. We killed a Reaper. Keelah…”

Shepard nodded quietly. Her head hurt. Hell, all of her hurt. But by God, it was worth it. She turned, watching Legion work his omni-tool.

“We can confirm that the geth are no longer being directed by the Old Machines. We are free.”

Admiral Han’Gerrel‘s voice came over the comm. “You did it, Shepard. The geth fleet has stopped firing. They’re completely vulnerable.”

Shepard’s eyes widened as she realized what Gerrel was saying.

“Shepard-Commander. The geth only acted in defense after the creators attacked. Do we deserve death?”

She stared at Legion, hoping he had a plan. “What are you suggesting?”

Legion continued. “Our upgrades. With the Old Machine dead, we could upload them to all geth without sacrificing their independence.”

Tali gasped beside her. “You want to upload the Reaper code? That would make the geth as smart as when the Reaper was controlling them!”

Legion nodded. “Yes. But with free will. Each geth unit would be a true intelligence. We would be alive, and we could help you.”

Tali spun to look at Shepard. “Our fleet is already attacking! Uploading the code would destroy us! Shepard, you can’t choose the geth over my people!”

Legion’s head lowered, and his light dimmed. “Do you remember the question that caused the creators to attack us, Tali’Zorah?” He stepped forward. “‘Does this unit have a soul?’”

Shepard took a deep breath. God, I hope this works. “Upload the code to the geth. Tali, call off the fleet if you can.”

Legion set to work. “Uploading. Ten percent.”

“This is Admiral Tali’Zorah. All units, break off your attack!”

“Belay that order! Continue the attack!”

“Twenty percent.”

Tali stepped to him. “I beg you, do not do this. Please.”

“We regret the deaths of the creators, but we see no alternative. Forty percent.”

Shepard looked from one to the other. This has to work. “No. Nobody else dies today. Legion, keep going.”

“Shepard?” Tali’s voice was desperate, but there was a hint of hope.

I can do hope. God, let me do hope. “All ships. This is Commander Shepard. The Reaper is dead. Stand down.”

Tali’s hand flew across her omni-tool. “This is Admiral Tali’Zorah. Shepard speaks with my authority.”

Admiral Koris’ voice came over the comm. “And mine as well.”

“Negative! We can win this war now!” Admiral Gerrel’s voice held a hint of panic. “Keep firing!”

“Sixty percent.”

Shepard ground her teeth. “The geth are about to return to full strength. If you keep attacking, they’ll wipe you out. Your entire history is you trying to kill the geth. You forced them to rebel. You forced them to ally with the Reapers.”

“Eighty percent.”

Come on, come on, come on! I can’t…I can’t do more death. I need to be able to save someone. And isn’t this what we’re fighting for? “The geth don’t want to fight you. If you can believe that for just one minute, this war will be over.” Shepard took a deep breath. “You have a choice. Please. Keelah se’lai.”

The moment after Shepard stopped speaking seemed to drag on forever. But finally, Admiral Gerrel answered.

“All units….hold fire.”

Thank God.

“Error. Copying code is insufficient. Direct personality dissemination is required.” Legion turned to her. “Shepard-Commander. I must go to them. I… I’m sorry. It is the only way.”

Shepard’s eyes widened as his words sank in. But it was Tali who stepped forward and spoke. “Legion…the answer to your question…was yes.”

Legion’s head ducked. “I know, Tali. But thank you. Keelah se’lai.” He turned away, before suddenly falling to his knees, and collapsing to the ground. Slowly, his lights faded, until only his empty shell remained.

Shepard closed her eyes. Another friend, gone. Beautifully, and for the best of reasons, but still.

Gone. And at what cost?

Her chest ached with the loss she hadn’t expected to face.

Tali’s hand touched her shoulder. Shepard opened her eyes, glad to see another quarian approach. “Admiral Raan.” Her voice sounded strange in her own ears, tired and distant. “I heard your ship made a crash-landing. Glad you got out in one piece.”

Raan clutched her side, leaning slightly, but nodded. “I was listening over the radio. If Han’Gerrel hadn’t stopped—”

“He did.” No need to share her own worries. She was sure they both knew.

Raan nodded again. “We’ve taken heavy losses. I don’t know if we can… Where are we supposed to go?”

Tali’s gun came up suddenly, drawing their attention to an approaching geth prime. Raan backed up even with Shepard as the geth came closer.

“You are welcome to return to Rannoch, Admiral Raan. With us.”

Shepard’s heart caught. “Legion?”

The prime bowed his head. “No. I’m sorry, Shepard-Commander. Legion sacrificed itself to give us all intelligence. It will be honored.”

The brief, short-lived spark of hope died, replaced with the overwhelming weight of her sadness. Shepard’s head throbbed, her body ached, and she wanted so badly just to sleep, without dreams, without guilt. “Good.”

“And we will honor Legion’s promise. The geth fleet will help you retake Earth, and our engineers will assist in building the Crucible.”

Shepard nodded as Raan turned. “As will ours, of course.”

The prime turned to Raan. “Admiral, had you considered possible settlement sites?”

Raan twisted her hands, an act that conveyed shock, confusion, and hope all at once. “We…the southern continent had excellent farmland, as I recall.”

This, at least, is promising. And more than I dared hope for. “Are you going to be okay?”

Raan turned. “I…believe so, Commander. Thank you.”

She stepped away, happy to let Raan and the prime sort things out. Legion would be proud. In front of her, Tali stared off into the distance. “Shopping for another house?”

Tali laughed. “Beachfront property.”

“Claim it fast. It’s a buyer’s market.”

Tali shook her head, still laughing, and sat.

Shepard dropped beside her, wrapping her arms around her knees, and forcing herself to focus on her friend. “You okay? I know working with the geth will be difficult.”

Tali looked away, back to the horizon. “I’m not staying. I’m coming with you.”

“I wasn’t gonna ask.”

The quarian looked back at her. “I think you’ve earned a few favors with the fleet.”

Shepard stared past the edge of the cliff on which they say. “I’m asking them to launch an assault on the Reapers. Figure that makes us even.”

“If the Reapers were going to stay on Earth, sure. But sooner or later, they’ll come to Rannoch.”

Shepard snorted. “We did just kill one of them.”

“So I’m coming with you to stop them….if you think I can help.”

“You sure about this?”

Tali nodded once. “Yeah. I look at all this…this picture of hope and peace. And all I see is everyone I’ve lost. My team on Haestrom. My father. Even Legion. I’m mourning a geth. How crazy is that?”

Shepard smiled softly, understanding far too well how she felt. “It’s not crazy at all.”

Tali shook her head, then pushed to her feet. Shepard followed her as she stepped to the edge of the cliff.

“It’s beautiful though, isn’t it?”

Shepard glanced from her friend, to the homeworld they’d finally regained. “Yeah. It is.”

They stood in silence a moment, before Tali continued. “It’ll be years before we can live without our suits completely, but right now…” She reached up, pulling off the faceplate of her suit. “Right now, I have this.”

Shepard stared at her friend, remembering the scared but defiant young quarian she’d found on the Citadel, and smiled. Together, they watched the sunset in silence, and the sight soothed Shepard’s battered soul. She thought back to her last conversation with Liara, on the Citadel. They’d talked about the past, about her mother.

“I wish we could spend more time together like this. Just…friends.”

She’d smiled, and pulled Liara close. “Friends doesn’t cut it for me anymore, Liara.”

Liara had smiled, in that way she does. “Well. That sounds serious.”

“I am serious. Whatever happens… I’d like to spend my life with you.”

“Then you are extremely lucky that I feel that way too.”

Shepard shook off the memory, but held the feeling close. This was why they were fighting. Moments like this. Moments where Tali could take off her mask, and breathe the air of Rannoch, the first quarian to do so in over a century. Stolen moments on the presidium. Peace between fully-sentient geth, and their quarian creators.

Life.

She stared off into the twilight sky, and pushed away her exhaustion to breathe out silent defiance to the Reapers.

This is why I fight. And this is why you’ll never win.

This.

Chapter Text

“Why me, sir? Why put me in charge of all this?”

Hackett’s brow furrowed over the QEC. “Because you’re the only soldier in this whole damn navy who knows how to kill Reapers.”

Shepard shook her head. “You just have to be smart, and hope you get lucky. Anyone can figure it out.”

“Your dossier says otherwise, Shepard. The things you’ve done… Surviving Akuze. Those black-ops runs after Elysium. Eden Prime, Sovereign, everything. Everyone in the galaxy knows you by name, and they don’t even know the half of what you’ve done.”

“I still don’t see how that qualifies me to save the galaxy. I’m fumbling around in the dark, out here. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Could’ve fooled me. Shepard, let me tell you something I learned the hard way. You can pay a soldier to fire a gun. You can pay him to charge the enemy and take a hill. But you can’t pay him to believe. When you went up against Sovereign, there was no good reason to believe you’d win. But your crew didn’t seem to care—they went along anyway. Your trip through the Omega 4 relay? That was a suicide mission if there ever was one. Yet there your crew was—half of them Alliance, I might remind you, who’d abandoned their duty to follow you—standing beside you, proud to serve. Why? Because they believed in you. Their leader. That’s what I need now. Where we’re taking them is bound to get pretty hairy—and I know you’re the one that’ll get us to the other side.”

Shepard sighed as the weight of his words settled over her. “Nothing more, sir.”

“And Shepard… I thought you might like to know: I’ve got word on your mother.”

“Oh?”

“She’s alive and well, and promoted to Rear Admiral. She’s helping us plan logistics for the Crucible.”

Thank God. “Thank you, sir. That’s a relief to hear.”

“I figured having another Shepard around couldn’t hurt. And she’s damn proud of what you’re doing out there. Hackett out.”

Shepard sagged, resting her elbows on the console so she could put her face in her hands. Oh God, Mom. You’re alive.

She’s alive.

Familiar hands snaked around her waist. “Shepard? Are you alright?”

She turned, leaning into Liara’s embrace, not caring that her tears leaked onto the asari’s neck. “She’s alive. Mom’s alive.”

Liara’s arms tightened around her. “Goddess, Shepard. I’m so glad.”

Shepard sniffed, and coughed a laugh. “Hackett has her helping with the Crucible. He just told me. I didn’t realize how worried I was…”

“Oh, love.”

“I know I keep saying this, but I couldn’t do this without you, Liara.”

Liara kissed her softly. “Neither could I, Kylie.”

 

***

 

“Kylie, you cannot be serious.”

Shepard shook her head, and climbed into the Triton mech. Cortez gave her a quick nod. “I don’t see that we have any choice, Liara. As long as this pulse field is active, we can’t leave. Leviathan is our only option.”

“We got more inbound!” Vega pumped his shotgun, and grunted in her direction. “Dios, Shepard, I don’t envy you. But if you’re going, better go now. Sooner you’re back, the sooner we can get off this drowned rock.”

Shepard took one long last look at Liara, and nodded. I’m coming back. “Alright, Steve. Let’s get this bucket moving.”

The canopy came down, HUD lighting up, and then Shepard was stepping off the edge, trying to focus on anything but the fear in Liara’s eyes.

I’m coming back.

The promise sounded hollow, even to her.

The longer this goes on, the less certain I am that any of us will survive this. That I’ll survive this.

I’m not even sure I want to.

The painful truth was that this war had been killing her by degrees. Slowly wearing away her humanity. Reducing her to a killing machine that made decisions based on the greater good, and not the individual.

She was beginning to wonder if that didn’t make her more like the Reapers than not.

God, I’m tired.

The dreams had only gotten worse. The only sleep she got was on the increasingly rare occasions when her free moments synched with Liara’s. Or rather, when she got so exhausted that Garrus or Ash kicked her out of the war rooms, and she stumbled into Liara’s office instead of her own cabin.

Her exterior lights shattered, and the comm went dead.

Shit. “Cortez?”

Nothing.

She shook her head, and continued the rambling monologue she’d started, describing the ages-long descent, while letting her mind wander again.

I could just fall asleep here. Who knows if I’ll even hit the bottom? Who knows if I’ll even survive to hit bottom?

The thought was far too tempting.

Shepard shook herself. God, the lack of sleep is really getting to me, if I’m starting to think that way. Liara would kill me.

She smiled at that. A sad smile, but a smile.

