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Requiem of the Goddess

Chapter Text

For the ones who tried before.

Requiem of the Goddess

By

Yoshiyuki Ly

Mass Effect 1

"Hope Overture" from Requiem for a Dream

I. Center of the Universe

(Sol Shepard)

Center of my scope.

Center of the universe.

Right in my crosshairs.

Thin as the threads threading us all together.

The same threads that I denied each day, yet they pulled at me like strings anyway, determined to make me think one way, speak this way, act some way:

Resisting was the only way for me to stay alive.

Hiding, slithering, crawling: I had clawed my way through these vents in Chora's Den here on the Citadel, down in the Wards, following a lead, and chasing after Saren Arterius, a rogue Spectre who needed to be stopped. Muted blues and beaming reds, the asari and human women dancers still lined the place—along the walls, along the raised platform in the center—performing for the customers and the army of mercs here. These mercs were really here to have a good time, not guard the one who'd hired them.

Alone, I stayed here in these vents, scouting out the scene in this gentleman's club. As slim and flexible as I was in my stealth suit, all-black, these small spaces weren't a problem for me. Only the weight of my sniper rifle over my back could have ever posed a problem. Liberated from that now, I had the length posted along the run of this vent, pointed through a filter with just enough room to shoot from. With my hair pulled back into a long tail behind me, I was free to focus.

My one lead, the club's lowlife owner named Fist, was through here in his office, hiding behind all of these loaded mercs and their guns. Not wanting to cause a scene in a club full of civilians, I had told my squad to wait outside. I needed to find a more covert path to Fist's office instead. But, with this last blockade in my way where there shouldn't have been, I knew we had Fist scared—enough to block off all ventilation to his office if it meant keeping someone like me away from him.

Those familiar threads thrummed and drummed in minor spasms in my hold, rumbled by the bass of the music within these walls.

Tinned against the metal all around me, the music filtered through my ears as a silver haze, silvered more as I took one final count of all of the mercs here in the club.

Spying through my scope, I spotted at least a dozen of them, distracted as they all were by the music, the drinking, the dancing, and the temptations of a hookup or two taking them away from their duties.

I couldn't afford to wait for them to leave on their own.

Most of them seemed drunk enough: staggering and slurring, we could take them out now and be done with it.

I radioed my squad on standby outside: "Wrex, Ashley—do you copy?"

"Loud and clear, Shepard," grunted Wrex, the depths of his baritone almost blending in with the bass blasting through my ears. "Say the word and we'll go. That coward Fist better be waiting for my gun."

"Ready and able, Commander," stated Ashley, clearer, straight-forward, the rasp of her voice almost getting to me in this lustful atmosphere. "Take it you weren't able to find a quicker way through?"

"Fist blocked the vent with some indestructible material. Short of letting him suffocate in his office, we have to storm the club. I'll take the first shot. Should scare off the civilians. Once they're gone, I want you two to launch an assault on the rest of the mercs. Then we'll head for Fist's office and get the info we're looking for. Kill him or don't—doesn't matter. We need that intel on the quarian before anything."

Wrex chuckled in sadistic satisfaction. "This should be fun. Those mercs had enough to drink yet?"

"Most of them are wasted. We'll hit them hard and fast before they have a chance to escape. If we get overwhelmed, I'll call Garrus and Kaidan for backup. For now, they're staying at their posts to keep any more civilians from entering this area."

"Sounds good," agreed Ashley. "Waiting for your signal."

"As soon as you hear my shot, run in."

"Roger that!"

One human merc, a man without a face, the red of it in this lighting hidden behind his beer bottle:

He sat in a chair, his hand at his groin, watching as an asari danced on a pole right in front of him.

The slight swing of my scope as I kept him in my center, right between his dilated eyes so fixated on the woman validating his existence. This sensitivity kept me grounded. This difficulty kept me focused. The slight, sensitive, difficult familiarity of this movement dissipated my breaths to silence, dimmed the music to nothing; diluted all of my worries to nihilism.

Just this single shot, this precision, this signal—

Readying, and firing, the loudness, echoing hard in this vent, and the kickback—

The blast of his head, popping as a fleshy balloon of blood, spattering and sticking against the wall—

And the backlash as the civilians screamed.

Ashley and Wrex rushed in against the wave of their panicking.

They ran through the cries rippling out from the peoples' throats heated by alcohol and drugs and more.

Sober in their shooting, my squad blasted through the mercs without issues, the element of surprise going a long way, farther than even how wasted the enemies were.

Limited as this space was, I picked off what mercs I could, what with the center platform in my way. Keeping my own surprise, no one was aware enough to spot the sniper shots coming out from the vent. Up at this height, I bolstered Ashley and Wrex, getting to anyone in their blind spots.

Only barely, I heard shouting and screaming filtering in from Fist's office, echoing through to me.

One last groan of death from a merc, and my squad holstered their weapons.

"That's it," called Ashley. "Bag 'em and tag 'em! Commander, you still there?"

Wrex looked around. "Hey, Shepard, where the hell are you?"

I kicked the metallic filter out from in front of me. The clang of the steel hit the ground right as I jumped from the vent. Sniper rifle in-hand, I landed on the balls of my feet, legs bent, my fall softened with my limbs as my hydraulics. Noticing the shocked looks my squad gave me, I folded my rifle over my back.

Ashley expressed her awe: "Is that how you do things when we're not out in the field, Ma'am?"

"You know enough about me by now, Williams," I told her, heading down the hall to Fist's office; knowing that the dark brown of her eyes tracked my hair, my hips as I went. "Better get used to it."

Grumbling in disapproval, Wrex followed after me. "Can't you just be straightforward, Shepard? Why all the sneaking around? Never understood your kind. What's the point of fighting if no one sees you?"

"Commander Shepard's among the best in the Alliance," boasted Ashley—on my behalf—as she stepped over a few merc corpses to keep up with us. "The best of the best, really. N7 Infiltrator with glowing commendations, graduated at the top of her class. The commander wiped out every single batarian on Torfan without being spotted, not once! All they heard was her sniping. Those bastards didn't know what hit them until it was too late. Serves them right for what they did to us during the Skyllian Blitz."

"Oh, yeah, I heard about Torfan," remembered Wrex, sounding impressed enough. "That was Shepard?"

"The one and only!"

"Huh. Well, then, I take back what I said. Guess we all have our methods of getting the job done."

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams would always be the first to sing my praises.

Passing through these dark halls on the way to Fist's office, I felt the shift about her: how much of her own words had reflected back in on her, making Ashley look into a mirror she didn't quite want to face.

I couldn't let myself wonder about the truth there.

Then again, there was no need to wonder.

I knew, and I felt it from her—like fire blazing out from the sun itself—yet I turned away.

Even I knew better than to stare straight into the sun.

As another door halved and opened for us, a pair of so-called guards aimed their lousy pistols at us.

I pulled out my sidearm.

Ashley and Wrex backed me up, assault rifle and shotgun raring to go.

"Oh, shit," freaked one of the guards. "You guys are the real deal!"

"Fuck that," said the other one, trying to sound tough. "We're here to protect Fist!"

Gesturing behind me, I pointed out, "We just killed all of those mercs to get here. What do you think we'll do to you?"

"Uhh…"

"Ugh, forget it—Fist doesn't pay us enough for this."

They went on their way.

Wrex seemed confused. "Would've been faster to just kill 'em."

I disagreed—"We only kill when it's justified. If you're going to stick with me, Wrex, you'd better drill that into your head. This isn't the mercenary life you're used to. Not anymore."

"When you're a krogan, killing is a way of life. Starts not to matter once you're as old as I am."

Making a point, I stopped to look him right in the eye. "I get it: you're a krogan battlemaster. That doesn't mean you have to stay stuck in your ways! Like I said earlier, you're free to kill Fist once we get what we need. With anything else, I expect you to use your head before you fire your gun. Am I clear?"

Undeniable ire of the red of his eyes, narrowed in wrath.

Wrex snarled, the mangle of the scarred, mangled skin over his wide mouth rumbling in a low roar.

Watching in horror, Ashley looked torn between breaking us up and staying frozen where she was.

I pierced his rage with a glare of my own, holding nothing back. The same focus I kept in my scope; the same concentration I put into every single shot as I lined them up, I gave to him.

Grumbling in concession, Wrex stepped back from me.

"Fine," he allowed. "Have it your way, Shepard. I'll follow you."

Ashley let out a breath. "Damn, you two. That was…intense."

"Let's move on," I ordered, heading to the final door to the office. "We'll get in here, wear Fist down, and get the information we need on that quarian. Be ready."

Clicks and shifts of weight from Ashley's rifle and Wrex's shotgun—at the ready.

Busting through the door, I let my squad go through first, drawing Fist's fire. He shouted at us, trying to break our focus, while he hid behind his ridiculous automated turrets. Such limited space in here—I popped out from cover where I could, shooting my pistol at the turrets to disable them.

Constant, loud, banging from the heat of projectiles flying out from our guns, endless noise, until Fist quickly fell to the ground, done in by a shot to the arm from Ashley.

Wrex stepped over to him, shotgun primed. "The Shadow Broker says hello. It's been a long time coming."

"Wait, wait!" cried Fist, shielding himself with his uninjured arm. "Can't we talk this through?!"

I pressed him, "Where's the quarian? We heard you set up a meeting between her and the Broker."

"Yeah, I set up the meeting… B-But it's not what she thinks. No one meets the Shadow Broker, not in person. She doesn't know that. Some of Saren's agents will be there instead…waiting to ambush her."

"You son of a bitch," I hissed. "Where is she?!"

"She…she should be at the meeting now, in the back alley, near the markets. If you hurry, you might—"

Blast of blood and heat, and Wrex fired his gun, leaving Fist a gory mess on the office floor.

Ashley almost gagged from the suddenness, yelling, "Damnit, Wrex, was that really necessary?!"

Wrex shrugged. "He gave us the info, didn't he? At least I waited."

"We don't have time for this," I said, bolting from the office. "Let's move, people!"

Already I had dashed down the hall, running back into the club.

Around the circular platform in the middle and back outside.

We couldn't lag behind.

We couldn't risk something happening to this quarian—our final, final lead now that Fist was dead.

I heard Ashley and Wrex calling out to me:

"Shepard, wait! Commander! We're not that fast!"

"Hang on a minute, why don't you?!"

Ashley running, but slowed down by her hardsuit, trying and failing to catch up;

Wrex lumbering after her, breaths heaving in his heavy weight compared to me;

They could catch up on their own time.

Spotting the entrance to the back alley, I was about to radio Garrus and Kaidan. One of them rounded the corner to the alley; I nearly ran them over, but didn't stop. Only when I pushed through the door and recalled the distinct sight of a turian's scales and the color blue, did I realize who it was.

"Hey, Commander!" shouted Garrus. "Where's the fire?!"

Somewhere in the near distance, Kaidan radioed Ashley and Wrex for an explanation—"What's going on?! Did we find the quarian? Shepard just sprinted by us like a bolt of lightning!"

Still on this frequency, I overheard Ashley's breathless summary, yet I had to block it out.

Slowing, quieting, I reached the back alley, and found our target.

Hiding by a few crates, I scoped out the scene.

From behind, I had a view of the quarian: the blue-violet of her suit sticking out against the beaming red filter of the light in this place. One of Saren's turian thugs stood close to her—way too close to her—feeling her up while trying to get her to hand over the intel she had.

Whatever that intel was, it would be enough to land Saren in hot water.

If he got his hands on it before I could, then my entire operation was finished.

"C'mon, baby," whispered the thug, leering at her. "Why don't you give me that info now? I'll make it worth your while—"

Unimpressed and uncomfortable, the quarian slapped the thug's wandering hand away from her.

"No way," she stated, to-the-point. "The deal's off."

She sounded young, but this girl wasn't stupid.

In over her head, maybe—I spotted more thugs approaching the scene, ready to take the quarian out.

I pulled out my sniper rifle and lined up my shots.

The quarian screamed when my first shot burst through the turian's head.

His bloodied flesh spattered against the hard material of her helmet.

The quarian scrambled back in a panic; I took out the rest of the thugs in the distance. She heaved for breath, holding her head as if to cover her ears from the booming, the panicking from those thugs, until their bodies fell to the ground, and left only silence.

By the time I holstered my rifle over my back, the quarian was on the ground, sitting and rocking herself.

Not liking any of this, I went over to her anyway.

"Hey," I said. "I've been looking for you. What's your name?"

"You…you—" The quarian fought to keep breathing. "You sniped those thugs like they were nothing! And you are looking for meKeelah!"

I grit my teeth.

"Look, I'm not here to hurt you," I tried, hoping my squad would get here soon. "You have something that I need. Now what's your name—?"

The quarian choked back a sob. "Goddamn you!" she shouted at me. "You have no idea what I've seen, what I've gone through to get here! I had to deal with racist C-Sec officers who wouldn't listen to my pleas for help, I lost one of my friends while thinking I could be next, and now here you are, yet another insensitive bosh'tet who needs something from me! Why is everyone in this galaxy so heartless?!"

I had no idea what the fuck a bosh'tet was, but it sounded like something that should've pissed me off!

Before I could explode, my squad hurried through to us.

"Shepard!" cried Ashley, sounding relieved. She collapsed against the nearest wall, exhausted. "Thank God…there you are!"

Wrex leaned over to catch his breath. "Is that…that the quarian we're looking for?"

"Looks like it," noted Garrus, not nearly as winded. "Hmm, she seems upset. Everything all right?"

Kaidan recognized my quiet struggle here, and came over to us. "Hey there," he said to the quarian, gentle, as he knelt down with her. "I'm Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, with the Alliance. This here's Commander Shepard, our leader. Are you okay? You're a little shaken up."

"Only a little, huh?" mused the quarian, trying to wipe the blood and spattered brains from her helmet. "I guess that's not so bad… I could be doing worse."

"A lot worse, yeah, I agree," humored Kaidan, placing his hand over her shoulder. "What's your name?"

"Tali. Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."

"Well, Tali'Zorah, we've been looking for you. We heard you have some information on the Spectre named Saren. But, I think that can wait for now. Commander, we should get her to the med clinic here in the Wards. She may need medical attention."

"She's fine, Lieutenant," I pointed out. "I made sure no one hurt her. Don't you see the bodies?"

With respect, Kaidan countered, "Yes, Commander, I see them. It's just, not all wounds are physical. She's clearly seen some things she shouldn't have. Dr. Michel should take a look at her."

I really didn't want to delay this business with taking Saren down.

But with Garrus, Ashley and even Wrex looking over at me as if they agreed with Kaidan, I had no choice.

Alenko helped Tali'Zorah to her feet.

We all escorted her over to the med clinic, accepting this delay.


Inside the med clinic, my squad stood nearest around Tali'Zorah as Dr. Michel cleaned her up.

They listened to her story about how she was on her Pilgrimage, a rite of passage for quarians in the Migrant Fleet, and her tale of how she and her friend had come across a geth memory core.

Realizing the danger and the value of the information they found within the core, they first went to Illium to report this to the authorities. The racist jackasses wouldn't take them seriously, so they stowed away on a freighter to reach the Citadel instead.

After more struggles and more setbacks, they learned that the Council couldn't help them—not any time soon—as the average waiting time to have an audience with them was at least nine months. So they turned to the Shadow Broker instead, hoping to have better luck, only to get tricked by Fist in the end, and nearly taken in by Saren's thugs—until I showed up.

Tali'Zorah had lost her friend in the middle of all of this. Like she'd said, she could have been next.

Leaning against a far wall, away from almost everyone, I could only wonder what it was like to feel that fear.

I hadn't felt that in so long.

Not in years.

"Sounds like a hell of a time," commiserated Garrus. "How'd you manage to make it out alive?"

Sitting up in her bed now, Tali'Zorah buried her face—helmet—in her hands. "I don't know, honestly," she grieved. "I was so caught up in trying to do the right thing. Going to the authorities. Reporting what I had heard about Saren. I had no idea that the galaxy outside the Flotilla was such a cold, hard place."

Wrex sounded sympathetic enough. "You'll need some tougher skin to survive out here, Tali," he advised. "Sometimes it's not so bad. You can find some good people, comrades you can trust. Other times, it's worse. Best to be prepared for anything."

"That's the thing," said Tali. "Whenever I knew what to expect, whether it was fighting the geth or figuring out our next transportation, I was fine. My mistake was believing that Illium's police force or C-Sec would actually listen to me. They dismissed my concerns and called me a suit rat! Before I began my Pilgrimage, I'd heard of such things happening. Not from the police, from people we should trust!"

Garrus knew better. "C-Sec isn't all it's cracked up to be," he counseled. "A lot of them are a bunch of assholes who couldn't survive a day out in the real world. So they put other people down whenever they can, all to make themselves feel better. It's a vicious cycle of power and abuse."

"Yeah," agreed Kaidan. "I've heard the same thing… Sorry you had to go through that, Tali'Zorah."

"Thanks," accepted Tali, sounding better. "I appreciate it. You've all been so kind to me. Well—" She stopped herself. I was over here by a medi-gel dispenser; Ashley was with me, avoiding the conversation to stay by my side. "Most of you, anyway. I'll grow that tougher skin you mentioned, Wrex."

Wrex chuckled. "If you need any help, feel free to let me know. I'm an old fossil. Plenty of stories to tell."

Tali laughed with him, adding, "Sure. Maybe I'll do just that."

"If you're up for it, Tali," offered Garrus, "We could bring you to the human embassy on the Presidium, get you an audience with Ambassador Udina instead. If your evidence is compelling enough, we could bring this information directly to the Council—without that nine-month waiting period, mind you."

"Really?!"

Kaidan smiled over her delight. "Yup, really!" he assured her. "We've got friends in high places. Or, uh, at least Commander Shepard does. She's in charge of this mission."

Ashley finally had something to say, "No joke. The Commander's under special consideration to become a Spectre when this is all over. Your intel could be just what we need to get her over the finish line."

Tali'Zorah took a moment to regard my team, one by one. She took note of the people I'd chosen to surround myself with: how encouraging they were to her, how nice they were to her. Even Ashley was polite enough, at least, once she did speak up.

I felt the beginning, a slice of her benefit of the doubt as she looked on at me.

It didn't matter that I couldn't actually see her face, or what her expression was.

All I knew was that she had made up her mind:

I couldn't have been all that bad if these were the people who chose to follow me.

"I think it might be," offered Tali, well enough to get up from her bed. "I see why you were in such a hurry before, Commander. Sorry for slowing you down. We can head over whenever you're ready."

Garrus worried for her, "You sure you're fit to go?"

"Yes, Garrus, I'm sure. I'll be fine, I promise. We have more important things to worry about."

"Then let's head out," I ordered, leaving the med clinic with everyone.


Taking the rapid transit to the Presidium with everyone in the same car might've been a mistake.

Everyone except for Ashley sitting next to me had warmed up to Tali'Zorah quite quickly, with each of them telling her the story of how they had met me. As if I couldn't hear them, they went on about their first impressions of me—"She can be a real hardass;" "she's damned skilled and it's an honor to know her;" "I wouldn't wind up alone with her in a back alley again if I were you"—all to make Tali laugh, to help her feel welcome with us.

I hadn't even formally invited her to join up with us, but it looked like they had all decided for me.

Reaching the Presidium and getting out of that car was a godsend. But Ashley kept following directly after me, closer than usual for some reason—making me wonder too much about this, and about her. Again, there was so much from Ashley, her emotions shouting in silence: for me to look at her, for me to acknowledge the way she walked right next to me, close enough to cause these fumes to rise from my chest, so painful in pleasure and in pressure, nearly bursting from this dam over my heart.

I didn't know enough about her.

And I was her commanding officer.

She needed me to be her leader—or really, I needed to be her leader, and nothing more.

No matter how beautiful Ashley was in her curiosities, and no matter how much she sparked my imagination—how she would glance over at me, wondering about me, too—I couldn't let myself give in.

I knew for a fact that she was straight. She had to be.

All I wanted was to get on with the mission—not waste time with these…pointless thoughts of her.

Ambassador Udina and Captain Anderson were here waiting in the spick and span of the all-white embassy office, willing to listen to Tali's evidence and testimony of how she'd acquired this recording of hers—the perfect recording of Saren, and some other woman I didn't know, admitting to their plans:

"Eden Prime was a major victory. The beacon has brought us one step closer to finding the Conduit."

"And one step closer to the return of the Reapers."

"This evidence is irrefutable!" declared Udina. "It proves that Saren's gone rogue. We must bring this to the Council at once!"

Anderson puzzled over the second voice. "I'm not sure who that woman is," he mentioned. "And what's this about the Reapers? What could they be?"

Tali'Zorah knew: "According to the memory core, the Reapers are a race of sentient machines. They wiped out the Protheans several thousand years ago, leaving next to no trace left behind. The geth seem to worship them as gods."

Udina dismissed the claims. "Sounds like some fairy tale, or a myth!" he blustered. "There's no time to linger on whether or not it's true. This matter with Saren is far more pressing! I will arrange for a meeting with the Council immediately. Now, if you'll excuse me…"

Anderson scowled at the ambassador as he left. "Not even a thank you? No gratitude whatsoever," he soured. He then looked to Tali. "Tali'Zorah, was it?"

"Yes, Captain," replied Tali.

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'm sure it took a lot of effort and skill to extract this recording from that geth's memory core. You've just saved this operation and helped us move our mission forward. Your evidence has turned out to be vital for us."

"You're too kind. I couldn't have done this without the people helping me along the way… I only wish they could have been here to see this, too."

"I completely understand," empathized Anderson. "We're all here thanks to the ones who came before. Don't you think so, Commander?"

"Yeah, Shepard," agreed Wrex, obviously needling me. "Tali's done a great thing for us. Wouldn't have made it this far without her."

Garrus listed off: "Tech expert, crafty and resilient when it matters, able to defend herself in combat… I'd say we have the perfect candidate for a new squad mate. Wouldn't you?"

Lieutenant Alenko wouldn't dare poke fun at me like this.

I felt how much he wanted to chime in with his agreement; saw it in the glow in his eyes.

Ashley only gave a pithy, bitchy laugh, keeping her comments to herself.

Accepting that this was a battle I couldn't win, I went over to Tali.

"We're on a mission to bring down Saren," I informed her. "This recording will help us get his Spectre status rescinded. But that's only the beginning. Whatever he's up to with the geth, the Reapers, and that Conduit he mentioned—we need to put a stop to it. And it sounds to me like your tech skills and knowledge of the geth will be invaluable. Can we count on you in this fight?"

"Absolutely, Shepard," replied Tali, solemn. "That Saren's made my Pilgrimage so far a living hell… It's time I returned the favor in any way I can."

"Welcome aboard, Tali'Zorah," I stated, offering my hand—my left hand, per quarian customs.

Tali warmed to me as she accepted my gesture, shaking my hand with a precision I hadn't expected.

"Thanks for believing in me, Commander. You won't regret this."

I believed her.

Once it was time, we made our way over to the Citadel Tower for our second meeting with the Council.

Again I felt surrounded by the quiet beauty of this place: the eternal dusk of the lighting, the height of the pearl white hallways and balconies all around leading to special Council offices, and the gentle touch of the cherry blossom trees everywhere, forever in bloom.

United against me during our first visit, the asari councilor, the turian councilor, and the salarian councilor had taken Saren's word over mine, refusing to believe that he was up to anything.

Standing here with my squad behind me—Chief Williams, Lieutenant Alenko, Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, and now Tali'Zorah—with Ambassador Udina and Captain Anderson at my side, I accepted the weight, the gravity of the truth—that I wouldn't have been here without them, all of them.

Standing here before the Council again, I understood Tali's pain and suffering: how she'd felt betrayed by the authorities, by the ones who were supposed to protect us. Those who had sworn their lives to service were apparently as prejudiced and fucked up as regular people, if not more so.

Remembering the sting of the Council's original rejection of my pleas, I plated up my pain behind my usual shields, pushing forward to this new path instead.

Because now, the Council was far more open-minded. Now, the Council listened as Saren implicated himself in the attack on Eden Prime. Now, the Council corroborated that second voice, supposedly belonging to an asari named Matriarch Benezia, who was Saren's second-in-command.

Both of them were guilty, and both of them were traitors to the Council, to their respective species.

Faced with this undeniable evidence, the Council had no choice but to believe us this time.

"Commander Shepard," said the salarian councilor. "On behalf of the Council, I extend my deepest apologies to you for our disagreements during the last session. You must understand: we cannot blindly believe any and every allegation against our special agents. We require evidence."

"Which you have now provided," agreed the asari councilor. "Saren will be stripped of his Spectre status, effective immediately. Further, we commend your handling of your affairs here on the Citadel, in chasing down your individual leads and arriving to the truth."

The turian councilor clarified: "You completed your tasks while avoiding civilian casualties. While the damage to Chora's Den is unfortunate, we can repair. It is also saddening to learn that the club's owner was so deeply involved in Saren's less-than-legal affairs."

Ambassador Udina pushed the issue for me—"Councilors, has Shepard not proven herself worthy? She has done everything you asked. She has gone above and beyond the call of duty in her commitment to this Council, even in the face of your own doubts! It is past time you rewarded her for her dedication!"

Captain Anderson disapproved of how tactless the ambassador was—"Save it, Udina! This isn't the time for you to bully the Council around!"

"I must agree with the captain," said the turian councilor. "In fact, the more the ambassador speaks, the less willing we are to move forward with this controversial candidacy. You humans are reckless at best, and, at worst, absolute bullies… So, Commander Shepard, make your case—why should we give you the sacred honor of becoming the first human Spectre?"

Earthborn.

My ancestors' history.

Too many people judging me because of how pretty I was.

The mixed-race complexion of my skin; my sexual orientation.

So many more people that judged me for the way I survived back on Earth: the high-paying career I had before, and how I'd hated it the whole damned time, before I enlisted with the Alliance and found my own freedom in service—

And then, this next step of the three most important figures in the galaxy discriminating against me because I was human.

No matter my reservations, I had to make them see me:

"Councilors, this isn't about humanity. This is about who can get the job done! I brought this team together to show you that you're not always right. You don't have all the answers. Sometimes, the truth is hidden way beyond your reach, and it takes hard work to get to reality. I proved that I'm willing to do whatever's necessary for that bottom line—without being reckless! Call me a bully if you want—I only take drastic action when it's absolutely justified, when I can back up my choices with cold, hard facts.

"All I'm asking for is the benefit of the doubt. You don't trust me as a person? Fine, make me work for it more. But if you just don't like me because I'm human? I suggest you take a good, long look at yourselves, and ask if it's worth it. Judge me by my actions. Not by what I look like, and not by what you might assume—not by the things I have no control over. Define me by my work, not by my race!"

The last bastion of prejudice stared me down as the councilors looked to one another, deciding.

Behind me, I sensed my squadmates looking to each other as well, truly contemplating what I'd just said.

The councilors soon reached their decision, pressing a few buttons on their respective panels.

The asari councilor addressed me first: "Commander Shepard, step forward."

Ashley's gasp, and the rest of the murmurs from my squad—

I noticed the sudden congregation of people, of other politicians, and of complete strangers up on the balconies overlooking the proceedings. Knowing that this moment played out in real-time across the galaxy, I could deal with the weight of these strangers, and of my crew showing the emotions that I wasn't allowed to express.

I stepped forward with this knowledge, bearing my control proudly over my chest.

The asari councilor continued, "It is the decision of the Council that you be granted all the powers and privileges of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel. You have proven your level-headedness in the face of conflict, your ruthlessness in the face of those deserving of your decisive action, and your consideration for the innocent and the helpless, no matter the circumstances."

The salarian councilor added, "Spectres are not trained, but chosen. Individuals forged in the fire of service and battle; those whose actions elevate them above the rank-and-file. Your special training as an N7 Infiltrator has given you the tools to persevere alone, to survive alone, and to succeed alone—but you have amassed a loyal squad of fighters who believe in your cause, just as we believe in you."

"Spectres are an ideal—a symbol," said the asari councilor. "The embodiment of courage, determination, and self-reliance. They are the right-hand of the Council, instruments of our will."

The turian councilor spoke, "Spectres bear a great burden. They are protectors of galactic peace, both our first and last line of defense. The safety of the galaxy is theirs to uphold. Your work is exemplary, and your history—how you managed to survive such a rough upbringing in your youth back on Earth—are all testaments to your strength of character, and your unwavering spirit."

The asari councilor congratulated me: "You are the first human Spectre, Commander. This is a great accomplishment for you and your entire species. May you forever be a friend to the Council, our protector. And may you forever be a friend and a protector to all in the galaxy who deserve you."

"Thank you, Councilors," I accepted, head bowed; keeping in-check this budding feeling in my chest.

"We're sending you into the Traverse after Saren," relayed the salarian councilor. "He's a fugitive from justice, so you are authorized to use any means necessary to apprehend or eliminate him."

The turian councilor said, "We will forward any relevant files to Ambassador Udina."

The asari councilor concluded: "This meeting of the Council is adjourned."


Arriving to the docking bay with my team and Captain Anderson, I saw how much had changed in such a short time. Right before we'd touched down on Eden Prime, I'd learned that I was a candidate for the Spectres—and now I had earned my place.

Now that Anderson had chosen to step down, I was in charge of the Normandy, of this entire operation.

I had never been the captain of my own ship before.

Commanding my own unit—sure.

Telling everyone to stay down while I cloaked and sniped off on my own—absolutely.

The gentle violet and reds lighting down on the docking bay from the Wards: they calmed me, kept my worries away as I processed these new changes. Underneath this lighting, I watched as Wrex, Ashley, Tali'Zorah, Kaidan, and Garrus made their way back to the Normandy nearby.

I wasn't their executive officer anymore with Captain Anderson in charge.

I couldn't just kick up those other responsibilities up the chain of command.

They would expect more from me—maybe more than I was equipped to give them at this point in time.

Anderson approached me for a final briefing:

Geth sightings on Feros likely pointed to Saren's involvement somehow.

Matriarch Benezia was on Noveria for some reason, probably doing Saren's bidding.

And then there was the matriarch's daughter, Dr. Liara T'Soni, who was out on an expedition on Therum, a mining world.

She may have had some answers about the Protheans that got wiped out by the Reapers. Hopefully, she knew what her mother was up to as well.

Anderson handed me the file on Dr. T'Soni that Udina had given him.

"Therum's out in the Artemis Tau cluster," he informed me. "I've heard the reports coming in from the Alliance… The geth have a massive presence out there. Now that we know the attack on Eden Prime was Saren's doing, we can confirm that the geth are acting under his orders. Dr. T'Soni is Matriarch Benezia's daughter—Saren may be trying to detain her."

Adding to this urgency, Anderson let me hear the worry in his voice: "I'm concerned about the doctor's safety, Commander. I'd recommend picking her up first before the geth do. Considering the sheer number of hostiles near the mines where Dr. T'Soni is, this may have to be a one-woman job. You know the drill. That file has up-to-date schematics for all known tunnels within those mines."

Just a slight look at her photo on this datapad.

That eye-catching blue of an asari's skin, and the brightness of her eyes, so innocent.

So motherfucking innocent, she seared me with her stare at no one, with this kindness in her likeness.

Only a taste, only a tease: a partial glance, quickly hidden, because I didn't trust myself like this.

"Understood, Sir," I acknowledged, pushing these harsher instincts down. "We'll leave for Therum right away. I'll get in those mines, get her out quietly, and extract her with the Normandy's stealth drive."

"You're in charge now, Commander. You don't report to me anymore. Remember: any debriefings after your mission would merely be a courtesy to me. You only need to debrief the Council going forward."

I was about to leave, to salute my former captain, but I knew him.

This aura about Anderson.

He had more to say.

Or at least, more to give.

Anderson handed me another datapad. "Considering you're in a hurry to get to Dr. T'Soni," he started, "I wrote this for you. You're a lone wolf, and this will be the first time you serve as the head of a full ship and a more long-term crew. Not that you need any advice from anyone, Commander. Take this as a few words of friendly suggestions from your old captain."

"Thank you, Anderson," I accepted. "I'll read this over as soon as I get the chance."

"I appreciate it, Shepard. That's all I can ask for."

I saluted him: his rank, his influence. His willingness to be patient with me and to guide me, even and especially when I refused to budge in my stubbornness. He understood—unlike too many others.

He saluted me back: such pride in his eyes for me, knowing all that I'd accomplished so far.


New objective, new drive: heading back to the Normandy didn't feel any different from every other time I'd returned before. Not with so much on my mind, so much threatening to creep up and consume me, all because of the two datapads in my hands.

This creeping, like heat combusting in and out of my mind, and tearing, so slowly.

Joker was there in his seat at the helm. He chatted with the squad, introducing himself to all of the new faces. Ashley wasn't here, as I had grown to expect, and a convenient fucking turn-off for me. Noticing me, Wrex, Garrus, Kaidan, and Tali'Zorah stepped aside so that I could get to our chief helmsman.

Their presence was convenient: I could brief them all here at once. Except Ashley…wherever she was.

"Joker, get us to Therum in the Artemis Tau cluster," I ordered. "There's a Prothean expert, Dr. T'Soni, who we need to extract from one of the mines there. We can't afford to lose her."

"Oh, shit, Therum?" worried Joker, preparing the ship for takeoff. "I heard the Alliance chatter about all the geth activity out there. Take a look—it's a huge mess, Commander!"

He brought up the live feed on his screen right above the Normandy's controls:

Scores of geth dreadnoughts and fighter ships had surrounded Therum, intimidating in their slick, round silvers and glinting sheens. They took up so much room, we could barely see the planet's surface. In the distance, Alliance ships orbited around the chaos from far enough away, recording the activity while trying to get a better understanding of the situation.

Tali'Zorah worried out loud, "I've never seen so many geth ships in one place before… Not since the vids we would watch of our ancestors losing the homeworld during the Morning War. Isn't Therum just a mining planet?"

"That Prothean expert is there," noted Garrus. "Didn't Udina mention that Matriarch Benezia's daughter is on some research expedition in the mines? Dr. Liara T'Soni, he said."

"That he did," remembered Kaidan. "I get that she's Benezia's daughter. And the matriarch's working with Saren now. Do they need her knowledge of the Protheans that badly? They're practically holding the planet hostage while they look for her!"

Garrus hummed, deep in thought. "Something tells me they need Dr. T'Soni for more than her scientific knowledge. This looks big. Really big."

"No kidding," agreed Tali.

"Yeah, this is some shit," said Wrex, not liking our prospects so far. "Some real shit. How the hell are we supposed to get in there to find this doctor?"

"The Normandy has top-of-the-line stealth systems," bragged Joker. "We can mask our heat emissions to basically make it look like we're not there at all. No one will pick us up on their scanners. Well—unless someone looks out a window or something. Thing is, we can't keep it up for too long, or else we'll get fried to death. Just comes with the territory!" The ship's comm flashed next to Joker's screen. "Commander, incoming message from Admiral Hackett!"

"Patch him through, Joker," I allowed.

Static crumpled and cracked the admiral's voice, yet his urgency made it through nonetheless: "Commander…! This is—Hackett… Alliance fleet—rrounding the mining planet Ther—… Heard you're the—captain of…Normandy. Congratulations on—Spectre stat…has to wait. Earth's mining resources disrupted—…geth activity, civilians in trouble. We need you—…ASAP!"

Looking to Joker, I asked him, "Can you clean this up?"

"Negative, Commander," he replied, trying and failing anyway. "Looks like the geth are disrupting comms out in that entire system."

"Admiral, this is Shepard," I responded. "I hear you, but there's a serious amount of static. Just know that we're on our way to Therum right now. We need to extract a priority target from the mines."

"Of course, Commander—… If you can—Normandy in and disable…jammers. Our forces…handle the geth ships—once we're able—to communicate again. Any ships we send…surface—getting—decimated. We're sitting ducks…—til that happens."

"We'll find a way onto the planet and disrupt those jammers, and then your forces will deal with the geth. Got it."

"…in your debt, Shepard. Hackett out—"

"Joker, you know what to do," I told him.

"Heading out now, Commander! ETA to Therum is two hours. I'll do my best to get us there faster."

Two whole hours, sitting with this feeling

"Understood," I accepted. "Any idea where Chief Williams went? We need to brief her on the mission."

Pushing herself through the crowd of our squad, Ashley announced her presence:

"I'm here, Commander. I was just over in the command center talking with Navigator Pressly earlier. I heard everything so far."

"Good—let's move this down to the comm room. It's getting crowded here."

"Agreed," grumbled Wrex, shifting his large body around to fit in this space.

Gesturing for my squad to go first, I followed behind, with Ashley leading everyone to the comm room.

The rest of the ship's human crew observed our new alien team members with barely-masked suspicion, Navigator Pressly included. They had shown Nihlus, that turian Spectre who joined us on Eden Prime, the same hostility—only they were more obvious about it back then.

This time, the crew knew that they would have to deal with me if they stepped out of line.

So they stayed quiet and only afforded a few thin-eyed glances at my squad, keeping their heads down and focusing on their work.

Standing in the center of the comm room, I looked to my team sitting down around me:

Ashley, Kaidan, Tali'Zorah, Garrus and Wrex seemed like they had put the drama from the Citadel behind them.

Staring up at me with their resolve, they were ready to move forward.

"In a normal situation," I began, "Now would be the time where I give you your work assignments for the ship. This isn't a normal situation—far from it. We need to be prepared for what's waiting for us down on Therum. Saren's sent his geth fleets to get Dr. Liara T'Soni before we arrive."

I saw the concern growing in their faces:

We knew that Dr. T'Soni was a capable biotic. She was bound to come under heavy attack from Saren's geth. Would she be able to hold out and survive?

"Once we land, we're splitting up. I'll head into the mines and find the doctor on my own. If she's taking fire, I'll focus on getting her to a safe location, and then we'll sneak back outside. Meanwhile, I'm sending all of you to deal with those communications jammers. Tali, can we count on you to get those offline? The rest of the squad will cover you as needed."

"Yes, Shepard, I'll get it done," promised Tali.

"We'll cover her, absolutely," affirmed Ashley, as a pleasant surprise. I did my best not to show it.

"Roger that," accepted Garrus. "Those geth won't know what hit them."