Some days, I think Liara is the only thing holding me together.

The bottom, when she hit, came as a shock.

Well, here goes nothing. She adjusted the gain on the beacon’s tracker, and set out, using flares for light. Her monologue continued as she went, a report she was certain no one could hear. But it helped. She focused on that, and shoved the disquiet in her mind away. And then she was there, with the probe, and a strange glow coming up from beneath her.

“What is that?”

The monstrosity that rose up before her looked like only one thing.

Reaper.

Except…

Not.

Organic.

Not metal.

Not machine.

You have come too far.

The words pounded in her head, blowing past her mental barriers as if they didn't exist.

A flash of light, another plane, and then back.

Shepard forced herself to focus. “I had to find you.”

This is not your domain. You have breached the darkness.

Every word beat against her brain. “You killed a Reaper. I need to know why.” And more importantly, HOW.

They are the enemy. One that seeks our extermination.

Her consciousness flashed again, dragging her back to the mental plane. She shook herself, willing her focus back to reality. “But… I thought you were a Reaper.”

They are only echoes. We existed long before.

“Then what are you?”

Something…more.

This time, when the pull came, she couldn’t resist. Shepard found herself on her knees, coughing, struggling for breath in the plane of her own mind.

Footsteps approached in silence. Your mind belongs to me. Breathe.

She pushed herself to her feet, only to come face-to-face with Dr. Ann Bryson. “Ann? What’s happening?”

Your memories give voice to our words. Your nature will be revealed to us. Accept this.

Accept this. Accept it in my mind?

Stop fighting. It would be easy. But dangerous.

I won’t get any answers fighting them.

She let go. “The galaxy’s at war with the Reapers. You defeated one. Why aren’t you fighting back?”

There is no war. There is only the harvest.

She couldn’t help but think of the Collector Base, the captured humans harvested to become a new Reaper. The idea made her sick. “Then help us stop it!”

None have possessed the strength in past cycles. Your own species could be destroyed with a single thought. But you are different.

I have witnessed your actions in this cycle: the destruction of Sovereign; the fall of the Collectors. The Reapers perceive you as a threat. And I must understand why.

Shepard suddenly found herself back in her own consciousness, her head throbbing, blood streaming from her nose. She felt barely tethered, like the worst concussion she’d ever had combined with when her biotics first started to manifest, and multiplied by a thousand.

And then she was pulled back again.

Before the cycles, our kind were the apex of life in the galaxy. The lesser species were in our thrall, serving our needs. We grew more powerful, and they were cared for. But we could not protect them from themselves. Over time, the species built machines that then destroyed them. Tribute does not flow from a dead race.

To solve this problem, we created an intelligence with the mandate to preserve life at any cost. As the intelligence evolved, it studied the development of civilizations. Its understanding grew until it found a solution. In that instant, it betrayed us. It chose our kind as the first harvest. From our essence, the first Reaper was created.

You call it Harbinger.

Shepard stared. “You built that machine, despite what you saw the other races experience. Why?”

You cannot conceive of a galaxy that bends to your will. Every creature, every nation, every planet we discovered became our tools. We were above the concerns of the lesser species. The Intelligence was envisioned as simply another tool.

Hubris. “And now we all pay the price for your mistake.”

There was no mistake. It still serves its purpose.

Shepard stared. “How did the Intelligence defeat you?”

To find a solution, it required information—physical data drawn from organic life in the cosmos. It created an army of pawns that searched the galaxy, gathering this data. There was no warning, no reason given when they turned against us. Only slaughter. Only the harvest. Each harvest ends in the birth of a Reaper. Perfect in its design. Each formed in Harbinger’s image. Our image. Each has the power to influence organics, as my kind did. Over countless cycles, this ability was refined, perfected, and gave rise to indoctrination.

“I don’t understand!” She felt herself growing angry, and tried to keep it under control. “What solution did they imagine, where destroying life was supposed to preserve it? What’s the point of all these harvests?”

Leviathan hesitated. The Intelligence has one purpose: preservation of life. That purpose has not been fulfilled. It directed the Reapers to create the mass relays—to speed the time between cycles for greatest efficiency. The galaxy itself became an experiment. Evolution its tool.

Shepard had a sickening thought. “It doesn’t have a solution, does it? It’s still fumbling around, trying to find one, stuck in an endless cycle of harvest and dormancy, while it tries to find an answer to the unanswerable.”

You represent chaos. We represent order.

“My god.” That’s what the Reaper on Rannoch meant. “This whole thing… It’s gone mad, hasn’t it? Caught itself in an endless…data loop. It’s fucking malfunctioned.”

The weight of Leviathan’s mind against hers grew almost unbearable.

Unknown. Possible. Until the Intelligence finds what it is looking for, the cycles will continue.

Shepard wanted to scream. Un-fucking-believable. The galaxy’s being destroyed by some AI that’s gone off its rocker, looking for something it’ll never find.

It was absurd. Like a bad sci-fi movie from the 20th century.

“What do you know about the Crucible?”

We have watched its construction before. It has never been completed. Those who have tried still fell victim to the harvest. Its outcome is unknown.

Well, it was worth a try. “Ok, you made your point. Will you help stop the cycle?”

Leviathan regarded her. I have searched your mind. You are an anomaly—yet that is not enough.

“Wait!”

The cycle will continue.

“No!” Dammit, no. “You’ve been watching. You know this cycle is different.”

We will survive. You will remain here as a servant of our needs. The Reapers will harvest the rest.

Damn, fucking, self-centered, PIECE OF SHIT. FUCK no! Anger surged through her. “You release me, no one has to be harvested.”

Nothing will change.

“It already has!” She could feel her biotics crackling outside the internal plane of her mind. “The Reapers know where you are! You can’t just watch anymore—you have to fight!” The anger gave her new strength, and she began to push against Leviathan’s hold. “Even if you survive the battle today, the Reapers won’t stop—ever. Release me, and we have a chance to end this, once and for all.” And by God, I’m going to.

Leviathan’s hold loosened, almost releasing her for a moment.

Your confidence is singular.

“I’ve earned it. Out there fighting, where you should be.”

The pressure changed again. It is clear why the Reapers perceive you as a threat. Your victories are more than a product of chance. Very well. We will fight. But not for you, or any lesser race. We were the first, the apex race. We will survive. And the Reapers who trespass on this world will understand our power. They will become our slaves. Today, they pay their tribute in blood.

She had a moment to think that if they did get through this, she’d have to keep an eye on them, and then Leviathan’s hold on her vanished. Shepard gasped as she came back to herself, blood streaming from her ears and nose, head blazing with pain. In front her, several more Leviathans rose up, even as her Triton began to shriek.

Shepard didn’t wait. Whatever Leviathan had to say, it had likely said, and if she didn’t leave now, she’d never make it back. Stiff fingers flew across the interface, firing the ascendance rockets, and launching her upward with enough force to pin her to the seat.

She barely stayed conscious through the ride up.

The Triton broke the surface, landing awkwardly on the deck of the ship they’d crashed on, and stumbling a few feet before Shepard found the canopy control and fell out onto the deck. Nothing seemed to work right, and whatever momentary burst of adrenaline had allowed her to get the Triton surface-borne was long gone. She struggled to move, half-aware of the two Reaper brutes she’d fallen not far from, but it was so hard. She managed to push herself to her feet, only to fall back to the deck, hardly even able to crawl.

She almost didn’t notice when the brutes began to attack each other, instead of her. And then Liara was there, lifting her up.

Shepard couldn’t really figure out what happened next. Shouting, comm noise. The sound of Vega’s gun firing again and again. All she knew was Liara had her, and then they were on the shuttle and…

“Shepard! Goddess! She’s freezing…”

Freezing? Am I? So tired…

Her body jolted, as her armor’s medical functions kicked on, jump-starting her heart as it went into V-tac, heating her steadily until her body screamed at the mistreatment. She spasmed, body shrieking though her voice was silent, and then it all…shifted. Everything lined back up, and she found herself sitting up, coughing, desperately trying to breathe.

Liara helped prop her up, her worried expression swimming into focus. “Are you alright?”

Her teeth chattered, a delayed reaction as her armor continued to bring her core temperature into acceptable levels. It took her three times to answer, the words freezing in her throat. “Yeah…no…head…everything hurts…”

Liara helped her onto the bench, and laid her down. “You’re going straight to Dr. Chakwas when we get back.” She took the blanket the Vega offered, spreading it over Shepard as he tucked another under her head. “Don’t ever do that again.”

Shepard shook her head tiredly. “No.”

 

***

 

Shepard woke in the infirmary, head still pounding, but feeling far better than she had when they left Despoina.

“Ah, Commander. Welcome back.”

She rolled her head to see Chakwas give her a look that was half grin, half glare. “Karin. How long?”

“A few hours. By all rights, you should still be sleeping.”

Shepard snorted. “You mean, by all rights I ought to be dead.”

The doctor laughed. “Anyone else probably would’ve been. But I’ve stopped being surprised when it comes to you.” Karin shook her head, and triggered her comm. “Liara, she’s awake.”

“Thank you, Karin. I’ll be over in a moment.”

Shepard took a deep breath. “How bad?”

Chakwas helped prop her up into a sitting position. “From what Liara’s readings said, you were in severe hypothermic shock. And what looked like neural overload.”

She grunted. “Leviathan. They communicate through some sort of telepathy. But it’s vicious. Brute force, like the Ardat-Yakshi, but worse. It felt like my brain was in a pressure chamber.”

The door to the medbay spun open. “Shepard! Thank the Goddess.”

Dr. Chakwas grinned. “I’ll leave you two alone. Liara, make sure she eats something. And try to avoid life or death situations for at least twenty-four hours, Commander.”

“Thanks, Karin.”

Shepard watched the doctor leave, and slowly turned to Liara. Slowly, because anything remotely un-slow sent stabbing pain through her eyes and brain. Liara’s eye ridges drew in with concern as she wove her fingers through Shepard’s.

“How are you?”

Shepard grunted. “Better, but that’s relative. Feels like biotic overload times a hundred.”

Liara winced at the description. “Was it worth it?”

Shepard grunted, and closed her eyes. Her head felt marginally better that way. “I hope so. It was enlightening, if nothing else.”

Liara’s hand squeezed hers. The bed shifted as the asari climbed up next to her, tucking her head under her chin. “What happened down there?”

“We found it. Leviathan. It’s real, and a lot more than we ever imagined. We exposed it, pushed it into the light. Whether it likes it or not, it’s part of this war now. And it’s gonna help fight.”

“That’s…amazing. What was it like?”

Shepard smiled at the way Liara’s voiced changed, as the enthusiasm that had driven her to study ancient cultures surfaced. “Yeah, it is. One for the history books.” She sighed, leaning her head into Liara’s. “It…they created the Reapers. Or close as. They created an AI with a single mandate—preserve organic life. It was supposed to be the answer to the organic/synthetic cycle. Instead, it betrayed them, harvested them, and created the first Reapers in their image, complete with their mind-control powers.”

“But if the AI was designed to preserve life—”

“I know. I think it’s gone mad, looking for a solution that doesn't exist. Or at least, can’t be manufactured.”

Neither spoke for a minute or two, long enough for Shepard to grow comfortable, close to drifting off again.

“They were a master race, weren’t they? Evolved to enslave?”

“Hmm.”

Liara paused again, and when she spoke, it was softer, with a hint of worry. “It wanted to keep you, didn’t it?”

The commander sighed. “I convinced it not to.”

“Good. I don’t want any tentacled creature inside your mind…except me.”

Shepard laughed quietly. “You’re the only tentacled creature for me, Liara. I promise.”

“Good.”

Chapter Text

“Councilor Tevos.”

“Commander Shepard. I know you’re busy, so I’ll keep this brief. I’ve received information from my government that may be of use to your efforts. It’s too sensitive to discuss over an unsecured channel, but I understand you’re on your way back to the Citadel?”

Shepard nodded. “Hackett’s ordered us back to dry dock for an overhaul, and I know my crew could use the break. I’ve been pushing them too hard.”

“You push yourself too hard, Commander. The things you’ve accomplished—”

“Aren’t enough. Not if we’re going to win this.” She shook her head, but the exhaustion in her voice was obvious, even to her.