Wrex was prepared. "We'll make some hell out there, Shepard."

"Kaidan, I want you in charge of the whole ground team," I assigned. "More than likely, they have those jammers somewhere near our target's location. Take the Mako, fight your way through the geth, and keep Tali'Zorah clear from fire as she takes care of the jammers. Radio me once you're finished and get back to the Mako. We'll coordinate an exit plan with Joker."

Lieutenant Alenko saluted me. "Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

"This will be our first official mission together as a bigger team. I expect you to use your heads and fight smart. I won't be able to speak freely while I'm in the mines, in case I give away my location to the enemy. You'll need to rely on yourselves and on Joker if need be. But, until we get there, you have some free time first. Ashley, Kaidan—if you wouldn't mind showing our new teammates around the ship…"

"Will do, Commander," said Ashley, getting everyone to follow her.

And I had some free time of my own, now that I was alone again.

If I looked at Dr. T'Soni's picture for any real amount of time, I knew I would lose my focus.

Instead, I settled on reading Captain Anderson's digital letter to me on this datapad:

Shepard,

You aren't one for emotions and sentimentality. I only want you to know how positive I am that you'll become a Spectre once this is all over. There's no doubt in my mind that you'll succeed where I wasn't able to years before. The first human Spectre. You'll become a symbol, an icon, and an inspiration for everyone across the galaxy.

With your new status comes new responsibilities. It's no secret that you're not much of a people-person. Do you remember the report you received when you first went from an enlisted soldier to a commissioned officer, not long after you earned your college degree? The higher-ups in the Alliance worried that you might not have the patience to engage with your squad on a personal level, especially during long-term deployments where that kind of thing really makes or breaks team morale.

There's no telling how long it will take you and your team to bring Saren down. This could take weeks, months. Maybe even years.

Now more than ever, your patience and your people skills will be put to the test.

As a friendly recommendation, Commander: be kind to your squad.

I'm not saying you need to sing Kumbaya with everyone in the mess hall. I only ask that you take your team's feelings and concerns into consideration when getting to know them. You're going to have a lot of downtime while traveling back and forth aboard the Normandy. During those hours, I'd like you to really listen to what your team members have on their minds, and for you to help them when they need you the most.

We both know you're a lone wolf. It's why you performed so well during your N7 training. When things got ugly for you back on Earth, it's what helped you survive on your own. But you have to see by now that those old habits won't get you anywhere in your new position.

You're Captain of the Normandy. You're a Spectre. The crew are all looking to you for guidance.

As of right now, yes, your team respects the hell out of you. They live for the legend of Commander Shepard. Over time, though, that fire may begin to dim. If they feel like you don't give a damn about them, then what? You may have lost valuable allies. That's something you need to avoid at all costs.

It's always about gains and liabilities with you. Useful, but it makes you a bit predictable. See what you can do about fixing that.

Forever proud of you,

Anderson

Chapter Text

"Deep Down" from Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers

II. Deep Down

(Liara T'Soni)

Underground, hidden within the sanctuary of Therum's mines, I delighted over my solitude here.

My alma mater, the University of Serrice, had sponsored this expedition, much to my surprise, giving me free reign to search and dig however I pleased.

Absolute silence.

Only the company of dirt and rocks, caved and compact to protect me from the outside world.

Not a soul around for miles.

This isolation had buried all else far away, deep into the depths where I could no longer reach them. Focusing on the task at-hand was far more preferable to anything else I could have imagined. Anything that was in my reach, at least. All else seemed too far away—too high up within the atmosphere of my inexperience—to ever truly be something I could grasp.

Much like the writings I had recently found:

I understood the language, the text here, of these thousands-year old pages that had once belonged to the Protheans. I hadn't expected to find anything here: nearly all of the mines on Therum had been picked over by industry workers from other planets, other colonies.

They must have left this here, not having seen the value in it…

Using my omni-tool to scan photographs of the texts for my records, I set about writing my digital notes on the piece. I would need to double-check in order to verify the exact era where this was from. For now, I at least wanted to jot down my first impressions from what I read here.

"Something to do with dominance," I mumbled out loud, needing to hear myself think. "Control. Imperial conquest? No, this appears to have very little to do with galactic affairs… Could this be…more interpersonal? Trust. Subspace. Resisting outside influences. One mind, one master." Such a sudden rush of heat to my face. "Using sex, touch, or merely spoken word to achieve this subspace, reaching deep into the recesses of another person's mind… A way to maintain control and keep out any intruders… What could all of this mean, exactly?"

Compared to the online archives of all else that had been discovered here, these writings felt out of place. Why was this here? Why now?

And why did these words stir something so deep in me—so carnal, so primal?

I felt as if I understood this process on some level, even though I had no real idea what any of this meant. All I had were these broken, incomplete mental images in my head… Someone far wiser than I would know what this subspace was, and how it linked to trust, to control. I had to research this.

Each time I typed the letters into my extranet browser to search the meaning, I quickly deleted them.

Holding my face in my hands, I realized that this blush still hadn't gone away, making me sweat.

"Why must I be such a child about these things…? Yet this all feels so—familiar, somehow."

Deep down, somewhere inside of me, I knew…

An unseen abyss that I had scrambled to push away and forget about, as if it had never existed at all.

Rumbling and rocking of a sudden caused drips of dirt and soil to spill from above. Only minor at first, it didn't catch my attention right away, as caught up as I was in these confusing emotions. Not until the shaking grew more intense did I try to pull myself out of this daydream, my mind endlessly surrounded by once-forgotten fantasies of finding unconditional trust with another.

This new topic of subspace certainly added another layer to my wondering, wanting, so wanton at times.

The booming, echoing voice of a krogan finally snapped me out of my trance—"Fuck, it's been hours! I'm sick of looking around these damned tunnels… That asari should be somewhere close by now. Find her and bring her back alive, or else I don't get paid!"

He sounded rather close. Right above me, in fact.

And he was not alone.

I heard several clicks and stuttering sounds, as if the krogan had numerous geth with him.

Looking around, I spotted a small tunnel in the wall, one that I could have climbed inside to hide.

But for how long?

I scrambled to collect my things and store them away in my blue and white backpack: my archaeology tools, my map of these mines, my rations for meals, my canteen of berry juice to replenish my energy in case I needed to overuse my biotics in battle, and now, these writings I had discovered and wished to keep for myself.

I tossed everything near the tunnel, realizing much to my dismay that I wouldn't have been able to fit my backpack through the opening. Not with everything I had currently inside.

I could either abandon some of my items or ignore all of them.

Those writings told such a story that I wished to explore more. Having the photographs in my omni-tool couldn't compare to holding the real thing in my hands. This was such a find!

Just as I was about to collect the texts, that krogan and his geth appeared on the upper ramp in my view.

Cracks of his knuckles seemed to amplify the quavering from the mines; he leered at me with a hunger, with discovery, grinning over his great find. At his side and behind him, dozens of geth waited at the ready, the lighted lens of their view scoping down on me, like endless lighthouses at sea.

"There you are!" shouted the krogan, causing more rubble to rain from above. "Now come with me, little asari. Saren's been looking for you. He expects you to come quietly—"

Firing off my warp at him, I shot my pistol at the merc, wearing down his barrier and armor with ease. Those geth had no shields whatsoever. I threw a singularity field at the krogan in the center, catching most of the geth in the tumble of the blue vortex.

Another warp shot—the echoing smack of the biotic explosion tore apart the metal of the geth's platforms, shrapnel flying.

That krogan had merely fallen back over his hump, injured, but still alive.

"Motherfucker!" he cursed, gesturing to more geth on the ramp out of my view. "What the hell are you waiting for?! Go get her, now!"

Scores of geth ran out to the fore, aiming their rifles at me.

The pulses from their shots nearly reached me until I caught myself at the last possible second. Within that endless second, I drew a halo of power around my head, kneeling to hold this strength.

I drew a biotic field around me, blocking their shots.

The force from their firing bore down on me nonetheless.

With more geth appearing, and more, some of them hopping down from the ramp to shoot closer to me, I knew I had to move.

Not too far from that tunnel opening was a gathering of thick boulders and rocks. I struggled to walk over there for cover: the geth's shooting and the constant quaking from the mines nearly threw my focus and my balance.

Maintaining my field proved to be too much, yet I forced myself to hold on.

They wanted me alive.

They wouldn't kill me…or would they?

Whatever Saren wanted me for, I had no desire to allow myself to be caught by him.

Taking cover behind the boulders, I dropped my field to catch my breath. Constant noise from the geth's pulse rifles and the growing explosions coming from far above, outside the mines, made it too difficult for me to think myself out of this chaos.

Pressing my back harder and harsher against these rocks, I wished I could have blended myself into them, to disappear, to hide.

It was much too late for that now.

The geth at the front were about to get too close to me.

I risked throwing out another singularity field at this choke point.

Though I caught the brunt of the geth units in that fold, the others out of range were free to keep firing.

Their concentrated stream of shots cut through the barriers over my dominant arm, making me cry out in pain. I could but keep focusing on my singularity field; keep it up, maintain the thought of its power, to keep the geth from nearing me.

Holding my arm close with my uninjured one, I again looked to the tunnel.

I had no time to fit myself through and scurry away.

Even with my singularity field up, I risked being shot at as I crawled my way through that unknown, now, without my map to guide me.

I should have uploaded the schematics to my omni-tool—but now was not the time to chastise myself.

Spotting more formations of rocks and boulders some distance behind me, I chanced running over there. Catching another, and another, I willed myself to keep fleeing, trying to keep my same singularity field up for as long as I could. The strain tore at my mind and my whole body. Yet I pushed onward, knowing that that single field was all that kept the geth from reaching me, from taking me away.

I kept running, running, running as far and as fast as I could—until the geth shot at my ankle; until I nearly fell face-first to the rocky ground, barely catching myself against another set of boulders.

Another tunnel entrance right beside me.

I winced in pain, knowing I couldn't crawl through, not with my arm and ankle throbbing this much.

My singularity field was about to expire.

I could but pray that I would make it out of here somehow, someway.

My eyes shot open at the sounds of a sniper shot shooting through all the noise.

The artificial whimpering sounds of a geth going dark: these repeated themselves again and again for as long as the sniper continued firing.

One after another, I heard the sounds of metal cracking and breaking apart from the single, precise shots darting through the geth's heads, ending the barrage from those pulsing rifles, one at a time.

Every single shot connected.

Every single calculation from that sniper rifle found a geth's head, incapacitating them.

Those metallic platforms crumpled to the ground, one by one, dozens upon dozens, until it all stopped.

Up above, I spotted the glimmer of someone's tactical cloak glittering in the light of a nearby lamp. When their cloak ended, the transition sounded as a digital curtain. That end had pulled back the eye-catching colors of someone's clothes, hair, and skin. All I could do was stare up at the person there:

A tall and limber human woman, she wore an all-black stealth suit, with her golden-brown hair pulled back into a long, military-tight tail behind her back. The gold-brown of her sharp eyes measured down on me. She found me here with a scowling focus and concentration that I could never hope to match.

She carried a pistol at her hip, yet the massive Spectre-grade sniper rifle in her hands was clearly her weapon of choice. A human Spectre?

That gold, that brown seemed to extend to her skin soaking in the mechanical lighting all around her.

From this view of her, I couldn't help thinking that this stranger looked just like the sun.

The infiltrator took stock of her kills in the distance. Accepting that there were no reinforcements on the way, she folded her sniper rifle, and holstered the weapon over her back.

Hurdling over the metal of the handrail in front of her, she jumped down to this level with me. What should have been quite the complicated fall for anyone else seemed second-nature to her: she reached this ground of rock and dirt with legs bent and head lowered in ease and professionalism.

Springing back up to her full height in seconds, she soon spotted my injuries.

She walked over to me with a—somehow—calming sense of urgency about her.

"Dr. Liara T'Soni?" prefaced the soldier, direct and authoritative.

"Um, yes," I confirmed. "Yes, that would be me… Who are you?"

"I'm Commander Shepard with the Alliance. I'm here to get you out of this place. The geth above-ground are tearing up the planet trying to find you. I'm leading a team to stop the person behind these attacks, and I need you to join me."

The white and red N7 emblem over her chest—she was indeed with the Alliance military.

Not quite believing the timing of all this, I asked her, "You are here to recruit me for your mission?"

"Yes," replied Shepard. "I have a ship and a full team. We'll need your knowledge of the Protheans to help us in this fight. First, we have to find a way out and back to the Normandy."

"I certainly wouldn't mind lending my help—if we can get out of here… These mines go on for miles, Commander. How did you manage to find me at all?"

The commander used her head to gesture toward the piles of dead geth. "I followed the noise. Some krogan was stomping around looking for you, too. Did you take him out?"

"I only weakened him… He's probably gone to call more geth reinforcements."

Then we heard his shouting again: "Get that damned asari! Now! Before she runs off!"

"We have to get moving, Doctor," announced Shepard, bending down to meet me. "How bad are your injuries? Can you walk, or move at all? It'll be safer for us to crawl through the smaller tunnels."

Trying to stand sent a sharp pang of pain to my entire leg. "…I am not bleeding that badly, though I do not think I'll be able to really walk. Crawling is likely out of the question." Commander Shepard accepted my assessment, not at all looking annoyed or inconvenienced like I thought she would have. Already, I felt myself relying on her so. "Forgive me, Commander. I'm…not quite at my best right now. Do you have any alternatives in mind—?"

More geth appeared in droves from the same direction as earlier, opening fire once again.

Shepard shielded me with her body. On instinct, I wrapped my arms around her neck, soon finding that I couldn't see my own limbs anymore. The commander had activated her tactical cloak, and somehow, the invisibility found me, too, here in her hold.

Her tech should have affected her and her alone, as I certainly didn't have any tactical cloak implants.

"What the—?!" Commander Shepard seemed just as confused as I was. "You know what, never mind. Might as well take advantage of this!"

For a moment, the geth stopped firing, no longer able to see us here. And in that precious moment, Shepard picked me up in her arms, gentle to mind my hurting, and carried me away into the nearest hallway. Metallic walkways sounded not at all through Shepard's trained, silent footsteps, even through her hurry and urgency, carrying me along with such ease.

As I held the commander around her shoulders, listening to her barely-concealed breaths as she took me through these winding halls, I accepted my own exhaustion.

At some point, I could hardly keep my eyes open, feeling thoroughly drained from having kept up my biotics overlong, and under such duress.

When the orange glow from her omni-tool lit through my eyelids, I realized that I'd drifted off.

I groaned, frustrated with myself.

Not only had I fallen asleep, but this complete stranger had had the foresight to upload the mines' schematics to her omni-tool, unlike me. The commander studied the remaining pathways, taking stock of our location: we weren't terribly far away from the main exit.

"You still with me, Doctor?" asked Shepard, uncloaked now, as I was. "We're almost out of this place."

"Yes… Yes, Commander, I'm here. I'm sorry for being such a burden."

"You aren't losing that much blood," she informed me. "We can patch you up easily once we get back to the ship. Have you been losing sleep lately? I can't have you falling asleep again once we're outside. It's a madhouse with the geth attacking civilians and raiding their operations."

I should have told her earlier: "No, it's just my biotics. I overexerted my powers earlier, trying to defend myself from the geth. I would normally have something to drink to take care of that. I wasn't able to get my backpack in time. It is too late to go back for it now."

"Oh… Hang on, then."

With unexpected care, Commander Shepard set me down in a nearby corner. Kneeling with me once more, she reached behind her waist, searching through her supplies she had strapped to the back of her stealth suit. Among those supplies, she procured a silver bottle, and proceeded to unscrew the top.

"Here," she offered. "One of my biotic teammates mentioned you might need this. It's juice."

Accepting the canteen with my uninjured hand, I smiled at her with my full gratitude.

"Thank you, Commander. I very much appreciate you doing this for me."

Shepard averted her eyes in a strained sort of reticence. She then lowered her head, staying right where she was; listening as I took my time drinking the juice, so as to not seem rude. Watching her here, I couldn't help noticing the pleasing length of her face, and of how her complexion was both a sun-kissed yellow-brown, and the same raspberry red from this sugary drink in my mouth, replenishing my energy.

Such an interesting blend of browns, golds and crimsons in her skin, and of the golds beaming as blonde highlights through her tightened, slickened, bone-straight brown hair. From the slight ocean's wave form of her edges, the crown of her widow's peak had wetted with beads of sweat slicking down the attractive curve of her brow and the lovely raise of her cheek bones, all from her complaint-free exertions of carrying me all throughout these mines.

She certainly didn't look as if she had the sheer muscle and brawn to do what she had thus far.

Nevertheless, Commander Shepard's efforts spoke to her mental fortitude making up for what she may have lacked in raw physical strength.

Needing to distract herself, Shepard reached her right hand to her ear, accessing her radio. "Shepard to ground team, Shepard to ground team. Lieutenant Alenko, do you copy?"

Bursts of static shot through the silence around us, and a man's coarse voice sounded over persistent sounds of gunfire in the background: "Yes, Commander—… Tali's getting… —jammers should be offline soon! Will move out—Mako—ready… able to evacuate and get you and Dr. T'Soni— Just a bit more!"

"Understood. Let Admiral Hackett know directly once the job is done. Coordinate with Joker afterward for our exit plan."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

For a short while as she spoke through her radio, that redness about Shepard's face had disappeared.

Now that all had fallen quiet once more, that crimson returned.

"Was that your team?" I tried. "I heard something about jammers. Is that the geth's doing?"

"Yes," she breathed. "The geth have communications jammers outside. I sent the rest of my squad to disable them while I came here to get you. Once they're finished, they'll meet us with a vehicle, and then we'll drive to a safe location for extraction. The Alliance will take care of the rest."

"Do you think it is feasible for your squad to meet us so close to the mines, if not right outside?"

Shepard already knew: "We'll need to get a reasonable distance away from this place. The geth will be expecting to find you fleeing the exit. I thought we would have to fight our way through. Since my cloak seems to work on you for some reason, we can sneak past them instead." She forwarded me the information to access her team's radio frequency. "In case something happens, you have access to our secure channel. I'll do my best to get us out unseen."

"I believe in you, Commander," I expressed, closing the canteen and handing it back to her. "Thank you again for all your help. I have my energy back now, although I still can't walk… I don't know what I would have done without you."

"Yeah… Don't worry about it."

The way she said that: I couldn't help noticing the dimmed timber of her voice, so deep and smooth.

I couldn't help noticing even the tremble in her neck, how she worked to remain still.

I couldn't help noticing…everything about her, really.

Yet with my noticing, the commander couldn't stand to maintain eye contact with me for very long.

As Shepard secured her bottle with the rest of her supplies, another wave shook the mines, this time stronger than ever before.

Needing to hurry, the commander picked me back up and continued on to the exit, faster this time.

Faster and faster, she ran, steadily bursting into a sprint. Even as the seismic waves pulling and crashing at the mines wavered her view, Shepard refused to relent. She pushed herself beyond her own brink, determined to get us to safety.

Using my free arm, I drew a biotic field around us, over our heads. Though the mines were about to fall apart, I could keep us safe like this. Replenished and refreshed as I was now, I had no worries about maintaining this field for as long as I needed to.

As much as I could with my punctured arm, I gripped Shepard's effort, around her shoulders, down to her back, keeping this umbrella of a field over our heads; keeping the gravel from pouring down on us.

Closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, this uphill climb at such a steep angle: Shepard's breaths heaved out against me, feral and unwavering in her efforts.

She worked so hard for me.

Reaching the hot, arid air right outside the mines, Shepard activated her cloak at just the right time. I dispelled my barrier; she had no time to catch her breath, taking the jump down from the top of this ramp, down to the dirt ground below, escaping the geth waiting for us at the bottom of the ramp. Such an army of those machines, waiting there for us, while other units terrorized the processing plants and refineries in the near distance, wreaking havoc to the miners there.

With so much noise distracting the enemy, Shepard kept running: cloaked, and sprinting, invisible to the rest of the planet as she continued carrying me in her arms.

She refused to stop—not until we had nearly reached a safe area free from those attacks.

Still, I looked on at those innocents dying as they tried to defend themselves, wishing I could help.

Forcing herself to keep walking a while longer, Shepard had read my mind: "We can't do anything for them, Doctor. You're the most important thing right now—"

She stopped, her exhaustion catching up to her at long last.

Why couldn't I stop smiling at that?

Commander Shepard had us sit together behind a mountain pass, well away from everything else going on. We heard her team calling via radio, letting Shepard know that they had succeeded in their mission in disabling the jammers. Since their voices were clear this time, free of static, that was all the additional confirmation we needed.

Winded as she was, Shepard couldn't have possibly responded with anything coherent.

That same Lieutenant Alenko from earlier started to panic when the commander wouldn't respond: "Come in, Shepard. Come in! Commander, are you there?! We're in the Mako now. What's your location?! We need your coordinates ASAP for pickup! Joker's waiting on us for extraction. The Alliance is about to touch down for an all-out assault. We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to!"

Touching Shepard's shoulder in pleading, I asked her, "Should I respond to the lieutenant for you?"

She nodded her head, still trying to keep her cool; still trying not to show me how much pain she was in.

I tuned into the frequency Shepard had supplied me with, wishing I had thought this through a bit more first: "Um, hello? This is Liara T'Soni. I'm with the commander now, but she is quite exhausted from our escape." Just barely able, Shepard interacted with her omni-tool, uploading our coordinates to her team. "Commander Shepard is forwarding you our coordinates as we speak."

Lieutenant Alenko coughed. "Uhm, Dr. T'Soni? Is that really you?"

"Yes, Lieutenant, this is me. The commander allowed me on this frequency. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"Oh… Oh, haha, th-that's great! Err, hullo, Doctor! It's, err, it's a pleasure to meet you, too! My name's Kaidan Alenko. L-Lieutenant Alenko… I've, uh, just received the coordinates! We're on our way!"

I heard an unfamiliar woman's voice on the other end—abrasive, impatient: "Seriously, Alenko?! Ugh, you're so freaking predictable, it makes me sick!"

Shepard seemed to agree, as she rolled her eyes in disgust for some reason.

Someone's filtered voice—a quarian's, I believed—sounded out a girlish laugh. "Oh, Kaidan, don't worry. I don't think you're predictable. More like adorable! Guys like you are so sweet, you know that?" She then addressed me: "Hey there, Dr. T'Soni. My name's Tali'Zorah. Nice to meet you!"

A smooth-sounding turian then added: "Hey, now, we can't all be sweet and angelic like the lieutenant here. Some of us have more decency around the fairer sex. Not necessarily counting me, of course… If I were Kaidan, I would have probably choked up, too." He cleared his throat. "Dr. T'Soni? The name's Garrus. Garrus Vakarian. Sharpshooter and former C-Sec officer at your service."

"And I'm Wrex!" called an older, likely battle-scarred krogan. "Don't you worry about these jokers, Doctor. The real Joker you have to worry about is our ship's pilot. He's not gonna let you live this down. I hope you're prepared for it."

"Yeah, yeah," said the abrasive woman from earlier—another human? "Everyone make the new girl feel uncomfortable because of something she can't control… I'm Ashley, by the way. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. And I'm sure Joker will get a kick out of this for at least a couple of weeks…"

"Um, what do you mean?" I puzzled. "Have I said something wrong?"

Tali giggled again. "No, no, Dr. T'Soni, not at all," she promised. "It's nothing you actually said…"

"Well, I am unfortunately not able to follow what the problem is…"

Garrus chuckled this time. "And you're one of those innocent ones? Oh, this is perfect."

Kaidan fired back: "Garrus, you're not helping!"

I felt myself getting a little offended now. "I'm sorry?"

Wrex burst out laughing, not helping at all!

Ashley sighed. "Doctor, you're in the clear here," she reinforced. "It's just… Look, you have a really hot voice, and now Alenko here can't drive this Mako to save his life—… Shit, we're gonna flip over!"

"Ash, you're out of line!" scolded Kaidan. "We're all professionals here, all right?! There's no need to use that kind of language with our new team member! And we're not flipping over! No one is flipping over! I've got everything under control…"

"Whoa there, tiger, settle down! I was only explaining to Dr. T'Soni what the problem is."

"There's no problem!"

"Uh-huh…"

Commander Shepard couldn't take it anymore—"Alenko, do you have an ETA for when you'll be here?"

"Uh—um! Ma'am, about, ten more minutes, ma'am—Commander? Oh, God, err…"

Tali sounded as if she'd fallen over from laughing. "Keelah, this is priceless! I can't. I just—can't…!"

Wrex's hearty laughter overtook the background chatter from Ashley, Garrus, Tali and Kaidan combined.

Shepard hung up on them.

"That's not good," spotted Garrus.

Tali couldn't breathe. "Oh, no, Shepard's angry at us…! She left…without saying anything!"

"Fuck," worried Ashley. "Now we're gonna hear it once we pick her and T'Soni up… Welp, better brace your asses for impact, folks! She'll tear us a new one over this, I'm telling you."

Garrus sounded suspicious, "So tell us why you seem to want that from the commander, hm? Is there something you're not telling us, Chief? C'mon, we're all in the slammer here together until Shepard rips us that new one you want so badly. Why don't you share your real feelings with the class?"

Ashley could only sputter incoherently in response.

Wrex and Tali were about to explode from laughing so hard.

"Well, then, we will see you in ten minutes," I attempted, feeling the need to continue speaking in Commander Shepard's stead. "Thank you for doing this, everyone."

Kaidan coughed again. "Yes, thanks for joining us, Dr. T'Soni… See you and the commander soon."

I finally took my turn to hang up.

Judging my how exasperated Shepard was, having buried her face in her hand, I gathered that she'd heard everything else from my end regardless.

I had to ask: "Commander, are your squad normally like this? They seem to get along very well…"

"I had no idea," she admitted, grumbling. "All of the non-humans you heard, they joined more recently. Before that, it was only Chief Williams and Lieutenant Alenko. Kaidan was with me when we found Ashley. He and I recruited her not long before everyone else. Guess they all really hit it off during their first operation together with those jammers…"

"Yes, they sound like quite the lively bunch."

"A bit too lively if you ask me."

I wondered, "Do you plan on disciplining them once they arrive?"

Commander Shepard glanced over at me, finding me trustworthy. "Honestly, I don't," she shared. "They can have a good time like this as long as we're not in any danger. I don't know… After getting the job done, they've earned some time to mess around and de-stress."

"I suppose you do not truly mind, given that they won't take advantage of you as time goes on."

"Yeah, that sounds about right."

I wanted to also ask if this was Shepard's way of showing that she cared about her team.

But, given that we had barely met that same day, I didn't wish to push my luck any further.

And, given that Shepard was clearly perturbed with her squad, I wanted to give her some peace and quiet—at least until they all arrived and disturbed things once more. Once I saw the commander settling her orange-opaque headphones into her ears, I figured I had made the right decision.

"You mind if I listen to music?" she asked. "If I don't chill out, I'm bound to blow a fuse or two. These are definitely staying in once the Mako gets here. I refuse to listen to their fucking chit-chat."

I smiled at her. "Please, Commander, go ahead. Don't mind me. I am sure the others will understand as well. If I hear any danger approaching, I will let you know."

Shepard brought up her music player through her omni-tool, found a playlist, and then settled the back of her head over the mountain behind us, finding her peace. She had the volume quite loud—loud enough that I could hear her music with some clarity. Some clarity, given the number of Alliance fighter ships zipping through the skies. The blue and silver of the crafts passing by caused the commander's headphones to glimmer a faint orange in the light shift.

I forced myself to look away, if only to avoid staring at her.

During these quiet minutes, I did my best to discern her music, trying to pick out the genres she enjoyed. Then again, human culture and customs were still foreign to me, let alone their music. From what I'd heard, the clubs on the Citadel had mostly integrated human culture into their playlists, as the rest of galactic space had seemed to take a liking to their electronic and trance genres in particular.

Beyond that, I was mostly ignorant, though I certainly wished to change this, now that I had a reason…

Over the sophisticated bass simmering through Shepard's headphones, I heard the sounds of multiple heavy wheels crushing over the terrain—the off-white M-35 Mako vehicle specked with dust and dirt approached us, right on time per Lieutenant Alenko's accurate estimation.

With one last groan, Commander Shepard accepted her fate, and prepared herself for the rest.

She picked me up once more, walking over to where one of her team members had opened the side doors. Ample enough room to step inside with me, Shepard said nothing as these smiling faces found us, curious to meet me in person after our conversation over the radio.

"Hello, Dr. T'Soni!" greeted Tali, I assumed, since she wore a quarian's suit. "Glad you could make it."

"I'll say," agreed Garrus, giving me an easy grin. "Looks like Shepard's more than pissed, though. Listening to music, ignoring us entirely? Oh, that hurts…"

"Crap, that's even worse!" fretted Ashley. "Um, hey, Dr. T'Soni… Nice to put a face to the voice."

Wrex patted the open seat next to him, at the very back. "Not my face, I bet," he joked. "This is the only free seat, so Shepard's gonna have to sit here with you."

"It's good to meet you all in person," I obliged.

Kaidan's voice sounded from the driver's seat: "Got enough room back there?"

"Yep!" called Ashley. "We're all set. Let's head to the extraction point! Joker's waiting for us."

Shepard took her time sitting me down in my seat closest to a wall. She then sat down in between Wrex and myself, ignoring everyone, still. For a while, she remained hunched over, resting her chin over her folded hands, her music continuing to blast. With the vehicle moving around so much, she eventually settled on sitting back in her seat to scowl up at the ceiling—even though this meant that our shoulders, our sides remained quite close together, given how much room Wrex took up on his end of the seat.

Ashley and Tali sat together in the seat adjacent to us, opposite the door, while Garrus remained standing, holding on to the overhead railing.

All of them looked at me with an unusual interest—one I couldn't really decipher on my own.

Garrus was the first to bring up the obvious, "So, Dr. T'Soni, you're looking a little banged up there. You and the commander get out of those mines all right?"

"My injuries are from before she arrived," I informed everyone. "I was overconfident in attempting to escape from the geth that had come to find me. I was lucky that Commander Shepard arrived when she did. I may have been captured otherwise."

Tali asked, "Do you have any idea why Saren is after you? He sure sent a lot of geth to pick you up…"

"Unfortunately, I can't imagine why he did all of this. I wouldn't say I am all that valuable to anyone."

"Hey, guys?" called Kaidan. "I think the commander would tell us to save it 'til we get to the debriefing room. She clearly needs some time to herself before we arrive. We shouldn't exclude her."

Ashley hummed her acknowledgment. "Yeah, you're right, LT. We'll talk about something else instead."

They took advantage of Shepard being unable to hear them, speculating openly about her:

Once again, Garrus broke the ice: "…does the commander usually listen to music to cool off? I haven't had the chance to really talk with her one-on-one. Then again, I doubt that's something she would just mention during casual conversation."

Wrex chimed in, "It's news to me. Could you imagine casual conversation with Shepard, though? She's the most intense human I've ever met! Beats some of the hardened warlords I know personally."

"You can say that again," mumbled Tali, sounding a bit resentful.

"You know," pondered Ashley, "I've always wondered what kind of music Skipper listens to. Probably not that mainstream pop stuff… No, definitely not. I can't see her liking the same kind of songs my younger sisters obsess over all the time."

"Let's listen," suggested Wrex. "Should be loud enough, I think. Not that I'll recognize any of it, anyway."

Ashley moved her head a bit with the beat. "Hmm, it's not too fast, not too slow either," she noticed. "I think I hear snapping. Those guys can actually sing… They're harmonizing?"

"Well, I'm clueless," accepted Garrus. "Your human music outside the Citadel is nothing I'm used to."

Tali shrugged. "Same here," she conceded. "Mind filling us in, Chief?"

Kaidan wanted to join in, too—"What else do you hear, Ash?"

"I think it's old school R&B!" discovered Ashley, delighted. "Yeah, it is! Oh wow! That's so romantic!"

"You serious?!" spluttered Kaidan. "Whoa! That's…unexpected!"

"It…it is?" pondered Tali, trying to keep up.

Wrex wished to know, "What's that? Why's it such a big deal?"

Garrus made a request for all of us: "Translation?"

Ashley could barely contain herself, beaming with a pure, unbridled joy over this development.

"Listen up, guys—history lesson!" she rallied. "R&B stands for rhythm and blues. It's like… Um, well, it's music for her kind of people, except it got super popular for everyone else, too. It's hard to explain since it's not my place. Just think of it as this really smooth, sensual genre… That's why it's romantic! And unexpected! It's romantic and unexpected for someone like Shepard to listen to that music, okay?"

Tali didn't have the full picture: "Sure, but what do you mean by her kind of people?"

"Tali, it's not our place to explain," reiterated Kaidan, this time.

"Huh?" said Wrex. "I thought all you humans were the same? Now you're telling us there's different kinds of you? Different groups, or clans or something? Spit it out, why don't you!"

Ashley buried her face in her hands. "Oh, God…"

"Umm, I'm staying out of this one," evaded Kaidan.

"Hey, no fair!" protested Tali. "Are you telling us we have to look it up on our own now?!"

"I…guess?" tried Ashley, wincing. "Sorry."

Tali huffed, "Fine! The second I get back to Engineering, this will be my new research project!"

Garrus looked to me next to Commander Shepard, and then he seemed to get it. Although, he chose not to say anything, resigning himself to stay quiet instead. He also noticed my notice, and gave me a nod.

I smiled with my acknowledgment, grateful for how discreet he chose to be.


When we finally arrived to the wonder of the Normandy, I had prepared myself to walk on my own, given that Shepard was not only physically exhausted, but now emotionally exhausted from everything. I was well-aware of how she felt, yet I found myself marveling over the ship's make—or, at least, what little I could see of it from here, as this vehicle bay was only a small part of the Normandy's grandeur.

I quickly enjoyed the haze of blues I found surrounding this space.

Commander Shepard again chose to be accommodating, carrying me out of the Mako with her, without her music this time. As she did, that unusual interest from the rest of the squad overtook the looks they gave us—with Ashley in particular seeming to focus on me the most out of everyone. They all followed her to the main elevator, with everyone fitting together with plenty of room as we went up one level.

The rest of the squad shared in quiet, light conversation while continuing to give me the occasional, friendly smile, making me feel welcome aboard the ship without needing to try terribly hard.

Right near what appeared to be the mess hall, the medical bay awaited. Various medical equipment adorned the ceiling and the walls, with the ship's chief medical officer standing to meet us in kindness and warmth.

"Hey, Dr. Chakwas!" said Ashley. "Looks like you've got a new patient!"

"So it would seem!" replied Dr. Chakwas, appearing to recognize me. "Is this our Dr. Liara T'Soni, then?"

"Sure is," noted Kaidan.

Dr. Chakwas gestured to the nearest, empty bed. "Please set her down here, Commander," she requested. "Well, Dr. T'Soni, I'm glad the team managed to pull you out of the fire down on Therum. Sounds like it was quite the mess. Thankfully, we should be able to patch these cuts right up."

At last, Shepard had availed herself of her responsibility to me, setting me down over the requested bed. And yet, even in her relinquishing, I felt the commander stop.

She remained over me at this perfect angle, still holding me around my shoulders. Stopping to stop. Stopping to breathe. Stopping to pause, to hold this moment, while everyone behind us continued to speak among themselves, again—oblivious.

This strength in her hold and in her stopping, I had never felt from anyone before.

Shepard's breathing hardened as she stayed here, her lips so close to my neck.

I stroked her back, heated so by her continued consideration.

"Commander…"

"Are you… Will you be all right now?"

"Yes," I whispered, feeling our exposed privacy beginning to expire. "Thank you for taking care of me."

Licking her lips, Shepard exhaled her last defiance of our remaining time together—like this—before letting me go, to stand up properly.

Dr. Chakwas guided the commander to the nearest bed. "And you, Shepard!" she scolded. "Sit here, won't you? I'll need to run a few tests on you, too. I can't imagine you had an easy time with your task. Do you remember my warnings about staying cloaked for too long? The strain you place on your implants can lead to dangerous side-effects, Commander. We'll want to avoid those at all costs."

Shepard accepted her fate, avoiding eye contact with everyone as she sat on the bed close by. "Yeah, I remember…"

"Hmm, and something tells me you failed to heed my warnings. But, first, Dr. T'Soni…"

While Dr. Chakwas cleaned my wounds and sealed them, the others continued to loiter in the med bay.

The commander seemed to want to tell them off, yet she chose not to.

She continued to say nothing, even after Dr. Chakwas had finished with me and asked for me to return after our debriefing upstairs. The doctor then looked her over: Shepard had apparently heeded Dr. Chakwas' warnings, yet something else seemed to be wrong.

"Look, Dr. Chakwas, I'm fine," insisted Shepard, standing anew. "We really need to get to the comm room now. The Council's expecting a call from me afterward. I don't want to keep them waiting."

Dr. Chakwas was unconvinced. "If you say so, Commander," she allowed, at least looking pleased that I was able to walk on my own now. "Dr. T'Soni, do come by and see me once you're finished. With all this rushing around, I haven't had the chance to introduce myself properly!"

"Of course, Dr. Chakwas," I replied. "I appreciate your assistance. I'll be sure to return soon."

As we left with the group up the nearby stairwell, Ashley looked to be bursting at the seams to tease Shepard over her aversion to medical professionals. Tali kept her giggling to herself, likely thinking the same thing. Wrex and Garrus had fallen into a discussion about the Citadel for some reason, while Kaidan's attention remained fixed on Shepard leading us at the very front.

They each fell silent, however, once we passed the impressive space of the Combat Information Center and the galaxy map. We entered the comm room together, with everyone shifting their focus to the matter at hand, having left their earlier enjoyment and conversations behind.

Taking my seat among the handful of chairs in this circular formation, I made sure to listen carefully as Commander Shepard led the debriefing. She prompted Kaidan to explain how things went with the ground team disabling the geth's communications jammers. He did so, noting the sheer number of hostiles they had to push through, as well as how the geth colossus models had shown up in endless waves, causing constant near-earthquakes as they moved across Therum's surface.

"That explains the mines collapsing in on themselves," mused Shepard. "Or it might've been something else. Either way, I was exhausted because we had to run out of the mines to escape the collapse. Well, had to."