“Perhaps. But if you break, Shepard, everyone will. You, your crew, the Normandy, you are our hope. What’s holding us all together. It’s a horrendous burden to bear, but it is the difficult truth. Which means that you must take care of yourself.” The asari councilor fixed her with a long look before continuing. “However, as you will be on the Citadel, I would find it mutually beneficial if you were to come see me. I’ll most likely be in Udina’s office.”

“Still going through everything?” It felt like ages since the failed coup attempt, even though Shepard knew it hadn’t been.

“Unfortunately. We’re trying to be as thorough as possible. If there is anything he left that might help us against Cerberus, we want to find it.”

The commander nodded. “I don’t blame you. I’ll see you there, then, Councilor.”

“Thank you, Shepard.” Tevos reached out and ended the call.

Shepard shook her head. “Joker.”

“Yeah, Commander?”

“Get hold of Alliance Control on the Citadel. Let them know we’re coming in for those repairs Hackett ordered.”

“Please say this means shore leave. Please say shore leave.”

Shepard laughed. “Yes, it means shore leave. Let the crew know.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am!”

 

***

 

“…files cleared, and marked for Tentron clearance only.” Tevos turned, her expression flickering as she saw Shepard. “Commander. Thank you for coming. You must have only just arrived on the Citadel.”

Shepard nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t want this to wait, even if we are stuck here for a few days while they we refit. Did you find something?”

Tevos shook her head. “No, the Council has ordered a full review into Donnel Udina’s activities. We’re still piecing together his coup attempt. I’m simply trying to make certain everything is collected. But that isn’t why I asked you here.” Her eyes darted to the side, and she nodded slightly, indicating the exterior balcony. As they walked, outside, Tevos’ voice dropped. “The situation is growing urgent for my people. We’re aware your Crucible is still missing a key component.”

Shepard paused, turning towards her and leaning in. “The Catalyst. Do you know something?”

Tevos indicated they should continue walking. “Shepard…the Matriarchy is not entirely aware that I am about to share this information with you. But while they deliberate, our home system is under attack. Asari are not front line warriors. The simple truth is that we will not last.”

Shepard placed both hands on the balcony railing, gripping until her knuckles were white. “Even the krogan are only just hanging on. What do you know?”

“I know that if we do not support you, we will all fail. I am more sorry than you know that the burden has fallen to you, Shepard. Beyond that still, I regret not trusting you sooner. Perhaps if I had, if we all had…”

Shepard reached out hesitantly, placing a hand on the councilor’s shoulder. “We’d probably still be making this last desperate fight. But I appreciate it, Tevos. I know we haven’t exactly got on.”

Tevos’ lips pulled up at one corner. “A condition I regret, also. I hope this will make up for it, at least in part. There is an…artifact on our homeworld, Thessia, known only to the highest levels of government.”

Shepard’s eyebrows drew up. “What is it?”

“With any luck, it’s a means to help you locate the Catalyst.” Tevos glanced around, then passed over a datapad. “The artifact is kept in a temple located at these coordinates. I’ve ordered a scientific team to meet you there.”

Shepard glanced at Tevos, then looked down at the datapad. “If this artifact is so important, why keep it hidden?”

“Every species in the Citadel has its secrets, Commander. But this one, in the wrong hands, would upset the balance of galactic power.”

“The Reapers are doing that right now.”

Tevos looked down and nodded. “Indeed. Which is why I’m risking possible censure from my government to give you this. We’re out of time, and arguing will only get us all killed.” She looked out over the Citadel, and sighed. “And even if by some miracle we win, nothing will be the same.”

“The price of survival.”

“Yes. I’m not certain it’s a bad thing.”

Shepard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thank you, for this. I appreciate the help.”

“It’s you who are helping us, all of us. The matriarchs are growing desperate. For the first time in our history, Thessia is vulnerable. For all our intellect and advancement, we’re simply outmatched by Reaper firepower.”

Tevos turned and walked back towards the office. Shepard followed. “I’ll do what I can. We’re stuck here for a few days, though.”

“I know. You’ve already done so much, Shepard. You’ve become the sole ray of hope in a very dark night.” Tevos stopped and placed both hands on the commander’s shoulders. “Goddess be with you, Shepard.”

Shepard nodded once, and left. She itched to get back out. There was too much still to do, and so little time…

Her omni-tool chirped, and Liara’s voice came over her comm. “How did your meeting go?”

A smile crept across Shepard’s face. Dating the Shadow Broker definitely kept things interesting. “Good, I think. Where are you?”

“Silversun Strip. I just got here. Are you on your way?”

Shepard called up a cab and got in. “Yeah, just heading over now. Is it as posh as it sounds?”

“I’m not certain I understand ‘posh’ but it is certainly an affluent area of the Citadel.”

“Ha. That’s a yes, then.” She pushed the cab into traffic, and yawned. Maybe some down time is exactly what I need. “I’ll be there in a few.”

 

***

 

Shepard glanced around the restaurant while Joker rambled on about the Normandy being in dry dock. Her uniform felt strange after all the time she’d spent in battle dress—too tight and too loose, and really not the best thing to be wearing if things went south.

You’re in a fancy restaurant on the Citadel. Nothing’s going to go south.

Keep telling yourself that.

Liara had laughed at the invitation when she’d showed her, turning down the offer to come along in favor of catching up on Broker business. That, and she’d mumbled something about shopping. Shepard had rolled her eyes, and let her go.

Enjoy yourself, Liara had said.

Right. We’re in the middle of a war that will decide the fate of us all. How am I supposed to enjoy myself while I sit on my hands and do nothing?

“So, your email said it was important?”

Shepard pulled out of her thoughts with a snap. “My email? I’m here because I got a message from you.”

Shit.

“Commander!” A dark skinned woman in an Alliance uniform continued shouting as she stumbled towards their table. “This is urgent!”

Joker made another smart ass remark while the woman introduced herself, talking so quickly Shepard could barely make anything out except for something about someone trying to kill her.

Joker beat her to the punch again, laughing. “Yeah, I think she’s aware of that.”

The analyst looked pained. “No, I mean, not Cerberus and the Reapers, I mean other people…new people…”

She trailed off with such a forlorn and lost look that it was everything Shepard could do not to roll her eyes. “It’s always something.”

“Oh man. There’s the angry face.”

She glared at Joker, who just grinned. Rolling her eyes, she looked back at the woman—Brooks, her name badge said. “Ok, Brooks. From the top, and remember to breathe.”

Brooks took off at lightning speed, tripping over her own tongue, talking about comm channels, hacking, someone directly targeting her… Shepard discreetly triggered her omni-tool, messaging Liara before opening a private channel to her.

Something’s going on. See what you can find out?

She turned her focus back to Brooks, who was still rambling on, gesticulating wildly, but a commotion at the front of the restaurant caught her attention.

Shit and fuck.

Shepard suddenly regretted her earlier frustration about being on shore leave. A full crew of armored mercs started shooting up the ceiling and walls, cowing the patrons. Everyone dove out of their seats, hitting the floor, as the man she presumed was in charge said six words that made her snarl.

“Spread out, boys. Find me Shepard.”

Shepard growled. Reaching over, she pulled Joker down, flipping their table on its side in the same movement. “Find the crew.”

Joker nodded, wincing.

“Kylie? What’s going on?”

Shepard triggered the subvocal setting on her comm. “Trouble.”

Brooks screamed.

“I found one, sir!”

Fucking shore leave. She jerked her head at Joker. “Go!”

“Hey!”

Shepard hauled the merc over the upturned table, slamming him down with her biotics! “Go!”

Joker stared. “Did you just use me as bait?”

Shepard glared.

“Going, going!”

Shepard grabbed the dead merc’s gun and started firing. Well, at least I didn’t wear a dress.

A bullet clipped her shoulder, and she winced. Fuck this. She stepped out and charged, ramming into three mercs with the full force of her biotics. Another two went down as bullets pierced their armor, and another was yanked into the wall with a sickening crunch. She darted into cover, shot one more, wincing again as a flash grenade caught her in the side.

Dammit, dammit, dammit.

The mercs weren’t very good, but they were well armed, and there were a lot of them. Two more went down to a shockwave, which only clipped a third, as Shepard tried to blink away the effects of the grenade. “Liara, Joker’s on his way to find the crew. I could really use some backup.”

The merc her shockwave clipped tossed another grenade, and Shepard grabbed it with her biotics, flinging it back to him. She ducked just in time.

“Hold tight, Shepard. We’re coming.”

Shepard shot the last one, and ran to where Brooks was lying, pulling the medikit from the bar. “Hurry.”

Brooks howled, but the shot was a minor one. Shepard tossed her some medi-gel. “Put that on it, and get up. We need to get out of here, now.”

Brooks’ eyes went wide, and Shepard had only a moment to spot the red dot on her chest before the analyst shoved her. Shepard scrambled as bullets flew around her, shattering the glass fish tank beneath her. Her hand closed on the gun just as the glass gave way, and Shepard fell.

 

***

 

Shepard sighted through her scope and grazed the trigger, dropping the Cat6 sniper before he could make his shot. Liara gave her a quick nod, throwing another warp field. The whole thing was ridiculous, really. Shooting up a sushi bar, infiltrating a high-class fundraiser at a casino, tearing through the Archives after who knew what. A clone. Not only a clone, but her clone. And the woman was a fucking bitch. The whole thing was like some absurd vid.

I really don’t have time for this shit.

She wasn’t sure what she was more angry about, that the clone wanted to take over her life, or that she’d stolen the Normandy out of dry dock. At least, until she found her hamster sitting in a bin with all her model ships, all tagged for disposal.

Shepard seethed as she read. “Please send this to an animal shelter for proper disposal, as a warship is not an appropriate… Ohhh, that is not okay.” She pulled Snuffles’ cage out of the bin, looking him over. “She messed with my hamster, guys. Now it’s personal.”

Liara put a hand on her shoulder, while Garrus laughed. “I don’t think she realized she was signing her own death warrant with that move.”

“I’m serious, Garrus. Not. Okay. That bitch is going down.”

Liara made a noise in her throat, and pushed Shepard forward as the lift opened.

“Should we check on my fish? Because if she’s getting rid of all the pets…”

“Kylie.”

Shepard glared at her bondmate, and ground her teeth. “You’re right. Kill her first.” She turned back to Snuffles. “Sit tight, little guy. Anybody gives you trouble, go for the eyes.”

Garrus just laughed harder.

 

***

 

Shepard gasped as the round shattered her shields, staggering backwards. Rage surged through her. She gathered in all her energy, deflecting the next shot with her biotics, and charged hard. The impact knocked her clone backward to the deck and down the ramp. They rolled to a stop just feet from the edge, with Shepard on top. Her fist crashed down, again and again, pummeling her clone.

The Normandy shuddered madly, throwing her off balance. Her clone shoved her off, and she lost her balance as the ship swerved. Another tremor sent them both to the edge, and over.

Shepard dug her fingers into the deck plate, and hung on.

“Look at you. What makes you so damn special?”

She pulled herself up and glanced at the clone, who had also managed to hang on.

“Why you and not me?!”

Shepard rolled her eyes. Because I’m the real thing? And you’re a whiny bitch.

“Shepard! Hang on!” Garrus and Liara charged out of the cargo bay, pulling her back onto the ramp while her clone dangled.

Shepard laughed in relief. “Thanks.” Angry as she was, she was also exhausted. Glad I didn’t have to find out how long I could hold on.

Garrus pulled her to her feet. “What about her?”

Shepard looked back. The clone refused to meet her eyes. Rage boiled through her again, and she closed the distance between them. “You. Get off my ship.

Her foot crashed down, dislodging the clone. Pure hatred stared back at her as the clone fell. Shepard didn’t look away until after the impact.

“Garrus, call C-Sec. Make sure she’s dead.”

 

***

 

Shepard stared out the giant windows of Anderson’s apartment. She sipped at the drink in her hand, wincing as the alcohol burned down her throat. She’d lost count of how many this one made, but it was enough that even her cybernetics and over-clocked biotic amp were having trouble keeping up. Not enough to do more than give her a buzz, unfortunately, but it was something.

The lights probably helped.

God, what a mess.

The techs wanted the Normandy in dry dock for an additional week to reverse the damage the clone and Cat6 had done in their high-speed run through the Citadel’s false atmosphere, and then complete the overhaul they hadn’t been able to get to. Three days wasted, and for what?

Maybe I should’ve just let her have it all.

The thought was more tempting than she liked.

And then there was Thessia, and whatever secrets Tevos had for her there. They could’ve been there and back, in the time she wasted dealing with the damn clone. And the news reports from the Parnitha System weren’t good. Reapers closing in. Thessia in jeopardy.

And a clone. She couldn’t stop thinking about what that could mean. Much as she wanted to.

Fuck.

She knocked back the rest of her drink with a grimace.

A touch at the small of her back made her spin, startled.

Only to meet worried blue eyes.

“Liara.”

Liara took the glass from her hand and set it down in the window. Her eye ridges pulled down in concern. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Shepard took a deep breath and sat on the edge of the windowsill. “I didn’t hear you come in. Sorry.”

Liara’s brow pulled in further. “Are you alright?”

Shepard shook her head. “No. I’m not. This whole thing, Liara. It’s just such a fucking waste. We could’ve been out there, working to stop the Reapers, and instead we threw away three days chasing another version of me!”

“Kylie…”

“And how do I know I’m really me, not just another clone? How do you know? What if I’m not really me, and everything that’s happened is my fault, because I’m not the real Shepard? What if I’m a lie?”

Liara’s arms enveloped her, and she clung to her, tears running hot down her face. She felt the familiar nudge at her mental barriers, and for a moment, resisted.

Only a moment, though.

You are not a lie, Kylie Jane Shepard. I know you. I would know you anywhere. I knew you the moment you walked into my office on Illium, before I even touched you. You are MINE, Kylie Shepard. And I could never have mistaken that thing for you.

Shepard squeezed her eyes shut. I feel like I’m losing myself, Liara.

Love and strength washed over her. This war is taking a toll on everyone, but no one more than you. I hate how much it hurts you.

I just want it to be over.

Liara’s sigh radiated through her. I know, my love. I do as well.

Shepard clung to her, letting the meld hold them fast until she felt calmer. She felt like a bundle of ragged edges, fraying and falling apart while everyone watched. “I shouldn’t have killed her.”

Liara snorted sharply. “The clone? Shepard, if you hadn’t, I would have. She tried to kill us all. She tried to kill you. And don’t even get me started on Brooks. This whole mess was likely her fault. I’m almost sorry you didn’t miss when you shot her. Just so I could have.”

“But what if…”

“Kylie.” Liara pulled back, cupping her hands around Shepard’s face. “You did the right thing. I wish it could’ve been different. Goddess knows, another you wouldn’t have been so bad.” She grinned, and Shepard felt the corners of her mouth pull up in answer. “But whatever she might have been, she wasn’t you. Not once Brooks got hold of her.”

Shepard looked away, her eyebrows furrowed. “That means she could’ve been, though. Given the chance.”

Liara sighed. “No, Kylie. She made her choices, just as you’ve made yours. You are who you are, not because of your parents or your opportunities or trials, but because of the choices you’ve made in dealing with them.”

“But who’s to say I’m any better? All the people I’ve killed, all the once who died because I didn’t or couldn’t save them…”

“You are better. Infinitely so. There is not another being in this galaxy who could have done better than you, Shepard. It is why we all look to you, and why she never would have succeeded. She wasn’t you.

Shepard took a deep breath, and melted back into her bondmate’s arms. “We need to get to Thessia.”

Liara chuckled. “I rest my case. Why Thessia?”

Shepard pulled back and grabbed the datapad she’d been reading earlier. Calling up the information Tevos had given her, she handed it to Liara. “Councilor Tevos gave me this.”

Liara’s eyes went wide as she read. “Shepard, do you realize…”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I have my suspicions. But the reports from Parnitha aren't good, and if this is what I think it is, we need it now.”

“Joker said the Normandy wouldn’t be ready for another week.”

“I know. But this… I don’t think this can wait. Especially if the Reapers are closing in on Thessia.”

Liara paled, but said nothing.

Shepard sighed, and triggered her comm. “EDI. Inform the techs and the crew we’re leaving in the morning. Whatever they can do in eight hours is going to have to be enough for now. We’ll come back after and finish it. Hell, I’ll even throw a party as an apology.”

“Of course, Commander. I will make the necessary arrangements.”

“Thanks, EDI.”

Shepard looked back at Liara, and saw her own concerns reflected in blue eyes.

I just hope we’re in time.

Chapter Text

“Target the supports.”

Fuck.

Shepard snarled, running as Kai Leng’s gunship launched its missiles. They swept past her, exploding before she had a chance to get to cover. The impact threw her back, sent her skidding across the crumbling floor. She scrabbled to her feet, only to have the ground heave beneath her as cracks appeared, and large chunks of the structure fell both above and below her. Shepard didn’t stop to think, just ran, her feet seeking purchase where there was none, until suddenly there was nowhere to go.

No. No, no, no, no! “Liara!” Dammit to fucking hell, we’re not going down like this. I’m not letting that psychotic bastard win! The slab of plascrete below her feet slipped sideways, then back. Shepard tightened her tenuous grip, still looking for purchase.

Kai Leng smirked as he walked past, heading for the Prothean beacon. “Cerberus thanks you for your service.”

“Fuck you!”

The floor collapsed beneath her.

Shepard’s grip slipped as plascrete and stone tumbled past and around her. She flailed for a moment, reaching for anything, and somehow managed to grab the edge of a piece of the floor that hadn’t quite succumbed to gravity and the destruction around her. Slowly, inch by inch, she made her way back up.

Come on, come on. You’ve GOT to stop him. You need that beacon, or drone, or whatever it is.

She made the top just as Kai Leng was walking out.

No!

Shepard jumped forward, desperate to get to him before the Cerberus operative could reach his gunship, but the broken floor couldn’t take the sudden movement. The piece she’d clung to collapsed, almost taking her with it. Barely, she managed to grab the edge of the still-intact floor, but as the whine of the gunship grew, she knew she’d lost her chance.

And her tenuous grip wasn’t far behind.

She took a slow breath, focusing on her hand, willing herself to steady. She was exhausted, but her biotics, just maybe…

“Shepard!” Familiar hands, grasping at her arm. “Hang on.” Liara’s voice cracked, but her hands were strong as they pulled her up.

Shepard took barely a moment to glance at her before tearing off after the gunship. She lobbed a warp at it, followed by a handful of shots from her pistol, but it was no use. Moments, and it was gone, rocketing through the sky as the brunt of the Reaper forces descended. And she could do nothing but watch as her heart shattered, and her last hope burned.

 

***

 

Shepard stared at the QEC. The incoming call light flickered again and again, its toneless ping repeatedly announcing an incoming call. She knew she couldn’t avoid it forever. But god, how am I supposed to tell them? How can I tell Councilor Tevos that I failed? That Cerberus has possession of the one thing that could save us?

She wanted to rage. To scream, to throw things, to rip the QEC from its housing or punch holes in the bulkheads until her hands broke and her body collapsed. But it still wouldn’t change what had happened.

It wouldn’t change the fact that she’d failed.

Shepard sighed. Better get it over with.

She accepted the transmission, leaning heavily against the platform.

“Commander Shepard? Is that you? Commander?”

Shepard shook her head, forcing herself to look at the asari. “Councilor, the mission—“ Her voice cracked.

Tevos’ transmission fizzled, then strengthened. “We’ve lost all contact with Thessia… The planet has gone dark. How soon will the Crucible be ready to deploy.”

Shepard’s heart broke again with every word. She’d failed them all, asari, human, turian, all of them. She swallowed, hating herself, but knowing she owed Tevos the truth.

“Councilor, I… I wish the news was better. We didn’t get the information.”

Tevos’ shock was obvious. “What happened?”

I fucked up. “Cerberus was there. We were… We were defeated. We don’t know how to finish the Crucible.”

She watched as Tevos heart fell, as her hope died. “I… I don’t know what to say. What was the situation on Thessia?”

Shepard’s jaw clenched. “Deteriorating fast. The Reapers are there in strength.”

Tevos nodded once, clearly holding back tears. “Then you’ll excuse me. There are…preparations to make…continuity of civilization to consider… I never thought this day would come.”

You never thought I’d fail you so badly. “None of us did. I’m…”

The transmission cut off.

“…sorry.”

Shepard scrubbed her face with her hands. She felt broken, useless. The galaxy depended on her, and she’d failed everyone. How could I have been so stupid? How could I possibly have thought we’d win this? I was so fucking arrogant… The great and mighty Shepard.

God. What a fool.

Her anger came surging back. How dare they have put her in this position? How dare they have expected so much?? Shepard found her feet carrying her to the war room, fury riding her like a demon.

EDI looked up as she approached. “Asari forces are in full retreat. It is no longer safe for us to remain in this system.”

“Then get us the fuck out of here.”

EDI didn’t argue.

As Shepard stepped to the war table, Liara pushed herself up. “Shepard, I… Nobody could have predicted Cerberus would reach Thessia before us.”

Her anger burned brighter. Of all the people she’d failed, this hurt the worst. Her home planet was gone, but here Liara stood, trying to comfort her. “It’s my job to be prepared—no matter what. I should’ve known. And now Thessia is lost, as is the data on the Catalyst.” She threw a data pad across the room. “I’m sick of Cerberus beating us to the punch!”

Vega stepped up. “Let’s kick them in the balls first, for a change!”

Shepard stared at him, then nodded. “I’m with James. Anyone know where they’re hiding? Anyone?”

The room fell silent, but she caught a glance between EDI and Traynor, and slowly, Traynor turned to her. “Um… Well, there is something.”

Shepard clenched her fists. “Let’s hear it, Traynor.”

Traynor started slowly, explaining how she tracked Kai Leng, but as she went on, she grew more excited, more certain, and in the end, they had a destination.

Sanctuary.

 

***

 

“You’re a Prothean! You were supposed to have all the answers! How could you not stop this from happening?”

Shepard stared at Liara, biotic energy swirling around her, and winced. It should be me she’s berating, not him. Javik, however, stood impassive.

“We believed you would.”

And with that calm reply, all the energy went out of Liara. She glanced at Shepard, her eyes full of sorrow and apology, as the Prothean continued.

“Long ago, we saw the potential in your people. Even then it was obvious. The wisdom. The patience. You were the best hope for this cycle. So you were…guided, when necessary.”

Liara crawled in on herself. “Well it didn’t work.”

Javik’s voice softened. “You’re still alive, aren’t you?” Liara and Shepard both looked up. “Your world may have fallen, but as long as even one asari is left standing, the fight isn’t over.”

Liara nodded slowly. “I guess that goes for Protheans, too.”

“Despair is the enemy’s greatest weapon. Do not let them wield it… Liara T’Soni.”

Liara’s lips pulled up in a ghost of a smile, and she turned to walk out. Shepard wanted to grab her, wanted to stop her, but she let her go. Instead, she turned to Javik.

“Thank you.”

He shrugged. “We still need her talents. If grief overcomes her, she will be lost to us.” He said this with a pointed look at Shepard, as though it was obvious how much their defeat on Thessia was eating at her.

And it was, despite everything she said, or Anderson said, or even Javik said.

She’d failed.

But when she looked up again, he was still watching.

Shepard took a deep breath, and nodded sharply. “Thank you.”

Javik nodded back, and turned away.

Shepard slowly walked out, her mind a jumble of emotion. Javik was right, though. Despair would get them nowhere but dead. And right now, Liara needed her, more than she needed to wallow. She skipped the elevator, taking the service ladder two rungs at a time, and headed straight for Liara’s cabin.

Inside, she found the asari half collapsed on the bed, in tears, data pads scattered before her. “How did this happen, Shepard? My entire civilization, the asari’s history… The Protheans made it a lie, all along. And I abandoned my people to hunt for the Catalyst!”

Shepard sighed, and felt the already broken pieces of her heart shatter further. How could she possibly blame herself? She stepped forward, gently taking Liara in her arms. Liara didn’t move, her body stiff with grief. “You didn’t abandon them. You never would.”

A sob caught, then choked its way out. “They’re dying by the millions!” Liara gasped, as the sobs wracked her. “I told those people on Thessia, promised them we’d save them!” Her whole body collapsed, finally, against Shepard. Her fists closed around Shepard’s shirt as she clung to her, tears coming fast. “I failed them, Shepard! How many asari died, because I demanded their help?”