Ashley couldn't help herself—"Wait a minute, Commander. Dr. T'Soni was injured when you first found her, right? I think that's what she said earlier while you were…uh, ignoring us."

"Please, call me by my first name," I offered. "We don't need to be so formal with one another."

"You got it, Doc!"

Kaidan shook his head in amusement.

Shepard answered the question, "Yes, Chief, she was injured when I first found her."

Tali spoke her awe, "So are you telling us you carried Liara all the way from where you found her in the mines, back outside, and then again to the safe point where we picked you up with the Mako?"

"That's right."

Everyone stared at Commander Shepard in a believing sort of disbelief, not doubting her at all.

Wrex knew: "Well, no wonder Dr. Chakwas was worried about you. That's a lot of strain, Shepard."

Ashley snorted. "You're acting like Liara's fat or something. Look at her—she totally isn't!"

"Um, thank you, Ashley," I said, not quite sure what to think.

"Moving on now," droned Shepard. She had a bit of trouble saying my name out loud: "…Liara, what exactly were you doing in those mines? Were you just on a normal expedition?"

"Yes, I was," I responded. "My alma mater had sponsored the dig for me. I honestly did not expect to find anything valuable, as there had been several miners who had picked over everything already. Although, I did manage to locate something… However, I don't think that is why Saren was after me. What I discovered is not particularly relevant to anyone besides the Protheans, their relationships…"

Garrus leaned forward in his seat in interest, asking, "So, then, what did you find?"

Subspace. Control. Sex. Resisting outside influences. Domination.

I struggled not to stumble over my words. "Err, well… L-Like I said, it is not terribly relevant to anything else, and I do not believe Saren would think it valuable enough to find before me! I often spend my time unearthing mundane Prothean artifacts, many of which would be of no interest to anyone outside my field of study… This isn't any different."

"Hmm, is that so?" questioned Tali, not believing me at all.

Kaidan seemed bewildered. "I don't get it, Liara. If you're proud of your work, why wouldn't you want to share it with us? We're all friends here, colleagues. We'd want to know about it."

"Did it have anything to do with the Reapers?" asked Ashley. "You know, how they wiped out the Protheans over 50,000 years ago?"

"The—the Reapers?"

Tali explained, "There was this recording I found inside a geth's memory core. It was of Saren and your mother Matriarch Benezia boasting about the Reapers' return. The Reapers are a race of sentient machines that seemed to have destroyed the Protheans all those years ago."

"Ah, yes, of course," I recalled. "The original, untranslated Prothean name for them does mean Reaper. Uhm, to answer your question, though—no, I don't believe this had anything to do with that."

Commander Shepard brought the topic back around, "Saren wanted to find you for some reason. Think this has anything to do with your mother?"

"I could not imagine why that would be. My mother and I have not spoken in many years… I strongly disagreed when I heard more recently that she had gone on to work for Saren. That seemed like yet another reason for us to never reconcile. So, no, I doubt this has anything to do with her."

"Well, I'm stumped!" declared Ashley.

"Same here," agreed Kaidan.

Wrex accepted reality: "Guess we'll find out eventually why Saren raided a whole planet to find you."

"We'll shelve this for now," guided Shepard. "Like I mentioned earlier, Liara, I expect your knowledge of the Protheans will help us out on our mission. There was a Prothean beacon on Eden Prime that I came into contact with. Do you know anything about those?"

"The beacons, yes!" I recalled, finding myself standing up with her now. "You interacted with one? Did you see the message they stored away for us? Please, Commander, tell me what you saw!"

"It was…" Commander Shepard rubbed her face, as if concealing her smile. "A lot of it was jumbled up, unclear. I couldn't understand any of it."

Deflating a bit, I knew I should have tempered my excitement. "Oh, yes, of course… The Protheans unfortunately coded their beacons in very specific ways. In order to understand them, you would need to be a Prothean. Or at least, you would need to think like one. That is why we have no living record of what the beacons actually contain… They tend to destroy the minds of anyone who tries to use them."

If Commander Shepard really had used the beacon, then she should not have been able to stand here before me, before all of us, as the image of perfect health.

She had survived somehow.

That same will she had exerted to bring me out from such dangers: the very same had kept her alive, and kept her mind in-tact, when so many others before her had fallen to madness and despair.

"And that's exactly why we need you on this mission," explained Shepard. "You have all of this information that we don't. Information that's suddenly become relevant—about the Protheans and how they existed, along with the Reapers. If we can find some way to decipher that message from the beacon, I think that'll get us one step closer to stopping whatever Saren's up to."

"I will help in any way I can, Commander," I vowed. "Perhaps following Saren's trail will lead us to more solid answers. No doubt he has also interfaced with one of the beacons. He will be looking for a way to understand what he saw as well."

Shepard nodded in her firm agreement. "Wherever Saren is, that's where we need to be," she stated. "Right now, we're following any unusual signs of geth activity that'll lead us to the Conduit he's searching for. The next one is on Feros, a human colony. We'll head there once everyone's settled in. Navigator Pressly should be in touch with you by email soon to ask if there's anything you all need."

She then offered her hand to me, official.

"Welcome aboard, Liara."

I accepted her human custom of shaking hands, uncertain how hard or how gentle I should have been. I ended up defaulting to a normal feel, of feathery lightness, almost. My hand merely existed in hers.

Commander Shepard lightened her own grip to match mine, yet her eyes were no less intense.

Surrounded by so many new people, Shepard, to me, felt as familiar as time itself, even in her own newness, this novelty so pure and untainted. Having her hand in mine, over mine, like this, everything else, everyone else, the Normandy, the blue of the atmosphere around us: all of it faded away as nothing, with this concentration of hers over me so deep, I could have fallen into her, so seismic.

Chapter Text

"Fallen Alien" by FKA twigs

III. Assets and Liabilities

(Liara)

After our debriefing, Commander Shepard had dismissed us from the comm room while she made her call to the Council. The rest of the squad had been kind enough to give me a tour of the Normandy, where I learned about the ship's history and design, along with where each of my new teammates preferred to work and rest. I also met the ship's pilot, Joker, who had no shortage of comments and jokes to make about Kaidan's curious reactions to my voice over our radio communications.

I wasn't entirely sure I understood all of their ribbing and mockery, yet I knew better than to ask questions and possibly ruin the mood.

As much as I enjoyed having so many new colleagues, I was all too aware of my own shortcomings. Social situations were not my strong suit, although none of the crew seemed to mind how quiet I was. They included me in their conversations whenever it was appropriate, never appearing to expect me to assimilate with their loud-mouthed joking and teasing.

No one expected me to be someone I was not, which was…nice.

Perhaps it wouldn't have been so terrible of me to try making friends with them after all.

Speaking one-on-one with Dr. Chakwas in the med bay was a much calmer affair, and one that I preferred. She had already done her own research on my studies, taking the time to engage with me about my various dissertations on the Protheans during my academia years.

"I must say, Dr. T'Soni, your comparison of Prothean technology to asari circuit logic was particularly engaging. It will be a while yet before your next mission. Why don't you tell me more about your expedition to Therum? It must have been a nasty surprise to discover so many geth in your way!"

We then spent a fair amount of time sharing stories about our personal experiences in school, human versus asari. I learned that humans, at least in academics, were not as monolithic as the stereotypes suggested.

Dr. Chakwas took the time to explain the differences between Western and Eastern academic cultures. I learned that Earth's western hemisphere, where she and Commander Shepard were from, emphasized individuality and personal excellence above all. The more communal nature of the East had been largely lost in translation across galactic space, much to my surprise, as this sounded nothing like the usual humans' portrayal of ruthless bullies who cared only for themselves.

"There's a lot of nuance that gets lost across space," noted Dr. Chakwas. "Even Commander Shepard, a born-and-bred American, doesn't embody all of those stereotypes you usually hear about us humans. I believe, ever since becoming the captain of the ship, she's taken steps to be ruthless for her own personal reasons while still taking a communal approach with the rest of us on the crew."

I had seen the beginnings for myself: Shepard's decision not to scold the squad on the Mako.

I was perhaps too curious for my own good: "Was the commander not always like this?"

Dr. Chakwas chuckled. "She kept to herself back when Captain Anderson was in charge," she explained. "And I mean, she really kept to herself! Usually stayed in her room playing video games in between missions. She only ever left to get something to eat, and then she retreated back to her games. As you and I have sat here speaking, I've gotten emails from other crew members about how Shepard actually said hello to them. Nothing terribly involved, mind you, but she's making a difference…"

"What do you think caused this change in her? Aside from becoming captain, that is."

"Hmm, it may have something to do with her new Spectre status. The first human Spectre! Did you get a chance to watch the vid? It is such a momentous achievement for her."

Given that I had been deep within the mines at the time of her induction, I had missed the live event.

Dr. Chakwas was all too happy to show me the vid on her terminal.

Shepard had indeed become the first human Spectre—a remarkable accomplishment for her species.

The sense of gravity and responsibility were both plain on her person as she accepted the role. So unlike her usual reticence and scowling—here, Shepard had welcomed the spirit of her assignment with honor and dignity, and she seemed to carry this with her in her new willingness to actually speak to the crew.

Ever so proud of Commander Shepard's achievement, Dr. Chakwas dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "Oh, she's come so far in life," she praised. "Shepard had such a rough upbringing. No parents, a life of uncertainty with other abandoned youth. All that she's accomplished, she did it on her own. It wasn't that long ago that many people chastised her for joining the military in the first place."

Hurting for Shepard, I asked, "Why would they do such a thing?"

"Hmm, I believe her critics often said something to the effect of, she's too pretty to be a marine. It's safe to say that she proved them wrong very quickly. The extra training she paid for before enlisting: that's what truly helped give her the edge she needed. Most can't afford anything else before boot camp."

"If she had a rough upbringing, as you say, then how did she come across these extra funds…?"

"The commander would never tell you herself…" Dr. Chakwas glanced around, making sure that we were alone, before searching her terminal for more vids. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to show you."

We then spent the better part of a few hours together, watching Commander Shepard's alter ego as Sol, her first name and her stage name: the glamour, the lights, and the drama of her runway shows as a fashion model. Stunning gowns, skirts and corsets and heels, avant-garde experimentalism, numerous androgynous styles, and even plenty of men's wear—this version of the commander commanded each stage with her signature walk, described by many fashion magazines as: 'Fierce, proud, and fearless.'

She had apparently been discovered by an agent when she was thirteen years old, and everything had taken off from there—after a great deal of reluctance on her end, however. Whenever she had been asked for details in interviews over the years, the commander would only divulge that she'd had no choice but to take the job. Her existing home and way of life had been threatened, and she'd had no other way out. It was possible she may have eventually died on the streets otherwise.

So she had taken on the work to support herself.

She continued with this same career from time to time when she was not deployed, only for the money.

She stomped without stomping, swayed her hips without swaying, and stared straight ahead with the full sharpness of her stunning eyes. Such a blended anger showed in her face as she moved and strutted and posed in looseness and in effortlessness. As she grew older, she allowed her natural sex appeal to exude and to seduce, her tall height embellishing the fine shape of her hips, her thighs, her chest…

The makeup artists she worked with knew to draw out the sun-like color palette in her skin, leaving her sunlit eyes beaming, like the heated rays of the brightest star at the center of the humans' Sol System.

So far-removed from her military life…

Perhaps just as far-removed as I was—from the med bay, from the Normandy itself—too caught up in my fantasizing. Transfixed as I was, the hypnotism of Shepard's hard-edged, confident alter ego had reached at something in me. It took Dr. Chakwas a few tries to pull me out of my daydreaming.

Once she finally did, the doctor gave me such a specific smile, before offering to let me sleep in the quiet, cozy storage room right behind the med bay.

I spent the whole night awake, purchasing and reading and staring at every single digital magazine I could find with Shepard's alter ego. I felt myself growing impatient whenever I would discover a magazine cover with Sol looking particularly enticing, only to learn that the issue was print-only.

By the time I found my way to a message board full of anonymous strangers lusting after her photographs, I quickly shut off my terminal.

"Goddess, what am I doing…? She is not an object to be consumed! I should stop this…"

Collecting myself, I turned my terminal back on.

I then went off on a related tangent in my next search results.

Although, all I managed to do was type the word 'subspace' into the search bar.

I couldn't bring myself to actually hit the search button.

Such dread, such wracking fear gripped me, chilling me to my core. Already, my hours-long consuming of Shepard's glamorous lifestyle had stirred something in me I didn't yet understand. Adding this new, entirely foreign confusion into the equation made me shudder in my seat at my desk.

There was no one I could ask about this.

If I wished to know more about it—for the Protheans, for myself—I needed to do my own research.

What kind of Prothean researcher would I be if I allowed this discovery to go to waste?

Then again, I knew better. This was not about the Protheans. Not really. This was about myself, my reservations, my innocence and my inexperience. I was one hundred and six years old, and yet throughout my entire life, not once had I felt all that compelled to have a relationship with anyone. Aside from a handful of idle wonderings over the years, I had never wished to pursue something with someone, serious or otherwise.

For the longest, I used to think that I wasn't quite all there, sexually…

For the longest, until I discovered these Prothean writings, awakening the truth in me: that perhaps I wasn't suited to normal relationships, and so I had avoided them. I had avoided even platonic friendships, understanding that my so-called friends would inevitably ask me about why I chose to remain single; sensing this inevitability, I could not live with that dread, choosing instead to isolate myself with my work.

For the longest, I had never felt stirred or inspired to indulge in those types of normal activities with another person. I had never wanted to figure out my reluctance, my pressure points, for this would have surely involved a great deal of introspection and discomfort and mental pain and tears.

For the longest, until I met Shepard…

I wasn't sure which was which. Was it Shepard and Shepard alone? Was it this unknown beyond what was normal? Was it both? How could I know? Did Shepard prefer normal relationships? Or did she prefer this deviancy, too?

This was all so taboo in my culture, and so I had avoided it—ignored it—until tonight.

But, I knew so little about Shepard herself: the woman behind that commanding presence of hers.

And I knew myself: that I would be far too shy to engage her in any real conversation to learn more.

If she did choose to come speak with me, I understood that she would not divulge much about herself.

I spent the rest of the night doing as much digging as I could into Shepard's background: her sparse relationships, and records about her undergraduate university degree that she had earned while she was still an enlisted soldier. I also searched for answers to Ashley and Kaidan's reluctance to speak about Shepard's race and origins, since it was not their place. I quickly learned that it was not mine, either, though I needed to understand how and why her skin was such a contentious part of human history.


The next day, I awoke at such a late hour, having fallen asleep at my desk. My terminal remained open, my extranet browser filled with several tabs about American history: the transatlantic slave trade, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Civil War, Black Wall Street, Jim Crow laws, the Black Panther Party, the Civil Rights Movement, and several other relevant groups, events, and atrocities…

I had saved numerous films to my streaming playlist, of the mind to watch them later, as they would have no doubt provided me with more insight on what I had learned.

Even then, I struggled to find anything concrete on Commander Shepard's reality as a mixed-race woman. I did stumble on some primary sources describing this experience as one of "privilege and ease," as if someone like the commander led an easier life compared to others with darker skin.

I had no idea if this was true.

Perception seemed to be everything, making many of these beliefs and opinions true by default.

These lessons had thoroughly expanded my perspective. Unfortunately, I had nothing to compare this to, at least not on this scale, dating back centuries in human history.

We asari of course had varying skin tones of blue and violet, but this was something that we had merely accepted about our people…

Or perhaps I was ignorant about that, too, and the truth was far different.

Nevertheless, I had to blow my nose from how much crying I had done the night prior. Reading about such cruelty among humans had affected me, deeply—especially after finding out that those same engrained prejudices still continued to drive at least some social divisions between humans to this day. I wiped at my eyes for quite a while, hoping that they were not too red from my emotional evening.

Needing to set these lessons aside for the time being, I checked my email.

Pertaining to the Normandy, the rest of the squad had apparently created a group chat, Team Renegade Shepard, and they had invited me to join via my omni-tool. Sniffling a bit, I smiled over the invite, making a mental note to join the group later, after I had cleaned myself up from my long night.

Some hours before the invite came in, I had received a few troubling emails:

From: Vakarian, Garrus – Weird XO email…

Tali, Liara,

Hey, did you ladies by chance get a really weird "welcoming" email from Navigator Pressly? I suppose he was trying to welcome us to the crew. Just came off strange.

I asked Wrex in person. He has no idea what I'm talking about. Could be that Pressly's scared of him.

Did you get the same message, too? Or is it only me?

Hope it wasn't just me. Sort of. Maybe.

-Garrus

.

From: Tali'Zorah – Re: Weird XO email…

Garrus, Liara,

Yes, I did! I'm so freaking mad about it!

He dresses up his words in that fancy-sounding speech to make it sound like he isn't being a total jerk!

I want to go up to him and ask what this was all about. But when I start thinking about it, I can't actually do it. I wouldn't want to embarrass Shepard, you know? Then, I start thinking about it more, and that's probably why Pressly sent these to us! Because he knew we wouldn't say anything to his face!

By the way, I did my research on that thing Kaidan and Ashley were being weird about back on the Mako. This is kind of the same… I mean, it's related. It hurts being on the receiving end of something like this—again—and this time it's not some C-Sec bosh'tet. It's the ship's executive officer, the one who's second-in-command around here.

He was so subtle about it, too. Enough to cover for himself. That really complicates things.

Liara, whenever you wake up, please come find Garrus and me on the lower level. We should discuss this.

-Tali

.

From: Pressly, Navigator – Normandy Onboarding

Dr. T'Soni,

Navigator Charles Pressly here, Executive Officer to Lieutenant-Commander Sol Shepard. In case you are unfamiliar with Alliance staffing assignments and protocols, I am in charge of handling day-to-day tasks aboard the ship. You may think of me as the administrative assistant to the captain and to the crew.

Welcome to the Normandy, and to Commander Shepard's diverse squad of specialists and combatants.

As I understand it, your extensive knowledge of the Protheans should serve us well during this operation. This is to be expected, as we humans have little-to-no knowledge of the Protheans, outside of our handful of discoveries in places like our official Archives on the planet Mars. I would think that the asari ought to have broader experiences with such an old species, given your longer life spans.

Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Karin Chakwas, tells me your intelligence and scientific capabilities are unmatched. After doing my own research on you, I have to agree. If you were a human, I believe you would make an excellent candidate for our open Science Officer position. It's a shame you're ineligible.

Since you are an asari, we thankfully have no need to go out of our way to find extra food for you. Should you require any other supplies—clothing, medication, or any other asari-specific products I may be unfamiliar with—do inform me. I can put in a requisitions order for supplies as needed.

If you should need any emergency items, such as your element zero feminine products, it would be best that you notify Commander Shepard instead. She will be more likely to gauge the seriousness of your emergency, maintain discretion, and plot a course to the Citadel or the nearest asari colony as required.

Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Cordially,

-Pressly

About an hour later, and after spending almost all of that time crying in the women's shower stall, I made my way down the elevator to the Normandy's storage area. Realizing that there were things I needed to have delivered to the ship from my apartment on Thessia—my other clothes, research materials, and a few personal items—I felt as if I would never have those things again, not for as long as I was on this mission.

Not for as long as Navigator Pressly was Shepard's executive officer.

I missed my comforter the most. The standard blanket I had over this bed wasn't the same.

As soon as I exited the elevator, I found Garrus and Tali near the Mako together, waiting for me.

"Hey, you," greeted Tali, sounding sad. "We were just about to check up on you in your room. I take it you also got one of those special emails?"

"Yes…"

Garrus gestured for the three of us to sit down, far enough away from Ashley and Wrex sharing a conversation on the opposite end of the vehicle bay, over near the weapons lockers.

None of us quite knew what to say at first.

Especially not with our other comrades joking around across the way, so oblivious.

"Liara," said Garrus. "Sent you that invite to the group chat. Did you not want to join up…?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," I expressed, accessing the invite with my omni-tool. "It must have slipped my mind… Did the others join as well?"

Garrus listed the names: "It's you, me, Tali, Wrex, Ashley, and Kaidan. No one else. We're holding a vote on whether we should invite Joker or not. So far, we're leaning toward a solid no, since he probably wouldn't be able to keep the place a secret. Be sure to vote in the poll when you can."

"You mean, not even the commander is allowed in?"

"Why would we let Shepard join?!" sputtered Tali. "In the logs, Wrex has been telling corny old jokes about Clan Urdnot, all Kaidan mentions are his migraines and how he's not up for talking, and Ashley has been complaining about her period and her insane cramps!"

"Yeah, Shepard wouldn't go for that," explained Garrus.

"We're supposed to use it as a place away from her, you know, to help us feel closer. If we need to reference it while she's around, say TRS. Team Renegade Shepard. She won't know."

I supposed that was fair, despite the secrecy. "I see…"

"But, ironically enough," admitted Tali, "We haven't brought up these emails in the chat. I wanted to send you a private message. You hadn't joined up yet."

"I've been a bit distracted today."

Garrus nodded in acceptance. "No harm done, Liara," he consoled. "Tali and I just didn't want to bring it up to the others. You know, in case Kaidan and Ashley clammed up again. The last thing we want is to make things awkward for them. I'm sure they have a lot of respect for our XO."

I chanced asking the obvious question, "Do you think that the commander might be able to help?"

Tali spoke her mind: "Maybe… His wording is barely subtle enough to mask what's going on. Of course, he wasn't stupid enough to be overt in his meaning. If someone took our side, they could see what he's trying to do. I honestly have no idea if Shepard would even care about us like this…"

"Care about you like what?"

The three of us whipped around, finding Commander Shepard standing over us in the casual blue of her Alliance fatigues, looking down at our depressing little group with some suspicion.

On top of the shock of her appearing her so suddenly, I couldn't breathe, seeing the commander with her hair down—in person, and not through a vid or a photograph. As one full wave of straight length, Shepard had her hair parted at one, high side of her head—not quite in the center, and not too far off to one edge. That fullness of golden brown wrapped around her face, down past her shoulders, nearest the bend of her arm where her hair began to curve around and span out in lushness.

Behind her, I already knew that her hair nearly reached the small of her back.

Behind her, farther, I spotted Ashley gaping at the commander.

Wrex was halfway to the elevator, calling for the chief to hurry up.

Ashley soon caught herself, leaving with him and looking rather flushed.

"Shepard!" squeaked Tali. "What are you doing here?! W-We didn't hear you come down the elevator!"

Shepard spared no directness—"This is my ship, Tali. I go where I want, when I want. It isn't my fault you didn't hear the elevator. Fair warning: you won't ever hear my footsteps when I walk somewhere. It's highly likely that I'll scare you again like this in the future."

"Your training, right," said Garrus. "I guess we should enjoy the surprises from you, huh, Commander?"

"If it makes things easier, sure," humored Shepard, kneeling down next to me to join us. "Now what's this about me caring? The three of you don't look like you're in the best mood. Is everything all right?"

Tali and Garrus exchanged looks with me.

The commander gave us a long moment to have our wordless exchange. She showed patience where we had expected her to show annoyance and intolerance. This was her ship, after all. She had the right to know everything that went on here. Still, she continued to kneel here at my side, not rushing us at all.

Garrus nodded to me.

Tali elbowed my arm.

Despite our pretend-telepathy from mere seconds before, I couldn't know how they'd decided that I was the best candidate to broach the subject.

"Well, Commander," I started, "This morning, Tali, Garrus and I—we received emails from someone aboard the ship. These emails made us feel…" This patience in her eyes, again, as she regarded me: I couldn't tell if it was natural for her, or forced, or convenient. Whatever her motivations, the way she listened to my words helped make this easier. "We felt uncomfortable when we read them."

"Uncomfortable?" asked Shepard, blameless. "What do you mean? Who sent these emails?" As Tali and Garrus shared more glances with me, cautious, we watched as the commander pieced things together in her head. "Were these the welcome emails XO Pressly sent out? Normandy onboarding?" We each nodded; somehow, she knew enough to grow incensed, the flares raging through her stare—not at all directed at us. "What did he say?" More hesitation on our end; more rage from her end. "You're not in trouble. Forward me the emails he sent you. I need to see these for myself."

Joker's announcement sounded over the comm system: "Hey folks, pulling the ship into the nearest fuel station in fifteen minutes. If you need to stock up on some goodies, now's the time! I hear the convenience store's having a sale, so unless you're dead broke, you, uh, you really have no excuse."

Garrus checked his email contacts with his omni-tool. "Um… Not to delay things, Commander, but I can't remember how to find that directory with your email address. Did I even have it in the first place?"

"Pressly was supposed to send it to us directly," noted Tali, also finding nothing in her inbox.

I came up empty-handed as well. "He must have forgotten to send it to us."

"That son of a—!" Shepard all but punched at her keyboard over her own omni-tool.

From: Shepard, Commander – (no subject)

Forward me those emails.

Now.

Again, you're not in trouble.

-Shepard

I forwarded mine to her without delay.

Tali and Garrus did the same.

Shepard remained quiet and still beside me as she read Navigator Pressly's words.

She didn't rush.

She didn't speed through what he wrote.

The commander took in every word, analyzing the nuance there, the subtlety, the intentions.

Something told me our XO had a history with this type of behavior.

By the time she finished reading each of Pressly's correspondences to us, Shepard looked to me. She found my eyes red: red from my late night with the blare of my terminal's brightness drying my eyes. Red from my own childish ignorance coating the moisture back over my sight. Red from my adult disbelief pouring back down over everything again, as I struggled not to do, right now, right in front of her, sniffling a little, as her own eyes widened at the sight of my reactions.

Shepard sprang back to her feet, storming over to the elevator.

Garrus, Tali and I struggled to keep up with her.

"Commander, hold on!" shouted Garrus, keeping the elevator door open for all of us. "Look, Shepard, I get that you're angry—"

"—this is unacceptable," seethed Shepard, as we all fit into the elevator together.

"But, Shepard—" Tali struggled to find her words as we ascended to the crew deck. "Can't we just—blind copy you on our responses, s-so you could build a trail against him? Do you have to confront him out in the open like this?!"

"Tali, I get that you're nervous. You don't know how I do things around here. Not yet. You're about to learn. I suggest you sit back and let me handle this."

As much as I longed to hold her, to soothe her—anything—I held myself back.

"Shepard," I spoke instead, "Won't the others know that we told you? They might mistrust us."

"Liara, I won't implicate any of you," promised Shepard. "No one has to know. Let me take care of this."

"As you wish, Commander…"

Right before the elevator doors opened anew, Shepard covered her mouth with her hand, inhaling and exhaling in strain and in control.

She then pushed past us, leaving to the crew deck, and rushing up the winding stairs to the CIC.

In the blue-orange glow of the mess hall, Wrex and Ashley sat together, sharing lunch with some of the other crew. Once they saw Shepard marching upstairs, they all abandoned their meals. The other crew members hurried up the opposite set of stairs to follow the commotion, while Ashley and Wrex came over to us.

"What's gotten into her?" asked Wrex, leading the way up the steps. We all followed. "She all right?"

"Uh, no," was all Garrus could say.

"She's really not," added Tali.

Ashley demanded to know, "Well what the hell happened?! Why is she so pissed off?"

A casualty of Shepard's storm, we found Kaidan with his back pressed against one of the walls in the CIC. He stared after the commander in horror, watching as she made her way over to Navigator Pressly. Everyone else near the galaxy map shared in his panic, hurrying out of the way of Shepard's war path.

Everyone except for Pressly himself, who was preoccupied writing something down on a datapad.

However, he noticed Shepard at the last moment. Scrambling to salute her while simultaneously trying to hide his datapad out of sight, he kept fumbling around on her approach.

"Err, Commander?" he stuttered, caught in her headlights. "Commander, what can I do for you—?"

Shepard grabbed him by the blue and gold of his uniform collar. "You think this is a joke, Pressly?!" she raged. "I name you as my XO, and this is how you choose to represent me!?"

Navigator Pressly began to hyperventilate: frantic, flailing. "Ma'am, I-I didn't mean it!" he cried, under no illusions whatsoever as to his wrongdoing. "I was only trying to be cordial! H-How else was I supposed to relate to someone so foreign—?!"

"You're out of line! In case you forgot, this is my ship! Did you forget who I am, Pressly? Do you have a case of fucking amnesia? You forgot my principles, my rules, what I will and won't tolerate?!"

"No, Ma'am! No, Ma'am!"

"Bullshit!"

Shepard shoved Pressly against the wall.

He slumped to his knees, backpedaling and scrambling harder and harder against the surface.

Stepping to him again, the commander pulled at his collar tighter than before. She edged her face right in front of his, forcing him to look her in the eye. He kept floundering, resisting, heaving for breath by breathing in the full ire of Shepard's incense, yet she refused to relent.

"Take a good, long look at me, Pressly," she hissed, menacing. When he could only shut his eyes and whimper, Shepard slammed his back, his balding head harder against the wall. "Look at me!"

Eyes wide open now, Pressly stammered back, "I-I'm looking! I'm looking!"

In a low, sinister tone, Shepard posed a single question: "Now what makes you think you had the right to say the shit you did?"

"I had no right, Commander. None whatsoever!"

"No, tell me—honestly. What really made you write those words down, and hit send?"

"I… I don't know, Ma'am!"

"Well, you'd better come up with a real answer. Otherwise you're gonna find out real soon what it's like to get thrown out of an airlock."

Pressly hollered for mercy: "Okay, okay! Please, just—just let me breathe first! Let me breathe!"

Shepard pushed him away one last time before stepping back.

Navigator Pressly groaned and coughed in agony, his face heated with embarrassment: every single crew member aboard the Normandy had come up to watch the commotion. Those who had already been in the CIC remained rooted to their panels and other placements throughout the space. Those who had arrived from elsewhere aboard the ship—including Dr. Chakwas, Engineer Adams, and several others—had crowded and huddled around the galaxy map, gawking at the scene.

Joker, who had finished docking the ship at the fuel station, had limped over here from the helm. He stared, transfixed, along with everyone else, as their own self-preservation instincts had kicked in.

All they could do was hope and pray that they would never be in this same position—on the receiving end of the commander's justified rage.

"I'm waiting, Pressly," warned Shepard. "Don't test my patience."

Pressly, still crumpled upon the ground, forced out his answer, "Commander, ever since… Ever since the war, we've all been mistrustful. This is the Alliance military—a human military! Turian, asari, quarian, krogan? What do we look like, bringing these aliens aboard to participate in our operations? We look like traitors to our forefathers, that's what! And I'm not the only one who feels this way!"

Shepard looked around to the rest of the crew. "Is this true?" she posed, wholly serious. "Does someone else share Navigator Pressly's views? Any of you? Anyone?"

The human crew members crowding around us non-humans: every single one of them took one, if not several steps backward, away from the scene, away from any responsibility, their synced movements plain and loud as a joined march.

The other crew at their panels nearest the cockpit all exited their chairs, scrambling back and away as well, not wanting any part of this.

Brow raised, Shepard glared down at Pressly, speaking with a swaggering sort of authority: "Unless you're ready to name names, it looks like you're on your own."

Vindictive, Pressly spat back, "I am ready to name names, Ma'am! I won't go down on my own for staying true to our great history! And before you get started, this has nothing to do with you! It's not at all related to what your people suffered in years past… Haven't we as a species moved beyond those old wounds? You're nothing like those aliens—"

"—I'll be the one who decides that. Not you."

Shepard bent down and slung Navigator Pressly over her shoulder, picking him up with ease. She then proceeded to walk toward the airlock—knowing that we had docked somewhere already.

The rest of the crew in her path scurried out of her way.

Pressly protested, "What in seven hells are you doing, Shepard?! You can't do this to me! You can't!"

"I can and I am," she corrected. "You should have remembered this before you decided to disrespect my team. I won't tolerate it from you or anyone else! That's final."

"Shepard, this isn't fair!" he pouted, pounding on her back. "Put me down this instant!"

"Not happening. I've had enough of your shit! I'm tossing you out of here whether you like it or not."

"Commander, we're at a fuel station!"

"Too bad."

Commander Shepard opened the doors to the airlock.

She threw Pressly out to the concrete surface of the fuel station, startling the passersby and station workers. Far-away shouts as echoes, Pressly still tried to bargain with the commander, offering to give her a full list of those names in exchange for her forgiveness.

The commander ignored him, returning to the interior of the ship, leaving him abandoned outside.

When she returned, Shepard made known her next steps:

"As soon as I get back to my cabin, I'm performing an audit. Every single email correspondence and extranet search you've made while on this ship's Alliance network—I'm going over all of it with a fine-tooth comb, no matter how long it takes. So if you've got some relevant dirt in your history, guess what? You're ending up the same way!"

To my dismay, far too many of the crew exchanged horrified looks with one another.

"You know what? Let me make it easy for you. If any of you have some shit that you know damn well you're gonna get busted for, save yourselves the trouble! Get the hell off my ship, right now!"

More movement, more marching, scrambling: nearly all of the Normandy's crew hurried past where Shepard stood on the path to the helm, leaving the ship en masse. They knew better than to hesitate, to try doubling back to get their things first. Every single one of them left with only the clothes on their backs and whatever else they may have had on-hand, leaving the rest of us to absolute silence.

Only our squad remained, along with Joker, Dr. Chakwas, Engineer Adams, and a handful of others.

Shepard scoffed, at once indignant and knowing.

No surprise.

No remorse.

No regret for how she chose to run things.

How long had I spent here, gazing at her in amazement…

Shepard's fearlessness had pulled me in, carving this new craving inside of me.

Joker's need to make scathing light of the situation pushed through: "Seriously…? Are we the only non-racists left? I figured we'd have at least a few bad apples. Practically everyone? Sheesh!" Not liking this unbreakable edge about the commander, he spoke with her, "So, you, uh, gonna clean out their rooms now? I mean, I'd offer to help, but you know… Plus, it looks like I've got all these new responsibilities to handle on my own now that we're down to a skeleton crew! Guess you do, too."

"That's the plan," confirmed Shepard, making her way out of the CIC. "Joker, get us to the closest Alliance HQ space station. We're gonna have a lot of junk to dump in their lost and found department."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" obliged Joker with a grin, truly, as if nothing had happened.

As Shepard was about to pass Ashley by, she stopped.

The commander remained parallel to her, keeping our squadmate in her periphery.

Out of the corner of her eye, Commander Shepard took in the brimming sights of Ashley's tamed trembling, nervous breathing, and swallowing air.

Shepard questioned her, "What the hell is wrong with you, Williams?"

No answer.

"Are you seriously going to let me think you're one of them? You want me to make that assumption?"

Still no response.

"Suit yourself."

Shepard then left back downstairs to the crew's quarters; left her standing there, possibly exposed.

Kaidan couldn't bring himself to look at her.

Garrus departed without a word, avoiding her.

Wrex glared at her, before leaving to help Shepard clear out those now-vacant rooms.

Tali went up to Ashley and spoke her mind—"I don't know why I'm disappointed. I should look at the bright side instead: I've only known you for a couple of days. Should be pretty easy to stop myself from caring about you now."

Once Tali left, I remained here for the short duration of the trip to the Alliance's nearest space station.

I felt the same disappointment that Tali had mentioned, though it felt tempered, somehow.

Perhaps my usual aversion to friendships and society had built me to expect this. Or maybe it had something to do with the cryptic meaning from earlier in the vehicle bay, when Ashley had gawked at Shepard's beauty.

Eventually, Kaidan left to assist Shepard and Wrex with everything.

I made myself stay in this place, watching Ashley's discomfort grow with my continued regard of her.

I finally had my first real taste of possessiveness—metallic, like a pinch of blood over my tongue—and I couldn't look away, couldn't stop myself from making myself clear to her without words.

Even if Shepard never returned my curiosities, my growing affections for her;

Even if Shepard would only flee from me in learning about my proclivities;

Even if Shepard had no real interest in me whatsoever:

I understood where my mind had gone, and I had no intention of ever guiding its path elsewhere.


Commander Shepard elected to keep the Normandy docked here at this military base while she handled the fallout of the events with the crew.

We stayed here for about a week or so. Kaidan assisted Shepard in dealing with the bureaucracy of the whole affair: resignation letters, possible disciplinary hearings, and sending all of the former crew's belongings to that lost and found department that the commander had mentioned.

Joker, Dr. Chakwas, Engineer Adams, and the remaining Alliance crew also needed some time to acclimate to all of their new, voluntary, responsibilities after the reshuffling.

Shepard decided against assigning a new executive officer, choosing to instead handle those duties on her own. She had been the Normandy's XO before under Captain Anderson's leadership, and so she was no stranger to those associated tasks. For formality's sake, she at least named Lieutenant Alenko as her second-in-command, leaving him as the ship's marine officer in charge of security and weapons.

The commander wasted no time in getting to work—as soon as we arrived to the sterilized cleanliness of the solid blue-and-white military base, Shepard arranged deliveries for all of the squad's other clothing and personal articles to arrive here from our homes. So, along with all of the Alliance paperwork with the crew, we also stayed here to wait for those deliveries to reach us within the next few days.

Of my personal items, I had the perfect thing in mind to give to Shepard as a gift: a thank you from me to her, for all that she had done to help us feel welcome and at home aboard her ship.

I wasn't sure how long it would take me to draw up the nerve to actually give the gift to her, however…

For the time being, the squad and I, minus Ashley, had picked up some snacks and supplies together from one of the military base's many convenience stores. We stayed together right outside the store, standing near a bench.

Not too far out of view, the Normandy remained docked against the backdrop of the space station's transparent overhead structure. Passing through the open airlock, a handful of Alliance military personnel brought out several more bags containing the former crew's belongings.

This starry view comforted me, swelling my optimism for the days, weeks, and months that lay ahead.

Everyone around me seemed to be in a much better mood, joking openly as we indulged in our snacks. I enjoyed this bottle of raspberry juice I had purchase, sipping the beverage through a straw: a sweet, sugary reminder of my first meeting with our ship's captain.

Wrex and Garrus engaged in a jovial re-enactment of the commander throwing Pressly out of the ship.

Tali stood next to me with her bottle of filtered soda, laughing at our little impromptu show.

Kaidan, still reeling a bit from everything, remained seated on the bench, smiling every so often with us.

Now that Kaidan was here with us, though, this meant that Shepard was nearly finished with all of the paperwork and other details.

I hoped that she would come over to join us soon.

But, given how much Shepard preferred to keep to herself, I knew that my hopes were rather silly.

Breathing hard as the re-enactment ended, Garrus smirked at me. "You know, Liara…there's something about that whole episode that I can't seem to stop thinking about."

"What is it?" I asked.

"Once Shepard read those emails—remember the way she looked at you, then sprang into action?"

As if I could have forgotten: "Well, yes, of course…"

Tali pulled me in with a big hug. "It's because she saw that you'd been crying! Our brave, brave captain wouldn't let anyone get away with hurting you, Liara. She had to protect your precious spirit!"

"Aww, is that what happened?" teased Wrex. "Seemed like Shepard was extra pissed somehow. Guess that explains it!"

"Wait, really?" asked Kaidan, as if waking up from his own thoughts. "Is that true?"

Hiding myself from them, I could only mumble back, "I have no idea what it is you mean…"

"Sure you do," encouraged Garrus. "The way you looked at Shepard with those big, innocent blue eyes of yours, she couldn't resist. You even gave her one of these—" He sniffled, delicate. "It was downright adorable, I'll say. How could the commander not want to take out the guy who upset you?"

Giggling in a fervor, Tali hugged me tighter. Wrex laughed in good-humor, not meaning me any harm at all, while Kaidan had grown red in the face, busying himself with the bottle of beer he had purchased.

I protested, "Now hold on just one minute! I didn't do any of that on purpose…"

"You didn't have to, silly!" said Tali. "It's all a part of you. All part of your sweet, lovely personality that drives Commander Shepard to the ends of the galaxy, in your honor."

"Tali, you make it all sound so—maudlin."

"Oh, I know! This reminds me of some of my favorite romantic films, that's all."

Wrex smirked. "You watch those things, Tali? Chick flicks?"

"They are not chick flicks!" insisted Tali. "They are wonderfully epic and moving stories that inspire me to see the best in people!" When Wrex simply laughed again, Tali sighed, muttering to herself: "Kicking that racist Pressly out on his ass on a fuel station in the middle of nowhere. That was the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me…"

We spotted Joker ambling over to us, waving hello as he neared.

"Hey, guys, big news!" he cheered. "Now that we have next-to-no crew on the Normandy, the commander added all of you to the Alliance's payroll! It's officially coming out of the Council's budget, since, well, I guess this is more of a Spectre thing than a military thing. You should be getting your first pay wired to your accounts soon."

"That's great and all," noted Wrex, suspicious of Joker now. "If this is about us, why're you so excited?"

Joker gave a thumbs-up. "'Cause I'm getting a raise, that's why! This means I can finally get those—" He stopped himself from sharing any additional details. "Uh, there's something expensive I wanted to buy, and now this covers it. Happy now?"

"Yeah, yeah. None of our business anyway."

Sounding hurt, Joker said, "Uh, wait… Kaidan's here, so I figured… Ah, shit." He looked to each of us. "After that whole showdown on the ship, am I, like, not invited, or…? No other humans allowed?"

Tali beckoned him closer. "Don't worry, Joker, you can join us," she allowed. "You're one of the good ones."

"Ouch… Thanks, Tali, I get it. I'll try to keep staying as one of the good ones!"

"By the way, Joker," said Kaidan, sounding distant. "Any idea what Ashley's been up to?"

Joker did a double-take. "Who, her?" he ridiculed. "Dude, I don't freaking know Ash anymore. You wanna know how she's doing? Go find her yourself!"

Kaidan bolted to his feet. "Fine, I will!" he declared. "Unlike you, Joker, I refuse to believe that Ash is one of them. I know her. There must be a way to solve things peacefully." He looked to each of us, one at a time. "For the record, I'm not taking sides… What Navigator Pressly and the others did was horrible, and I won't make excuses for them. But this, with Chief Williams: I don't want it to affect our morale and teamwork during missions together. I'll get to the bottom of this, I swear!"

We all watched him leave back to the ship.

Joker glared at him as he went. "Yeah, we'll see about that, buddy…"

"Hmm, not sure how I feel about this," pondered Garrus. "After all that, this is what he has to say?"

Wrex, too, had little sympathy. "Not taking sides is weak," he chastised. "If everyone did that all the time, we'd get nowhere in life. Sometimes you've gotta make a choice. He made the wrong one."

"That's too bad," mourned Tali. "I guess all we can do is wait to see what he comes up with. If he comes up with anything. I have to admire his optimism, at least."

I wanted nothing to do with Ashley, though not necessarily for the same reasons as everyone else.

I hoped that no one decided to ask for my opinion, otherwise I may have been forced to explain why.

Chapter Text

"Feelings" by Tinashe / "Mary Magdalene" by FKA twigs

IV. Repression

(Shepard)

Familiar tasks.

New feelings about them.

We spent the new few weeks drifting in the Normandy during this transition period. I had us fly around for some missions here and there as needed: primarily answering Alliance distress calls, hitting pockets of geth attacking other colonies, and collecting resources for the ship. With no real way of following Saren's trail or knowing where he meant to go next, that left us with the original plan from the get-go.

Finding out why there were so many geth on Feros.

Figuring out what Matriarch Benezia was up to on Noveria.

I plotted a course for Joker to get us to Feros first within the next few solar days. Yes, the mission was important, but I needed the extra time to complete this audit and restore operations to the ship.

Every single crew member no longer aboard had a ton of ethically questionable shit in their history and emails. They'd had the nerve to use their official work email addresses for this mess, too.

Sitting at my desk, I had multiple monitors up with my terminal, handling these final things from the audit and from managing the crew's needs. Hip-hop music blasting, bass booming, vibrating against the back of my chair, I wrapped up my report on the audit, noting that I hadn't found anything from the remaining Alliance crew onboard. Across from my leather sofa, I had my huge TV screen on, idling in my third-person shooter multiplayer game. I hadn't had the chance to get back to it in a while.

I had to finish up these last couple of things, and then I could take a nap first before playing a match.

Joker had way too many extranet habits that the Alliance didn't need to know about. The only reason I knew about it was because, in my searches related to aliens, his account had the most hits by far.

Despite how disgusted I was that his searches for human-asari lesbian porn had spiked in the last month since Liara joined, I didn't find any xenophobic evidence to report.

After that whole drama with Ashley, the squad were understandably on-edge with her still on the ship. I'd expected her to resign from this assignment on her own, or maybe for her to demand that I fire her. Without any solid evidence, I couldn't fire her. As far as I knew, she hadn't spoken a word to anyone aside from Lieutenant Alenko, determined as she was to suffer everyone else's clear judgment of her.

I'd decided to leave her on the ship during these last couple of missions.

From my automated search of Ashley's work correspondences and extranet searches, my virtual assistant hadn't turned up anything unethical or even slightly xenophobic. None of the standard search terms and tags I'd used to successfully bust everyone else had worked on her trail. So either she'd scrubbed it all beforehand, or she knew to cover her tracks from the very beginning.

Ashley didn't strike me as a cunning person. Not like that. Still, she went to great lengths to avoid me on the ship. And when I did see her, that veiled desire for me in her eyes—she made too much too clear.

Something told me to do a manual search through her history later…even if it meant indulging myself.

Because now that I thought about it, and now that I could be honest about this, I wasn't sure how to feel about this situation with her. Whenever I did manage to bump into Ashley on the ship, I noticed that her eyes were red—from a lack of sleep, from something else. She stuck to her duties down in the armory, and she kept to herself, avoiding the team aside from Kaidan, but there was far more going on here.

I couldn't help noticing a strong aura from Ashley, radiating off from her more than usual these days. Like she had something she needed to tell me. Like she had something she needed to show me. Like there was far more to her than I'd assumed, and she was determined to make sure that I knew this. And I had never felt this strength of someone's energy before, as this undeniable need from another person: threatening to pull at my own thoughts of her, forcing these damned emotions out from me.

It was all I could do to push this back down.

It was all I could do remind myself that Ashley…was straight. She had to be. This energy she gave off couldn't have been along these lines I kept thinking of; kept surprising myself in wanting way more of.

I shouldn't have cared, or kept thinking about her, or kept wanting more from her.

I was her commanding officer. And she was straight. She was straight. That was it. Case closed.

But my other assumptions about her had been wrong. Maybe this one was, too. Knowing that, I knew that I was almost out of excuses, out of places to hide.

Watching her struggle alone with this drama, I felt bad. And now I cared about her—way more than I would ever admit. Deep down, I wanted Ashley to share her feelings with me. Even from this distance, I could taste how pure and unassuming those feelings of hers were, despite how she had every right to be angry at me for ruining her friendships with the team. Yet she didn't take her anger out on me, surrendering in the face of my command, so vulnerable…

All the same, I would figure out exactly what to do with her later.

Definitely not now.

The rest of the squad seemed content to go along with my decision.

I was relieved that they had pretty good synergy together, even with this whole Ashley thing going on.

But, my instincts wouldn't calm down: for all the solid teamwork they shared with each other, I felt their longing for my individual attention. They wanted to get to know me. I'd had my excuses to avoid them before, what with needing to take care of this audit by myself. And they had been brief and infrequent in their emails to me whenever they had supplies they required, or other similar, cordial requests.

They appeared to make a coordinated effort to not bug me or piss me off, never emailing me more than absolutely necessary, and never messaging me about personal things. In general, they stuck to keeping me up to speed on their work and duties aboard the ship:

Garrus would only message me with updates on his calibrations to the Mako's weapons.

Tali would only email me with finalized checklists of work she'd completed with Engineer Adams.

Wrex would only let me know if someone's armor needed to be replaced, upgraded, or modified.

Kaidan would only give me his reports on the squad's combat skills and improvements.

Ashley contacted me the least out of everyone, only to give me the shortest of status reports on our weapon usage, keeping tabs on any possible wear and tear as she cleaned our guns. Her messages made me question too much, because, again, I felt her masked emotions for me dripping through, so obvious.

Liara would only inform me of her progress in collecting more data on the Protheans for me to access…though, like Ashley, her messages always had more to say than the actual words on-screen.

Teamwork, even with interpersonal issues with their captain.

Because of that, I'd saved the hardest of my tasks for last.

I appreciated their consideration, so I made up my mind to send personalized emails to each of my squad members. I thanked them for their patience throughout this whole process. I let them know that they were free to request one-on-one meetings with me, whether it was about work or whatever else. I would do my best to respond to their messages as soon as I could, as long as I wasn't busy.

I tempered my message to Ashley. I needed to maintain this distance from her, for both of our sakes.

Everyone's replies trickled in as I continued to sit here, knowing damn well that I wasn't done.

I hadn't sent one of these emails to Liara yet.

I had to send her one.

She would know if I chose not to.

She and the rest of the squad talked a lot, shared a lot—practically everything.

Accepting that I couldn't put this off, I buckled down and tried to write something:

To: T'Soni, Liara – Thanks.

Liara,

Thank you for your patience with me and with the remaining crew throughout this transition period. I only wanted you and the others to feel welcome here aboard the Normandy. Doesn't matter that this is a human military—this ship is of human-turian design. This frigate represents those different perspectives coming together with a shared goal—

No.

I deleted all of that.

What the fuck did the Normandy's design have to do with her on a personal level?

To: T'Soni, Liara – Thank you.

Liara,

I appreciate all the research you've sent me on the Protheans so far. Helps to understand them better after not knowing much about them at all before. The way they communicate using another person's physiology kind of reminds me of your asari bonding process—

She wasn't her research, and her research was not her.

Even though she was our Prothean expert, that really wasn't what I associated her with…

To: T'Soni, Liara – Progress.

Liara,

Lieutenant Alenko tells me that you have a high skill ceiling for improving your biotics a lot more, but you aren't accessing that higher tier in battle. He says you're choosing not to. Are you holding back on purpose? We should have a talk about this if you are—

Even though this was all true, it had nothing to do with her, either…

I had only one sensible option left:

To: T'Soni, Liara – Hey.

Liara,

As you may have heard by now, I'm sending individual emails to the team.

I'm finished with that audit. This means I have more free time.

I have one last thing to take care of before I can finally kick back. I plan on sending you an actual email once I'm done with this. I didn't want to leave you to wonder why I hadn't sent you anything. I promise I'm not ignoring you. I want to give you my full attention.

Expect to hear from me later.

-Shepard

Satisfied with that, I hit send.

I didn't really have anything else I needed to do.

All I did was buy myself some more time until the inevitable.

I'd been able to distract myself lately, keeping these all-consuming thoughts away for as long as possible. Now that I had no excuses, no more distractions, and nothing else to take care of, I had nothing else to fall back on. While I'd worked, the thoughts had come up, only lingering in the background. I had been able to set them aside, more or less.

More or less, less was more, and far more so now that I had nothing pressing to handle.

The thoughts all came rushing back when Liara responded to my message a few minutes later:

From: T'Soni, Liara – Re: Hey.

Commander,

Yes, I had heard. I had been wondering, too. I think it's wonderful that you're doing this.

Thank you.

However, if it would be simpler for us to speak in person once you have time, perhaps we should do that instead. You do not need to worry yourself with sending me one of your planned emails in that case. I am willing to go with whichever option you prefer.

Please let me know once you are able.

-Liara

These brand new prospects expanded an expanse up my chest, up to my heart, making me stretch out and exhale to fit this with me.

I folded my arms over my desk, resting my head here, all to pass the time—to make it seem like I wasn't sitting here staring at her response, about to write back, right after I'd said that I had other shit to take care of first.

Ever since finding Liara on Therum, I'd had to force these thoughts back down, again and again.

More and more often, the willowy wisps of her voice would pass through my memory, igniting hotter into something else: suggestive, selective.

All of those shy looks Liara gave me each day—in the mess hall while she spent time with the others, in the CIC before a mission and before she switched her focus on, in the debriefing room once we were done with a mission and finished our discussions about what we'd found…and, occasionally, during a mission, but only ever when it was appropriate.

Downtime, time to think.

Thinking of all the ways she could have been something more for me, if I allowed it.

She wasn't in the Alliance. She wasn't in the military.

She was part of my team, yes, but not the military.

Enough of a loophole to get around fraternization. Enough of my overactive imagination had brought me to this point, with me barely restraining myself from wondering way too much about her.

I knew myself.

I needed to keep my control.

If I let go—if I let myself smell even a hint of Liara wanting me, too, that would've been game over.

Game over from wanting her in ways that probably would have scared her off, compromising our professional relationship, our teamwork, and this entire mission to go along with it.

Deciding that enough arbitrary time had passed, I replied to her:

To: T'Soni, Liara – Re: Hey

Liara,

I'll pay you a visit instead.

Will you be in your room behind the med bay?

-Shepard

.

From: T'Soni, Liara – Re: Hey.

Commander,

I will wait for you in my room.

I have something to give you—a gift, to express my gratitude for how much you've done for all of us.

Perhaps it is a bit overdue. I had meant to give this to you after the incident with the crew. As you were quite busy these past few weeks, it never seemed like a good time. It certainly doesn't help that I am a bit nervous about this. I hope you will forgive me if I seem to be acting a little strange when you arrive.

I suppose none of that will matter if you would rather decline the gift instead.

What would you like to do, Shepard?

-Liara

This submissiveness on Liara, the way it fit her, shaped her—so gentle and sweet and unique.

I dug my nails into the surface of my desk, clawing enough for the ache, for the pain to stop these fucking thoughts:

Making her do anything and everything she wanted, but was too afraid to act on.

Making her scream, and cry, and beg for me to destroy her and pull her back up again.

Making her see that she could control me in her neediness alone—and how I sensed it, how I picked up on how much she wanted to cling to me, yet she chose not to, to avoid pissing me off or disgusting me or pushing me away.

For weeks now, I had suppressed these thoughts: of waking Liara up from this naïveté of hers, and showing her what she missed out on in her shyness and isolation; of Liara growing obsessed with me, as obsessed as she was about her research, learning everything about me, and having that unending craving for me and no one else; of prying Liara's legs apart, tearing away at every shred of her reluctance to let me please her; of pinning Liara down against my bed, face down, and fucking her, hard, right to her limit, exactly as she pleased.

I'd always had this potential, to want to please a woman this badly, to be in this deep:

To make her the center of my universe.

I'd resisted it before—my pride, my own fears about letting someone get in my head like this.

I was the commanding officer, but that didn't matter with her. Finally…it didn't matter with someone.

Liara had no fucking idea how much power she had in this situation.

None whatsoever.

More suppression, more of it, more wasn't enough to keep this motherfucking tone out of my reply:

To: T'Soni, Liara – Re: Hey

Liara,

Speak your mind with me. You don't have to hold back.

I want whatever you have to give to me.

I'll be down to see you in half an hour.

-Shepard


Harsh freezing of a cold shower had sobered me enough, helping me head down to the crew deck with a clear head. I could finally breathe. I had my mind back…mostly. Ruffling out my slightly damp hair behind my back, I accepted how much I'd needed this reset button. After all, for as much as I'd tried to suppress everything, I had been stuck in my feelings. Fucking feelings, yes, but feelings nonetheless.

I'd caught myself feeling some type of way about Liara when I shouldn't have.

Besides, she was probably still a virgin, or whatever the equivalent was for asari. Not that that was a bad thing… I was way more likely to corrupt her and hurt her with how aggressive I tended to be. That wasn't something I wanted to deal with. I couldn't be liable for her hurt feelings like that.

I couldn't let her get in my head and mess up my focus.

I couldn't let her know that she had this power over me.

I couldn't let my own pride down by lifting her up in any way whatsoever.

Stopping Saren was more important than how badly I wanted to have sex with Liara.

Passing through to the narrow, lighted navy blue of the med bay, I realized that Liara was probably one of those women who needed more. Not a hookup. No flings. No kinks or mind fucks.

I was willing to bet it would've been vanilla sex only with her, no questions asked.

And she needed those feelings, that commitment, that kind of tender love and validation, with the promise of getting married someday…

"Hello there, Commander," said Dr. Chakwas, a bit absent-minded as she gathered her things. "It feels like I've not seen you in ages. You've been stuck in your cabin for weeks! How was the audit?"

"It was fine," I said, not seeing any way to glamorize the whole thing.

Dr. Chakwas collected her coffee mug and her e-book reader. "Wonderful!" she chatted. "Cleaning house seems like it did the Normandy well. Things feel a little more efficient than they did before, somehow." She then passed me by, explaining herself as she went: "You'll have to forgive me for running off so suddenly. I was just about to head back to my room to catch up on some reading. I haven't been able to put this series down! Or…did you need anything from me? Are you well?"

I narrowed my eyes, wondering, "You assume I'm not here to see you? To talk, see how you're doing?"

"Shepard, you never come here for that," she teased. "I know you and you won't convince me otherwise! As much as I appreciate your efforts, there's no need to humor little old me. Really—if there are any emergencies, you know where to find me. Take care, Commander."

I gave her a curt nod.

Dr. Chakwas smiled at me with her familiar warmth, before fast-walking out of the med bay with a briskness in her step, excited to get back to her reading.

She usually did everything here at her desk unless she needed to eat or sleep.

What was such a big deal about those books that she didn't want to read them here in the med bay?

Not wanting to think on it too much, I continued on to the far door to Liara's room.

The green light of the door controls let me know that she'd left her room unlocked.

I knocked anyway.

All the while, I let out the quietest exhales I could manage, blowing out these remnants.

She probably didn't like me like that, anyway.

Liara answered the door, wearing one of her usual science outfits, and one of her usual demure looks.

I noticed, for the first time, from this angle, and in this bright, fixed lighting from the med bay, how unique the crests over her head were. That subtle dazzle of light blue along her crown reminded me of water. It made me picture gleams of sun over the ocean, of back home on Earth where I was from.

The vastness of her eyes reminded me of the same, so wide and pure and unending.

"Hello, Commander," greeted Liara, gaze fixed on my casual uniform boots.

"Hey, Liara," I replied, having long gotten used to this from her by now. "You good?"

Keeping her head canted down, she tracked her eyes up at me in a soft way that was so…

"Mostly, yes," she murmured: gentle, breathy. "It is nice to see you again. Please, come in."

Fuck, okay, she did like me like that.

Liara stepped aside, welcoming me without words into the humble space she'd settled into back here. I wasn't surprised that she'd gravitated toward this old storage room. With the crates cleared out to make room for her bed, and a long desk for her terminal against the opposite wall, this worked well.

I shouldn't have been grinning. "So this is your hideout, huh?"

"Perhaps a hideout is a good way to describe it," accepted Liara, shifting a bit with her hands behind her back. "It is quiet here and I have no trouble concentrating on my work. I enjoy this room very much. I am grateful that Dr. Chakwas allowed me to stay here."

"Noise from the mess hall doesn't reach you?"

"Not unless they are extremely loud. It is the same for the med bay. I can get lost in my own world…"

Leaning against her desk, I gathered that I would have to keep the conversation going.

Liara had gone back to staring at my boots.

Self-conscious all of a sudden, I looked down at them, glancing them over.

Nothing there…

I guessed she just wanted to stare at anything of me: someplace with the least possible chance of accidentally making eye contact with me. Sympathizing with her, I knew that my stare was way too severe and penetrating, whether I wanted it to be or not. This habit of mine was here to stay, though.

With anyone else, I would've gotten annoyed by now.

With her, the whole thing was pretty cute, honestly.

So I asked her, "Something on your mind, Liara?"

"I am always thinking about something, Commander…"

"And in my last message," I recalled, "I told you to speak freely with me."

Liara took one step toward me, whispering, "Yes, you did."

"I'm here now. So, let's talk."

"It is—difficult to know how much is too much. If I told you absolutely everything that is on my mind, I worry… I worry that you would think differently of me, Shepard. That is the last thing I want. That is why I… That is…th-that is to say… I must watch what I say. I should. I am doing my best."

"Sounds to me like you're overthinking things."

"Overthinking what to think about? What to say about what I'm thinking about?"

I bit down on my laugh to avoid hurting her feelings. "You could say that, yeah."

"…I am making a fool of myself, aren't I?"

"That isn't true," I explained. "We're just talking."

"Commander, we are talking about what to talk about because I am too unwilling to speak my mind with you as you asked…" Liara let out a breath. "This is why I tend to avoid people. I never know what to say in these situations. Dealing with data disks and computers instead is…simpler."

"Hmm, you don't have trouble talking with the team," I pointed out, knowing what this would do to her.

Liara flinched once, then twice—nervous tics. "But—that is not…! Shepard, you are not them. They are not you. This is—it is hardly comparable!"

Pretending to sulk, I kicked away at air with my boot. "Okay, Liara, I see how it is…"

Crossing the distance between us, Liara pleaded with me, "Please, Commander, forgive me! I-I did not mean to offend you! You are right that I am comfortable speaking with the rest of our team members. That…that does not mean I value you any less in comparison!"

I laughed, more amused by her sheer look of horror than anything.

"I'm only messing with you," I admitted. "Obviously, you're more comfortable with the others. They go out of their way to spend time with you. This is the first time you and I have spoken one-on-one."

"Oh… You were only making a joke at my expense."

"Not at your expense," I emphasized. "I wanted to lighten the mood, that's all."

Liara looked at me like I'd spoken some indecipherable language. "Lighten the mood…?"

"Yeah… What's wrong with that?"

"I am sorry, Commander," she said. "You are such a serious person. I could not imagine that you would try to make light of the situation." Flinching again, she mumbled, "What a mess I have made… I cannot even speak to you properly without embarrassing myself. In fact, I was terrified that this would happen. You must think I am not worth your time…"

Liara had misplaced her self-esteem somewhere, and she was in no condition to go looking for it.

Now that she was closer to me, staring down at the full angle to my boots, I saw the way she trembled.

I knew: if I so much as folded my arms, or sighed, or did anything else that she could take as impatience or frustration, I risked breaking her heart. I knew, because her heart was right there on her long sleeve, pumping and beating at an insane rate.

Still hiding her hands behind her back, every breath she let out held the echoes of her quickening beats.

She longed for me to speak, unable and unwilling to fathom the possibility of not waiting her turn.

Anderson had told me in his letter, "Be kind to your squad."

Looking into Liara's eyes that refused to make contact with mine, I felt…purified by her sincerity.

"I don't think that, Liara," I reassured her. "I doubt I ever could think that about you."

"R-Really?" she asked, her pupils snapping to mine, dilating as they did. "But—how could you not?"

"You haven't done anything wrong. I'm not gonna judge you for something like this. It's out of your control. We'll keep talking. Over time, I'm sure things will change. And if they don't, that's fine, too."

Liara smiled at me, brighter than the day. "Okay. Thank you…for choosing to be kind with me."

"Yeah, that's not something I hear every day," I mentioned, scowling.

Still smiling anyway, Liara's sincerity got to me again: "That is why I said choose. I understand that you are not normally like this with other people. You surprise me, Shepard."

"Mmm, I bet," I commented, not wanting to get deeper into this. "You said you had a gift for me?"

"Yes, I do," she confirmed, shifting her arms behind her back. "It is yours—if you still want it…"

During my shower, I had thought about bringing her a present, too, but…

Aside from the Protheans and other science or history-related things, I had no idea what she liked.

"Sure. What is it?"

Liara handed me a thin, white, square case that fit right in my palms.

Some parts of it were warm from her hands, from her having held this case in the middle of her nerves.

Studying the case, the front bore an avant-garde painting of the bust of an asari. She had broad shoulders and a thick, strong neck, her face and crests twisted and distorted a bit in added femininity. When I opened the case, I found a CD inside, with a short track list printed over it.

An actual CD…

This had to have been hundreds of years old. She'd kept it in perfect condition, too.

Not quite believing that she paid attention to me this closely, I asked, "Liara…is this a music album?"

"Yes, Commander, it is," replied Liara. "Back on Therum when you found me that day, I was not able to hear your music through your headphones. I could only assume that you would enjoy music that is evocative, thoughtful, atmospheric… This album has that sound, along with… Well…a bit more, too."

Whenever I was in the mood for it, I did like listening to that kind of music: trip-hop, electronic songs.

How did she figure this out about me?

Without any hints.

Without anything to go off of, except for my personality.

Liara sat down at her terminal. "Seeing as how computers these days won't read CDs anymore, I downloaded the digital album instead. We can listen to a song now if you would like."

"Yeah, thanks… Pick whichever one you think I'll like the most."

She already had her mouse hovered over one song in particular.

From the moment she clicked play, an otherworldly atmosphere overtook the room, bass booming in thoughtfulness. And then, an electronic sound, a woman's touch, subtle vulnerability in emotionality, and a romantic, sacred, heavenly obsession woven through the singer's angelic voice, through her lyrics.

So needy, and soothing, and loving, and passionate—provocative, sexual, all at the same time.

I stared off at nothing, listening to this, letting my eyes wander around, near, and over Liara's bed.

Liara stood up again, leaning over her desk like I did, right next to me.

She kept our shoulders and our sides pressed together, watching me in profile from her, not blinking.

Listening to this apex of sound, something deep in my mind and in my heart ascended, right toward her.

When it was over, Liara turned the volume down.

She kept the song on repeat, low enough for us to speak again, to hear each other.

Liara breathed her words close to my ear, "Are you satisfied, Shepard?"

Now I was the one who couldn't look at her—"More than satisfied. That was…something else. Where did you find this?"

"Back on Thessia, my homeworld," she told me. "It was the first thing I ever purchased with my own funds. I had listened to a sample of this song over the extranet. That was when I knew I wanted the album in my hands. I spent several days trying to track down a physical copy. In fact, when I finally found it, I remember my mother tried to take it away from me."

"Why would Benezia do that? It was your CD. You bought it with your own money."

"She wished to listen to the album herself, to see if it would have any negative influences on me…"

"I think I see where you're going with this," I noticed. Liara nodded, solemn. "I'm guessing since your mother was such an important figure, she must've been strict with you."

Liara recalled: "Yes, she and the rest of asari high society had great expectations of me. Benezia initially supported my curiosities with history and archaeology, back when I was much younger… However, as time went on, she expected me to fall out of my phase with my research. I turned down the many non-scientific internships she would arrange for me. This caused tensions between us to flare."

"How bad was it?"

"It was manageable for a while. I found my own ways to not allow it to overwhelm me. But things grew worse once I declared that my undergraduate major would be history-related. My mother fought against this, demanding that I change to something involving philosophy or religion. She was an influential professor in both of these fields, so it made sense that I should follow in her footsteps."

I almost couldn't believe it. "You rebelled against her, then?"

"I suppose you could say that," accepted Liara. "I was torn for the longest, Shepard. She was my mother, after all. She had raised me, cared for me, and showed me such kindness. I wished to please her, to do what she wanted me to do. Yet I couldn't deny the irresistible pull of my research. I had to choose."

"Yeah, I can respect that. But, aside from your arguments about this, was your mother always kind?"

Liara went blank.

She stared straight ahead at nothing, lost in her own head.

She seemed to remember something: the answer to my question.

Then, like a flickering light, she blinked once in a flinching pain, and then again as normal.

"Liara, hey," I called, nudging her. "You still with me?"

"Shepard! I… Yes, I am here. I'm sorry—could you please repeat the question?"

"I was only asking if your mother Benezia was usually nice with you," I rephrased. "You mentioned that she was strict. Strict enough to monitor the music you listened to. Sounded like she wanted to control your whole life, too. I get why the two of you don't talk anymore. I'm wondering if it was all bad."

Instead of going blank again, Liara held herself around her waist.

She shivered against me, as if cold, all while fighting to stay in the moment.

Worried now, I didn't want to take her out of this battle, or help win it for her.

I watched her, closely. Whenever she flinched, the movement felt visceral to me. Like she did it as more than a nervous tic. Like she did it to stop herself, to hold something back.

"My mother…wanted me to be pure," recalled Liara at last, monotone. "She had a very sweet pet name for me. I was her little wing. In her eyes, I was not allowed to be anything else. Anything other than what she wanted. For many years, I believed that our wishes overlapped well enough, and that there was nothing wrong. Then, I rebelled. Then, I went my own way. Then we stopped speaking."

"Was that only an illusion?" I asked. "How your wishes overlapped for a while."

"I think…yes. Yes, it was only that—an illusion."

"What did you really want? Deep down, I mean."

Liara had no real need to think about it, yet she took her time anyway, before revealing:

"I wanted my control, Shepard. I wanted to seize my own life, make my own way. Benezia tried to control everything about me, everything I did. We had our worst argument yet when she discovered how deeply I resented her. I do not quite remember how the argument started… All I can recall is that she had caught me researching something that she did not approve of… Something that…had confirmed how confined I felt in life because of her. And then, she took her anger out on me."

Assuming the worst, I let the concerns sound through my voice, "Liara…don't tell me—"

"—oh, no!" Liara caught herself. "Commander, my mother never abused me! I promise you, she did not lay a hand on me or anything of the sort. There is no need to be concerned. It was nothing like that. It is just…after the argument… We grew distant. I forgot the true reasons why. I cannot remember what I have forgotten. I never grasped the truth of why I couldn't set my resentment aside and forgive her."

I remembered something Kaidan had said, back on the Citadel when we first found Tali: "You know, not all wounds are physical."

Liara took those words to heart, falling deep into thought.

Again, I didn't want her to run away from this, or for me to fight her battles for her.

This was something she had to figure out on her own.

CD case in-hand, I stood up properly. "Hey, this seems like something you need to sort through by yourself. Don't let me get in your way. I should head back to my cabin."

"Certainly… Yes, yes of course. Thank you for stopping by, Shepard."

Despite everything, I felt such a strong instinct, a growing need to protect her anyway.

I couldn't do that. Not directly.

Still, I could at least…try with her.

"I'll check on you tomorrow, Liara," I promised. "I do want us to talk more."

"Commander, there was something else I wanted us to do. Your visions from the beacon on Eden Prime—I wished to offer my aid, to help you make sense of things. However, as you have pointed out, now is not the best time… After I have cleared my head, do you think we could carry on once you return?"

"Sounds good to me. I could use the help. Thanks again for the music. I'll stop by around noon."

Liara gave me a rather absent smile. "Thank you, Shepard. I will see you then."


Back in my cabin, I bought the digital version of this album, listening to the whole thing on repeat for hours on-end. The kind of vulnerability here was one that I craved to know for myself: to sink my teeth into it, to devour it, to own it and twist it into another woman's unimaginable pleasure.

Unimaginable, because she might've been running away from it—out of fear, uncertainty.

Unimaginable, because I would know this woman so well as to pick up on her darkest needs—to make her want every single thing she'd spent so much time avoiding.

All of that made everything so much better.

I tried to play my video games to distract myself from all of this. None of it worked. I couldn't stop thinking about Liara, about how she managed to keep catching me off-guard, surprising me.

Obviously, Liara had that appeal for me with her demons.

From the moment we first met, I sensed it in her: the potential, from how much she held back, from how shy she was, how isolated she was, how naïve she seemed to be about most things. Plus, she was…gorgeous, intelligent, kind and compassionate. That was what had kept my face heated way more than I wanted while I'd spent that time carrying her, making that impossible effort for her.

That was what had drawn me to my music choices that day, sensual as my sudden feelings for her.

That was what had me feeling this type of way about her, now, still.

And unless I'd read her all wrong, she did like me, too.

I could have brought out more in her, showed Liara all about the things she kept under lock and key.

Something told me to not go there with her.

Liara had her own quiet strength. She could handle plenty by herself. She'd gotten this far in her hundred-plus year life without anyone holding her hand. She could deal with her own problems.

It was just this one thing that seemed to run way too deep, even for her.

I didn't want to hurt her.

The last thing I wanted was to upset Liara somehow, to make her cry because of something did wrong.

I normally wouldn't give a fuck.

From this heat constantly bursting out of my chest, high-octane and unending, I did. I fucking cared.

So, I set my alarm for an hour before noon, and collapsed in bed. Powering down, I resigned myself to this pain in restraint. I reined myself in. I tightened these shackles, these chains around myself, locking them over me. I controlled my aggressiveness: this endless capacity I had to destroy someone's entire perception of herself, and to revel in her pain as she found her forbidden delights with me.

I had to keep this in-check.

I had to tame my own strength, my own power to completely ruin someone else, to devastate her.

A hurricane, destined only to destroy.

Long ago, someone taught me that this was all I was.

I finally accepted her vindictive wisdom for Liara's sake, and fell asleep.

What felt like seconds later, I woke to my alarm, exhausted from my emotions running at full speed all throughout the night.

Mists of Liara's essence had fogged my head and spirited my dreams into the shape of her.

Ghosts of her voice, hazes of her breath over my lips, and the deceptive, thick pressure of her tongue against mine.

Whispers of her sighs, of her saying my name, quietly, and then louder, harder and more intense—before slipping back down, right in-time with the way I moved on top of her.

I rolled over underneath my heated sheets, gripping my head and groaning, pressurized with these false memories of Liara's body, of the way she fucking needed me so much.

This infatuation had incinerated me overnight, leaving me still burning, cinders rising.

Still, there was a part of me that enjoyed—and needed—this change of pace.

I could finally stop myself from nearly thinking of Ashley in the same ways, as distant and removed as she had been from me over this past month.

But, was this thing with Liara…only a distraction? I couldn't know. I couldn't know, so I kept running.

Another cold shower, and I made my way down to the mess hall to get something to eat.

Normally, I woke up much earlier. I would cook, heat up, or take what I wanted, and then bring it back to my quarters to eat in peace. I did this to avoid the usual traffic in the mess hall around this time of day. Ever since freeing up the Normandy's budget a bit, we could afford some actual food. I wanted to take advantage of this as much as I could. Sitting with company wasn't part of that.

We had docked the ship at a fuel station according to an earlier announcement from Joker, freeing the crew up to take some extended time off for breakfast.

Wrex, Tali, Garrus, and Kaidan sat at the tables in the mess hall, chatting with Joker as he made meals for everyone in the kitchen nearby. The way they all talked and laughed together didn't bother me. It was the way I felt like I was somewhere far away from the Normandy right now, and their presence only reminded me of this weird out-of-body feeling of mine.

"'Morning, Commander!" greeted Joker, still setting ingredients out over the counters. "Wow, I don't think I've seen you in the mess for breakfast since… Never! The heck are you doing up this late?"

"Hello to you, too, Joker," I deadpanned, heading to the fridge.

"Hey, wait a minute! Are you really just gonna grab something and go? Even though we're all here?"

"Yes," I said, browsing for something to heat up.

Wrex called from his seat, "C'mon, Shepard, why not sit with us? I'm actually gonna try your human food. Don't you wanna see how much I hate it?"

"Yeah, Commander, why not?" added Garrus. "We haven't had the chance to share a meal with you yet. We should spend some time together."

Tali wanted the same: "Yes, Shepard, we should! Joker's making dextro-friendly food for Garrus and me. You and everybody else can have your food." She noticed my lingering reservations. "Please? You won't have to talk to us if you don't want to… It's about having you here with us, that's all."

"We miss your company, Commander," said Kaidan in earnest.

"What they said," affirmed Joker. "We're not gonna bite, Shepard… Come on!"

Liara's room was close by. Was she awake yet?

"Fine," I accepted.

Joker cheered, "Sweet, awesome!"

"Just don't try to be cute, Joker," I warned. "I want something normal to eatNot that gourmet shit you burned last week. And whatever you make, put some seasoning in it. You know—salt, pepper?"

"Pssh, yeah, yeah, I know! You're a picky eater. I got it. Go on and have a seat! I'll be done in a jiffy."

At the tables, I saw Garrus and Wrex sitting next to each other on one side, with Tali and Kaidan across from them. I made my way over there, not really sure where to sit. Tali and Kaidan were closer, but there were a bunch of empty chairs off to the side, too.

For some fucking reason, Kaidan stood up on my approach. He gave me a fumbling sort of smile, moving his hands as if he was about to pull out a chair for me.

The chair right next to Tali, where he had just been.

I glared at him.

I was not in the mood to explain to him why this was a bad move.

Kaidan shrunk away from me, retreating a few seats away, and sat back down.

I took his old seat next to Tali anyway, pulling the chair out my damn self.

In the kitchen behind me, Joker cracked up laughing as he scrambled the raw eggs: battering, cackling.

Garrus coughed. "Rookie mistake."