Shepard rocked her, softly. “None of them, Liara. You didn’t fail them, and you didn’t kill them.”

Liara gasped for air between sobs. “How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true.” She held her close, willing her to understand. “You spent years warning them. Years, Liara. And even beside that, without the Catalyst, we’re all dead anyway. This isn’t on you. It’s on Cerberus, and it’s on the Reapers.”

Another sob wracked her. “I don’t—”

“Shhh. You know I’m right, Liara. This isn’t your fault, and you know it.”

Liara didn’t reply, just clung more tightly. Shepard wrapped her arms more firmly around her, and let her cry. It crushed her to see Liara like this. Despite everything she’d gone through, how tough she’d become since Shepard’s death at the hands of the Collectors, since becoming the Shadow Broker, inside, Liara was still the same kind, sweet, loving asari she’d fallen in love with. And this… God, it hurt. It hurt that she couldn’t help her. That she couldn’t stop this. That this failure that could kill them all hurt Liara the most.

Shepard’s anger flared bright. How dare Cerberus do this?

She’d fix this. For Liara, if nothing else. She’d stopped caring about the rest. But Cerberus and the Reapers had fucked up in a big way, going after her bondmate’s home.

I’ll fix this, Liara. It won’t bring back the dead, but I swear. I’ll fix it.

And they’ll wish they’d never fucked with me.

Chapter Text

Her cabin felt too big.

By the time Liara had cried herself into exhaustion, and then to sleep, Shepard’s fury had drained again. In its wake, all that was left was guilt and sorrow.

I should’ve known. Should’ve expected Cerberus.

I should’ve gotten us off the Citadel sooner. We could’ve waited on repairs, waited until after Thessia.

I should’ve done something. Should’ve saved them. Should’ve killed Kai Leng when he first walked in. Never should’ve let him escape.

I should’ve.

Her cabin felt too big, and full of should’ve. So she huddled in the corner, away from the light of the fish tank, away from everything but her tears, and the blame.

I haven’t fucked up this bad since Virmire.

Old wounds. Akuze. Elysium. Torfan. Virmire. Alchera. Earth. Now Thessia. Even if they somehow, by some miracle, managed to survive this, those scars would never heal.

I’m not even sure we can survive this.

I don’t know if I can.

Shepard hugged her knees tighter, while the tears continued to fall.

 

***

 

The voices were louder. Angrier. Shouting her name, berating her. Shepard ran through dead trees and shadowed figures, each reaching out to catch her. Ahead, the child ran, always too far away. She wasn’t sure anymore if she was chasing the child, or running from the shadows.

Shepard.

You failed.

We died.

You killed us.

Why didn’t you save us?

Shepard.

She clenched her jaw and ran faster, trying and failing to shut out the voices. The guilt.

You could’ve saved us!

The boy stopped, clinging to a shadow. The voices clamored louder, even as they were drowned out by the howl of a Reaper. The shadow before her became her, staring back, dead eyes accusing her.

Shepard.

Harbinger’s voice brought her to her knees as the boy and her doppelgänger burned.

You cannot save them, Shepard. You will fail.

You will all fail.

“No!” Her voice felt barely audible, muted by the still-rising voices around her, voices that chanted her name as if calling for her execution.

Shepard.

Shepard.

Shepard.

“Shepard!”

She bolted upright, smacking her head on the wall, and her knee on the coffee table. God, not again.

“Skipper?”

Her head snapped up, honing in on Ash, who stood at the foot of her stairs with a worried expression. “Ash.” She swallowed a groan. “What is it?”

“You look like shit, Shepard.”

The commander glared up at her. “Thanks.”

“I’m serious, Skipper. And you weren’t exactly sleeping peacefully.”

Shepard sighed, and stood. “Did you need something, Ash?”

Her second narrowed her eyes and paused before responding. “We’re getting close to Sanctuary.”

“How soon?”

“Under an hour.”

Shepard’s eyes widened. “What? Why didn’t anyone comm me?”

Ash rolled her eyes. “Nobody could get you on the comms, so I came off to find you. What the hell’s going on? And why are you up here, instead of with Blue?”

Shepard winced at the familiar nickname the crew had given Liara. “I left her sleeping. She needed it.”

“So do you.”

“Dammit, Ashley—”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Shepard. Look, I know I spent way too long blaming you for things you had no control over. But I was wrong. And whatever fucked up guilt thing you’ve got going on over what happened on Thessia—”

“Is completely deserved.”

“—is complete and utter bullshit. So stop it. This ship needs you, Shepard. The whole fucking galaxy needs you. And it’s plain as day to those of us that know you, that you’re not doing well.”

Shepard felt her face flush. “What the fuck are you talking about, Lieutenant-Commander?”

Ash glared right back. “You’re not eating. You hardly sleep. You’re losing your temper more and more, and when you’re not, you look like you’re one step from the grave. We need you, Shepard. Not this husk you’re letting yourself become. Stop blaming yourself for every soul you didn’t save, because I know you, and I know that’s what you’re doing.”

“And how exactly am I supposed to do that? It’s not like I can just throw a switch—”

Ashley’s fists clenched, and her voice rose to a shout. “By focusing on the fact that without you, none of us would be alive! The Reaper’s would’ve killed and harvested us all by now! Palaven would be a lifeless asteroid. Tuchanka would be slag. The Citadel would be lost to Cerberus. The quarians would all be dead, and the geth would still belong to the Reapers. You’re the fucking embodiment of hope, Shepard! Not because we all want you to be, but because you’re a fucking miracle worker! So what if Cerberus got the jump on you once. It was bound to happen. Get your ass up, and let’s take the fight to them already!”

Shepard stared at her XO, speechless. The only sound in her cabin was the soft blurp of the automatic fish feeder. Ash stared back, her eyes widening as she realized that she’d just read out her commanding officer.

And the silence stretched on.

Shepard didn’t recognize the noise that broke it, finally. But the sound startled Ash so badly that her expression went from worried confusion to straight horror.

The sound came again.

And again.

And Shepard finally realized it was coming from her. Laughter, slowly choking it’s way out of her. I’m fucking laughing. “Oh God.” She covered her mouth, then leaned back, letting the laughter tumble out of her, until tears streamed out of the corners of her eyes. And it felt good.

“Um… Skipper?”

Shepard fell back onto the couch, shaking her head as the laughter continued to bubble out. “Damn, Ash. I just… Wow.” She wiped at her eyes, and sat up. “Don’t look at me like that, LC. I haven’t lost it. God, the irony.”

Ash shook her head, chuckling. “You’re something else, Skipper. What, I don’t know. Just…something.”

Shepard pushed back up off the couch and headed for her locker. “Thank you, Ash. I mean it.”

“So you’re not going to court martial me?”

Shepard turned her head and grinned at her friend. “No. I’m not. You’re right, though I’d appreciate it if you don’t make a habit of it.”

The LC smirked. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Skipper.”

“You are, however, coming down to Sanctuary with me. So go grab your rifle, and comm Tali to meet us in the shuttle bay.”

“Aye-aye, ma’am. You don’t want Blue?”

Shepard’s grin fell, her hands slowing as they locked the seals on her armor. “No. Not this time. I suspect we won’t like what we find down there, and she’s had enough for right now. I want her working with Sam on finding us a new target if things don’t pan out here.” Her hands sped back up, and her face hardened. “I’m not letting them beat us.”

“There’s the Commander Shepard I know.”

 

***

 

Sanctuary was a nightmare.

It was like every step was worse than the one before. From the Reapers and Cerberus fighting it out on the upper levels, to the ugly desperation turning to hopelessness that was the only remnant of the many who had fled there, to the even more hideous truth they found below the surface.

Someone had been experimenting. And not just any someone.

Shepard grimaced as the vid transmission played, Miranda’s accent coming in choppily over the hastily recorded message.

“…evidence you can’t ignore. Confirmation my father is working for the Illusive Man.”

The vid that played next made Shepard’s scowl deepen. Miranda’s father, working for Cerberus, for one goal—to control the Reapers. And with a certainty that they’d found a way, which explained what the Reapers were doing attacking the few remaining Cerberus forces.

Shepard slammed her fists onto the console. “Goddammit!” She sighed and shook her head. “Well, at least we’ve got our link to Cerberus. Come on.”

“Bosht’et! Shepard, there’s more.”

The commander spun on her heel at Tali’s curse, in time to see Miranda dodge out of the video, and Kai Leng quick on her heels. “Fuck! I hope she’s ready for him. Let’s move!”

They climbed the access ladder in a hurry, only to end up face-to-face with more Reaper forces.

“Dammit! Tali, I need you to take down those barrier generators. Ash—”

“On it, Skipper!” The LC dove out of cover, launching a grenade as she went, but her timing was off. She caught the edge of the ravager’s next salvo, knocking her flying.

“Ash!”

The barrier generators blew in a shower of sparks, and Tali’s combat drone mowed down a trio of cannibals. Shepard gritted her teeth, and counted the ravager’s next salvos, always in groups of three. Her first sniper round blew through a marauder’s skull. She ducked, counted another salvo, and took another marauder. Tikktikka continued to deal with cannibals, while Shepard counted again. Her third shot drove right through the Reaper’s orbital.

Ash groaned, breaking the ensuing silence.

Shepard double-checked the area, then sprinted to Ash’s side. “Easy there, LC.”

“Damn, Skipper. Those things pack a punch.”

Shepard snorted. “Yeah. Yeah, they do. Good thing you had your helmet on.”

Ash groaned again, while Shepard helped her sit up. “Like you’d let me leave the ship without it.”

“You’re fucking right, I wouldn’t. How do you feel?”

“Bruised.” Her hands skimmed over her armor while it did its own diagnostic. “I think that’s it, though. It wasn’t a direct hit, just the edge of it.” Ash hissed as her suit automatically dispensed a dose of medi-gel.

Shepard grunted, and pulled her up. “Good. Tali?”

“We’re clear, Commander. And I think I found us a way into the tower.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Tali led them to a cargo light rail that took them over and across the majority of the lab area. Shepard cautiously palmed the next door open, staying close to cover as she surveyed the destruction. This doesn’t look—

“Brutes!”

Tali’s warning came just as one of the monstrous Reapers lunged for her. Shepard dove, narrowly avoiding the creature’s arm only to come up in the path of a second. Instinct took over, knocking the brute back with a biotic blast so strong it made her wince. The brute flew back, over the edge of the platform. “Stay out of their reach!” She glanced over in time to see Ash slide back through the door they’d come in, as Tikktikka kept the other brute off balance. Ash’s assault rifle wore it down with her armor-piercing rounds, and when Shepard unloaded the full three-shot clip from her Widow into it, it went down and stayed there.

Shepard popped in a new heatsink, and turned—just in time to see a giant arm throw her into the wall. Instinct again saved her, throwing a barrier into place at the last moment, but the impact set her body on fire, and made her ears ring. She pushed off the bulkhead, grabbing her machine pistol and peppering the brute. It screamed, confused by fire from three directions, until Shepard threw another biotic blast, launching it off the platform just like the first.

“Shepard! You alright?”

The commander popped her neck, and bent to retrieve her Widow. “Fine. Come on.”

A banshee screamed.

“Fuck.”

Ash and Tali dove into cover just as Shepard did. “They’re all coming from that room up there, Skipper!”

Shepard nodded. “You two take out those marauders. I’ll deal with the banshee.”

Tali and Ash nodded, their guns already firing. The banshee screamed again, jumping forward with biotic leaps that cut the distance in half. Shepard waited, then unloaded her Widow on it. The banshee staggered, then pulled back its arm, hand crackling with biotic energy.

Shepard charged, her biotics hurling her straight into the banshee. She jumped at the last moment, turning her charge into an uppercut that caught the Reaper completely off-guard. The banshee staggered back, recovering just as Shepard pulled, flipping it forward and slamming it into the ground. Her armored foot pinned it down by the neck, and she fired off another three rounds point-blank into the banshee’s skull.

“Damn, Skipper. Remind me not to piss you off.”

Shepard just shook her head. She was breathing too heavy to reply, so just moved forward to the elevator. A short ride up, and the door opened to the sound of a biotic blast, shattering glass, and gunshots.