"I'll say," agreed Wrex with a grin.

Tali put way too much thought into this: "Is it really that obvious to be a rookie mistake? I mean…is it?"

"Uh, yes!" called Joker.

I sniped back, "Guys, seriously? We're not doing this!"

"Sorry, Shepard," shirked Tali.

"Whatever."

Garrus took the gigantic cue to change the subject: "Any idea where Liara is? She's not usually up this early. But, since most of us are here, I figured she might want to join."

"Oh, she's awake," said Tali. "I saw her leave the showers when I walked by about half an hour ago. She went back to her room afterward. I did invite her to breakfast, by the way. Said she wasn't hungry." She recalled something: "You know, I just realized the strangest thing. Liara never takes warm showers. There's no steam or anything coming from her stall whenever I run into her. Only cold water, it seems."

Did she…?

Joker nearly dropped his spatula, suppressing his coughs. "Whoa, whoa! Tali, what the hell?!"

"What?!" she shot back.

"I don't get it, either," confessed Garrus.

Wrex hummed in contemplation.

Kaidan slumped down in his seat, trying to disappear from the room.

I folded my arms and set my jaw, needing to mask this relentless energy jolting through my skin.

Tali huffed, "Okay, fine! Don't explain. I'll ask her about it later." Joker cringed, but otherwise left the issue alone. "Speaking of awkward topics, I was going to ask Kaidan about one earlier." She pretended to shout, "Since he's all the way over there now, I can't talk to him properly!"

Garrus asked, "What about?"

"Err, well—it's about Ashley."

Wrex remembered: "You mean how Alenko insists we've got it all wrong about her?"

"Yes," confirmed Tali. "We never kicked her out of—" She censored herself, probably because of me. "TRS. I spoke to her privately. We had a long talk. I don't know, she actually sounded sincere. I'm willing to believe she doesn't secretly hate us, and that she's only hiding it to stay on the Normandy…"

Joker wasn't convinced: "Then why'd Ash freak out when Shepard put her in the hot seat?"

"Right, that's what gets me. I think of that, and I'm back to feeling like she's lying to save herself."

Kaidan spoke up, "You've got it all wrong… There is something else. She's not willing to discuss it yet."

Less accepting, Wrex asked, "Well, why the hell not? If it clears her name, she should explain!"

"It's… It's private. That's all I can say. She needs to sort this all out. Give her some time first. Please?"

Tali shrugged. "If what you say is true, then I can accept that. You can let her know."

"I want to be on good terms with Ashley again," said Garrus. "She's a capable soldier, and before this whole thing, I never would have thought she had something like this in her. So, I'll wait, too."

"We'll see," allowed Wrex, putting on a front of not caring either way.

After breakfast, the others left with Joker to the helm, needing to talk about some other secret thing. I couldn't bring myself to mind how they spent their time between missions. They took care of building their team morale on their own, without me needing to go out of my way to keep it going for them.

It wasn't quite noon yet.

Unable to sit here and wait, I went back up to my cabin: to brush my teeth again, to brush my hair out again, to freshen up in general—again.

I took a long look at one of my spare bottles of aromatherapy sprays. I liked using these on my sheets and my casual clothes to get rid of the stale non-smell from the Normandy, and to help me sleep.

I considered giving this to Liara as a present, since she had already given me something.

Maybe she would like the smell: black chamomile. Soft, smart, and smooth. The same scent that I had on right now. Or maybe…I should have saved this for the one who was really on my mind, deep in my subconscious. Deeper than that, I imagined Ashley smelling me, enjoying this in her own obsessions.

I pushed down this hot, hot ember growing in my chest for her, unable to extinguish it; sprinting away from her, again.


Back in the mess hall, on my way to the med bay and to Liara's room, I again didn't have to worry about Dr. Chakwas. She sat at a table in the mess, alone, drinking from her coffee mug, and eating a light brunch. Her e-book reader sat over the surface as she read. Whatever it was, she was really into it. I figured she would probably head back to her room again once she was done eating. Without nearly as many active crew aboard, she had no serious need to stay glued to her desk in the med bay like before.

Thankfully, Dr. Chakwas didn't notice me walking by, as stiff and unprepared as I was.

Green next to Liara's door again.

I knocked, again.

Liara answered the door immediately.

Unlike before, she looked right at me this time.

Liara had already picked up some of my intensity, her eyes scanning me all over, studying me. She inhaled, once, taking in my scent with a subtlety I might not have noticed, had I not cared to spot this about her. With her pupils widening and her breaths quickening, she reminded herself to say something:

"Good day, Commander."

Throbbing from her acute attention on me, I asked, "Can I come in?"

She stepped aside, watching me walk in her room.

She studied my posture, the light movement in my shoulders, and the forced-military-lack-of-movement in my hips—all from only a few steps.

I felt my face heating up again as the door closed behind me.

Needing some space, I went to lean against her desk like before, arms folded down over my waist.

This language, trying to protect myself…from what?

Liara started the conversation, sounding light enough, "Did you enjoy your breakfast with the others?"

"Not exactly… I only stayed with them because they wouldn't take no for an answer."

She frowned, a bit pissed off. "Hmm."

I asked, "What? They didn't tell you?"

"No, they left that part out," said Liara, stepping a bit closer to me. "I figured you did not truly wish to be there. I assume you did not have much to talk about while you sat with them, either."

"Can't say I'm much of a social butterfly."

Liara smiled. "That is true."

"What about you? How are you doing? You know, from last night."

Then, she retreated into herself again. Quiet, cold breaths.

"Let's not discuss that now," evaded Liara. "It is not important in the grand scheme of things…"

Not believing her, I changed the subject anyway, "Then what is important?"

"Your visions from the beacon on Eden Prime. Do you remember the offer I made, Shepard?"

"Yeah, you said you'd help me make sense of what I saw," I repeated back to her. "How, though?"

Liara fought her urge to stare down at my boots, to avoid my stare. "I could join my mind with yours, to perhaps piece together these images you witnessed. The melding process…it joins our nervous systems as one, allowing me to see what you sense."

All as just a casual thing, sure… "Okay, but how will you know what to look for?"

"I will see whatever is most pressing on your mind, Commander."

"The beacon wouldn't really be that thing, Liara…"

Liara was so fucking innocent. "Of course it would be," she claimed. "You suffered a great deal when you interacted with the device, when those images flooded your senses. Your mind should have been utterly destroyed by the process! Instead, you persevered. That is quite remarkable." I still had a bad feeling about this. Plus, giving up my control like that…? "Shepard, you need not worry. Your strong personality may make things a bit difficult for me, but I will manage. Please, I only wish to help you."

If I outright refused, then she would've wanted to know why.

I doubted that she'd have pushed the issue if I told her no.

Still, my refusal would've let Liara wonder too much.

More than she should have.

"Do it, then," I allowed.

"Very well," said Liara, taking a shuddering breath. "I have never done this before… I promise that I will do my best." She stepped closer to me, closer, closest. "Close your eyes…" Having to follow her commands and letting her in my head: it put me on-edge, bringing up an irrational hostility that color-coded my thoughts for me. "Try to relax, Commander. Embrace eternity!"

Black of her sight, red of mine:

Images from the Prothean beacon scratched in and out of existence, scattering and jumbling and screaming in a scarred howl of the ones who'd died in this blaze of destruction. Unclear, unreadable, nothing there made sense—not the fire of the sky, and not even the suffering and agony of the victims.

Underneath those screams, I felt Liara's efforts, picking up on all that I'd suppressed about her, reeling.

I couldn't see any of it myself.

I couldn't describe it, couldn't name what any of those thoughts were.

Only darkness crested over my mind's sight.

Liara had a full view of all that was there, of all that I had purposely suppressed out of my reach.

That damned hurricane, right in the eye of the storm.

When she ended the melding, I had my head to myself again. But, this silence between us… This new view Liara had of me, how she stared at me in such shock—I couldn't stand it. I hated knowing that she knew this shit about me now. And so I scowled in this hatred, shaking my head; avoiding her silent stare.

"Commander, that was…"

The rising and falling of her chest, quickening: Liara had probably seen all the ways I wanted to make her mine. Forceful, strong, willful and without holding anything back.

The rise and fall of her chest, faster: Liara had likely seen that hurricane of me. How it had spun out of her control and mine, destroying who she thought she was, and replacing that emptiness with the truth of how hard she took it from me, screaming my name all the while.

Rise and fall of her chest: she breathed without breathing, eyes staring through me at a distant horror.

Standing up, level with her now, I felt my heartbeats accelerating. Loss of control of the situation:

"Liara…? Hey! What's wrong?"

Picking up on my own growing panic, she raised her shaking hands to her face—

Like a bursting fountain of breathless air, Liara couldn't stop it anymore—

The scratch of her voice through her constant breaths, pitched higher and higher, quicker and quicker.

Breathing harder, and harder, nothing worked, nothing helped, and nothing calmed her.

Liara wouldn't stop shaking.

She gripped at her face to make it all stop, to no avail.

Her whole body raised and fell with her breathing, continual breathing, relentless breathing that couldn't, wouldn't fill her lungs with actual oxygen and keep it there.

The air spilled from her chest, back out again, only for her to breathe harder to catch it, failing, falling, like water slipping from her hands as her entire being rumbled beyond my sight.

"Liara, what's going on?!"

I grabbed her shoulders with my own shaking hands, trying and failing to hold her still.

"Why can't you breathe? What's wrong? Talk to me!"

Shaking her head, she dragged her hands down to her chest. Unable to push these palpitations down, all Liara could do was keep at this, louder and louder, worse and worse.

I felt like I was about to lose her, like I was about to kill her from what she saw.

"Shit, shit! Liara, fuck, calm down!"

Higher and higher, her pitched voice kept clawing at her breaths, loudest.

I couldn't help her on my own.

I darted my eyes toward the door.

"Stay here!" I ordered, about to make a run for it. "I need to get Dr. Chakwas! Hold on!"

Holding at the doorframe as I tried to run outside, I stayed wedged between Liara's room and the med bay. Empty, no one there—Dr. Chakwas wasn't there, she wasn't there. That meant she was in her room. Her reading, her free time. I had to get to her room down the hall; I had to move from this place.

Liara forced her scream out for me in quickness and in dire need:

"Shepard, don't leave me!"

Limbs locked, my body stopped in place, like I'd collided against an impassable space.

Liara had overridden my own panic, my own knee-jerk bolting from the situation.

An anxiety attack…

I should have realized it sooner.

Retreating back into her room, I waited for the doors to shut closed again.

Standing in front of Liara as she hid away from me, even between her still-going panicking, breathing and breathing without breaths, I knew I couldn't be selfish with her.

Not now, not ever.

I wrapped my arms around Liara's shuddering waist, pulling her close to me.

She stiffened in shame first, trying to wriggle out of my hold. I wouldn't let her. I stayed still.

I let Liara lower her face to the smooth angle of my chest, not minding these wet specks from her eyes that had slipped down to my shirt. More warmth, wider spreading over the material, through to my skin underneath, hotter with her breathing.

Liara gripped me around my shoulders, hooking herself there, against me, to keep from falling into her own abyss.

I strengthened myself here as her anchor, as she needed.

"Hey, I'm here," I told her, calm and steady. "Stay with me, Liara." Slowing, steadying. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry…" She started to match my own breathing, finding her stability through mine. "I'm not going anywhere. You're safe with me."

And then, she was all right again.

She could finally breathe as normal, calming down.

This softness of her, of her presence and her light weight in my arms—I didn't want to let her go.

The undulating ridges of her hearing along the side of her head, underneath her crests—I knew she heard this struggle in my own breaths, no matter how hard I tried to suffocate it.

I had told myself to box this up and keep it away from her.

Now, that seemed so pointless. Or at least in the original way I'd imagined it.

I needed to find a new box, a new safe, a new lock and a new key to contain this with. The old ones had broken beyond repair. They splintered again, just to make a point, when Liara raised her head a bit, wiping her face.

For the time being, I could help her through this.

"You all right?" I asked.

Liara sniffled and nodded, reddening through her blue.

"When these things happen… As far as I know, you're not supposed to avoid whatever caused it."

"I know," she said with a hard voice.

"Have you been avoiding it?"

Sniffling one last time, in such effort, Liara scowled at her last tears streaking down my neck.

"I had been, yes," she replied, still unyielding.

Censoring myself, I suggested, "Do you mind giving me an idea of what it's about?"

Liara knew exactly what it was, but she chose to be vague: "Something I had repressed for many years."

"Something…?"

Something she had forgotten.

Seizing her control after living with her controlling mother.

Caught researching this something that would've helped her find her own control.

"Shepard, you are wise enough to know what I mean. I don't wish to discuss it with you right now."

And a traumatizing argument with Benezia that had caused the two of them to stop speaking altogether.

Liara stepped out of my hold.

With a closed fist, she pressed a button over her door controls to lock it, the red gleaming over where the green had been. She then went to sit down on her bed, next to the neat fold of her white comforter. She hunched over, hanging her head in her hands. Without a word, I felt the way she scolded herself, chastised herself over falling apart in front of me, and over everything else that had spilled out without her say-so.

Even after all that, and the tone she'd used with me, Liara still had her hands situated in a way so as to keep me in her view, in her periphery.

Editing the affront from my own tone, I asked her, "Do you wanna get some rest?"

Liara pierced my eyes with one look, like she'd learned to do from me.

Or maybe she hadn't learned it from me, and I was just the one who had brought this out.

I walked over to her.

Sitting down at Liara's side, I stayed close to her, the heat of her limbs against mine.

This open confinement of her room made me feel like we were out in the middle of nowhere, together. Together, locked in here because she wished it, and because I didn't have the nerve to leave her alone like this. Outside the Normandy's walls and hull, we drifted across the stars, across nowhere, going nowhere, with all the time in the universe—for now.

Taking off her shoes, Liara crawled into bed properly. Moving over, nearer to the wall, she lay down on her side, facing away from me. She kept her head over her long pillow, perfectly halved to leave room. Then she pulled up her comforter right to her legs. She stopped there, like she expected something.

I twisted myself around to look down at her.

She twisted her neck around enough to look back at me.

Liara kept on piercing me with her expectations, twisting me.

"Yes, I do want to rest," she finally responded, hardened, still.

I let out a rigid breath, mouth welded shut.

Liara had made herself clear.

Clearer than I'd ever imagined she could have at this stage.

I leaned over to take off my boots, wishing I'd had some old-fashioned laces to busy myself with.

Settling my head down over my apparent half of her pillow, I lay down over my back, stiff as a board.

Liara faced herself fully away again. She shifted around a bit, making a point to move her comforter.

I slipped my legs under the fullness of the material.

Something about the comfort here made me think Liara had owned this thing for a long time.

Glancing at her head, the inflection point of the ends of her crests still faced me, rippling down to the back of her slender neck. Then, the whole curve of Liara's side swelled and surged as she shifted, again, wanting something else from me.

Getting the hint, I brought her comforter up over both of us, turning to face her as I did.

This light, breezy, gentle smell of her, I breathed in over her pillow, and over her pale blue sheets. And again, closer and clearer when Liara let me pull her back against my front, fitting herself here against me. She shifted, and shifted, piecing herself against the puzzle of me, shorter than me as she was. She soon settled herself, angling her hips in the support of my bent legs, toward her, with her head fitting right beside the slope of my neck.

And how she reveled, quietly, with the softest of laughs as I breathed out this absolute pressure over the top of her head.

My hand draped over her waist, holding her here—I could have done more. Could have.

Deeper breathing.

Liara had already started falling asleep in my arms.

So I emptied my thoughts as best as I could, letting myself rest with her.

Not a sound, not another soul around for miles, lightyears. Her own world, and Liara had pulled me right in without an order, without a single argument from me, taking me away from all that I couldn't face.

Chapter Text

"Brave" by Jhené Aiko / "Beyond the Stars" by Apocalyptica (first ~5 mins only) / "What the Future Holds" from Mass Effect 2: Atmospheric

V. Fearless

(Shepard)

The endless haze of this day so far clouded over me, perspiration over my skin prickling me awake.

Locked away from the rest of the ship, this breezy scent from Liara's pillow and sheets greeted me awake. The same from the top of her crests met my nose as I inhaled, finding her still in my arms. This continuance, unexpected, made me take a sharper breath than I'd intended. The swell of my chest pressed a bit tighter against the back of Liara's shoulders. Feeling me through her sleep, she shifted, once, settling closer against me; and then she sighed, soft and satisfied, before relaxing again.

Liara was here with me.

She was still here, asleep against me, on her side with me behind her, just like we'd fallen asleep earlier.

She still had her peace in her sleep, uninterrupted.

Liara leaned back more against me, using my whole body to cushion herself.

I held back my reactions this time.

There was no fucking way I could fall back asleep like this.

What time was it, anyway?

Checking my omni-tool was impossible—I needed my right hand to activate it, but I couldn't move without waking Liara up. We had moved a bit, with my right arm under the open slope of her neck, the leanness of my bicep bolstering her sleep. And I couldn't turn around to check the time on Liara's terminal, either—not without waking her up.

Throbbing between my legs again, wanting Liara again, I had no escape from this agony.

None whatsoever…not until Liara shifted again, like she sensed my silent suffering. I stayed completely still. I refused to breathe too hard, to avoid any blame for pulling her out of her sleep. She needed her rest, after all. After everything that had happened, and everything I could yet to imagine, I accepted that she needed some time to sort through her own problems. Whether she let me in and allowed me to be there for her, well—that was another story.

I hoped that she would.

All the same, I wouldn't have been surprised if she kept her distance after this, refusing to trust me.

The more I solidified this feeling inside of me, the more Liara seemed to react to me. Like she knew, somehow. Like she had picked up on the sway of my emotions. Like she had learned to gauge me and read me without a word, all from that single instance of joining her mind, her nervous system with mine.

Attached to me, enough for this bond to form between us.

Inhibitions eroding, eroding away, Liara kept moving against me a little at a time. She let out such a low whine at the steam of my breaths against her. This comforter over us had turned the space between us and around us into a damned oven. And then, she reached back for my left hand, pressing my palm firmer over her waist: guiding, inviting.

She almost made me pass out when she started grinding her ass against my navel, my thighs.

I growled to stay conscious—"Liara…"

She wouldn't stop.

She wouldn't…

Needing this friction, Liara kept pushing at me in discovery, fitting herself tighter and tighter against me. Just being on me like this wasn't enough for her—she had to press right down on me where she knew I would feel it the most, where she knew it would provoke me to respond:

"Why now…?"

Easing my waist away from her backside, I had already started panting against her, painting over her skin the pain I put myself through in restraint. In protest, Liara had the nerve to keep whining, moaning, like she didn't know exactly what she did to me. I didn't want her to protest; I didn't want her to not get her way. I wanted to give her everything she wanted. I wanted to make her feel wanted, maybe for the first time in her life, and without scaring her again.

This irresistible pull, undenied: pulling at my body, pulling at my head to pull me down, bringing my lips to the bare of her neck above her collar. This first for me, of easing my entire essence over her, against her skin, into the tracts of her breathing harder, higher, and without panic this time. Unbridled, Liara moved with this motion of me, crying out her breathy ecstasy—exactly how I'd imagined before.

I held Liara close with a tenderness I never knew I had, needing to keep learning this near-aquatic taste of her, of wind and water both. Just as compelling, just as fluid, Liara folded herself into my body as she let me know her here. And, as soon as I brought my hand up to her collar, she wanted the whole thing off. She tugged at the flap of the fabric, impatience of her slender hands fumbling over my patient one, her fingers lacing atop mine and pulling, pulling down.

Liara stopped short of taking her top off.

She left it on, primed to remove, with her hands knitted between the freed flaps, still feeling me.

She used her backside to bump at me, pushing away from her and over onto my back. I let myself roll with the motion. A little thrown from her suddenness, I reminded myself to keep this same energy with her, and to not escalate anything unless I knew for damn sure that she wanted me to.

Again, like before, Liara chose to validate me for my choices with her. Arms folded over her front to keep her top on, she sat up in bed. Only then did I realize that my arm had fallen asleep—my arm that she had slept over, using it as a second pillow. Numbness and tingling distracted me from the way Liara turned to observe me, making her mind up about something. I groaned from the ridiculous effort of shifting my arm into another position to wake it up, on top of everything else that had happened so far.

"You surprise me, Commander," mused Liara, seeming to make a point of using my rank. "I had no idea you could be this gentle…let alone want me like this in the first place." She admired the way my hair had fanned out behind me, under me. "Should I let this go any further, would I be allowed to—?"

She kept gazing at the winding spill of my hair behind me, so…

"You can touch my hair however much you want, Liara," I told her, smirking. "I'm just amused that you're asking at all."

Liara avoided my eyes. "Well, I did some light reading on your culture…"

"Light reading, huh?" I asked, smirking more. She clammed up, then, not knowing what else to say. "You don't have to play coy with me. Not about this." Kneading out the last of this discomfort from my arm, I knew without a doubt that Liara had done her research on me—all of me. I thought against teasing her over it, grateful that she cared this much. "You're incredibly sweet, you know. Pretty much the opposite of me. At the same time, when you're angry, you'll let me know without a doubt… I like that about you."

"Do you, Shepard…?"

"Yeah, I mean it. I like you, Liara. More than I can handle at times… I really…care about you."

Liara took my words to heart, letting them fill her. That filling filled an empty, bottomless void in her that had gone unfulfilled for far too long. In that limitlessness inside of her, I understood what this meant. No matter how many times I could say the words, or act on my feelings, Liara would never be satisfied—done, full, or completely validated, enough to move on from me for greener pastures.

There was something about the way my words and my actions so far had stuck to her, both infinitesimal in that void and quintessential to her own feelings about herself.

In this single act of acceptance, Liara had taken the idea of needing me to the next level.

Far beyond anything that I had ever thought possible.

But in her acceptance, I still sensed that lingering mingle of hurt, anger, disbelief, shock, and anxiety.

Those subconscious reasons for her repressions: they had yet to agree with me being here with them, sharing this same psychological space, and affecting Liara's emotions to this degree, this extreme.

That edge in her voice again: "As damaged as I am, all things considered, I doubt you would be put off by my problems. You are remarkably strong-willed, Commander. I do not believe that I could ever chase you away with…this thing about me. Perhaps not directly. Know that I take comfort in that."

She knew herself best—I was in no place to challenge her on it. "Then what are you worried about?"

Liara kept one arm over her front, still keeping her clothes in place, using her other hand to guide her around. She settled her legs at either side of me, mounting my waist in hesitation. This tightness of her clothes kept me from feeling her as much as I wanted to, but for her, for this first time, Liara was more than pleased by how I felt as her foundation. The more I growled over the surprise of how wet she was over me, the more she lessened her hesitations, settling in with the relative lightness of her full weight.

Letting my head lull to one side, I caught the idling screensaver over Liara's terminal on her desk, displaying the time in Earth hours, the same as we followed on the ship: 15:34, or 3:34p.m.

Pulling my attention back to her, Liara leaned over my body with hers. This lock of her arms kept her chest from settling over mine. This purposeful distance she kept between our faces helped me zero in on her eyes, her in-depth study of me.

Yet she still said something to contradict that:

"I fear that I want you in ways that you may disagree with. You might become uncomfortable with me."

Not buying it at all, I asked, "Liara, you've never slept with anyone, never been in a relationship—right?"

"Yes, that's correct," she confirmed. "However, you must also understand that this, what we are doing—I am not asking for a relationship with you. I don't expect us to have one for quite some time, if at all."

"Wait, what?"

Liara wasn't in the mood to repeat herself. "You heard me, Shepard."

I wasn't expecting her to be my girlfriend today, now, just like that.

But the way she needed to hear me say that I liked her, that I cared about her…what was that about?

"That is the conundrum I'm dealing with," reinforced Liara. "Though I did say that my issues would not put you off, this adds another layer of complexity to things." One hand she used to run her nails through my hair, finding the fineness of my falls to her liking, to her silent fixation. "I won't ask you to wait for me, Commander. I shouldn't. I can't… There are many others who want you, who are available for you."

This near-nausea in the pit of my stomach.

This sweat coating over my palms.

This darkening of my sight, of everything beyond the blue borders of her skin, her face, her neck.

This feeling, like I was about to lose her again—like I was about to lose something, someone I never had.

What the hell was wrong with me? And why was she the one to bring this out?

"Hang on a minute," I said, needing to catch myself here. "It's clear that things between us are too involved already for us to just date. What do you think a relationship is supposed to be, exactly?"

"A monogamous commitment to share our lives together in totality."

"Liara, that's marriage," I distinguished.

"Shepard, there is no need to be pedantic," she insisted. "What is the point you are trying to make?"

"Listen, I'm not fighting against…your decision. I respect what you need to do on your own. I'm only asking—if we both want each other this badly, and we're not seeing other people, then what's to stop us from keeping this going? You know, find some kind of arrangement."

Liara looked a bit guilty, like she had considered this already. "I do want that…"

"Then why not say it? Why not ask me for that instead?"

"Because…I'm afraid that I will act as though we are in a relationship anyway, even though we are not."

I remembered: "Is this one of those things that's supposed to make me uncomfortable?"

"One of many, yes," replied Liara, irritation growing—with herself more so than with me.

"Then lay it on me," I requested, glad that we had gotten somewhere. "What's the rest?"

"If I told you everything, we would be here for days!"

I already had my answer now, but still—"Give me what's relevant. What you're most afraid of. Besides, even if we were here for days, it wouldn't matter! I'm here, listening to you. We're talking. We're working this out, aren't we?"

"Shepard, we have a mission!" she choked back. "You can't say these things when they aren't true…"

The way Liara looked at me in desperation, like she wanted those things to be true—it took me back.

Now wasn't the time to tell her how much she had already warped my priorities.

Instead, I brought my hands to Liara's back: stroking, pacifying. She let me guide her head down, over my shoulder. She inhaled the smell of my hair, of how it had spread to her pillow under my head and her sheets underneath me. She breathed in more, too, of the black chamomile still lingering through the navy blue of my shirt, finding her calm there, from my touch and from my words.

"Liara, babe," I soothed. "You are an exception for me in so many ways. I don't wanna lose what we have. I'll go with whatever works best for you. All right?"

She nodded over the crook of my neck, her body releasing this tension bit by bit.

"But, I'm not letting you off the hook completely. I still need to know at least some details. Talk to me."

Liara curled into me more, whispering right in my ear: "I need to own you, Commander."

Again, she made such a point of using my rank, getting at something deep in me:

As deeply as her voice reached up and wound around the thousands upon thousands of thoughts that now crowded and compounded in me, all as a lifeboat in these deep waters of this unknown with her.

"What…what do you mean?"

"I crave you in ways that I never thought possible. I can't stand the thought of anyone taking you from me. I could not bear the reality of someone else wanting you, too. I know that it is highly unfair. Especially considering the limitations I have set in place. I simply need space to sort out my longstanding issues. Space that I would not remember to keep while in a formal relationship with you."

Just a bit more—"Go on."

"Please, don't misunderstand. I have no intentions of seeing anyone else. My reasons for this wouldn't make much sense right now. It is also about giving ourselves time to grow into each other. Time, or something else. I am not entirely sure… I expected you to shut down any and all discussion about this."

Normally, I would have… "What about guarantees? What am I looking at here?"

"I will not leave your side, Shepard… Whether you will do the same for me, that remains your choice to make. You may grow impatient with me. You may despise me for needing you as hard and as deeply as I do. We have only known each other for a little over one month, and yet you have such an innate understanding of all that I have wanted in another person—repressed though it may have been…"

"I only have a few more questions, then," I prefaced. "I need you to be really honest with me. Please."

Accepting the inevitable: "Okay…"

"Would you ever be…passive-aggressive with me?"

Liara couldn't lie, "Yes."

Fuck, I hated that.

"Would you expect me to read your mind at times?"

"All of the time," she said, emboldened by my lack of outward judgment.

I hated that, too.

"Would you act possessive if someone else came around, regardless if I liked them or not?"

"Absolutely, Commander."

I hated that more!

"You say you need to own me. Does that mean you want to keep tabs on me, control me?"

"Shepard…yes, I want that. I need it from you. I need you! I need to cling to you. I need you to take care of me when I need it and leave me alone when I need my space. I need you to ease me into your world. I need to know everything about you, down to the last intimate detail. I need to keep you with me and care for you and be there for you no matter what, no matter how much time passes and no matter who or what may come between us… I need to be your everything even if you won't be mine."

"So…you want it both ways," I summarized, thrown by how much she turned me on—this warm feeling in my stomach where that nausea had been earlier, comforted by her honesty, her own fearlessness.

Anyone else would have shut down the conversation by now, convinced of my unavoidable rejection.

Anyone else would have run off by now, letting their shame overrule the possibility of us finding a compromise together.

Liara didn't seem to like that expression, but she had no say in the matter. "I suppose I do…"

Possessed, obsessed: "Okay, Liara. Okay."

"Okay?" asked Liara, startled. "Okay?!" She moved a bit to regard me properly, uncertain if she should be shocked or overjoyed. "Commander, how is this okay? How is anything of what I said indicative of a normal, stable, and equitable arrangement?! Everything that I want, everything that I need with you, it's insane! How can you tell me…that any of this is okay?"

"Babe, you saw what's in my head," I reminded her, gently. "My question is, how are you surprised?"

Liara curled back into me again, hiding. "I only saw the…the more physical aspects. The roughness, the depravity of the things you wish to do to me. But, then again—" She knew. "Oh… Shepard, I…"

"Changes your perspective, doesn't it?"

"Yes…"

This shift in her breathing: I could tell Liara was overwhelmed again.

"Think about it some more," I offered, rubbing her back. Liara nodded. "Have you eaten at all today?"

"No… I should."

"Want me to make you something?"

Liara smiled against my shoulder. "I'd like that—another time," she deflected. "Commander, would you mind giving me an hour or so to recharge? I know what I said about my needs, and now I am sending you away… I'm trying not to overwhelm you, too. Besides, I…think I need another shower."

I laughed. "Yeah, that's fine. I'll head up to my room. Email me when you want me to come back down."

"I will," she promised, sounding a bit preoccupied. "Thank you for having this talk with me, Shepard. You have been very flexible with me, very understanding. When you come back, I should have a better handle on things, though I expect my moodiness will return. Please forgive me in advance."


Eating lunch in my cabin while taking care of work at my terminal: filling requisitions orders per Tali down in Engineering, responding to Garrus' concerns about the Mako's maneuverability, and, as a courtesy, updating Captain Anderson on our current plans to take out the geth on Feros tomorrow.

Taking a warm shower afterward: putting this black chamomile body wash to use, since I knew Liara enjoyed the smell on me.

Lounging on my couch in peace.

I gave Liara my personal email address, and she gave me hers. We didn't have to worry about mixing up our private messages to each other with work-related ones. And now, I waited to hear back from her without really waiting. I enjoyed passing this time, staring up at the ceiling of my room.

Not a single worry or fear. Nothing pressing over my mind. No what-ifs, no hang-ups.

Listening to the vague, silent humming of the Normandy as we drifted on and on, I almost couldn't believe my luck.

Liara was a rare type of person. She cared about her passions so much, often to the point of shame and embarrassment for her. But once push came to shove, she was tough enough to not hold back—even with someone like me, someone who could have judged her and hurt her and thought less of her. I felt that quiet strength of hers here with me, separated as we were at the moment. That quality about her comforted me even while she wasn't here. That brand of her independence kept me from thinking that she was weak, or incapable, or someone who needed me to save her.

I was so used to people keeping their flaws hidden for my sake. I was so used to their excuses of not wanting to turn me off or disappoint me—like how Liara had initially tried to justify herself. By the time I did learn who they really were, it was too late, because I felt like they had lied to me. I hated when people tailored themselves to protect my delicate sensibilities—or for their own self-preservation, in keeping me with them under false pretenses—only to get upset and cry foul when I found out the truth and wanted nothing more to do with them.

It took some prodding at first, sure. Ultimately, Liara had the courage to be straight-up with me.

Maybe it had something to do with the asari: how they took the long view with things, making decisions that weren't necessarily beneficial in the short-term, but would be better in the long-term.

In the short-term, she had definitely taken a risk by being this open with me.

But in the long-term, and now, I respected her more for being real with me like this.

An arrangement, a relationship, friends with benefits—the label didn't matter to me.

As long as I could keep getting to know her this deeply, that was all I cared about.

I wasn't worried about losing Liara to this mission, either. I trusted myself enough to cover her when she needed it. If I did need her help for some reason…well, I was so used to looking out for my own back, it would take me some time to get used to the idea of Liara having mine—and succeeding.

That thought extended to me actually trusting the rest of our squad, too.

Possibly—later on…

An hour and a half had somehow passed already, just like that—17:28, or 5:28pm.

From: Liara – I miss you.

Shepard,

If you are not busy, I would like it if you returned to my room now.

I have had the chance to make up my mind on how to proceed with you.

Do you mind allowing me to set the pace between us? For years, I led myself to believe that I was not the type of person to take the initiative. This was only half-true. I recently learned that I am prone to switching. I hope that this will not be an issue for you.

-Liara

.

To: Liara – Re: I miss you.

Liara,

Set the pace however you want.

Somehow I'm not surprised that you're a switch. This is mostly new for me. I'm used to being dominant. But, I'm willing to go with whatever you're most comfortable with. I want to please you. Always.

I'll be right down to see you.

-Shepard


Once again, Dr. Chakwas was not in the med bay.

For the time being, I didn't have to worry about dodging her possible questions: why I kept visiting Liara so often, if I gave this same treatment to the rest of the crew, or if I just needed medical attention.

Those books of hers had saved me a lot of headaches.

Still, I couldn't rely on them to save me all the time.

I'd have to suggest to Liara that she come up to my room from now on.

Red glowing over her door controls.

Locked.

I went ahead and knocked, giving her a little longer than usual to answer; not minding at all. I only wondered if this change was some kind of sign, or an omen of things to come.

When Liara answered the door, she wasted no time in stepping aside.

I walked in, taking curious note of the plain, white sweatshirt she wore, and her tight black pants.

Once she finished locking the door back, I pulled her in for a hug. Liara let herself smile over my shoulder, holding me back. Obviously, this was nothing like me. She had such a knack for bringing out this side of me. This side that I'd kept hidden for a long time, whether it was to avoid showing weakness, or to keep my pride.

I saw no point in doing that with Liara. Not while we were alone.

I asked her, "You feeling better?"

Liara hummed out her uncertainty. "More or less…"

"Did you get anything to eat, at least?"

"My appetite has mysteriously vanished," she explained, pulling away to sit down over her bed. "I did not think it wise to push things. I'll try to eat later."

"Isn't that kind of—extreme? Not eating at all for this whole day so far?"

Liara educated me: "We asari typically only need to eat once or twice per day. You may find it strange. When I am in this mood, it is not unusual for me to forego eating for this long. You needn't worry."

"Must be nice," I said, sitting down next to her. "Needing to eat three times a day or more wastes a lot of time for me. I wish I didn't have to sleep at all, either. I could get a lot more done."

"Yes, I'm sure you could."

Such suggestiveness in Liara's voice, just before she crawled into bed, again on the far side, behind me.

But, she made a point of facing me this time, attentive in the way she looked me over.

I figured maybe she wanted to talk some more—continue from where we left off earlier. I could see her asking about my past, about the people I was once involved with. Either that, or she had questions about my life before the military…

"Commander, won't you relax with me in bed?"

Leaning down to remove my boots again, I realized the truth, caught so in the inflection of her voice:

Liara already knew all of those things about me.

She had done her light reading on anything she could find with my name next to it. And probably, not only that—not just things that had to do with me directly. Unlike every other non-human I'd met, Liara had at least some idea of the etiquette with my hair. She had been the one to alert me about Pressly's bullshit from weeks ago, as if she knew that I would not only understand, but that I'd also take her side.

Liara had gone digging into my history: a full-on expedition down to the roots of the blood in my veins.

Sounds of my shirt shifting over her sheets, and I lay back down, face-up.

Glancing over at Liara watching me, I needed to take stock of this. I wrapped my hands over my waist, feeling like I was in a therapist's chair or something. I eased my gaze up to the eternal blue of the ceiling, lit up by the light of Liara's monitor. I couldn't hear the ambient sounds of the Normandy anymore. Not with this exacting, concentrating, obsessing over me, taking over the rest of my senses.

I felt like she could have stared at me like this forever.

I felt the rush between my legs, novel and foreign, taking my mind to a place I'd never been before.

"Shepard," spoke Liara, her dark mood returning. "You are difficult to read sometimes. I also believe you'd like to keep things this way. Don't you? If so, perhaps I shouldn't complain."

"Old habits," I told her, not recognizing my own voice. "If it bothers you…what do you want me to do?"

"You're allowing me to decide?"

"Well…yeah."

"Hmm, I'll think it over," promised Liara, reaching for my interlaced hands. "You fascinate me greatly, Commander. I am sure I've made this more than obvious to you." Taking hold of my hand closest to her, she let out a low, pleased sound. "Incredibly soft. I assumed your bare hand against mine would feel harder, somehow. All that time you spend sniping." Softness of her own, Liara smoothed her thumb over the pads of my fingers, keeping my hand propped over hers. "As always with you, looks can be deceiving. Though there is nothing at all deceptive about your beauty. I could gaze at you for hours…"

"Could you? I mean, you wouldn't get bored?"

Liara brought the backs of my knuckles to her lips. "Boredom isn't a concept that could ever apply to you," she complimented. "From the moment I first saw you, Shepard, I knew. And the way you sacrificed for me, a complete stranger to you at the time… It speaks to your carefully-hidden nobility. You are a protector at heart. I adore that about you very much." She hesitated. "Even though it frustrates me that I am unable to be with you fully, I'm nonetheless grateful that you're here. In time, I hope that I will have sorted through my issues…"

I reminded her: "If you wanna talk, or if you need help sorting through anything…I'm here, you know."

Sensuality of her smile from behind my hand, and then Liara leaned into me more. Subtle in her movements, she settled herself back on top of me, exactly as before, with the bends of her limber legs pressing tighter against my waist. On instinct, I held her thighs, one hand on the other. Liara let me hear her approval; she made me feel it, in the way she pressed herself down over me, harder. This telling slipping from underneath the tight stretch of her black fabric spoke all.

"Commander," said Liara, pushing down on my hands with hers. "I think, right now… What would help, is seeing how well you are able to read me." She pulled my hands up, up to the hem of her sweatshirt, her nails and fingertips mixing with the sweat over my palms. "We don't need to speak. I don't want you to take the easy way out by asking questions. I want to watch you learn me. Everything about me. Well—" She used my hands to hike up her shirt, bare blue of her waist inviting. "Almost everything."

Not thinking anymore, I held onto the slimness of her waist, smoothing up and up. Steadily, Liara used the excuse to lift her sweatshirt on her own. Nothing on underneath—except for the tight winding of her bra. She took her time lifting up her shirt any higher than that, savoring this trance in my eyes.

Needing to clarify, I forced my voice to work, "I'm not allowed…to ask you anything?"

"No, you can't ask me anything," retorted Liara. "Not even that. Not now."

"You answered me anyway."

"Shepard, you shouldn't forget your promises to me. Do as I said."

I shouldn't have forgotten.

I stopped while I was ahead.

Liara rewarded me for my restraint, taking her shirt off at last.

She leaned down, into me and over me, purposely blocking the rest of my view of her.

Blind and groping without hurting her, I locked the cinch of Liara's waist in my grip, figuring her out and learning her, like she fucking told me to do. I bucked at her with my waist, getting back at her in the best way. Every flex of her muscles over her back, long lines pulsing with her pushing down on me, I learned to memorize. Every escalation of her pleased panic—contained—I gave her more of the same thing.

Tangling her arms through my hair, Liara held onto the back of my head for support.

If I didn't have such a tight grip around her, I knew—she was afraid she would fall off of me.

The way she panted and screamed made it too obvious. The way she squeezed at me with her thighs gave me other obvious clues. The way she clung to me in this novelty of her own: more than enough permission to take this further, but not too much.

Ever with a goal in mind, I slowed down.

"Breathe, Liara," I whispered, hard-edged in this heat underneath her. "I need you…to fucking breathe."

Liara burrowed her head against my neck, my shoulder, blowing out her breaths over my chest.

I smoothed my hand up her spine, up the back of her neck, holding her head closer to me. My other hand, I kept over her hips, guiding. Slowed, simmering and with purpose, I let Liara keep feeling me between her legs. Grinding at this singular pace, reaching up against her, over her, stroking her with this part of me alone. I used our clothes to my advantage for more friction. I found a new endurance to give to her, all from the way her whole body quavered when I put just the right amount of pressure.

Rhythmic motions, learning her in patience.

Impatience masked with care: I needed to get her off—needed to show her how I could make her feel.

Liara finally relaxed the vice-like grip of her thighs around me. She spread her legs wider in her permission for me to take her just like this, in needing more. All the while, I found my own sick amusement in being the first to fuck her, however limited this was.

Her enlightenment shined so bright through the light, loudness she let out, so radiant.

Her own impatience started to brim, Liara's psyche warping and her addiction seeping in.

Once she started grinding back against me, fraught for more, I knew I had her.

"Please, Shepard," she begged, exhilarating me. "You're holding back. Stop—stop holding back…"

"Hmm, what makes you think I'm holding back? Why would I ever do that?"

Liara growled in exasperation. "You already know—!"

Cupping my hand in firmness, I slapped her ass, once, and held on with a wider grab—enough to make Liara scream in want, jumping in-place a bit, enough to make me grin over her suffering.

"No, I don't know," I lied, delighting in her indecision:

She couldn't grind against me harder while curling her ass up higher, needing to get fucked and spanked by me at the same damned time. She couldn't order me around anymore. She couldn't take the highs I gave her and the frustrations. She couldn't deal with me prolonging this.

"Tell me, babe," I demanded. "Do you ever masturbate? Ever touch yourself at all?" Liara squeaked and squirmed in my hold. I grabbed her, harder—"Don't lie to me, now. I need to know this about you."

"I tried to," she admitted, hitching as I hiked her higher. "I tried! It wasn't… Years ago—I couldn't."

"You couldn't what?"

Liara whined my name over and over, like that would make me stop.

"What, you won't tell me? Is it really so embarrassing that you couldn't get yourself off?"

Jacking at her, I drilled right at the source of Liara's humiliation—that she needed me to be her first, her first everything, to take her and to break her and to make her absolutely mine. Unrestrained in her reactions, she let go, getting there, getting there, not caring how loud she was. I pushed her more, this chaotic, smacking beat of her drenched against me, thicker and thicker.

Liara grabbed at the wall for more support, needing me to keep tearing her out of control.

One last switch.

Pulling at her, at everything I could reach of her, I latched my lips over her neck, tightening. I could have kept talking to her. I could have kept humiliating her. I shifted that energy to this last affirmation instead. Something a bit gentler, contradicting the way I ripped and tore at her with our clothes still on and in the way. Something that was more thoughtful, letting her feel the echo of my groaning through her neck, her skin and her bones.

I pulled her arm back down to me, entreating—"Liara, please…"

This emotional switch from me switched at Liara, switching all of her language to my name and my rank, both, interchangeable; overpowering her for such long seconds as she arched over me, into me; leaving her shaking and raw on top of me.

Thrown by how divine she sounded, I couldn't think, couldn't feel my own body here anymore.

I still felt Liara, still felt her breathing over me, collapsing into me in slow motion.

This mild sheen of sweat over her neck coated my lips.

Quietly, Liara breathed harder with my tastes here, as if about to start up again, only to calm down.

Soft sighs of her awareness: Liara relaxed on top of me, holding me tighter to compensate. I was too weak to do the same. Weakened by the way she'd given into me. Weakened by the way she continued to do it now. Weakened by how Liara settled her lips over my forehead, breathing in my dazed state. All I could do was stroke her back a bit, my hand getting used to her bra strap, this perfect tightness.

This endless view of Liara's neck, her shoulder, and the slope of her cleavage: she had me cradled here now, warming and warming.

"Shepard…you are absolutely perfect."

And her voice was more than perfect, setting me adrift across the wide open seas of her.

Absolute peace.

Subspace.

So far-removed.

But still here, fully aware of the way Liara moved, lying down next to me. She rested her head over my chest, listening: my slowed breathing, beating. She probably felt the same. She did, yet she waited for my own space to pass, lucid enough to monitor me.

Knowing that Liara wanted something else, I made myself snap out of this way early.

When she gazed up at me, she found my own lucidity and smiled.

"Are you with me again, Commander?"

"Yeah… Yeah, I'm fine."

Liara moved over on her back, tugging at me. "Come here," she requested. "Please, come."

Disoriented, I did my best to oblige her. I felt blind, almost. Blind, even though I could see Liara just fine, the way she lay down, spreading her legs; inviting me over and on top of her. Heart picking back up to please her, I did as she wanted. I had to take my time, though, otherwise…I'd get ahead of myself.

I figured she only wanted to hold me like this.

Nothing more.

Fitting myself on top of Liara like this, her legs hugging either side of me, I kept myself propped up a bit above her. Not wanting to fall over her or into her, I needed a bit of distance. I needed to look at her, to understand the way she could regard me with such an equal balance of dark lust and the fresh, ripe, early bloom of something far more profound.

Liara indulged herself in this cascade of my hair. The way it all came down at once as a rush of colors, angling my sight, she couldn't get enough of.

Stirred by me, she pressed herself against me, soaking wet through this fabric.

"I need you—so much," breathed Liara, pulling me so much closer than I'd ever been to anyone, anyone at all. "I don't want you to let me go tonight." Her voice resounded in my head, through my spirit, ethereal and erotic: "Give it to me again. Please, Shepard… Please, once more."

Entranced and entrenched as I was in her, I was sober enough to realize—

We had done things completely out of order.

"Whatever you want, Liara… I'll give it to you."

Pulling away just enough, I crossed my arms over my front, my crossed hands grabbing at the bottom of my casual uniform shirt. I pulled my shirt up and off, leaving only my sports bra on; Liara's breaths of surprise sounded in-sync with the shifts of fabric over my skin. I tossed my shirt somewhere behind me; Liara shuddered underneath me at this sensory overload for her, of the sweep of my hair flowing down my neck and bare shoulders, down the boyish, toned sculpt of my biceps and forearms.

I caught Liara's shuddering with my lips over hers, open-mouthed and rolling. Startled, she recoiled her head farther back into her pillow, moaning into my mouth all the same. Thicker lips of mine outlined hers entirely, enveloping, practically unfair. This imbalance brought back this same, now-familiar warmth in my stomach, rising up to my chest, since I knew she felt this for me, too, if not more.

False restraint: Liara held her hands to my shoulders, as if she meant to push back, but never did.

This same shaking in her wrists, I spotted through her eyes wide open.

The vague light from her terminal's screensaver reached us over here, enough to see.

Unsmiling as if unfeeling, these old habits of mine did razor through Liara's fearful blues vibrant in shine.

She knew what to feel, what to believe. Especially once I couldn't help myself anymore, hooking the bends of my knees underneath her thighs, exposing her more. Liara opened herself more, and more, letting me bring this rhythm right back, over her front, on top of her this time, practically never-ending. So much so, she was brave enough to keep her eyes to mine the whole time.

Liara challenged me in submission to not look away from her, to not break my lips over hers, not once—not even when she needed to break, when I broke her, broke her in, keeping her wanting more.

And we kept going like this.

Going and going, non-stop for hours, hours and hours.

I kept going for Liara, breaking wide open the expanse of her horizons. I got her off again and again, keeping up with her insatiable hormonal energy for me to keep taking her. Hard, so hard at times, ramming her hips into the mattress, ramming the bed in near-constant noise, making Liara grip onto me for dear life as she got off and off and off. Impossibilities shattered for her first time, and second time, and third time, and fourth and fifth and—losing count after that—I made sure that her voice would never forget my name, no matter how loudly she screamed it out, scratching out her throat.

Not once did I take off any more of her clothes, any more of mine.

The tease, the prospect of making her look forward to more—it was too much for me to resist.


Only once it was well past midnight did Liara learn that she couldn't tire me out like this. We would've had to do way more for me to get anywhere near exhausted. Not that I was used to this type of marathon… This was only the beginning for her, though it was a first for me, too, in a lot of ways.

Sweating and spent, Liara had sprawled out over her side of the bed.

Listening to her heave for breath in between low moans kept this grin well-done over my face.

If I wasn't starving—and if we didn't have a mission in the morning—I would have pushed her more.

I asked her, "You hungry yet, babe?"

Liara groaned. "Yes, but… By the goddess, Shepard, how are you not worn-out yet?"

"Mmm, I have my ways," I riddled.

"Oh, I'm sure…"

"I'll make us a late dinner," I offered, putting my boots back on. "Then again, I smell like you…"

"Yes—let's keep it that way," directed Liara. "I will find you in the kitchen once I have taken my third shower for the day… You can take one later, can't you?"

Throwing my shirt back on, too, I told her, "I wanted to head back up to my room anyway."

"Why?"

"To get us some wine."

Liara gaped at me. "Tonight?" she asked. "Why now?"

"I should have taken you out to dinner by this point," I explained. "Since I haven't had the chance, the wine is supposed to make up for it. I have a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. It's this white wine from Earth that I want you to try. You might like it."

"Shepard, that isn't necessary… And I don't have to go out to dinner with you to know how you feel."

"Liara, it's the gesture that counts. I'm not a classless jerk who only cares about having sex with you."

"But… Dinner, and the wine—isn't that for—?"

I stopped her there. "Doesn't have to be."

Blaming herself, Liara dropped the subject. She retreated into her bed more, hiding away. "You can forego the wine for tonight… Please save it for another time. We should just—have a meal without it."

"Yeah, all right," I accepted, heading out. "I'll make us a salad, then. Nice and simple. Come find me once you're ready."

"Of course, Commander…"

Leaving things on that note, for now, seemed like the best thing to do.

I left to the kitchen in the mess hall. No one was awake at this obscene hour. They shouldn't have been, either. Or at least my squad. Liara was the obvious, lone exception to this. I still made a mental note to keep an eye on her in the morning, as well as throughout the mission on Feros, to monitor how she operated on minimal sleep. Sending her back to the ship was a last resort. For her safety.

Washing my hands and taking care to keep my clothes from touching anything, I retrieved everything I needed from the refrigerator. Regular lettuce, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and Italian dressing—nothing fancy. But when I'd mentioned the white wine to Liara, I'd had white meat in mind to go along with the drink. I figured it wouldn't hurt to put the meat in the salad instead.

Having it my way, almost.

I found some skinless chicken breasts that I'd already cleaned, pre-seasoned and packed away. I put them over the portable grill-cooker-thing that Kaidan had insisted on buying for us. I'd used these plenty of times back on Earth. His swearing up and down that we needed this one had struck me as strange. Smelling the end-results after a few minutes, though, I understood why he was so fond of the device.

Right when I was about to lift the lid, I heard someone's bare footsteps nearing.

Not quite as light as Liara's, not quite as cautious.

The person—a woman, probably—then stopped all of a sudden.

"Shepard, is that you…?"

Ashley stared at me in disbelief from halfway across the mess hall.

Barefoot, and wearing an oversized white T-shirt and tight black yoga pants, she clearly hadn't been awake cleaning our guns all night. Her hair tied up in a messy bun, I had to guess that Ashley had been in bed all day, or at least resting in the crew's quarters. Still avoiding everyone.

Catching myself staring at the slenderness of her legs in those tight pants, I emptied my thoughts—fully.

"Yeah, it's me," I responded. "Up late, stranger?"

"Uh, yeah!" said Ashley, catching herself in something, too. "Yeah, I—I couldn't sleep…" Finding no malice in my eyes on her, she smiled. "I've been locked in my room all day. Practically dead to the world… Th-The galaxy, I mean!" She chanced walking over to me in the kitchen, inhaling. "Whatever you're making smells really good! I'm starving—haven't eaten since this morning. Mind if I try some?"

I supposed I did have enough for three people.

And Liara was being weird about us having dinner together, alone.

But Ashley, in her obliviousness, was about to walk too close

"Sure, fine by me," I allowed, trying to step away a bit, discreet. "Why haven't you eaten anything?"

"Just…wanted to avoid the crowd during waking hours, Ma'am."

It was now or never: "Ashley, look, I shouldn't have put a target on your back like that. I had no evidence. Your audit turned up clean. It's my bad that you're dealing with this."

Ashley couldn't accept that. "No, Commander, you went with your gut," she countered. "I was a total recluse on the Citadel each time we picked up a new alien team member. Plus, while we were on the Presidium with Kaidan, I was about to make a comment…"

"I can't tell the aliens from the animals."

"Yeah!" she accepted. "Yeah… You shut that shit down fast. S-So, after that, I was trying to adjust…"

I questioned her, "Why bother adjusting, Ashley? I know what the deal is with your family. General Williams. The curse that follows you around over his surrender to the turians during the war. You're afraid you'll cap out at your current rank—I get it. If you really hated non-humans, why hide it?"

"It's not that I ever hated them. It was just a trust thing. Plus, I looked to my commander… Seriously looked at you. That helped change my thinking. I'm sorry for not doing it sooner, Ma'am. And…I'm sorry I was too scared to tell you all of this earlier. I'm such a wimp…"

Honesty was supposedly the best policy—"There was nothing you covered up?"

"Nothing… Besides, even if I had tried to hide anything, it wouldn't have been about that."

"So, there is something," I deduced. "Something you didn't want me to find out about."

"Something… Yeah… Yes, Shepard. I was terrified that you'd go combing through my history, that you'd freak when you found out—" Ashley realized: "Wait a minute! I got your email, but—… You're done with the audit? No more looking into our stuff? You didn't—you didn't see anything from me?!"

She didn't need to know my methods. She didn't need to know that I'd had plans to do a manual search through her history.

Remembering it now, I hadn't done it because I knew—I knew I'd fall into something with her if I did.

"Correct, Chief," I confirmed, keeping the rest quiet. "You're off the hook."

Flooded with relief, Ashley leaned forward, breathing hard. She grabbed hold of the nearest counter, supporting herself as she kept breathing; kept breathing. Like she'd narrowly avoided a crash or some other fatal accident, she had to keep from laughing out of more nerves.

Not wanting to get too involved, I advised her, "You should tell the others. If they're skeptical, they can ask me directly. I'll vouch for you."

"I appreciate it, Shepard," said Ashley, finding her balance again. "It's just—I tried explaining this to them. They want to believe me. Every time they ask for more details, I avoid the truth, and then they go back to being suspicious again. They'd just think I manipulated you somehow…"

"I'm not prone to manipulation, Williams."

"I-I know that! I mean, I do. The others, not so much… They need evidence I can't give them."

"You'll find some way to work it out," I counseled. "If they're going to be true friends, they'll listen."

"You're right. You're totally right. Thanks, Commander. I feel better now."

"Good," I said.

She should have a clear head for the mission going forward.

Helping her out and actually…talking with her instead of running away—that wasn't so bad…

Ashley stepped closer, once more—grinning, eager: "So, need any help with dinner? I can…" Too close. Inhaling, again, to check. "Commander…" Even in this dim lighting of the hall, I could see the way her face heated. "Shepard…you smell like sex."

And of course, Liara emerged from the crew's showers, fully-dressed.

Out of the corner of my eye, she spotted the scene and stared.

None the wiser, Ashley remained fixated on me, smirking in lust. "This is one for the history books," she teased in a low, sexy voice. "I had no idea… I mean, who am I to tell you what to do when you're alone in your cabin? I figured you'd at least wash down first. You know." She looked me up and down. "I have to ask, though… Do you…do you just use your hand? What do you think about when you do it?"

Oh, fuck.

"Ashley…"

"Don't worry!" she coaxed in mischief, moving a little closer, nearly setting me off. "Your secret's safe with me… I'm surprised, that's all! Who would've thought that's what you get up to? I…greatly respect and admire your freedom, Ma'am!"

Liara started heading over here, footsteps focused, deliberate.

Ashley, either not noticing or not caring, spoke on in suggestiveness, "You shouldn't be embarrassed, if that's the case… You're not the only one who does it. Now that the ship's much lighter these days, I'm all alone in my section of the crew's quarters. I'd be insane not to take advantage of the privacy."

The next thing I knew, Liara was behind me.

Right behind me.

Still, Ashley continued to disregard her, completely focused on me—"I'm…also surprised you're not saying anything, Shepard. Didn't think you'd be shy about this stuff. You don't have to be…"

Subtle, venomous, Liara eased herself against my back.

She did it in a way that left half of herself visible, half of her expression evident to Ashley in front of me.

She moved her hand up to me, slipping under the ends of my hair.

Slow, soft, and controlling all at once, Liara smoothed her nails up my spine, my shoulder blades, with this gentleness about her tickling at the long trail of my hair behind me. Though my hair wasn't knotted at all, her sensuality combed and brushed at me, mimicking that light pulling in motion.

Ashley wouldn't give her the time of day, though she definitely noticed her by now.

High on opportunity, Ashley moved as close as she could to me without our fronts brushing together.

Gazing at me with fiery precision, she traced me with her eyes, memorizing every part of me in her view.

Raising her nails to the crown of my hair, Ashley stopped just short of touching me. "God, Shepard…you have no idea, do you?" she murmured, so quiet that even Liara couldn't hear. "You spend your days on your own. You keep to yourself at all times. Those nobodies in the Alliance used to talk shit about how you're too pretty to be a marine. And then you proved yourself, ten times over. Now, you're the legendary Commander Shepard who won't let anything get in her way. You're greatness, personified."

As close as possible, Liara leaned into me, pressing her palm fully over my back—sensual in warning.

And then, Ashley snapped out of her reverie.

Spotting Liara, she stepped back, stammering—

"Liara?! What the—? Is that you?! Why didn't you fricking say anything if you're standing there!?"

"You noticed me, Ashley," lectured Liara, not up for bullshit. "Regardless, you carried on anyway, attempting to ignore me. I wondered how long it would take you to actually acknowledge me here."

"You're creeping me out, Liara!" cried Ashley, stepping away. "Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?!"

I glared at her.

Yes, Ashley was freaked out, but I wasn't going to stand here and let this go on.

Luckily, she noticed my notice, and sighed.

"Okay, okay…I'm sorry," apologized Ashley. "Maybe I did spot you."

"And then you proceeded to ignore me," repeated Liara.

"Well, I didn't think it was a big deal that you were there! Then I felt this chill in the air…"

"Am I really that insignificant to you?"

"If you're gonna have an attitude like that, then yeah, you are! I said I'm sorry, didn't I?!"

No.

No.

No!

just fixed Ashley's problem with her emotions running haywire.

I was not about to have another situation on my hands.

I didn't need Liara and Ashley shooting at each other by accident out in the field!

"Will you two cut it out?!" I snapped. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but we are not doing this! You need to hash this out ASAP. No questions asked. I'm not fooling around here."

Ashley backed down first. "Understood—sorry, Ma'am…"

"Very well, Commander," replied Liara, having stepped away a bit.

Seeing as how this was partly my fault, I felt obligated to be the mediator here…

So I suggested, "Look, can we just eat this salad I was about to make—in peace? While we eat, we can talk about normal, non-combative things. You know, like civilized people?"

"Works for me!" agreed Ashley.

Liara, however, clearly felt like she had no choice. "As you wish."

Ashley recommended, "Why don't we head to my room? There's just enough space for us to hang out! You two can sit on one of the free bunks next to mine. Oh, we can have a girls' night together!"

"Chief, this isn't a sleepover," I corrected.

"C'mon, Shepard! I know it's not. I'm trying to lighten the mood! Didn't you say to hash this out ASAP?"

"Yeah, I did…"

"So come on, then!" she encouraged.

My intuition told me Ashley hammed this up to piss Liara off.

Have a girls' night together…since when was that something she would say in a situation like this?

As long as she was trying to smooth things over, it wasn't my place to point out her ridiculousness.

"Fine, have it your way," I allowed. "Liara, are you up for this?"

"I will do as you want, Shepard," she said, sounding neutral enough.

"Okay, wonderful. To start off, why don't the two of you stay here and make this actual salad for us? I was going to cut the meat into strips and mix it in with the rest. Can you handle that?"

Gorgeous as ever in her joy, Ashley beamed at me. "Sure, we can do that! I promise I'll behave myself."

"You wish for us to stay here?" echoed Liara. "Where are you going?"

I justified: "I need a shower—"

"—don't," they said in unison.

All I could muster at them was a blank stare.

This wasn't happening…was it?

Finding my voice again, I asserted, "Then I at least need a few minutes to myself. Clear my head. By the time I'm finished, you should be done with the food. I'll…find you in the crew's quarters."

"We'll have your salad ready and waiting, Commander," promised Ashley. "See you in a bit!"

Liara turned away, not wanting any of this—but she put up with it because I said so.


Wandering back up the stairs to the empty command center, I again couldn't believe my luck.

My motherfucking luck that landed me almost-in-like with Liara, who probably couldn't tolerate me getting any other female attention whatsoever.

We weren't even a couple like that.

But she had been straight-up with me, and this was what I had agreed to…

Leaning against the railing around the galaxy map, I tried to focus on something else. I noted our current destination, of the Attican Beta cluster where Feros was, set to arrive at 0900 hours. This should have been the only thing on my mind: the mission. Stopping Saren from finding the Conduit he was after.

His sinister, lofty plans seemed so far away at times like this.

Times like now, when I remembered the way Liara had felt and sounded underneath me.

I focused on this, because the alternative was too much for me to bear.

There was some part of me that knew the truth: that I had chosen to make these concessions, and that I had given into her like this to avoid my actual reality. Liara was amazing. She was intelligent, beautiful, and so full of raw emotion—but she couldn't give me what I needed. She had made herself clear.

To some extent, this was fine. She seemed to like me way more than I liked her. I was fine with that, too.

I was comfortable with actually not being able to give Liara my real commitment.

Because Ashley was still there—her unsubtlety, her overwhelming emotions trying to get through to me.

And yet, as far as I knew from the grapevine in the Alliance, she was straight. Non-military boyfriends in the past; gently turning down the women who asked her out. Whatever she'd said back in the kitchen was only her being nosey… And if she really did wonder about me, it was in that way I was used to from other straight women: those oh-so innocent fantasies that they would never take all that seriously.

That was all this was… Her feelings for me weren't real. She idealized me. She was only curious. Right…?

Because if I let myself fall for another straight woman—and my subordinate, too—then that would've…

Unexpected movement in my periphery: way up, far up at the helm, I spotted the back of Joker's chair swinging a little, back and forth. He was still awake at this hour, still piloting the ship instead of docking at a rest station to get some sleep for the night.

Then, barely, I heard his high-pitched laughter.

I couldn't tell if he was watching something or what, but whatever had gotten into him, he was really into it. But honestly, Joker couldn't have been stupid enough to be watching porn right now.

Well, no—maybe he was.

Deciding to investigate, I headed over to him, unsure of what to expect.

The closer I got, the clearer I heard Joker and his shenanigans: the way he cackled to himself at varying volumes, stopping to mumble an incoherent mess of words I couldn't hear, and then cracking up again. Making a bunch of other childish, fun sounds, he struggled to breathe properly. Excitement—perhaps too much—had taken over him, and he kept reliving the experience of whatever had happened.

He sounded like he was high on something.

Stims, drugs, energy drinks?

"Joker?" I asked, nearing him—not too close.

Horrified, Joker spun his chair around to face me. "Commander?!" he screamed. Making sure that it was me, he heaved for breath. "Oh, Jesus Christ, Shepard, you scared the hell out of me! Can you walk louder next time? Or—or find some other way to warn me, so I don't have a freaking heart attack?"

"There won't be a next time unless you tell me what's going on," I deadpanned.

Joker wiped his streaming eyes. "Ahh, jeez… You just had to be here now!" Trembling, he snorted down his nervous laughter. "Wait a minute… You're here. That means it was real… They were right! They had the timing right! Oh shit… Oh shit, oh shit—shit-shit-shit—"

"—Joker…"

He leaned forward in his chair, holding his face; shaking his head in wonder and disbelief.

"What the shit…!?"

"Flight Lieutenant—"

"—Shepard, you are a freaking GOD. You hear me?! You. Are. A. GOD!"

Panicky, unable to contain himself, Joker laughed and laughed.

I couldn't deal with this anymore—"Snap out of it, Joker! Are you high while piloting my ship?!"

"You think I'm high?!" mocked Joker. "As if, Commander. As if!"

"Then what the fuck is wrong with you!?" Uncontrollable, Joker only laughed more—nerves mounting, ribs aching in fear over my rising temper, trying and failing to stop. "Seriously? I don't have time for this garbage! If you're not doing anything productive up here, then go to sleep!"

Joker was about to fall out of his chair.

"Commander, I can't…!" he panted. "It's too much… Too much!"

I raged, "Go to sleep, Joker! Go to sleep! Go to fucking sleep before I knock you out myself!"

Raising his hands in the air, Joker conceded, "Okay, okay! Pulling into the nearest rest station now! I'm going, Ma'am—I'm going!"

I had no real plans for this, but I told him anyway—"If I come back later and you're still here…"

Joker cleared his throat. "No, no, no, I'll do as I'm told!" he claimed. Spinning back around in his chair, he found enough control to get the ship moving. "See? Going now, just like I said. I'm going… I'm totally, totally going. Oh, man…"

"Whatever," I dismissed, leaving. "I'm out of here. Sleep this off."

That wicked grin of his: "See ya, Commander…"


Bracing myself for the worst, I made it to the crew's quarters, searching for Ashley's bunk area. Each of the different rooms housed their own sets of bed bunks and living areas. All of the doors I passed were locked. On purpose, I'd never visited Ashley in her own quarters, so I really had no idea where to look.

But she had done me a favor and left her door open.

Eventually, I heard her and Liara speaking together.

I followed their indistinct voices—the calm of Liara's breathiness, the slight rasp of Ashley's directness—finding the wide window of the room right across from me. The serenity of that dark, glimmering limitlessness overlooked Liara and Ashley sitting in separate bunks on the lower levels. Facing each other as they talked, they didn't quite look serious or friendly—somewhere in between—yet I still wasn't close enough to hear them properly, since they seemed to keep their voices down on purpose.

Ashley had her terminal over the foot of her bed, playing music at a low volume—anything to keep the absolute quiet from surrounding them, to avoid that awkwardness. She also kept her space clean. Abnormally clean, even for the military: not a single knick-knack or piece of clothing visible anywhere, and nothing that would have identified her with this area.

On the nightstand between the bunks sat three bowls of salad, untouched.

They'd decided to wait for me before eating anything.

Noticing me first, Ashley smiled.

"Shepard, hey! Come on in."

Bracing myself once more, and emptying my thoughts of Ashley once again, I went inside.

"Hello, Commander," greeted Liara, like seeing me again was no big deal.

She sat near the end of the mattress on her designated bunk, leaving space near the pillows.

Ashley lounged over her own bunk, stretching out in an unintentional sensuality…or maybe on purpose.

Passing them by to go to the only open space, I hoped that we wouldn't have any repeats from earlier.

"Isn't quite the same as your cabin, huh?" chatted Ashley, watching me fit myself under the top bunk to sit down. "All that free, open space to yourself. Not anymore! You're one of the grunts now, Ma'am."

"This is…decent," I offered.

"Uh-huh, you hate it."

Liara stood up to hand me my food. "Here you are, Shepard."

I bit down on my reflexive reaction to call her babe—"Thanks."

Ashley chose to be obnoxious: "Aren't you gonna give me mine, too?"

Obliging anyway, Liara did so. "And yours."

"I was only messing with you," admitted Ashley, accepting the salad. "Thanks, Liara…"

"We had this discussion only a few short minutes ago," said Liara, retreating back to her spot with her food. "Didn't you agree to stop doing this? I don't appreciate it."

"Yeah, we did go over this already…"

"Then why continue?"

Ashley used her fork to busy herself. "Because," she mumbled, sighing. "I guess I have no idea how else to talk to you, that's why. I mean, seriously, do you and I have anything in common? No? I thought so." She started eating, making a loud, closed-mouthed sound of surprise. "Ohh, this is so good! Shepard!"

Liara had a small smile on her face as she ate, letting that speak of her agreement.

"Glad you like it," I said, just to say something.

And I had such an urge to devour this immediately, as hungry as I was. I ate at a normal pace instead.

"It's amazing!" complimented Ashley, more. "How did you make the meat taste like this?! Whenever I try using Kaidan's mini-grill, the stuff I make never turns out this way." She did her best to avoid talking with her mouth full. "Ugh, this is so much better than what I'm used to eating when I'm deployed. I practically can't stand it! Commander, you totally have to cook for us from now on. This is…wow!"

"You're that surprised I know how to cook, Chief? It's only salad. What have you been eating?"

"I-I didn't mean that as an insult or anything! And, um…let's just say I've built up an iron stomach."

"Point taken," I acknowledged.

Ashley surprised me by including Liara in the conversation, "Hey, Doc, what's it like for you, being on a military ship?"

"Things aboard the Normandy are very efficient," replied Liara.

"More efficient now that Shepard's the captain and her own XO. She runs a tight ship."

"Judging only by the difference from my first couple of days until now, I have to agree."

"Mm-hmm, I bet!" said Ashley. "Before you got here, what were you used to? You know, with work?"

"I am used to spending time alone on archaeology digs. Or perhaps with a small handful of other researchers. I would spend my days searching for artifacts, cross-referencing discoveries with existing data. In some cases, I was more focused on preserving a site over locating new items."

"Sounds…lonely."

"Yes, it was," confirmed Liara. "I enjoyed the isolation. It gave me the time to reflect in peace."

Ashley studied her, seeming to pick up on something. "So you're saying you like being alone."

"I am used to it, and I enjoy the solitude whenever I get the chance."

"Are you…an only-child?"

"My mother Benezia only had me, yes."

"What about your father?" asked Ashley, baffled. "Extended family members? Family friends? Hell, did you at least have a pet or two growing up?"

Liara frowned at her. "I recall you mentioning how large and involved your own family is. Please don't assume things about me simply because we don't share the same type of background. I have my upbringing and you have yours. They are both different. Not better or worse."

"Yeah, but…"

Ashley then looked to me, remembering that I was an orphan back on Earth. I was sure she didn't have a clue about how gay kids like me had to get by in the city where I was from. She had no idea that I wasn't necessarily out on the streets—that I'd had my own chosen family looking after me, making sure I had a roof over my head, that I had enough to eat most of the time, and that I kept up with school.

Still, I was used to keeping to myself.

I was used to not holding on to anything or anyone.

This old feeling that I could lose everything in an instant—it'd already happened to me enough times.

And then there was Liara, warping everything for me, again.

"Okay, then," conceded Ashley. "I get your point… Sorry, Liara. Just trying to get to know you, that's all."

Liara had more to say about that, yet she chose to hold it back.

Cringing, Ashley pointed out the obvious: "Look, I understand… You don't like me. I have a lot to prove out here, so of course I'm going to be ballsy every chance I get. Meanwhile, you're perfectly fine with existing and not having to worry about what people think of you. You have your books; you're fine."

Incensed, Liara only let it burn in slow, quiet bursts. "Ashley…you have no idea what I have had to prove to anyone. You can't presume to know me after a single month of infrequent conversation."

"So what've you had to prove?" prodded Ashley, sitting up; finished with her salad down to the last scrap of lettuce. "Tell me! I wanna know!"

"I would have told you earlier, had the subject come up in a more tactful way."

"But you've told Shepard. Haven't you? Tali, Garrus? Why can't you tell me, too? Does this have something to do with the drama? I told you, I'm not like that!"

Liara continued to control her temper: "Shepard, Tali, and Garrus didn't make wild assumptions about my life, and then proceed to judge me and put me into a narrow box. You think that I am merely a shy bookworm. You believe that I have never had to prove myself, as if my career and my accomplishments simply fell into my lap. You are incredibly mistaken, Ashley. Do not underestimate me."

All Ashley could do was gawk at her, hardly believing what she'd heard.

"Commander, I am leaving now," announced Liara, standing up. "I don't feel that we are making much meaningful progress with this experiment. Chief Williams and I simply disagree on too many things."

"Don't worry about it," I allowed. "You two talked enough. Oil and water—I get it."

"Thank you for understanding, Shepard. I will see you in the morning, then. Good night."

"'Night—"

Stopping that reflex, once again.

Ashley didn't notice, still too thrown from this turn of events.

Liara collected our empty dishes for us and left, making sure the door closed behind her.

Relaxing back against these stiff pillows, I worked to keep my mask on, harder and tighter than usual.

Being alone with Ashley in her room like this…I hadn't prepared for it. I couldn't let her know that.

Ashley hid her face in her hands. "And there I go," she reprimanded herself. "Messing up another friendship all because I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I'm never gonna learn, apparently…" She regarded me, expecting me to stand up and leave soon. "Please don't act like you feel sorry for me, Ma'am. I blew it, plain and simple. That's the end of that."

I let her know my observations: "From the sound of things, you two hardly talked as it is. Why do you care if Liara's your friend or not? You said it yourself—the two of you have nothing in common."

"It's not about having things in common… I only said that to be an ass."

Rolling my eyes, I said, "Then you have the nerve to wonder why she's pissed at you? Come on."

"I know, I know!"

"You still haven't told me why you care in the first place."

Barely audible, Ashley mumbled into her hands—"I care because you care."

Needing to dismiss yet another clue she had given me, I acted like I didn't hear her.

Groaning in frustration, Ashley moved to turn her terminal off. She kept chastising herself, privately, unable to stop scowling off in the distance. I could tell she still had something to get off her chest. Something that had been eating away at her this whole time she spent avoiding everyone, avoiding me.

Ashley had to know that I noticed this about her—at least this much. And maybe it was…unrelated.

"You look like you need to have a talk with me," I prompted her. "About this thing that's been bothering you this whole time. Or am I wrong?"

"No, Commander, you're right…"

"So? What is it?"

In the middle of her hesitations, Ashley's omni-tool went off, alerting her to several messages.

"Really?" she complained, disabling the sounds. "Now you people wanna talk to me? I am so not in the mood for this crap." Quiet again. Ashley looked to me again, and then hid, again. "Okay, Shepard. If I tell you this, you have to promise me you won't tell a soul. If this got out, I'd probably lose my mind."

"Sounds serious."

"That's because it is…"

"I know that I brought this up and all," I prefaced. "I'm only wondering why you feel comfortable enough to share this with me now. You've clearly been avoiding me on the ship for weeks. I figured I'd be the last person you'd have this discussion with."

"I did try to tell Kaidan. I honestly tried. He was worried about me after that night. He wanted to help make everything right with the team. He cares so much, you know?"

I asked, "You didn't tell him?"

"I chickened out and made up some barely-related story. He thinks I'm still in love with some old boyfriend of mine from high school. Told him I was scared you'd find the stupid romantic emails with my sappy poetry. He bought the whole thing, didn't doubt me at all. Ugh, I feel like shit about it…"

"Do you think that was the best thing to do?"

Ashley hummed, considering.

"Now that you mention it? Probably, yeah. Of course I feel bad about lying to him. But the hints he gave to the others while you were there? That did smooth things over a little. So that…helped."

"Why didn't you tell him the truth, Ashley? It's Kaidan. He wasn't going to judge you."

"He might have," replied Ashley, cryptic. "You don't know otherwise. Not for certain. Kaidan may be a boy scout compared to you and me, but he's still human. I know how he operates. He could have gone behind my back and told the team the whole story, you know, to get them to sympathize with me completely. That would've ruined me, Shepard. I'm not ready for them to know just yet."

I understood: "You didn't wanna take the risk."

"Hell no."

I brought it back—"So why tell me?"

"Because…I trust you."

"Already," I pointed out, forcing my mind to go blank again, blanking, blank, blank.

Groaning again, exasperated, Ashley pushed back—"You want me to play your game, be ruthless about it? Fine. You have nothing to gain by telling anyone my business. And if I did find out, then you'd have to deal with me being angry with you and unfocused during missions. I might make a wrong call; shoot someone or something I'm not supposed to. It's in your best interest to keep my spirits up, Ma'am."

This was obviously some type of sore spot for her… "If that's how you wanna play it, I won't fight you."