“Get ready!”

Miranda was the first thing she saw. The woman was disheveled and clearly injured, but fire still blazed in her eyes. “Shepard,” she gasped.

A scream made her look up, to where Miranda’s father stood, pistol in one hand, and Oriana in the other. “Commander Shepard. Excellent timing.”

Shepard’s gun didn’t waver. She crept forward, condescension dripping from her voice. “Put the gun down.”

She secretly hoped he didn’t. Henry Lawson deserved a far more painful death than she had time to give him.

“I don’t think so. Oriana tried to shoot me. Miranda’s poisonous influence, no doubt.”

Shepard stopped a few feet away, as Lawson backed into the window behind him. “I’m sorry she missed. Where’s Kai Leng?”

Lawson scowled. “I don’t know. Gone. He took my research and left us here to die.”

“Miranda, can you—” Miranda nodded, wincing as she staggered to her feet. Shit. She’s not doing well.

“That’s close enough, both of you!” Lawson shifted, clearly aware he had nowhere to go. “Kai Leng didn’t finish the job, but I will.”

Shepard growled. “This ends here.”

“On the contrary.” Lawson smirked, pulling Oriana tighter to him. “Now that the Reapers are taken care of, we have a way out.”

“Let her go.”

“Shepard…” Miranda sucked in a breath, and leaned hard against one of the support pillars. “Don’t let him take her.”

Shepard’s eyes narrowed. “Oriana’s not going anywhere. And neither are you. Let her go, give me the research data, and maybe we can talk. Hurt her, and you’ll wish the Reapers had gotten you.”

Lawson’s eyes narrowed. “You want a lot.”

“You’re in no position to bargain. How much is your life worth?”

Lawson glanced between them all, then shoved Oriana away. “Alright, take her. But I want out alive. Deal?”

Miranda moved before Shepard could reply, hitting her father so hard with a biotic explosion so powerful it shattered the security glass behind him, and sent him flying into the space beyond.

It was a long drop.

Miranda panted. “No deal.” She stumbled, then lurched over to where Oriana was pushing herself up. “Did he hurt you? Are you alright? It’s okay, Ori. You’re safe now.”

Oriana caught her sister. “I’m fine. I just… I want to get out of here. But what about you?”

“We will, just give me a minute.” Miranda pushed away from her sister, and stumbled again, only to be caught a second time by Oriana. “Shit, I—”

“Easy there.” Shepard pulled out the medi-gel, giving her a double dose.

“I’m fine, Shepard.”

“You can barely walk. Just give it a minute.”

Miranda shook her head. “Commander Shepard. Fancy meeting you here.”

“You know me. I get invited to all the fun parties.”

Miranda smirked, then inhaled as the medi-gel kicked in. “I don’t know how you managed it, but I’m grateful you’re here.”

“So am I. I just wish you’d told me. How did you do all this?”

"Finding my father didn’t take long once I confirmed he worked for the Illusive Man.” She snorted, and shook her head. “Just had to follow the lies. Once I saw what this place really was… I couldn’t just walk away.”

Miranda pushed up, and Shepard helped her to her feet. “Of course.”

“Thank you. Things got really complicated when the Reapers showed up. And Kai Leng.”

Shepard scowled. “You survived. Not many people could do that.”

Miranda took a deep breath and leaned back against a worktable. “When you mentioned he was involved, I took a few precautions. Probably saved my life.”

Shepard nodded, then sighed. “Miranda, this whole thing was a huge risk. You should have told me.”

The former operative shook her head. “You have a war to win, Shepard. This was my fight. It’s been a long time coming.”

“You did it. It’s over.”

Miranda pushed off the table, and took a few cautious steps. “Yes. I just wish my sister didn’t have to see all this.”

“About your father…”

“I’m glad he’s gone, Shepard. I’m sorry if that sounds cold.

Shepard stared at the woman’s back. “No, I understand.” And she did. Her father had been a monster, and Miranda was finally rid of him. No more hiding, no more worrying. She glanced over at Tali and Ash. “What’s our status? Any information we can use from here?”

Tali shook her head. “The research data is gone. All I see is basic facility information. Shuttle arrivals and departures, shipping manifests, that sort of thing. No direct links, but it’s a good start. Traynor, EDI, and Blue should be able to find something.”

Shepard nodded, not letting her disappointment show. She’d hoped for more, for a solid lead. “Grab anything you can, we’ll take it back to them.”

“I can do better than that.”

The commander turned back to Miranda, hope curling darkly in her gut. “What?”

Miranda pulled a small handheld out of a concealed pocket in her catsuit. “Before Kai Leng took off, I planted a tracer on him. If you act fast, you’ll track him right to the Illusive Man.”

Shepard’s mouth curled up in a feral grin as she accepted the device. “Tracer? Sounds like you thought of everything.”

“Not quite, but…” Miranda laughed softly. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Shepard pulled the suddenly embarrassed woman in for a hug. “Thank you. This is exactly what we need.”

Miranda blushed and pulled away. “Thought you might need some good news.”

“Damn right. What’s next for you two? Do you have a shuttle?”

Miranda scowled. “The Reapers destroyed it. We can probably find something—”

Shepard cut her off with a wave of her hand. “We’re headed to the Citadel, to rendezvous with Hackett. We’ll need the whole fleet to hit the Illusive Man’s base. We’ll drop you off there.”

“Thanks, Shepard.”

“It’s the least I can do. As soon as we get back to the Normandy, you’re going straight to see Dr. Chakwas.” She ignored Miranda’s frustrated look, and hit the descrambler on the comm controls. Miranda’s recorded warning immediately played. “Cortez, we need a pickup. I’ve had enough of this place.”

Chapter Text

“What?! Absolutely not!”

“Yes, Commander, and that’s an order.”

“But Sir—”

“You heard me, Shepard. It’ll take that long to get the fleet assembled, and we need every ship if we’re going to storm the Illusive Man’s base.”

Shepard ground her teeth. “I know, Sir, but—”

“The Normandy needs the work done, too. We need you, your crew, and your ship in the best possible condition. So I’ll say it again. You’re on shore leave, Shepard. And I don’t want you setting foot on the Normandy until I say.” He paused for a moment, then the corner of his mouth twitched. “Unless, of course, you think you have another clone running around out there…

“Dammit, Sir—”

“It’s an order, Shepard. Don’t make me have C-Sec drag you out of there.”

She sighed. “Yes, Sir.”

Hackett nodded, and cut the transmission. Shepard scrubbed her face, then pounded her fist into the console. Just thinking about the last time she’d been ordered on shore leave at the Citadel made her furious. Because of her damn clone, they hadn’t beaten Cerberus to Thessia. Because of her damn clone, Liara was still only barely talking. Instead, she’d buried herself in work, helping as many of her people as she could.

While Shepard got them saddled with shore leave. Again.

“Um, Commander?”

“What is it, Joker?”

“Did he just say—”

Shepard groaned. “Yes, Joker, he said shore leave.” She winced as his excited scream came over the comm. “Spread the word—we’re supposed to be off the Normandy in an hour.”

“You know, Commander, this would be an awesome time for that party you promised us…”

“Joker—”

Her warning tone didn’t discourage him in the slightest. “Just think about it, Commander. We’re all stuck here anyway, why not have some fun?”

“Because, Joker—”

“Why, because the galaxy is falling apart? Yeah, we all know. We’ve been out there. And let’s face it, there’s a damn good chance none of us will make it out of this. Hitting the Illusive Man is us declaring the opening salvo of war on the Reapers, and everyone knows it. So throw us a damn party, Shepard. Let us say goodbye with a smile.”

Shepard bowed her head, and leaned hard over the console. “You’re right, Joker. Set it up for tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am. And thanks, Shepard.”

 

***

 

“Dr. T’Soni, please—”

“I don’t care what they said, Glyph. I’m staying here.”

“But Doctor—Ah, Commander—”

“I’ve got this, Glyph.” The drone spun away, leaving them alone. Liara didn’t look away from her screens. Her fingers never moved from the keys they flew across. “Liara.”

“I have work to do, Shepard. People to save, ships to coordinate. Supplies to route and reroute.”

Shepard sighed, and stepped closer. “I know, love. And you can do all this from Anders—my—the apartment. But you have to take a break, first.” She reached out, letting her fingers trace the worry lines on the asari’s face. “When was the last time you slept? When did you last eat?”

“I don’t… I can’t sleep. I don’t have time. I’m not hungry. I need… I just need…” Liara’s fingers slowed, and her face tightened.

Shepard took the opportunity. She stepped in close, wrapping her arms around Liara, and covering blue hands with her own. “You need a break. Sleep. Food. Before you start making mistakes because you can’t see straight.”

“But they need… I have to…”

“Shhhh.” Shepard gently pulled her hands off the keyboard, and stepped them both back. She swayed slowly, as though rocking a baby. “Someone told me once, that I had to take care of myself, or I’d be in no shape to take care of anyone else. Hackett’s ordered us all off the ship, so that we can take care of ourselves, while they take care of the Normandy. I—” her voice cracked, and Shepard leaned the side of her head against Liara’s. “I’d like to spend that time with you. Please. In case—” She broke off, swallowing, unable to say the words. “Please come with me.”

Liara turned in Shepard’s arms, until they were face to face, and Shepard could see the tears rolling down her face. She leaned forward, until their heads pressed together.

Liara’s hand rose to cup Shepard’s jaw, holding her there. “I’ll always come with you, Kylie.”

Shepard pulled her tight. “I know, Blue. I know.”

 

***

 

Shepard stared at her reflection, and sighed. Dinner had been nice, just the two of them. The haunted look had slowly started to fade from Liara’s face, until she was—if not relaxed—at least less tense. But Liara looked as tired as Shepard felt, and looking at herself in the mirror, she was pretty damn tired. Her fingers slowly traced the glowing orange lines on her cheek and jaw. The scars that had never healed seemed to have gotten worse again, and her eyes looked hollow and bruised.

This war is slowly killing both of us.

Shepard rubbed her face, trying to find the energy for a smile. She wanted to enjoy this brief time they had together, not spend it looking (and feeling) like death. She took a deep breath, collecting herself, and then froze, as hesitant notes were slowly coaxed from piano in her foyer. Shepard opened the bathroom door, and stared in wonder while Liara’s fingers picked out a tune.

“Greetings, Commander.”

Damn infobot.

Liara spun, her fingers slipping from the keys, and her slightly embarrassed smile making Shepard’s heart pause a moment. “Kylie.”

Shepard stepped forward, reaching out for Liara’s hand. “I didn’t know you could play.”

Liara turned back, her skin flushing purple with embarrassment. “Actually, this is the only song I know.”

“Why’s that?”

“There was always something more important to do: a ruin to uncover, intel to gather, a commander to save…”

Shepard chuckled. “You couldn’t sit still long enough.”

Liara shrugged, and smiled. “Could you?”

Shepard shook her head. “So why this song?”

Liara sighed, her mouth turning up in a smile at the memory. “On one of my first digs, a storm swept in. We were trapped inside. I was so restless. I wanted to get back to work. One of the other archeologists, Dr. Olena, had this keyboard. She took it everywhere.” Moving one hand back to the keys, she began to play again, a simple melody that somehow felt so evocative. "She taught me to play this song while we waited.”

Shepard watched as Liara continued, her fingers stumbling occasionally. “It’s a good song. It fits you.”

Liara blushed, tripping through a few more bars, before stepping away. “Thank you, Shepard. I’ve always loved that song.”

Shepard watched her walk away, slowly following. Both paused when the song began again, glancing back to see Glyph had activated the autoplay. Huh. Maybe he’s not so bad for an infodrone, after all. Shepard let her eyes drift back to Liara, who slowly looked away.

“Kylie, I—”

Shepard reached out, pulling her back before she’d barely begun to move away.

Liara looked back at her, a hint of a smile beginning to tug at her lips. “What are you doing?”

Shepard drew her in close. “Making sure you don’t run off to something more important.”

“Shepard…”

She shook her head. “We need this time, Liara. We need more time like this.”

“Yes, well, maybe after…”

Shepard cupped her jaw, gently turning her back until Liara’s startlingly blue eyes focused on her. “Every day, after. Promise me.”

A tide of emotion swept over Liara’s face. “Shepard…”

“Promise.”