She seemed disappointed that I hadn't given her an out to shut down the conversation, like with Liara.

Ashley then nodded a few times. "Okay," she accepted. "I'll tell you. Ready?"

"Go ahead."

Looking me right in the eye, Ashley faltered at the last moment, and said, "I'm… I'm confused. My sexuality. I—" Steeling myself, I watched her waver against this surface of me, indestructible. "I'm confused…about my sexuality. I'm questioning. There. I admitted it out loud! I actually admitted it…"

This breach in my defenses against her, in all that had kept my cravings for Ashley at bay, I ignored—

"You mean, you haven't told anyone at all?"

"No…not even myself. I was terrified you'd find my extranet searches: 'How to tell if I'm gay', 'What's it like to be with a girl compared to a guy', 'What's bisexuality', 'Coming out to your religious family', 'Is it really unnatural for two women to have biological kids together'… And I have…a ton of emails I sent to myself with, um, notes and other—other things…about a certain woman. Things that are meant for my eyes only. Love sonnets I wrote for her. Love letters I wish I could actually send to her. That kind of thing."

Then why use your work email for that?

But, really, now wasn't the time to get on her case—if ever.

"I have no reason to judge you," I told her. "Doesn't bother me. You're tough. You'll figure this out."

"I hope you're right. Thanks for being so nice about this, Skipper… But, how did I know you'd say that?"

Skipper, huh? "No idea."

Ashley laughed. "Figures," she said. "It's sweet of you. You're a woman of few words. I respect that—"

Again, her omni-tool blared with alerts.

Again, she yelled over the interruption.

"Maybe you should see what they want," I suggested. "They're not gonna leave you alone."

"No way! They're so damn rude. How do they even know I'm awake right now?!"

"Could be related to what they're trying to tell you."

"Ugh, fine," conceded Ashley, opening up her omni-tool's messaging interface. "Oh my God, it's Tali and Joker spamming me! Hang on a minute. I'll see what they want really quick, then tell them we'll discuss it later. Like, I appreciate that they're talking to me again and everything, but this is just…ridiculous…"

From Tali? Joker?

Goddamnit, I told Joker to take his ass to bed! Of course he was still up chatting on his omni-tool…

That anger left me as soon as it arrived.

I watched as all of the color in Ashley's face drained as she read those messages.

Bright headlights of her eyes, riling, first, before she edged her reaction down, and down, lowering her omni-tool arm. She then brought her shaking hands to her face, burrowing her reaction away from me, as if she could have suffocated it, ended it all from sheer pressure and force alone.

She couldn't.

Not even Ashley could keep something like this in.

Heaving forward of her whole torso, like she was sick, like she was about to throw up—and then she stopped it, swallowing it back.

Keeping her mouth clamped shut, vice-like, was all she could do in this moment.

"Ashley…?"

"No, no, no," she fretted in a deep-seated anguish, about to burst. "No… This isn't happening… No, no… God, this can't be happening… No, I can't—I can't believe this! Her…? Her!? What the fuck?!"

More than concerned now, I asked her, "Ashley, is someone on the ship in trouble? Do you need me to get involved? You're acting like someone died—"

"—no one died, Shepard! No one's dead; no one's in trouble!"

"…then what's the matter? I'm worried about you—"

These last few seconds before bursting, and Ashley turned her back to me. Latching her arms around her mouth, her head, she tried to contain the outpour. She sobbed in back-cracking convulsions. She growled in throat-bleeding hatred. She groaned in sweat-inducing shame, repeating her disbelief over and over and over again, knowing that I was still here, knowing that I watched her fall apart like this. She almost smothered herself to keep me from hearing it all, but it was no use…

Talking to Ashley or getting her to talk to me—that wasn't going to work.

My shock of her shock—I didn't know what to do, didn't know how to react to any of this.

Deciding whether to stay or whether to leave her alone, Anderson's letter again returned to my mind.

As strong and proud as Ashley was, I understood that her own helplessness over her reaction, over me witnessing her reaction, only made everything worse. I couldn't keep my distance from her right now.

Standing up, I moved closer to where she sat over her bunk.

Ashley came up for air, once, dislodging her arms to breathe, before locking herself again, tighter.

I sat down over her bed. I kept enough space between us—enough to show her that I was here, to not suffocate her with my sympathy. Enough to not give myself away: how I cared for her all of a sudden.

Keeping my eyes straight ahead, I swallowed this sudden, sudden sympathy down, realizing the way it scratched at my throat. I laced my hands together, fingers tightening. I did my best to dry out my stare.

Sitting here, entirely still, I couldn't ignore how Ashley's agony made me hurt for her. Even though I had no idea what was wrong, or why she was so upset, or how this had affected her so much, none of that mattered. What Liara would think, what anyone else would think—none of it mattered right then.

Ashley eventually leaned against my shoulder, letting me support her like this.

She wouldn't stop crying, only lessening in intensity as the night passed, as the hours passed.

I stayed awake the entire time. Staying stoic for her, staying impartial for her. Staying here when I normally would have left in disgust. Staying like this and supporting her as she wracked against me.

I had such a sinking feeling that Liara was involved somehow… But I couldn't let myself believe that.

Ashley fell asleep here against my shoulder after a while, long after she should have. Long after my own exhaustion had crept through my chest, warning me that I needed to sleep, or else. Warning, and nearly winning and shutting me off, but I couldn't. I sat with this exhaustion, knowing that my emergency implants couldn't help me.

Outside, I heard the stirrings of other crew members who'd started to wake up for the hours' dawn.

No rumblings of gossip outside of Ashley's door, and no whispering—no one had heard her.

Only general shuffling through the halls, yawns and stretching; innocent calls of good morning.

In this surreal experience, I learned more of what Captain Anderson had meant in his letter to me. I understood why he had told me the things he had—more so now than even after the episode Liara had had with me. More so, but in completion, evolving my thoughts of Ashley way beyond my comfort zone.

Liara had helped to sow the beginnings; Ashley had brought everything to fruition:

Sacrificing like this for my team, both on and off the battlefield, was part of my job, my duty as their commander. I would find some way to not compromise our mission. I would find some way to power through this mind-shattering exhaustion. I would push through, lead the squad to a mission success, and then worry about myself later. I could do that—I believed in myself to do all of it. No questions asked.

Completely unambiguous, now that Ashley and Liara had helped me to learn my honor as their leader.

Chapter Text

"Spider's String" from Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga / "Meltdown" from Requiem for a Dream

VI. One Mind, One Master

(Liara)

After such a wonderful night, here was this juvenile…situation that I was now forced to deal with.

Sitting in the comm room with the rest of the squad that morning, we all waited for Shepard to arrive, and for her to brief us on our mission on Feros. This circular formation of chairs made it impossible to escape everyone's varied ways of passing the time. Wrex, Tali, Garrus, Ashley, Kaidan—each of them kept to themselves, technically, yet even at this hour of the morning, they seemed to have had more life and emotion injected into them, for reasons that had turned me off to complete silence.

Last night, after I'd left Shepard with Ashley in the crew's quarters, I had noticed that I'd had several silenced alerts to my omni-tool. Tali had sent me numerous private messages over the course of many hours, beginning earlier that evening around 7:45pm. She had reached a fever pitch over that time:

[19:43:01] Tali: Liara! Are you and Shepard doing what I think you're doing?! How?! When!?

[19:55:33] Tali: Ummm, so, we (me, Kaidan, Garrus, Wrex) are here in the med bay, kind-of-sort-of accidentally listening to you, and you two sound really into it like you're enjoying yourselves and I totally should not be telling you this I'm so sorry please don't hate me

[20:02:12] Tali: No, no, no, no, no…it can't be Shepard in there with you. Are you…calling her name while you…? I mean, it was more than a little obvious you have a thing for her. Ohh, I don't blame you…

[20:02:56] Tali: Wait, no, I hear her!

[20:05:32] Tali: YOU TWO ARE SO LOUD

[20:11:45] Tali: Keelah, is it that good? Is she? Oh… Oh wow

[20:22:16] Tali: Shepard is going to break your bed!

[20:27:21] Tali: Oh please forgive me… My mind is going places and I can't—no. I should get back to work. Yes, work. To distract myself from these thoughts! I'll, umm, see if you want to have dinner later? A very, very late dinner. And I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight, you know. This is all your fault.

[21:39:45] Tali: Bad news… Joker found out. He wants to join the chat. We can't really tell him no at this point. He found all of us in the med bay and he…overheard you screaming Shepard's name. He's practically one of us now. Oh, and…Dr. Chakwas may have walked by, too… Her face was extremely red.

[21:50:54] Tali: I'm doing my best to keep everyone from talking about this in the main chat room. Ashley doesn't know, and I'm sure this isn't how you would want her to find out. Oh, Keelah, this is going to be weird once she knows. She won't be able to shut up about it, I'm sure. Joker is trying to tell her now. I asked him to wait. We won't do anything more without your permission. It would be rude not to…

[22:31:30] Tali: Hey, Liara… I guess you'll see this later. Kaidan came by to see me while I was (trying to) work. He told me the real reason why Ashley has been acting so strange. Something about an old boyfriend of hers. He asked me to tell you, and for us to keep it to ourselves.

Her reasons check out, but something still feels a little off. I know Kaidan wanted to help us rebuild our friendship with her… I'm not sure how I feel about him going behind her back to tell us about this. I truly want us to be friends with her again. How am I supposed to avoid this? I'm going to have to be honest, and tell her the truth…

[00:26:44] Tali: ARE YOU AND SHEPARD STILL GOING?!

She continued to message me after that, practically delirious from her lack of sleep, among other things.

Once I left Ashley's room, I gave the others permission to speak freely about this in our main chat room.

And then, Tali had messaged Ashley with warnings about Joker's inevitable onslaught of gossip; Joker then did in fact send Ashley several private messages about what she had missed out on.

It had all seemed so inevitable at the time: that Ashley would find out, that she would be crushed.

Even so, I felt my own deliberate intentions in giving the others my permission to gossip.

I accepted that I wanted to crush Ashley over this. On purpose. To shut down her advances on Shepard.

This was as close as I could get to doing just that.

On my left, Wrex smirked and chuckled to himself—non-stop, knowing—while nodding, and muttering Shepard's name in a triumphant sort of praise. All for the way she had 'conquered' me, to be sure.

On my right, Garrus sat exceptionally still. He hardly blinked, only clearing his throat on occasion.

Tali had her hands over her helmet, shaking her head as she mumbled to herself—leaving only me to hear her while everyone else was so preoccupied—"She is…the embodiment of all things, in a single person, and with such duality… The strength and confidence of a man. The beauty and understanding of a woman. What is she? And why do I feel this way…? I can't stop thinking about the way she sounded… If my suit wasn't in the way—could she have given me the same strength she gave to Liara? Oh, no…"

Kaidan had doubled over in his seat, holding himself about his waist, and repeating, "Oh, God. What have I done?! Oh, God, I have to tell Shepard I messed up… Maybe she's in a good mood after…last night… Or maybe I'm screwed," over and over again.

Ashley had her arms folded. She refused to let her true reactions show. On occasion, she would snap at someone—"God, why are you acting so immature about this? What's with you?!"—only for them to ignore her. Other than that, she kept to herself, hiding her pained thoughts behind her scowl.

All of this went on and on, until Shepard arrived right at her scheduled time.

Already in her all-black N7 stealth suit, and with her hair already pulled back into that long, strict tail of hers, Shepard entered the comm room. She held herself with such an attractive, professional sharpness that cut through the foolishness going on around us. Not all of it stopped right away. Glaring at everyone, she caught the last of their attempts to pull themselves out of their moods or stupors.

"What the hell is wrong with you people?" questioned Shepard. "We have a mission! Get it together!"

Everyone else did as they were told, replying with variants of, "Ma'am", "Commander", "Shepard."

Shepard continued, "We've arrived on the planet Feros, not far from Zhu's Hope, a human colony. Saren's geth are causing problems for the colonists and the ExoGeni branch that runs its corporate operations out here. Our objective is to find out why the geth are here, and to eliminate the threat. Saving any colonists or ExoGeni workers is secondary. Any questions?"

Kaidan raised his hand. "Isn't ExoGeni interested in discovering new alien technology? There are lots of Prothean ruins out on Feros. Could be the case that Saren sent his geth to look for another beacon."

Knowing that I knew more about this, Shepard said, "Liara? Thoughts?"

"There are no known Prothean beacons on Feros," I stated. "While there are ample ruins, as you said, Lieutenant, the ones on this planet have been thoroughly explored. If Saren is keen to locate anything here, it would have to be something that we have no records of. Completely uncharted territory."

Wrex asked, "Then how're we supposed to find this thing if it's brand new?"

"We'll learn more once we get to Zhu's Hope," guided Shepard. "Given the number of hostiles that have taken over, we need a full team for this. Let's stick together and take out any geth on our way to the colony. Focus on stripping their shields—Tali, Garrus, I want you two coordinating on tech bursts."

"Roger that," said Garrus.

"Yes, Shepard," agreed Tali.

Shepard ordered, "Once those shields are down, I'd better see some biotic explosions. Liara, Kaidan, Wrex—you know what to do."

Wrex smirked. "Should be fun."

Kaidan's acquiescence—"Commander."

"On your order, Shepard," I accepted.

Shepard's final combat directives: "Ashley, hang back with me to finish off any stragglers. With all the explosions that are bound to go off, I won't bother sniping. I'll do what I can with my sidearm."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," came Ashley's stoic reply—until she recalled: "Wait a minute… You're an infiltrator, right? Shouldn't you have access to tech abilities, too? Overload, Damping, Sabotage? To use against the geth."

"My specialization doesn't leave room for those standard-grade abilities. I don't need them, anyway."

"What do you mean? Isn't that a serious weakness for you, not having access to those things?"

Tali seemed like she wanted to comment on this, too, but she must have been tongue-tied.

Shepard clarified: "After my N7 training, I received other specialized implants instead—things that help my personal survivability, alone. Like regulating my body temperature in hazardous weather, and an Icarus Landing System augmentation to help me survive most long drops. In extreme situations, I can stave off hunger and exhaustion for weeks at a time. I do my best not to use them unless I need to."

Garrus remarked, "That's pretty badass, Shepard. Sounds to me like you're an N7 Lone Wolf, then."

"Close enough," allowed Shepard. "I can penetrate almost any defenses with my sniper rifle, and I can survive for long periods of time by myself. That falls apart when I'm out in the open and surrounded by an army of hostiles expecting company, like we will be out here on Feros. And I can't have Dr. Chakwas on my ass about abusing my tactical cloak implants. So, in situations like these, it'll be more efficient to let all of you do the heavy lifting. If need be, I can scout around with my cloak in short bursts."

"Glass cannon, huh?" wondered Wrex. "If you get pinned down and can't sprint away, or if you're overwhelmed in close-quarters combat with just your pistol, sounds to me like your worst nightmare."

"Yes, that's my reality."

Each of us looked to one another.

No matter how skilled Shepard was in her own right, she was not invincible. Her shields could keep her safe for some time until she could cloak and escape. Yet without an overwhelming element of surprise, or a proper vantage point, she could not survive or excel in direct fights like the rest of us could. I had my own levels of intensity that I couldn't stand when up against a straight line of fire. But I at least had my biotics to make up for things, given that I had ample space and energy to use my abilities properly.

Shepard didn't have anything similar to fall back on.

We all understood that we had a responsibility to make up for our commander's weaknesses, whether she wished to admit it or not.

Shepard pulled our attention back, "We're done here. Gear up and meet me by the airlock. We'll head out as soon as everyone's ready."

As the others filed out of the comm room, I chose to stay behind.

I watched as Shepard unstrapped that same silver bottle from the back of her stealth suit. She unscrewed the top and drank the contents, only to make a face of revulsion as she swallowed. Walking closer to her, I could smell just how processed and unnatural the drink was, more so as she forced herself to consume more of it.

"This is disgusting," she hissed, holding the bottle out and away.

I asked, "Shepard, what is that?"

"An…energy drink. I didn't sleep at all last night. Hasn't been long enough for my implants to kick in."

"Why didn't you sleep?"

Instead of answering me, she tried, one more time, to keep drinking.

I pressed my lips to hers, sucking.

Shepard let out a sound of surprise into my mouth.

Staggering back, she kept our tasting intertwined, caught in a panic; a swell of her breath and a pour of the artificial bitterness; I hated the taste, yet I fought my own recoil, angling up and harder into her to compensate. Because no matter how much I couldn't stand this drink, having Shepard's lips over mine gave me this wondrous swelling in my heart. Just as I'd felt the night before, all night long.

When we broke away, she covered her mouth with her hand, wiping at what had dripped down.

I looked right at her in deep concentration, licking at what had trickled from my bottom lip.

Such a beautiful crimson knitting through the sunlight of her skin.

"Liara…go suit up," directed Shepard, masking the rest. "The others will start wondering."

"They already know, Commander," I informed her. "We weren't exactly quiet last night."

Shepard didn't seem terribly bothered by this. "All of you, and Joker… Do you have a chat room or something where you message each other? About the Normandy, and about—drama, I guess?"

I saw no point in hiding it any longer: "You aren't supposed to know about it."

"Oh… That explains a lot, actually. Thanks for telling me. I'll…keep this to myself."

"Of course, Shepard. I'll be on my way now."

As I left the room, I felt her eyes on me, and her longing to pull me back, to keep me with her.

Shepard resisted.

The mission came first, after all.


Running and gunning through these swarms of geth as a full group, I found this controlled chaos rather exhilarating—aside from having to step over so many dead human bodies on our way to Zhu's Hope…

I stayed behind Garrus, whom Shepard had ordered to take point, with Tali right next to me. Hurrying through these hallways and stairwells of cracked, ashen cement and rubble, I fell into a rhythm of waiting for the exact moment when Tali and Garrus' organized tech bursts decimated the geth's shields and defenses. And then, in that moment, firing off a singularity field, catching entire units in my hold. Wrex and Kaidan sent their own biotic forces out, detonating the blasts that I had primed for them, explosions rumbling and ricocheting all around us.

Stomping ahead to finish off any holdovers, Wrex was all too happy to headbutt them before firing off his shotgun, leaving many crumpled geth platforms in his wake.

Shepard and Ashley had long-since accepted that they had little to contribute in comparison. So they stayed together at the rear of the group. They said nothing, in-sync as they coordinated with one another: watching our backs as we traversed these halls and staircases.

An air of words unspoken between the two made me glance at them every so often.

That air weighed heavier and more oppressive—to me—than our actual surroundings, of the dense clouds hovering far above the structures we rushed through.

The endless heights of the Prothean skyscrapers raised farther than even those white-gray clouds overhead, standing as majestic memories of the ones who came before. Though I knew nothing awaited within those structures, I couldn't help wondering what it had been like for the early explorers who had discovered the marvels that had been inside those buildings. I had to resist the temptation to re-review the old records those discoveries via my omni-tool.

Anything to distract myself from the now-concerning amount of corpses we ran past.

Anything to make me forget how pensive and peaceable Shepard and Ashley were with one another.

Making light of it all, Wrex shouted toward the back of the group, "How's that glass cannon life treating you, Commander? Racking up kills, getting your game on? Or are you too busy cowering back there?"

Shepard surprised me when she fired back, "Keep talking shit, Wrex! See where it gets you!"

"Hah! That's what I like about you, Shepard. You never back down, even when you should!"

"Yeah, you would say that. Now cut the chatter! We should be close to the colony by now!"

Wrex grinned, following her order with an ease about him.

At the fore, Garrus called, "You were right, Commander! Zhu's Hope looks to be just around this corner and down the hall! I see friendlies standing guard, taking cover down the way! Area looks secure!"

"Good work, Garrus!" replied Shepard, pushing ahead. "All right, let's get in here and take a look around. Find out why the geth are attacking. If the colonists don't have answers, we'll search for alternatives. Everyone, stay behind me and stick together unless I say otherwise. Keep an eye out."

We each gave her our acknowledgment, following Shepard as she led the way through Zhu's Hope.

Finally free from the structures we had trawled through, this late-morning glow over the colony blended in with the rest of the cement I was used to. An almost heavenly light shined through the clouds, with the sun trying its hardest to brighten Feros on this stubborn, dreary day. Yet this place remained bereft of much hope or brightness of any sort. Only the Prothean towers beyond seemed in better shape.

Pockets of structural damage and electrical fires soured the scenery in every sense.

No one that Shepard spoke with had any useful information, preoccupied as they all were:

The humans we passed standing guard—they struggled to wield their guns, fearful that the next geth attack would be the end of them.

Other humans were on their knees, tending to the wounded and the dead piled up next to the flames.

Still others did their best to tend to the colony's water structures, power systems, and other concerns.

The housing compound we walked through held within echoes of the ill and the dying, their wailing only barely reaching us through to this hallway.

And outside of this building, the people walking by—they seemed to go from place to place in a daze, on auto-pilot so to speak. Bringing more resources to their engineers near the freighter controls; making vague complaints about their thirst or hunger, as if they didn't quite know why they needed a meal.

They wandered without wandering.

They thought without thinking.

Their presence lingered around us, long after they turned a corner and disappeared.

Shepard glanced around. "Something doesn't feel right here. What's going on…?"

Kaidan quieted his sharp hiss as he grabbed his forehead.

The others didn't notice, too focused on following Shepard.

I stayed behind to check on Kaidan, yet he shook his head, insisting that he was fine. He had me continue forward with him, catching up with the rest of the team.

Spotting an armed security guard nearby, Shepard approached her, "Hey, are you—?"

The guard raged, "You! You're Shepard, aren't you? The one who was supposed to be here weeks ago?! You are, I know you are! Damn you…"

"We couldn't get here sooner," explained Shepard, scowling in annoyance. "There were other matters that we needed to attend to first. I take it you've suffered heavy casualties from the geth?"

"That's an understatement! We lost our leader, Fai Dan, because you just had to take your sweet time getting here! These people are just regular colonists, and I'm only a security guard! We're not equipped to handle any of this! That was supposed to be your job, and guess what?! You blew it!"

Forcing a calm, Shepard inquired, "Who are you? What's your name?"

"Arcelia! Arcelia Silva Martínez. And you're Commander freaking Shepard, the unprofessional Spectre who doesn't know how to prioritize human lives over whatever other shit's going on in the galaxy!"

"Look, Arcelia, as I said—"

"—Commander, I don't care what you said!" shouted Arcelia. "Do you see this heap of junk around us? You see what this colony's turned into now, because of you?! Before all of this started, I was just some rent-a-cop for ExoGeni, keeping kids from writing graffiti on the walls! Now I'm the leader of this shithole, and people are dying every day under my watch! Do you even know how that feels?!"

Arcelia continued to rant on and on.

She gave us—or Shepard, rather—an earful about the terrible situation here in Zhu's Hope, and on Feros as a whole. She spared no details, sharing her every grievance over her abject helplessness, as well as her cluelessness as to the geth's intentions in continuing to attack the colony.

I expected Shepard to fire back at her with force; to shut down Arcelia's tirade at any moment by now.

The rest of the squad shared looks of worry with me. We braced ourselves for that probable outcome.

However, Shepard said nothing.

She merely gave Arcelia a bored look of disinterest, having tuned out some time ago.

Spotting this, Arcelia shouted louder, needing to break through the commander's indifference.

Taking advantage of the only pause through the speech, Shepard's apathy cut through, "Are you done?"

"Am I done?!" sputtered Arcelia. "You have got to be kidding me! Really! Is that all you have to say?!"

"Listen, I already told you we had other things to deal with first. So now, I need you to stop bitching and let me do my job! Can you do that? Because if you can't, then I'm calling off this operation and heading back to my ship. I have better things to do than to stand here and put up with this trash."

Arcelia yelled back, "You cold-blooded bitch! You're brutal! Heartless! Don't you care about what we've had to suffer here?!"

Shepard waved her hand in dismissal. "Fine, you had your chance," she declared, turning to leave. "Pack it up. We're finished here. This was a waste of my time."

Realizing that this was no bluff, Arcelia relented at long last. "Damnit, Shepard, wait! Wait, I said!"

"Are you done, then?" reiterated Shepard.

"Yes! Yes!" cried Arcelia in desperation. "Now will you please get back here?! I need you to take out these geth… As much as I hate to admit it, you're our only chance. No one else is coming to save us…"

"Finally, some sense. Now, you said you have no idea why the geth are attacking?"

"None whatsoever…"

"Do you know where their base of operations is?"

Arcelia pointed somewhere behind her. "They're stationed out in the main ExoGeni building, down the Prothean skyway. All the workers there are probably dead by now. They sent us to guard this colony while the people here looked for anything the corporation could use. By this point, the colonists aren't going to find anything worth all that much. Still, it's not like we have anywhere else to go."

"Then we should make our way to this ExoGeni building," announced Shepard.

"Wait, not yet!" pleaded Arcelia. "Before you do that, we have other worries here. Water, food, our power supplies—all running dangerously low. At this rate, we'll starve to death or die from dehydration before the geth can take us out. Plus, the geth have some kind of transmitter in the tunnels that needs to be taken out. Could you take care of that for us first? Please, Commander… I hate begging like this."

"We don't have time to run errands, Arcelia. We're here to take out the geth. Nothing more."

As Arcelia buried her face in her hands, I felt the visceral upset of her frustrations.

I touched Shepard's arm, speaking to her, "Commander, would it truly hurt to take the extra time to aid the colonists? We have secured the area—for now, at least. Could we not also help with their supply problem? I feel their pain. This is the least we can do for them, to make up for our late arrival."

Shepard stared straight ahead with an uncharacteristic vacancy, concealing her truest, filthy thoughts.

She then amended, "We'll take care of your supply problem. Who do we talk to about that?"

Back to his old self, Garrus ribbed me.

I swatted his arm away.

Arcelia nearly managed a smile. "They're not hard to spot," she mentioned. "You'll find the people in charge of our supplies in the nearby area. I'm trying not to remember anyone's names in case they end up dead within the next hour… If you take a look around, you'll see them in no time."

"Sounds good," responded Shepard. "I should go. I'll come find you if I need anything else."

"I'll be here, Commander. And—thanks."

We returned indoors to search around, back to the long hallway leading to the various rooms.

Everyone and everything had gone silent. No suffering echoing through the halls; no wailing from before.

Kaidan began to slow down, holding onto his head again.

Shepard noticed right away this time—"Lieutenant? You all right?"

"It's just my migraines, Commander," explained Kaidan, slowing more and more. "I'll… I'll be fine."

Garrus held him steady, worrying, "You push yourself too hard on the way here?"

"No, no, it's my old L2 implants… Gives me headaches from time to time. I'm used to it, you know?"

"I don't know about that, Alenko," expressed Shepard. "Let's get you someplace to lie down. I need to assess this for myself."

"Commander, I'm fine," he insisted, his voice sounding farther and farther away. "I'm… I'm okay. I am."

"I'm not convinced."

Shepard guided Kaidan to the clinical white of a nearby room with a free bed and a few empty chairs. She had the lieutenant lie down over the bed's hard, flat surface, before taking a seat over one of the chairs nearest to him. The rest of us remained near the entrance to the room, watching as Kaidan's breathing grew unsteady within moments. Yet his conditioned remained as such, and did not worsen or grow better for as long as we continued to observe him.

After a short time, Shepard said, "He needs to stay here. I'll keep monitoring him for now. I may have to bring him back to the ship if this gets worse." She looked to Garrus. "I want you to lead the team while I'm here. Get those supplies taken care of—food, water, and power. Start off by finding those people Arcelia mentioned. She said something about a geth transmitter, too. See what you can find out."

"Of course, Commander," complied Garrus, at the ready. "You can count on me! We'll head out now."

"Right. Stay in radio contact. If you need me for backup, I'll get to your location as soon as I can."


Leaving Shepard back at Zhu's Hope left me uneasy.

Regardless of Kaidan's situation, I didn't want to leave her behind. Not for anything.

Trudging through these foul, damp tunnels outside the colony—without her—only worsened my mood.

I remained near the back of the group as we fought more geth, battles blending into one another. Garrus led us at the fore, praising our skills and pushing us forward. Without Shepard here, we were less organized, less focused on impressing her. Straight shooting and casual power usage took precedence over our coordinated explosions, making this whole thing take much longer than it should have.

We had disabled the transmitter some time ago, preventing the geth from communicating with one another about the state of the colonists and their survival. In between these repetitive battles, we searched for ways to restore those supplies.

Taking cover behind a short wall of concrete, I found myself resenting my earlier suggestion already.

Here in this spot, safe from fire, I couldn't stop thinking about Shepard, about the night before.

But then, Wrex took it upon himself to interrupt my daydreaming, approaching me.

I busied myself with more shooting. Conveniently enough, I found that Ashley was almost in my direct line of fire somewhere in front of me. I edged my pistol farther away from her, not wanting to start a scene. This felt useless, anyway, as she, Garrus, and Tali seemed to have things under control up there.

"You're looking pretty comfortable over here, Liara," teased Wrex, bending his large frame over to take cover with me, with part of his kinetic barrier brushing off enemy fire. "Mind if I play hooky with you?"

I gave him a stern reminder: "Wrex, we're in the middle of a fight!"

He laughed. "You're telling me!"

When I continued shooting, and continued ignoring him, Wrex wouldn't accept that. He was clearly interested in speaking to me for some reason or another. And so, he decided to take it upon himself to keep breaking the ice, in the hopes that I would change my mind.

On purpose, Wrex shot just near Ashley's shields, close enough to snap at her with heat—

And close enough for Ashley to shout over her shoulder at us, "Check your fire!"

"What's going on back there?!" demanded Garrus. "If Shepard hears word about any friendly fire, that's my neck on the line! So keep the peace, will you? Let's get the last of these geth down and move out!"

Wrex sniggered in amusement.

I scolded him, "Was that really necessary?"

"Nope, but it sure was funny," claimed Wrex, before throwing the final geth up in the air with his biotics. "There, they're shooting the last ones now. We can get out of these tunnels soon. Stinks down here."

Finally, the gunfire ended—for the time being.

We resumed our search for the alpha varren, as he had run off earlier from his last location.

Nearly twice my size, Wrex trudged alongside me, observing me.

Unable to keep ignoring him, I asked, "Is there something you need?"

"There is," said Wrex. "Wanted to ask you some questions—if you don't mind. You're touchy today."

"What answers could I possibly have for you?"

"Well, let's get the obvious out of the way!"

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, you heard. Last night. I am certain it was very amusing to you."

Wrex smirked, knowing, but only briefly. "Yeah, it was," he replied, level-headed. "Not in the way you're thinking, though. Always figured you and Shepard had a thing for each other. Glad you two finally did the deed. Sounds to me like it was well worth it. She's got a knack for impressing me, I'll say."

"You mean, you already knew?"

"We all knew. Since day one. Everyone except Ashley. She's still acting like this is some huge shock."

Why did no one tell me before if it was that noticeable?

"It's real simple," continued Wrex. "When you and Shepard are in a room together, there's sparks flying everywhere. We see it, all the time. Reminds me of some old love tales I know from my clan…" He sighed, dejected. "I won't bore you with those. Tali might want to hear about them. I'll ask her later."

"When you mentioned your clan just now, you sounded so…sad about it."

"Hmm, yeah, guess so. Living with the genophage—that's what it does to you. I'm proud of my clan. Proud to be Clan Urdnot. But we lost our real pride long ago. Now we're just guns for hire outside of Tuchanka. And if we are back on our destroyed rock for a homeworld, all we do is fight. It never ends."

I wondered, "Is this somehow linked to me? To the commander as well?"

Wrex found much pain in asking me, "What's it like, Liara? To be that…passionate about something?"

My heart broke for him. "Wrex…"

"Listening to you two, it got me thinking too much. I learned to shut off my emotions, see? Stop caring about most things. Guns, killing, and earning credits—that's it. Nothing else. You and Shepard make me wonder what it's like to have those kinds of feelings again. To not be so…desensitized to the galaxy, to the problems my people suffer."

"Krogan apathy does seem to be an epidemic," I noted. "At the same time, I don't blame you for living the way you do. The genophage is an insurmountable problem that your people face. If the solution feels impossible, then why dwell on the issue at all? Better to focus your attentions elsewhere…"

"That's how I dealt with it for the longest," agreed Wrex.

"Until now?"

"Until now…"

"But, Wrex…why us? Why has this awakened such an existential crisis in you?"

"Wasn't only you two at first," he explained. "Hanging around with all of you crazy kids, you make me laugh every day. Wasn't expecting that when I joined up. Not one bit. Makes me feel like there's a way out of the hell we krogan suffer year after year. Then I heard that passion from you two! That—undeniable thing. I realized I feel something similar for my people. It's just buried deep right now."

"What would it take for you to feel that again?"

Wrex knew: "Hope. I wish I had hope. Like when I was younger, when I believed there was a way to solve this mess. Then I got older, more cynical. I stopped believing. Never stopped caring, though."

"Perhaps you shouldn't punish yourself for caring," I suggested. "If you forgive yourself for feeling the way you do, that may help. Whether there is a solution to the genophage or not, would it really hurt to accept your emotions, instead of fighting them? The rest may be able to resolve itself over time."

"Huh, yeah… Sounds like you may be right, Liara. Turns out you've got some good insight on this stuff."

We then smiled at one another, so unexpected.

My smile soon faded, however, once I remembered that Shepard wasn't here with us.

Wrex nudged me, recommending, "Why don't you give her a call? Check up on her and Alenko."

"Yes, I'll do that now. Thank you, Wrex…" Dialing into the group's frequency, I wished that she and I had our own private means of calling one another—"Shepard, are you there? Is everything all right?"

Wrex, along with Garrus, Tali, and Ashley all listened in as well, staying silent.

No one needed to ask why I had decided to call her.

"I'm here, Liara," replied Shepard, warming me. "Kaidan's resting in that room. His migraine hasn't gone away, but it's not getting any worse, either. I'm taking a look around the colony. These people are trying to act normal. I don't buy it. Something's off about them. It's like they're hiding some secret here."

I needed to know first—"How are you doing?"

Shepard paused, knowing that the others listened in. "I'll tell you later. Status report."

"We are hunting for an alpha varren at the moment, Commander. His meat will help the colonists with their current food shortage. Aside from that, we are making short work of the geth out here."

"Good. Keep at it."

There was so much that I wished to say to her; so much that I could not say to her, not right now.

Listening to the sheer space between us, I picked up on this unusual feeling…

I asked once more, "Shepard, how are you?"

Buying time—"Are you worried about me?"

"I am now, yes," I said, unable to keep my emotions out. "Is there something wrong? Please…tell me."

Another pause, and then she dimmed her voice low, bristly: "…I have a headache, too. Not sure why."

I reminded her: "You didn't sleep at all last night."

Shepard insisted, "No, it's not related to that. I'm awake; I'm fine. This just came out of nowhere."

"How bad is your headache?"

Lower, deeper, "It's…bad. Actually started earlier when that Arcelia wouldn't stop yelling at me. It's gotten worse since then. I'm only walking around now through brute-force. And these fucking things—" Shepard sniffled and blew out air, her nose irritated. "What are these spores everywhere? This is allergy hell! Why did my intel on this place not mention any of this shit? Someone dropped the ball, big-time."

"Shepard, that doesn't sound normal at all," I worried, making eye contact with Garrus. He nodded to me; we all began hurrying back to Zhu's Hope. "Where are you right now?"

"I'm watching this engineer over here by the freighter crane controls. She's acting like she needs to fix the control panel so badly, like the thing is broken. Looks fine to me. I'm going to move this crane and see where it leads. I swear, if they have some illegal, hazardous materials stashed underneath this place…"

"Commander, I don't think that is the best idea—"

"—I'll be okay, Liara. Focus on getting that alpha varren, and then come back here. I'm heading out."

"Shepard, wait! Please don't do this!"

The way my heart dropped as she dropped the line, our only line to speak, to stay near one another…

Tali looked back to me, confirming the worst: "She cut all communications to her omni-tool. You're right—this isn't normal. She was acting so strange…"

Ashley bolted ahead. "We'd better move it! And fast! Shepard's in trouble!"

"Ah, shit," fretted Wrex, preparing himself for the run.

Garrus rallied everyone, "Let's get back to the colony, now! Double-time!"


That putrid smell from the tunnels: it compounded and expanded as we neared Zhu's Hope once again.

Inhuman sounds from the human colony: wailing, howling, and a curdling of pungent liquids deep within the throats of the beings that now neared us.

Bipedal, lunging, burned skin, and limping toward our group in hordes—these creepers assailed us, blocking our entry. The colonists that had once been here at this entrance, standing guard—they were no more, having either fallen or turned into these things, just like everyone else.

Rippling shots from Ashley's assault rifle blasted at them first, head-first. "Punch through!" she ordered. "Make an opening! I don't care what these damned things are! Kill them and find Kaidan. Find Shepard!"

Garrus and Wrex joined me in following suit, firing off our guns and abilities in an unfocused frenzy, tech and biotic in a cacophony at once.

Each time these creepers died, they let out more of that putrid, rancid acid in their wake.

We stepped over it all, onward into the colony, past the flames, the rubble, the corpses, all.

Tali stepped back, hesitating, shotgun in-hand. "But what if… What if they've turned into these…?"

"There's no way, Tali!" barked Ashley, pushing forward; mowing down an entire wall of creepers. "It's those spores the commander mentioned! The colonists have been exposed to them for way longer than Kaidan and Shepard have! They can't have turned! They're here somewhere—focus up and find them!"

Sensing Tali's lingering doubts, Garrus spoke to her as he fired his own gun, "The chief's right! We can't hold back, not for anything! Now come on, Tali—we need your help to keep pushing through! The freighter is just up ahead! Kaidan should still be there!"

Wrex nodded to Tali, caring.

I gave her a single look that spoke to my need to find Shepard, soon.

Hiding her fears away, Tali moved ahead with her shotgun, bolstering Ashley's flank.

During this push, I took stock of my own worries, wondering why I hadn't lost myself over this.

Considering this, really considering it, I found solace in the bond that Shepard and I shared together. I found something tangible to hold onto: this undeniable feeling that she was still alive, that she was still out there—near here—somewhere, someplace. And she was herself. I could feel her heart palpitations and the quickness of her migraine-pulsing thoughts, all transposed over mine, quicker and quicker; matching this rush I felt from battle; convincing me that she wasn't all right, but at least she was alive.