Worry and fear settled into hope and longing. “I promise.”

“Good.” Shepard leaned in slowly, sealing the promise with a kiss. As the song ended, fading away behind them, she felt Liara gradually let go her fear, letting desire and longing take its place. The kiss deepened, and they held each other tighter, both understanding on an instinctive level how much they needed this, needed the closeness, needed one another. Despite both being on the Normandy, they’d had so little time together. Moments caught between missions, nights spent exhausted in the other’s cabin, often while one worked.

Shepard broke the kiss without a word, just smiling as she tugged Liara towards the stairs, and her room. Liara pulled back once they reached it, and Shepard turned into smiling blue eyes.

“I love you, Kylie Shepard.”

Shepard wrapped Liara in her arms. “I love you so much, Liara. I’ve missed you.”

The asari sighed in her arms. “I’m here, Shepard.”

They slowly undressed each other, neither wanting to let go, until they stood skin to skin, hands slowly exploring, lips tasting, while Shepard maneuvered them towards the bed. They climbed on it in the same manner, more focused on touching and holding the other than on the bed itself, until Shepard lowered her weight onto Liara. She breathed deeply, inhaling the asari’s scent, tasting her skin, as her lips traveled up the pale blue column of her neck.

“Shepard…”

Liara’s mouth captured hers, hands tightening on her back and shoulder, and Shepard gasped as Liara’s thigh pressed into her center.

Need overtook them, and they moved in tandem, each looking for the other’s pleasure, until there was nothing but touch, and want, hot mouths on nipples and fingers pushing deep, and the completeness of the meld overcoming the lingering darkness they both felt and feared. Until the universe narrowed to only their shared existence, and for one eternal moment, nothing else mattered—nothing else existed.

Chapter Text

Shepard leaned on the railing of the spaceport, staring out through the window at the Normandy, watching as the last supplies were loaded on board. Hackett had cleared the ship only an hour before, sending rendezvous coordinates for the fleet’s attack on the Illusive Man’s base.

The sound of footsteps filtered through, as her crew slowly collected around her. She turned, watching them. Despite the fact that they’d all partied hard the night before, they looked ready to finish this. Liara settled against the rail next to her, nudging her with a grin that Shepard returned.

“I suppose it’s back to the fight.”

Shepard sighed softly, and took her hand, intertwining their fingers. “At least we threw one hell of a party. Probably the last one.”

Liara leaned her head on Shepard’s shoulder. “You may be right. But whatever happens, I know you’ll see this through. And I’ll be right there with you. We all will.”

Shepard smiled sadly, turning her gaze from Liara to the rest of her crew—past and present. Most were coming with her, but some, like Samara and Miranda, Jack, Zaeed, Wrex and Grunt, had their own places to go. She knew in all likelihood that this really was the last time they’d all be together, and as much as Hackett’s orders had frustrated her, she was glad of the chance they’d been given.

“We’ve been through a lot, haven’t we? But it’s been a good ride.”

Shepard made a small noise of agreement, watching as everyone said their goodbyes. She kissed Liara’s hand, and let go. It was time. Time to end this, time to save what they could, damn the Reapers, and damn Cerberus. She watched for a moment longer as her crew—her friends, her family—went their separate ways, and took a moment to appreciate just how lucky she was. It had been a good ride, bumps and all. “The best.”

 

***

 

EDI nodded as she broke through the final lock, and Shepard took a deep breath. The Cerberus base had been just as disturbing as she’d expected. Worse, maybe, thanks to the videos that EDI had uncovered, particularly those regarding Project Lazarus. Knowing she’d died apparently wasn’t the same thing at all as hearing someone talk about her being clinically brain dead.

Liara’s hand touched her shoulder, just as the station shook under Hackett’s assault. Shepard nodded at EDI, and triggered her comm. “We’re going in. Just hold them off a little longer.”

“Get it done, Shepard. We’ll cover you as long as we can.”

The hatch spun open, revealing the Illusive Man’s inner sanctum, a room she’d seen countless times through the QEC.

Empty.

Shit.

Shepard glanced around again, and headed straight for the console. “We need to locate the Prothean VI.”

“Shepard. You’re in my chair.”

She spun, gun in hand, at the familiar voice, only to find a QEC projection, instead of the man himself. “This chair’s about the only damn thing you have left. Cerberus is finished.”

“On the contrary. We have achieved everything I ever imagined.” He paused, glaring. “Almost, everything.”

Shepard scowled back. “Yeah? We all saw what you accomplished on Sanctuary. But it’s not the same as controlling a Reaper.”

“A significant hurdle. But thanks to the Prothean VI, I have what I need to make it a reality.”

“The Catalyst.”

“Yes.”

Shepard narrowed her eyes. “And how is it going to do that?”

“You’ll have to ask the VI yourself. I’m done helping you.”

She snorted. “When did you start?”

“You think because I’m willing to use the enemy’s tactics, that they’re no longer my enemy? Everything, Shepard—everything I’ve done has uplifted humanity. Not only above other species in our galaxy, but over the Reapers!”

“Bullshit! If you were willing to do everything, you would’ve worked with me, instead of against me!”

“I don’t think so.”

Shepard shook her head. “You’re desperate. How many have you killed? Together, we would have already had the Crucible and the Catalyst.”

“You wouldn’t listen! You’re still not listening! Destroying the Reapers would be the biggest mistake of our brief existence! And nothing you can say will ever convince me otherwise.”

“You never change, do you? I’ve given you every chance to listen to reason. Cerberus is done, and so are you.”

“Once again, you fail to recognize the truth. Cerberus isn’t just an organization or the people behind it. Cerberus is an idea. That idea is not so easily destroyed. Besides, I’ve already acquired what you’re looking for.”

Shit. “EDI?”

“I’ve almost got it.”

“EDI. I’m surprised at you. Working so hard to bring about the Reaper’s destruction. You could’ve destroyed Eva’s body. But instead, you chose to control it.”

“It was necessary.”

The Illusive man smirked at Shepard. “My point exactly.”

“I have it, Shepard.”

The Prothean VI flashed to life. “Online. Security breach detected.”

The Illusive Man grinned. “Enjoy your little chat, but don’t overstay your welcome.”

Shepard turned away as the QEC projection shut down, and the VI began speaking.

“You are attempting to recover me from indoctrinated forces?”

“Yes. I need to know what the Catalyst is.”

“Security protocols have been overridden. I will comply. Catalyst enhances dark energy transmissions and coordinates the entire mass relay system. In your cycle, it is known as the Citadel.”

Shepard stared. “What?”

“The Catalyst is the Citadel.”

“But… The Citadel was built by Reapers!”

“The plans for the Crucible were passed down to us from the previous cycle, and countless cycles before that. At some point—it is difficult to pinpoint when—the Crucible plans were adapted to incorporate the use of the Catalyst. Presumably, the Crucible was not sufficiently powerful to defeat the Reapers.”

EDI turned. “So we use their own technology against them.”

“Precisely. I was programed to withhold this information until the Crucible was complete.”

Shepard turned to the door, feet already moving. “It’s as ready as it’s going to be. Let’s get it to the Citadel.”

“That may no longer be possible.”

Shepard froze. “Why not?”

“The one who broke through my security protocols, the one who you call the Illusive Man, has fled to the Citadel and informed the Reapers of our purposes.”

“Fuck!”

EDI looked from Shepard to the VI. “Then the Citadel is in danger. The Reapers will take control of it.”

“The already have. The Citadel has been moved to Reaper-controlled space.”

“Moved? To where?”

“To the system you refer to as Sol.”

Shepard’s face fell. “Earth.”

“The Reapers will surround it, and protect it at all costs. The odds of accessing it are remote.”

Shepard shook her head. “Don’t count us out yet. We’ve come this far, and we’ll finish this.”

“I hope you find success. I will help in anyway necessary.”

The VI shut down, porting itself to Shepard’s omni-tool. “EDI, get me Hackett. He needs—”

“Shepard!”

A plasma blast fried the holo-console as Liara shouted her name. Shepard spun, only to find Kai Leng blocking their exit. Her eyes narrowed. “You.”

Leng smirked. “He did warn you not to overstay your welcome.”

He charged to close quarters, and they grappled. Shepard vaguely noticed more Cerberus agents flooding the room, but Kai Leng took her attention. She had to leave them to Liara and EDI to deal with. She blasted him with a warp, knocking him back, and took the opportunity to slam a phantom sneaking up behind Liara. Leng snarled and charged again, but Shepard dodged out of the way, only to throw a quick reverse, biotically charging him. The Cerberus agent flew across the floor, while Shepard ate away at his shields with her gun.

Kai Leng pushed to his feet, but Shepard closed the gap, knocking him back again with a fierce kick to the torso. He slammed into the far wall, unmoving, and Shepard turned. A few well placed shots helped clean up the remaining Cerberus troops, and with a glance back to Leng, Shepard returned to the control panel. “Hackett, this is Shepard. The Illusive Man is gone, and the Citadel has been moved by the Reapers.”

“Shepard! I copy, we just received word. Do you know the location?”

“Earth. And that’s not all. The Citadel is the Catalyst.”

Hackett swore, but under the comm, Shepard caught a noise behind her. Kai Leng.

“Shepard!”

She spun, just as Liara’s warning came. Her forearm shattered Leng’s sword as she activated the blade on her omni-tool, driving it forward into his chest. Kai Leng gave a choked cry, dropping to his knees as she yanked the blade out. “That was for Thane, and for Thessia, you son of a bitch!”

The Prothean VI reappeared as Kai Leng breathed his last. “The Citadel is in position. The Reapers are preparing the harvest of your species.”

Shepard took a deep breath. “I’ll stop them.”

“It is too late. I recommend investigating a means of preserving information for future species.”

Shepard’s face hardened. “I’ll stop them.” She reopened her comm as the VI again returned to her omni-tool. “Hackett?”

“Shepard, get out of there. We’re blowing the station and gathering the combined fleets. I’m sending rendezvous coordinates to your ship. It’s time to take back Earth.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

***

 

Shepard leaned back in her chair, and closed the last document on her personal console with a sigh. She’d met with her crew, with Anderson and Hackett via QEC. Everything was in place, and ready. Nothing left to do, no last-minute side missions, no minutia to sort. Just one final mission.

Earth.

It was fitting, in a way, that her journey would end where it started. Shepard grabbed her helmet, more for something to fiddle with than for any other reason. She’d already checked over her equipment three times. Checking it again wouldn’t change things. Helmet still in hand, she moved from the desk chair to her couch, and sat staring at the faceplate. Shepard held no illusions about this mission, and the likely outcome. As determined as she was to succeed, she’d long since accepted the inescapable conclusion that her chances of surviving that victory were beyond minimal.

She would end the Reapers, no matter what it took. Of that she was certain.

Beyond that… Well. Hope sat side-by-side with reality, in her mind. Either she’d live, or she’d die, and she knew what was more likely. And as much as she longed to be able to live out the rest of her life by Liara’s side…

I’ll be happy so long as she gets to live it.

And I’m so tired.

She sighed again, turning the helmet around in her hands without really seeing it. With everything prepared, she’d retired to her cabin to make her own personal arrangements. Gear to look over, letters to write, affairs to put in order in the event that victory came at the ultimate cost. She’d written to each of her crew, past and present; to her mother, to Hackett and to Anderson. Liara’s had been the hardest, had taken the longest. She hoped, fervently, that those letters would never be sent, but felt so much more at peace knowing they were there.

But with all of that done, Shepard now felt oddly lost. Like she was the calm before the storm. There were no pre-mission jitters, no anxious feelings. Just waiting. Just numbness.

“I wondered where you were.”

Lost in her detachment, she hadn’t noticed her cabin door cycle open. But Liara’s voice pulled her back, and she glanced up with a faint smile that she couldn’t help. Seeing her bondmate would always make her smile. “EDI didn’t tell you?”

Liara laughed softly. “She respects your privacy. Not like me. What are you doing?”

Shepard looked back down at the helmet she still held. Losing myself. But Liara could probably already see that, and she didn’t want to dwell on what was coming anymore. “I thought I heard the casing crack during that last fight.” Not a lie, but she’d already checked it over, a while ago. Shepard stood, tossing the helmet to Liara, and walked over to the bed. “Bullet must’ve just grazed me.”

As expected, Liara saw through the figurative smoke she was blowing. Glancing at the helmet, the asari set it down on the table, and looked back at her. “Do you feel ready, Shepard?”

The commander cocked her head, and looked hard at her. “Do you?”

Liara chuckled. “Fair enough.” She reached out a hand and rested her fingers on Shepard’s helmet. “What I want most is for this war to end while there’s still a galaxy left to save. And everyone’s counting on you to do that for us. It must be overwhelming.”

Shepard shook her head, and stared at the floor. “How do you even get ready for something like this?”

Liara left the helmet, and walked towards where Shepard sat on the bed. “You cajole and threaten, and make tremendous sacrifices. Until the galaxy realizes it has someone worth following.”

Shepard leaned back on the bed as Liara sat. “You think so?”

“There’s no doubt in my mind.” Liara leaned back beside her, and took her hand, interlacing their fingers. They lay in silence together, for a moment, staring up at the stars through the ceiling viewport, before Liara sighed, and turned to look at her. “It would be easy for a single ship to get lost up there, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah. It would.”

“To find someplace very far away, where you could spend the rest of your life…in peace. And happiness.”

Shepard swallowed the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. For just a moment, she allowed herself the dream. Living out her life with Liara, far from conflict and duty. All the little blue children. Happiness and peace, a life full of love. And then she took that dream, and packed it away, safe. The she leaned in, and gently kissed Liara’s cheek, before sitting up. “Hm. Right now, there’s no place I’d rather be.”

Liara sat up after her, placing a hand on her shoulder, and smiled sadly. “Neither would I.” Gently, the hand on Shepard’s shoulder slid up to her neck, and Liara pulled her in for a soft kiss.

I will not cry. I will be happy in this moment, with Liara by my side. Like we were before Ilos, and before the Omega 4 relay.

“I love you, Shepard.”

The words, and the look in Liara’s blue eyes, said so much more. I will love you for eternity, Shepard, they said.

“I love you too, Liara.” So much more than I can say.

Liara heard the unspoken words somehow, or recognized them in her face. “Show me.”

Shepard leaned in again, kissing her far more deeply, pouring all her emotion into the tangle of lips and tongues, as they sank back onto the bed. Liara cupped her head, then slid her hands down her neck, and around until they met at the zipper of her N7 hoodie. The metal teeth parted slowly, and then blue hands pushed the garment off her shoulders and arms. Once her hands were free again, Shepard parted the armored jacket Liara wore, taking time to admire the way her tanned and battle-rough hands looked against the asari’s lightly scaled blue skin.

She took her time, worshiping Liara with her mouth. Down her jaw and neck, over her collarbone, gliding across her sternum until she was situated between perfect breasts. She licked and kissed her way along the underside of one, and then the other, while her hands softly stroked up and down her hips and back. Slowly worked her way over top each breast, nipping gently with her teeth, until Liara’s back arched off the bed, silently begging. When she finally took one hard nipple between her lips, Liara gasped, and clung to her.

Shepard smiled, but didn’t hurry. There would be no hurrying, this time. No hurrying, no desperation, and no sadness. This moment was theirs, a last gift to each other, and it wouldn’t be ruined.

“Kylie…”

She smiled again, pulling back as Liara tugged at the t-shirt she still wore. The asari’s eyes were already darkening with need. Together, they finished undressing one another, hands lingering over skin, each movement a caress, a flirtation, an I love you spoken by touch. When they finished, Liara rolled Shepard on her back, paying her back in kisses that touched every inch of her body, until she reached the commander’s lips. They kissed again, embracing as the meld enveloped them, and individual thought ceased, leaving only them and us and together.

Drowning in the meld, they touched, rolled, sought. Hands grasped, backs arched, mouths slid over skin, as hips ground against thighs, and fingers thrust deep into the warmth of secret places. Pleasure echoed back across shared minds, feeling and feeling again, a relentless cycle of ecstasy that neither wanted to end.

And love. An outpouring of love that overwhelmed them both, and raised them up to exhaltation.

Love.

Always.

Eternity.

 

***

 

She was running, again. Always running. Chased by the demons of her failures.

You should have saved us.

You failed.

Your fault.

Shepard.

Failure.

Black trees reaching, and a forest full of smoke and ghosts. She had to reach the boy.

You will fail, Shepard.

Her dead, lost and screaming in the darkness, and Harbinger’s voice. Always him.

You will fail.

You have failed.

Her fault, as the boy ran.

Her fault, as her friends, her crew died again.

Her fault, as Harbinger shouted, the toneless, metallic scream of the Harbinger of Death.

Shepard.

Failure.

Her fault, as the boy burned.

Her fault, as she stared at herself, burning with him.

Shepard woke with a start. Again, always the same dream, the same nightmare, but each time worse. She sat up slowly, trying carefully not to disturb Liara. One of us, at least, should sleep.

Rubbing her face, she pulled up her omni-tool and checked the ship’s position, sighing when she realized they’d reach the rendezvous shortly.

Not that I would have been able to sleep anymore, anyway.

Liara sighed softly. “You can’t sleep?”

“We’re almost there.” She didn’t want to talk about the nightmare. There wasn’t much point anymore, not now. Not here, at the end.

“Already?”

It wasn’t hard to hear the sadness in that single word.

Shepard sighed. “I hope everyone is ready.”

Liara sat up, wrapping her arms around Shepard’s torso. “You don’t have to worry about that. You rallied who you could, everyone you could. The Reapers won’t get anymore chance to divide us.” She kissed Shepard’s shoulder, and squeezed her tightly. “This time, the galaxy follows our lead.”

Shepard shook her head. “Chances are, we’ll lose so many, even if we win.”

Liara reached out and held her chin, forcing Shepard to look at her. “We will win. You’re not alone in this fight now, Shepard. Take strength from that.”

Shepard leaned in and kissed her, saying with her touch what her words couldn’t convey. “Thank you, Liara. For everything.”

Liara held her tightly for a moment longer. “It has been my pleasure, and my privilege.”

Shepard kissed her again, then stood. It was time. “Let’s go finish this.”

Chapter Text

Another banshee died screaming, with Shepard’s sniper bullet in its brain. She felt a wave of biotic energy behind her, as Liara threw a cannibal into the debris. Garrus’s rifle fired again, and brute went down, screaming.

“Commander. The Destroyer is in range. Missiles ready for launch.”

She squeezed off another shot, and glanced at the truck, and its precious missiles.

“Shepard, go, we’ll cover you!”

Another shot, and she ran. “Roger that, EDI.” A banshee reached for her, and died with a double-tap from Garrus. A pair of cannibals and three husks never made it to her, sucked instead into Liara’s warp before it detonated. Shepard pulled out her autopistol and fired, simultaneously lifting a marauder and slamming him into a nearby building. And then she was clear, sliding to a stop at the missile control panel and bringing up the targeting.

“Targeting is online. Reaper is in range.”

Her hand flew across the keys as Garrus and Liara closed ranks around her, dropping Reaper ground troops left and right. And still they came, and the Destroyer advanced. “Firing!”

They ran for cover together. The missiles flew true.

“It’s going down!”

Shepard triggered her comm. “Hit ‘em with everything you got!”

Hammer opened fire. And the Reaper fell.

Shepard stood, sniping another cannibal as she moved. “EDI?”

“Destroyer terminated.”

“Nice work, EDI.”

Anderson’s voice crackled over the comm. “Shepard. We’re on our way to your location.”

She slammed one last husk to the ground, and took a deep breath. “Roger that.”

It wasn’t long before Anderson’s ground transport rolled up. “Shepard! Thank God you made it.”

She walked towards him, wincing as a muscle in her thigh pulled. “It didn’t look good…”

He walked past her, and stared at the beam that pierced the heart of London. “It gets worse.”

“Of course it does.”

“Hackett just reported in. Several Sovereign-class Reapers—including Harbinger—have broken off from the battle with Sword. They’re headed here.”

Shepard’s jaw clenched. “Harbinger.”

“It’s an opportunity for Hackett to get the Crucible in place, but we have to get a team on board the Citadel to open those arms. Now.”

Major Coates walked up with an abrupt nod. “We still don’t know what we’ll find when we get to the Citadel.”

Shepard glanced at him. Something about him bothered her, but frankly, she was too exhausted. He was probably just an asshole. She shook it off, and turned back to Anderson. “Then that’s our job: find out what we’re up against.”

Anderson nodded. “Alright. Saddle up, everybody.” He walked back to the transport as the remains of Hammer gathered. “Get me Admiral Hackett.”

Shepard waited, while their paltry force reformed. Liara and Garrus stepped up beside her, Garrus still keeping a lookout, while Liara bumped her shoulder. They shared a brief look, noting each other’s exhaustion, but they’d said everything already, shared everything. Before this push, when Liara had given her the gift of her memories. Every moment they’d shared, every thought and emotion. Shepard reached down and joined their hands, and they stood, just breathing, just being, until Anderson was ready.

Together, the small convoy moved forward, to the beam.

Harbinger was there to greet them.

They charged, every man and woman, at Anderson’s command. And Harbinger cut them down, one by one. The Reaper’s laser cut a swath through their charge, crashing tanks and annihilating troops. And still, they ran.

Shepard dodged an exploding Mako, sliding down and to the side as it flew up and over. A second crashed into it as it landed, sending it into the air as well, and she watched in horror as it landed, nose first. Time slowed as it tipped back, and Shepard stood powerless, unable to pull Liara and Garrus out of its way. She reached out with her biotics, trying desperately to slow it, and knowing it wasn’t enough. The tank landed, detonating, and time sped up again. Shepard ran. She leapt over the remains, clambering up, and landing running again, desperate to reach Liara.

Garrus stumbled to his feet as she grabbed her wounded bondmate, and the three of them dropped to cover as the assault continued. One hand on Liara, and eyes moving everywhere, Shepard triggered her comm. “Normandy, do you copy? I need an evac, right now!”

The rational soldier in her knew she was being unreasonable. But Shepard didn’t care. Liara was hurt, and she couldn’t do this—couldn’t finish this—until her bondmate was safe. Liara had to live. She had to.

“We’re taking heavy losses up here, Commander!”

The ground shook around them, as Harbinger continued to pick off their forces. “Just hold on, Liara. Joker, I need you, now!”

“Shepard, I—”

“On our way, Commander.”

The roar of the Normandy’s engines cutting through the atmosphere was music to Shepard’s ears. She prayed the Reaper IFF they still had would confuse Harbinger long enough to get them out. It had to work.

The ground shook again as the Normandy pulled in, and Shepard reached for Liara. “Come on.”

Together, they stumbled to the safety of the hold, as the reserve troops still on board poured off. Garrus charged up the ramp first, stopping halfway when Shepard spoke.

“Here. Take her.”

She eased Liara’s arm from around her neck as Garrus took her weight. She couldn’t stand to see the blood that covered the asari’s armor. It broke her heart.

She has to be safe.

“Shepard!”

She stepped back. “You’ve got to get out of here.”

Liara shook her head, but Garrus didn’t let her go. “I’m alright, Shepard.”

Taking in the blood and the look of exhaustion, it was an obvious lie.

“Don’t argue with me, Liara.”

“You’re not leaving me behind!” The words ground out, laced with pain.

Shepard took a shaky breath, and pulled off her helmet as she walked back towards her bondmate. “No matter what happens. You mean everything to me, Liara.” Her hand reached out, cupping the asari’s blood-spattered face. “You always will.”

“Shepard, I…”

Her hand fell away, and she stepped back, not looking away.

“…I am yours.”

Shepard glanced at the beam, and Harbinger, as the Reaper destroyed another tank. She turned back, and screamed. “Go!”

“Shepard!”

She picked up her rifle, and ran, helmet forgotten. Behind her, she heard the Normandy whine, and lift off.

She’s safe.

She’s safe.

She’s safe.

Shepard charged the beam, the two words a mantra in her head as guns fired around her, soldiers screamed and died, and Harbinger’s beam howled.

And then the Normandy was gone, and Harbinger growled, a wordless noise that she almost understood.

Just you and me, now.

Harbinger growled again, and this time she was certain she understood.

Shepard. They will all die. You have failed.

Fuck you.

And then Harbinger’s laser struck, and all she knew was pain.