We had our connection.

Primal, primitive—I had marked her as my territory last night. Lines drawn, I'd made myself clear.

Shepard belonged to me.

I knew that she would fight back if I said the words out loud. She was our leader. She had too much pride to face otherwise, to accept anything else. Yet the fact remained:

She was mine.

I fought with this conviction, accessing a new skill floor with my biotics—one that I had been avoiding.

As a mirror of my new strength, a powerful blast of biotics blew out as bright blue from the housing compound. Creepers decapitated and sent flying, the corpses scattered across the ground in front of us. That unknown substance reeked out from the corpses, bubbling as ooze—a rotten, compost-like stench.

Kaidan limped out from the building, gripping his head.

"Lieutenant!" said Ashley, hurrying over to support him. He nearly collapsed against her. "Kaidan, are you with us? Are you okay?! Have you seen the commander?"

"She left…a while ago," he muttered. "I fell asleep for a bit. Woke up to one of those things trying to claw my face off… No idea where the heck they came from. God, my head's killing me…"

Garrus surveyed the area. "Looks like they're gone for now."

"Shepard is still missing," worried Tali. "She mentioned a freighter crane and a control panel. We need to find them if we have any chance of following her trail! Oh, I hope she's all right…"

Wrex pointed out, "Alenko's not looking too good. Think one of us can escort him back to the ship?"

Ashley pulled up her radio. "Shore party to Normandy. Shore party to Normandy! Joker, do you copy?"

Joker responded, "I hear you, shore party! I was just about to call you guys! We've got a bunch of zombie-things pounding at the hull, trying to claw their way in here! It's crazy!"

"How many are there?" asked Ashley. "Can you hold out?"

"Uhh, there's literal waves of these nut-jobs out here! But yeah, the ship can hold 'em. Don't recommend fighting your way through this crap, though. The odds aren't looking too good for extraction… Hey, hang on! Ash, why are you calling me? Where's Shepard?!"

"We're…looking for her. We got separated, and then those things attacked. I'm guessing she went looking for the source. We're doing our best to catch up."

"I don't like the sound of that one bit. Just find her and get back here, all right? We'll hold on for as long as we can!"

"Copy that… Williams out." She then looked to all of us. "Looks like that escort is a no-go. Kaidan, can you hang on for the rest of the mission? If we take out whatever's causing these spores, I'm betting that'll make your headache go away. Shepard's probably found it by now. I really don't want her fighting that thing all by herself."

"Yeah, Ash," promised Kaidan, taking deep breaths. "I'm okay. Locating Shepard's our top priority."

"Right. Let's take a look around—see if we can find that control panel the commander talked about. And we should stick together. There might be more of those creepers on the way…"

We all fell into step behind Ashley as she took point.

She searched with a quieted vengeance, leaving no corner of Zhu's Hope unexamined.

I allowed her to do this, on the outside, ceding this control to her. Inward, I remained focused on my link with Shepard. I felt that I was close to a breakthrough, to being able to tap into her sight and her other senses, even from this distance. If I could feel her, as one, then that would help me find her…

Seeing through Shepard's eyes, disoriented, I saw her view of the cement-ceiling far above. Feeling through her, I felt a similar cold, hard cement under her back, the pop of her spine rolling against the ground as she moved in place, breathing hard. I saw the fit of her stealth suit over her arms, her hands—how those same hands, she used to push at someone on top of her.

That someone: an asari with unnatural, green skin and feral face markings; the tight, form-fitting, black-striped uniform belonging to an asari commando; and eyes blackened with her attempts to penetrate Shepard's mind—succeeding, but not fully.

Behind the asari, looming far overhead, was a massive, squid-like creature, its many dark tentacles lodged into the rise of the landings, keeping it in place. Its control over the asari made plain, it sent more creepers toward the scene to overwhelm, to dominate, to conquer.

"What keeps the Thorian at bay?!" hissed the asari, deranged as she fought to keep Shepard down. "You are powerful, indeed! Yet your mind should be pliable to the Thorian's influence above all else—ripe for the taking! Who denies the Old Growth's will? Who has indoctrinated you, marked you as their territory with such childish anxiety, such sickening desperation?! Tell me, human!"

Struggling hardest, Shepard kicked the asari back. "Fuck off!" she cursed. "Stay the hell out of my head!"

Finishing the job, she then shoved the asari down the bottomless drop beneath the Thorian—

Only for the creature to open its mouth, rancid ooze seeping: another green asari appeared, an exact clone of the last. Plopped out over her feet, the clone grinned at Shepard with a wickedness, determined to penetrate her again—to keep raping her mind until the Thorian found its control over her.

Nearly flanked by the legion of creepers hobbling closer, Shepard had no choice but to cloak and run.

I ran off, breaking away from the group. I knew exactly where to go.

"Liara?! Hey!" called Ashley after me. "Damnit… Everyone after her! She could be onto something!"

Rounding the corner behind the housing compound, I found that control panel.

I sensed that she had been here at some point, but…

Tali rushed ahead of me to the panel. "Someone tried to destroy it!" she said, surveying the cracking electricity and sizzling smoke. "Hang on—I'll do what I can to get this working again. If we can lift this crane, then that should lead us to where Shepard is!"

Breathing hard with adrenaline that was not my own, I stared at the structure nearby. This was the final obstacle in our way. This was all that stood between us saving Shepard, or her falling to the panic and chaos underneath us, far underground.

In the near-distance, I heard that inhuman howling, again—tenfold.

"We've got company!" announced Wrex, pulling out his shotgun. "It's those creepers!"

"Tons of them," noted Garrus. "They're coming from both sides of the freighter! We're surrounded!"

The sheer number of those things was unlike anything we'd seen last time.

As much as I believed in our team, we didn't stand a chance against something like this.

That Thorian must have been controlling these creatures. We had to kill it in order to make this all end.

Losing my patience, I focused my energies on this single obstacle. Locking my biotics to it, pulling at it—I worked everything I had against this immeasurable weight. Determined to lift it up and out of the way, I defied my own boundaries, needing to get to Shepard, to protect her, to get her out of harm's way. I couldn't let her die like this; I couldn't let some other thing take her away, to take her mind from me!

Ashley hunkered down with Garrus on the left side. "I'll hold this flank with you, Garrus! Kaidan, Wrex, defend the right side! Don't let them get through to Tali and Liara!"

Cloaked and hidden, Shepard remained in a corner near a set of stairs, collecting herself.

Prowling creepers ran right by her, searching in scores. That asari clone joined the horde in their trek, determined to find her. The Thorian hovered over this game of hide and seek, its immense size taking up the entire space beyond the walls and endless stairwells, watching the proceedings.

Tugging pain against the very tissue in her brain—Shepard could not remained cloaked for much longer. Not without great risk. Although her head no longer throbbed with the pains of a migraine, her abused implants now posed a much greater threat.

Struggling to keep her breathing steady, and quiet, she looked around.

The Thorian's tentacles remained lodged within certain spaces of the landings. Clamped against the cement surfaces, the creature maintained its equilibrium over that long drop, preventing itself from falling into the unknown abyss far below. Destroying its hold over the landings would have surely caused the Thorian to fall to its death, ending the onslaught of those creepers, as well as the asari clones.

Pushing herself to remain cloaked a while longer, Shepard retrieved her sniper rifle from over her back. Silent steps, silent breathing, she crossed the space to the nearest of the Thorian's many limbs. This king of limbs, she needed to take down, even if she was forced to do this alone. Avoiding more creepers and the maniacal intent of that clone, she soon reached an adequate location to shoot from.

Ignoring how impractical it was to fire her sniper rifle from this point-blank range, she shot the limb.

Cries of pain and wailing, gigantic size flailing, the Thorian suffered the blow—the first of many.

A single, powerful shot. She could fire only once, get the job done, and then move without being spotted.

Uncloaking for a second after firing, Shepard had refreshed her tactical cloak implants, before going invisible once more. The enemies followed the source of the noise from her shot, nearly discovering her. Dodging them all, Shepard slipped around them, head over to the creature's next weak point.

Ashley and Garrus on one side, Wrex and Kaidan on the other—they continued to hold the line, even as that line shortened and thinned with each passing minute, each passing shot.

Brute-forcing with my biotics, I had made a dent in this structure, lifting it, but not nearly enough.

Tali made a breakthrough with the repairs—"There, I've almost got it! If I can tweak this a little more, Liara, you'll have an easier time moving the whole thing! I only need a few more minutes!"

Pistol in-hand, Kaidan fell to one knee. "Damnit, not now!" he cursed, grabbing his head again. "Why—why is it telling me…to do this?! She's my friend!"

Ashley yelled over her shoulder, "Get it together, Alenko! We need you!"

"Argh, this pain—it's too much! It won't stop… Won't stop, not unless I…!"

"Kaidan, whatever it's telling you to do, don't do it! Fight it, LT! You hear me?!"

Alone on his flank, Wrex resorted to moving into melee range. Headbutting, close-range shooting of his shotgun, smacking creepers away with the sheer strength in his arms—he was powerful enough to hold his own. Yet the raw numbers of enemies was bound to wear him down after a while, inevitably so.

I pushed my biotics as hard as they could go.

"Almost there," muttered Tali in concentration, focusing on the control panel. "Nearly there, nearly there… I just need to—" Her shields rippled in protection from sudden gunfire her way. She shouted in a panic: "Kaidan! What are you doing?!"

Ashley nearly snapped her neck as she turned around. "What the—?"

Nearly breaking my own focus, I could only watch as Kaidan fired his pistol at Tali again.

Tali ducked behind the control panel, taking cover. "Are you insane?!" she screamed. "Have you lost your mind, Kaidan!? I'm on your side, remember?" He fired at her again. "Damnit, stop shooting at me!"

"Lieutenant, stop!" ordered Ashley, approaching him, assault rifle drawn. "Alenko! I'm warning you!"

Garrus, also in close-range, stomped on a creeper's head as he bellowed, "Do you need me to step in?!"

Wrex added, mid-headbutt, "I'm a little busy here!"

Ashley told them, "No! You two, keep holding our flanks! I'll take care of this!"

Distracted as Kaidan was, firing at Tali in a mind-numbing repetitiveness, he left himself open:

Ashley balled her fist with her full anger—anger over his thrall, over his betrayal; over something else.

She punched the lieutenant's jaw, knocking him out cold.

"That did the trick!" called Garrus, fighting harder to hold the line by himself over there.

Tali sighed in relief. "I'll say… Thanks, Ashley."

"Yeah, no problem," replied Ashley, standing over Kaidan's unconscious form. "Must be some kind of mind control with those headaches… He might wake up and start shooting at us again. I won't take any chances. I'll stay here while the guys do the heavy lifting. Speaking of that—"

Creaking of metal, weight cracking and crumbling against the force of my biotics; safeguards and locks bending and breaking. The obstacle moved at long last. Lifting this higher, I threw the impossible weight of this crane off at a distance, listening as it crashed into a faraway flame somewhere.

With that crashing, I ran down the stairs, delving deep underground to find Shepard.

"Well, damn!" praised Ashley, watching me run off once more. "Liara, wait a minute!" Knowing full-well that I wouldn't wait for her—not while I could feel Shepard's presence, nearing—she changed her plans: "Tali, keep an eye on Kaidan! If you have to, help Garrus and Wrex if they're about to get overrun. I'm going after Liara! Whatever's down there can't be good… Hopefully Shepard's still in one piece!"

Tali agreed, "Right, I'm on it! You go on ahead!"

Bolting down to this lair of concrete, I primed my biotics, ready to run into more of those creepers.

Or that asari clone.

Arriving at this familiar platform, all I found was the Thorian looking down at me from its precarious perch. Only a single one of its limbs remained tangled above, supporting its weight over this impossible drop. In such a vulnerable, perilous position, this creature could but challenge me with a look alone.

Somehow, Shepard hadn't fallen victim to the Thorian's thrall. Not as the lieutenant had.

And now I knew for certain that she hadn't: I heard another shot of fire from Shepard's sniper rifle, from somewhere up above. Loudness ricocheting off of these cold, hard walls, the Thorian's rumbling, falling, wailing joined that cacophony, ear-piercing in turmoil. That gigantic size of such an ancient-looking being—the Thorian fell from its perch, fell to that unending dark down below; fell to its ultimate death.

Those far-off wails from the creepers ceased—both from here in this underground opening, and far above-ground where the others were.

Searching around, I called out, "Shepard? Shepard, are you there?! Please, answer me!"

"Liara?"

Up on the landing above, I spotted the commander looking winded, but untouched from her stealth.

Holstering her sniper rifle over her back, Shepard vaulted over the railing in front of her. She then landed on her feet with that same ease and comfort I remembered. Limping a bit, she walked toward me, standing strong as the eternal sunlight she was to me, as always.

I crossed the distance between us first, gripping Shepard around her waist; not caring about this smell.

Shepard was here. She was here, finally, and she was safe. I could breathe again, no longer needing to wring our connection dry simply to keep a hold over her. I could allow my heart to beat again, knowing that she was here with me. Because without her, I couldn't function. Not even my own involuntary functions could work as they should have, on that automatic timing. I had been on fumes without her, on-edge without her. I had lost some part of me, and now I had it back, brighter than before.

Tentative, Shepard held me back, whispering my name this time, "Liara…"

I held her even tighter. "Don't ever do that again… Please, don't."

She could find no promises to give me, no words other than—"I'm sorry I worried you."

I hadn't just worried.

She knew it, too.

Her speechlessness gave away how much she knew, how much she sensed of me.

Right along the top of my head, I felt the way Shepard's pulse pounded against my crests in yearning.

More than that, I felt a change in her.

Something within her mind had grown, shifted. Or perhaps there was something there that I had never noticed before. Something that, to my mind's eye, felt and tasted like that asari clone that had violated her, probing her mind with such viciousness. Whether intentional or not, the asari had given Shepard something of her, something of the Thorian.

Whatever it was, this new article felt distinctly Prothean, shifting Shepard's mind as such.

More footsteps from the stairs, approaching us:

Ashley found us here, quite unable to look up from the ground.

"Ashley," said Shepard, ending our embrace. "You made it."

"Yeah… Hey, Skipper. Glad you're okay. Then again, can't say I'm surprised. Griffons never die, after all."

Shepard asked with an ease about her, "A griffon, huh? Is that what you think I am?"

Ashley smiled to herself. "Yep," she murmured. "Anyway, what happened? How did you survive?"

"It wasn't easy. I had to take out some giant…squid-thing. A Thorian. It was trying to get into my head."

"Explains what happened to Kaidan," recalled Ashley. "He went off the deep-end… Started shooting at us. I had to knock him out cold. I'm guessing he'll be fine once he wakes up."

Shepard nodded. "You made the right call, Chief. Kaidan should be back to normal in no time."

"And if he isn't…?"

"Then I'll deal with it if I have to."

Ashley listened far above. "I don't hear anything from them. Hopefully they're recovering after the fight. Should we get going?"

Shepard surveyed the area first. Spotting something along a nearby wall, she retrieved her sidearm, approaching the anomaly: a large, pulsing sac that looked like it once belonged to the Thorian. I sensed life within the flesh there. Someone was in there—someone no doubt associated with that unknown creature the commander had disposed of.

Collapsing from the sac, an asari commando appeared, caked and coated in the transparent sludge from within the space. Skin of violet, struggling to stand; this person seemed normal enough. Yet those green clones had been of her. I recognized the pattern of markings over her face, so feral.

Shepard aimed her pistol down at this asari commando's head, primed to shoot.

"Commander Shepard, wait!" pleaded the asari, holding her hands up. "I am not your enemy! Please, you must understand—those clones of mine who attacked you, that was not of my own will…"

"How do you know my name?" asked Shepard.

The asari chanced making eye contact with her. "When my clone melded with you, I learned…you. I learned all that I could about you, Commander. I understood why the Thorian was so angry with you, as well as with the one who clings to your mind. I only wish to offer guidance and assistance."

After taking a moment to reconsider, Shepard holstered her gun. "Fine," she accepted. "Who are you?"

Standing now, and stepping away from the fallen sac, the asari replied, "My name is Shiala. I am—I was a disciple of Matriarch Benezia." She regarded me. "And you…you must be her daughter. Liara. She kept many photographs of you, many records of your accomplishments. She looked over them often, usually with regret. I believe she misses you dearly after you parted ways. She would like to make amends."

I turned away, not wanting any reminder of my mother at a time like this.

I refused to look at Ashley, as well, who glared at me in such disbelief, in such a hateful awe. At last, she had some measure of understanding about me, even if it had not come firsthand from my own words. Even so, she and I had no reason to make amends at this point—the same as with my mother.

"I apologize, Liara," expressed Shiala. "I served with your mother for two hundred years. I still remember the day you were born—how you brought Lady Benezia such joy. But…if you would rather avoid this matter, then I will abide by your wishes. Please forgive me."

Shifting the topic, Shepard questioned, "Shiala, what are you doing in a place like this? If you served under Liara's mother, how did you end up here?"

"When Lady Benezia decided to join Saren, she hoped to guide him down a gentler path. After she gave each of her disciples the option of staying or leaving her side, I chose to join her. However, Saren eventually twisted her, corrupted her mind with his unnatural influences. Following that influence, I was sent here to communicate with the Thorian with my biotics, in the hopes of gaining something."

"Something," repeated Shepard, rubbing her head. "You gave it to me, didn't you? Or at least, your clone did by accident."

"Yes, the Cipher," confirmed Shiala. "It is the endemic, ancestral memory of what it means to be a Prothean, to think like one. It is their collective unconscious, spanning many generations. After melding with the Thorian, I also gave this gift to Saren, to aid in his quest to find the Conduit. He knows that you are following his trail, Commander. And so he sent the geth here to destroy all remnants of the Thorian, to prevent you from locating it or the Cipher. He did not count on what happened here today."

"Yeah, well, the Thorian was pretty pissed at me. I had no choice but to find it and take it out."

Shiala explained, "The Thorian was not a predatory creature. In fact, it had long outlived the Protheans, and it had preceded their existence as well. This is how it had the Cipher in the first place—through direct knowledge of the ones who came before. It was once content to remain here, refusing to draw attention to itself. However, your presence frightened it, threatened its very survival. It had to act."

"What, by giving me a headache? Trying to infect me with its spores?"

"The colonists who lived here had also been infected to some extent. The Thorian guided the humans to protect it, to keep any outsiders from locating its presence here. You may have received the usual side-effect of that headache, yet you were not fully compelled to act in the creature's thrall. It is…strange."

Shepard remembered: "Your clone said something to me… About how I'm indoctrinated already."

Shiala paused in humble recollection. "Yes, this is true," she agreed. "It is as with Lady Benezia—she is in service to Saren's thrall, a slave to his will. This is due to the massive vessel they travel with: the ship named Sovereign. That very ship causes a similar kind of indoctrination in its subjects. However, the one the Thorian sensed from you is different."

"Different how…? And how the hell am I indoctrinated at all?! I feel fine! I feel like—me. So how can I be under someone else's control?"

Control. Sex. Spoken word. Domination.

Trust. Subspace. Resisting outside influences. One mind, one master.

"I am afraid I can only speculate, Commander," answered Shiala. "From what I observed, your existing indoctrination prevented the creature's spores from infecting you, as they infected the colonists. You felt the overwhelming attempts from the Thorian to control your mind. And yet you were kept safe, as you are already under someone else's control. Just as I had only one master in Lady Benezia—not Saren, and not Sovereign—you experience something similar, but on a much deeper level."

"Yeah, but…weren't you a slave to Saren, too? You had to be indoctrinated! You weren't only following Benezia's orders. You did what Saren wanted when you melded with the Thorian."

"Unfortunately, yes, that is correct…"

Shepard asked in frustration, "Then how am I any different from you? What's the big deal here?!"

Shiala gave us her interpretation: "Commander Shepard, unlike me, and unlike many others, your will is stronger than any steel. Your mind is set within the oldest, toughest of stones. And the…taste surrounding your indoctrination—it is elevated, but in chaos. It is of the gods. As if the person holding onto your mind views you with that greatness, lifting you with the very determination of those gods.

"As ancient and as wondrous as the Thorian was, I sense another, greater vastness in the powers that now protect you from outside influences. These powers, once-dormant, have been activated by a different Cipher that now resides within your mind, bringing about this chaos. Your powers thrive off of this separate Cipher as much as they are utterly repulsed by its mere presence. It is a Cipher that no ordinary person would come across—only one who has thoroughly studied, obsessed over, and made it their life's work to fully understand the new gods who are now in chaos within you. That is all I can discern."

In Shepard's silence, I felt the strength of how much she wished to look at me.

She hesitated, and doubted, as did I.

Of the gods…

Of the goddess? Athame?

I had not devoted my life's work to studying Her. And so, if Shiala's speculations were correct, this person could not have been me. Aside from my habit of expressions—by the goddess—I was not remotely religious. I had rebelled against my mother's efforts in attempting to make a religious scholar out of me. So this was not, could not have been me…

But if it was not me, then who else could it have been?

"Liara, Commander Shepard—I see that you are both troubled," observed Shiala. "However, please know it is possible that I am mistaken. After all, I can only describe this taste. I can only define how things appear from this unknown person's point of view. And even then, this is skewed further by causes I cannot know. Were I able to see the situation from the outside, with my own eyes, as well as with the knowledge I have gained from the Thorian, I could perhaps offer a more truthful summary."

"Don't worry about it," offered Shepard, sounding distant. "Looks like I'll have to find out more on my own. Maybe Saren will have the answers I need—or the Conduit, whatever it is. I'll keep searching." Collecting herself, she then asked, "What about you? The colonists are all dead. I'm pretty sure my team killed just about everyone on this planet who turned into those creepers. Where will you go?"

"If you allow it, I will find my own way across the galaxy. In learning you, you have piqued my interest in these gods, this alternate form of indoctrination. I would like to discover and learn more about what we have discussed here. Should you give me permission to do this, perhaps we will meet again one day."

"You don't plan on going back to Benezia?"

Shiala mourned, "No, I cannot… Her mind belongs to Saren now. Although, I do hope that you can bring an end to her suffering. She also has information that may be vital to the success of your mission."

Shepard looked to me. "Liara? How do you feel about heading to Noveria next?"

I gave her the only answer I could: "You know that I shouldn't avoid my mother any longer, Commander. I would like to settle things with her. As soon as possible. After this conversation, I feel that I need to."

"Understood. We'll get the others, head back to the ship, and leave to Noveria as soon as we can. Shiala, you helped us out, so you're free to go. Hopefully we can all find the answers we're looking for."

Shiala bowed her head to us. "Thank you, Commander. May fortune smile upon you."

Chapter Text

"Song of the Ancients (Devola)" from NieR / "As They Enter" from Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker

VII. Nearer Stars to Sunlight

(Liara)

Returning to the ship with the team, Shepard did not immediately tell Joker to set a course for Noveria.

Instead, she joined us all in the med bay, having helped Wrex limp his way here through his injuries. Tali and Ashley supported Garrus, who was also in bad shape after fighting so hard to protect us. I used my biotics to lift and hover Kaidan's still-unconscious form alongside me. Thankfully, the geth had fled from Feros as soon as the Thorian had fallen, and so we'd had no need to fight through more of them on the way back to the Normandy.

Already waiting for us in the medical bay, Dr. Chakwas directed us to set Garrus, Wrex, and Kaidan over their beds. She then did what she could to tend to their immediate needs, assessing the severity of their respective conditions. Even in her trained calm, I was able to sense her confidence that our team members would be all right, and that they would recover soon enough.

Shepard waited with me near the entrance, along with Tali and Ashley.

We stayed here in silence for the twenty-or-so minutes it took for Dr. Chakwas to let us know:

"They will make a full recovery," she informed us, patching up a gash over Wrex's hump with medi-gel. "It's clear that Garrus and Wrex overexerted themselves in battle. The exhaustion's ailing them more than anything. Thank goodness they weren't in an actual gun fight. I may be telling you a different story in that case. All they need now is plenty of time to rest."

Dr. Chakwas then went over to Kaidan, scanning for his diagnostics with her omni-tool.

"As for Lieutenant Alenko, his vitals are returning to normal. Though I'm concerned about his mental state. Not that I believe any direct leftovers of that Thorian will cause any issues. It's the aftereffects I'm worried about. He won't be able to forget what happened. It may take a toll on him."

Tali reasoned, "But, it wasn't his fault. He was clearly under the influence of that thing! I forgive him for shooting at me. I would never hold it against him. Won't it help if I tell him that once he wakes up?"

"It will, Tali," counseled Dr. Chakwas. "Yet I know the lieutenant. He won't be able to forgive himself."

Tali accepted the assessment with a heavy heart.

Ashley turned away, furtive, with something clearly on her mind.

Shepard remained direct, "Dr. Chakwas, keep me updated on his progress. Depending on how bad it is—if he's not fit for duty, I may have to take official action with the Alliance. I'll accept full responsibility for putting him in harm's way like that."

"That is noble of you, Commander," remarked Dr. Chakwas. "However, there was no way you could have known what awaited on that colony. This isn't your fault, either. In any case, I will need you to help me monitor his progress. How Lieutenant Alenko behaves here on the Normandy will be entirely different than how he performs out on the field. Please keep a close eye on him as well."

"Understood."

"And Shepard, there is something else. It's about you. Although, I know how very fond you are of my medical advice, so I won't force you to have this discussion with me now. Instead, I must ask that you allow my patients to remain here with me during your next mission. You and I will speak later."

Having expected this already, Shepard replied with, "That's fine. We'll leave you to it, then. Thanks."

Dr. Chakwas smiled at us. "Thank you as well," she said. "And good luck on Noveria. I do hope that you ladies will fare better than the men have today."

Leaving the med bay, Tali, Ashley and I followed the commander to the mess hall.

None of us were particularly hungry after the mission. Still, we knew that Shepard had more to say:

"It'll just be us, then," she stated. "The four of us will take on Noveria while the guys heal up. I'll head upstairs soon to plot a course on the galaxy map. I won't have us arrive to Port Hanshan until tomorrow morning, again at 0900 hours. We could get there sooner. I'm not going to push you that hard. So before I dismiss you all, do we need to debrief? Or can we leave Feros behind and be done with it?"

By this point, everyone knew what Shepard had accomplished, taking out the Thorian all on her own.

They knew about what Shiala had told her afterward.

Though they were unclear on who it was that protected Shepard's mind, she and I knew that it was me.

Yet I sensed the commander's rigidness—her need to deny it, if only to keep herself separate from me.

Tali chose to be genuine: "Shepard, I know you won't have anything to say in response… I only want you to know how glad I am that you're okay. When we first returned to Zhu's Hope and found all of those creepers, I was terrified that you had turned into one of them. Then you took out the Thorian all by yourself. I would never doubt your skills even for a second. I guess…I couldn't help worrying about you."

Shepard did not, could not respond, tensing and flexing the muscles in her jaw.

Taking the risk anyway, Tali stepped closer to her, giving Shepard a hug; burrowing against her chest.

In her sincerity, Tali reached at something in Shepard that I couldn't have accessed on my own: this unexpected surprise, of knowing that we all cared for our commander in ways that went beyond a mere distant professionalism. Of course, I knew how Tali truly felt. Of course, I saw how she held Shepard with those feelings, budding and shy as they were, not once expecting anything in return.

That she did not expect anything was what softened Shepard's expression, even in her astonishment.

Stepping away, Tali lowered her head, staring down to the abyss of this unknown—of Shepard's possible reaction, of Shepard's possible retaliation—while pulling at her hands in anxiety.

Tempering that unknown, Ashley held Shepard with one arm, side-by-side; resting her head over the commander's stiffened shoulder. "Same here, Skipper," she murmured. "I managed to push through my fears. We had to find you—simple as that. had to find you. Thinking back on it now, I probably would've pushed the team way harder if that's what it took to get you back. Sounds selfish…" Even with us here, she found the courage to weave her truth through a curious riddle: "What I confided in you about—I'm pretty sure you know what the next step is. The next thing. The only, obvious thing, with you. You don't have to keep wondering about it. It's true. After what happened…I wanted you to know."

Ashley then moved away, too unwilling to watch her cryptic clues join together through Shepard's eyes.

I couldn't bring myself to say anything, to make a gesture.

She already knew—just as everyone else knew, having torn my barriers well down, all the way down.

Shepard turned around; turned her back to us.

She folded her arms in an iron-tight grip, preventing her own sentimentality from spilling out.

She stayed silent for the longest.

Thinking.

Hours and hours could have passed; days, weeks or more; and we would've stayed here for her, waiting.

Shepard knew this, and hardened her order: "Dismissed."

Knowing that her gesture went unnoticed, Ashley saluted the commander anyway. She then left to the crew's quarters. A little fraught, a little caught up in something of her own—she quickened her steps, not wanting to give herself away to us.

Uncertain, Tali looked to me first. I knew what she wished to do, and so I nodded to her in encouragement. She then hurried after Ashley, not knowing what to expect. Needing to help anyway.

Not confident enough to take the same risks, I looked to Shepard one last time before leaving to my room. Passing through the med bay, Dr. Chakwas afforded me a smile. She continued monitoring Garrus, Wrex, and Kaidan as the three of them slept on. I couldn't find the strength to return her kindness. I found that she didn't blame me, merely assuming that I was also exhausted from the mission.

Physically, I was not, somehow.

Mentally, no—I still felt a lingering high from my biotics, primed for me to push them even further.

But, emotionally…

Locking my door behind me, I leaned against the nearest wall.

Sliding to the floor of my room, I allowed the true blue of this space's hue to envelop me. To embrace me as I wished Shepard could have. I knew she was far too proud to do anything more with me. At least at this point. And this was exactly what I'd feared: that we would reach some type of juncture like this, where Shepard would prefer to keep to herself, to keep her space, to keep her individuality.

Rather than engage with me, rather than trust in me, she wished to preserve her place in the sky above.

After all, my hold over her mind was one of childish anxiety, of sickening desperation.

That was certainly me…and Shepard probably hated that now.

After the mess my mother Benezia had made of my own mind, and of my heart, I knew that it was foolish of me to rely on Shepard to this extreme. I had to deal with my problems on my own.

But I had my confirmation—if Shepard was not willing to be in this place with me, then she and I had no business being in a relationship with one another. I had sensed this lack in her—or rather, this hesitation, her avoidance—and so I had set this boundary, to protect myself, partly for this exact reason.

I had prevented the worst, of Shepard breaking my heart with her solitary nature, but still…

This downpour, this streaming from my eyes brought me no comfort, alone.

How I wished I had been mistaken about this.

Wiping my face, my heart picked up over the sudden alert from my omni-tool. Just as quickly as my surprise had arrived, I moderated myself, reasoning with myself: this was probably only a notification from the chat room. The chat room…that only Tali, Ashley, and Joker were awake enough to use at the moment, and with so little to discuss at a time like this…

From: Shepard – My cabin.

Liara,

I'm about to call the Council now to debrief them on what happened down on Feros. I expect they'll talk my ear off for a while. They made me stay on the line with them for almost an hour last time. The only reason I have this much patience with them is because they made me a Spectre in the first place.

In the meantime, I want you to head up to my quarters. It's pretty clear we shouldn't bother staying in your room anymore. You have official clearance and my personal permission to enter my cabin whenever you want. Bring enough of your things to spend the night, or more if you'd like, and put them in my holo-closet. Take a shower in my bathroom. If I'm still not back by the time you're done, you're free to use my private terminal to get some work done. I shouldn't be that long, though.

Maybe you're surprised that I'm sending this. Let's just say I surprised myself, too.

Let me know if I'll get to see you later once I'm done here in the comm room.

-Shepard

.

To: Shepard – Re: My cabin.

Shepard,

I almost don't know what to say. I fully expected you to let all of this pass us by.

This is part of why I set these boundaries in place between us. I wanted to protect my heart from what I believed was inevitable. That is, your need to maintain your distance from me at times like this. When it seemed as if you would leave things the way they were, I admit, I cried over you anyway. I suppose I can't help myself when it comes to you.

I'm very grateful for what you chose to do instead. Thank you—so much.

I will bring what I can and leave to your room now. Please don't feel the need to rush your call to the Council for me. I get the sense that you need some extra time to process all that's happened.

I look forward to seeing you later.

-Liara


Clutching my clothes close to my chest, I made this first step of arriving to the main elevator.

Selecting the topmost level—the captain's cabin—the elevator accepted my credentials. This raising motion made me smile to myself during the short ride. I never would have imagined having this permission from Shepard, and certainly not after what we had just gone through…not this soon.

I was all too happy to move forward with her, together.

Once I reached the appropriate level, I found the short distance to cross from the elevator to her door.

Locked to all else, the Normandy's automated systems allowed me to enter.

Stepping into the comparatively open space of Shepard's quarters, I felt my breath catch in my chest from this novelty. The stern spotlessness here welcomed me, reminding me so of Shepard herself.

Almost overwhelming me, in a good way, I smelled Shepard's soft, smart, and smooth scent, all over her room. This blue caught me as well, everywhere, more so than anywhere else on the ship—the plain walls, the glow of the fishless aquarium along the left wall, and the overall ambiance belonging to an Alliance officer. Military-clean: I took note of the meticulous way that Shepard kept her desk organized, with even the multiple monitors of her terminal arranged at perfect, parallel angles over the surface.

Down the handful of steps and off to the right side, the square angles of her leather couch acted as an extra perimeter to the low table nearby. Across from the couch, and above the aquarium, Shepard had a massive television screen that likely connected to the wireless keyboard and mouse on the table for her video games—organized, once more. And in a corner next to the leather, I spotted a mini-refrigerator glowing an ice blue, neon color, embellished so by the aquarium lighting up the entire room.

Along the far wall was her bed: blue, white, and gray. Alliance-standard.

Perfectly-made, with not a pillow or even a single piece of fabric out of place.

Enough space for the both of us; enough space for her alone, tossing and turning to her thoughts of me.

Short of breath now, I ambled over to her holo-closet next to her bed, next to her aquarium. She had edited the user settings, separating access between hers and mine, by name. I smiled as I selected the profile she had made for me, and set in the clothes I had brought. Out of curiosity, I wanted to check hers, to see what other types of clothes she might have had. I wanted to… I decided otherwise, for now.

Instead, I returned to the area near the door, and entered the bathroom. Simple, straightforward, and without as much room to move around, this area was clearly only meant for one person. Still, I enjoyed how solitary this room felt, even with the sterile silvers of these surfaces. This shower wasn't much larger than the communal ones for the crew, but the door and the walls did cover me completely.

Sighing under the gentle, warm stream of the shower water, I enjoyed how alone I felt here.

Thinking on it now, I couldn't sense that Shepard had even returned to her room, not since we'd arrived back from the last mission. She'd had no need to come back and clean up before I arrived. This was simply how she lived, how she maintained her quarters by habit. And now, I grew to love this about her.

I looked over the handful of body and hair products that Shepard kept organized over the shelves in here. Mostly body products for human men—dark bottles with straightforward fonts. Her hair care collection was more varied, with semi-transparent bottles filled with thick mousse, or herbal shampoos and conditioners. These were all foreign to me. But I appreciated learning about this part of her routine.

Her black bottle of body scrub caught my eye.

Aromatherapy—black chamomile.

The moment I opened the top and smelled the scent, I knew this was her.

I chanced using it for myself, enjoying how gentle and soothing this felt over my skin. It certainly helped to clean the stress off of my body, leaving most of the day's events behind me. The aroma itself did relax me as well, lulling me into calmer thoughts.

Behind me, I sensed Shepard's presence, already.

She merely stood there for the longest.

Watching me through the opaque glass, misted from the heat of the water.

I couldn't dare to turn around and look at her. For the time being, she seemed content to observe.

I could only hold myself around my waist, thinking back to those thoughts of hers—the ones that had frightened me so. Now, I thought of them, because I felt that same intent from Shepard's aura, in the way she watched me with such an intensity, scaled high up in pointed subtlety from her typical levels.

I remembered the way Shepard fantasized about taking me. Usually from behind, with me bent over in front of her, and usually while she wore a strap-on. Realistic, and one where she could feel everything, though 'without the mess.' And I did want that from her, yet I had caught on to some of her history here: how she was scarred by some of the heterosexual women who had lusted after her in the past, and had stipulated that Shepard could only have sex with them if she wore one of these strap-ons.

I couldn't know how many of these women she had taken or rejected. But the experience had created a fascination in her, a frustration that she learned to accept, to twist to her advantage; turning it into an envy that I had no context about, and no point of comparison for, as this was all so human.

She associated power in sex with that added toy—but to her, it was more than a mere object.

She linked her prowess in bed with her ability to please a woman with this particular sex toy.

She sometimes felt incomplete without it, as traumatized as she was from women viewing her as a sex object—to please them—where the absence of a strap-on meant that she was absent, for all they cared.

Just under the sounds of the running shower water, I heard her taking off her clothes:

Folding them, setting them aside;

Untying the tail of her hair from the very center-back of her head, lushness falling down her shoulders.

Shepard opened the shower door, stepping inside with me, and closing it back, locking this heat in. She pressed herself behind me, the length of her hair curving right over the perfect swell of her breasts. In this small denial, she gave me something else to hold on to, in holding me around my waist the way she did—assertive in her confidence, knowing that this was entirely new for me, skin-against-skin like this.

As the shower drenched her hair down my back, Shepard tilted her head down to my neck.

Inhaling me, her breaths heating over this sensitive part of me, she soaked me even more.

And that hard whisper of hers, "You smell like me."

I trembled in her strong hold; I needed her closer.

But if I gave into her now, I might have let this moment pass me by.

"Shepard… You know how much I want you right now. Still, we should talk…about what happened."

She had prepared for this: "Liara, listen… There isn't much to talk about. Not without solid answers. I don't want us running around in circles over this. I hate speculating; I hate jumping to conclusions when I don't have all the facts. So can't this wait?"

I turned around in her hold, gazing up at her in worry.

Shepard continued to hold me with her convictions—softness of her lissome hands adoring my waist, coveting the slope of my lower back up to my shoulder blades—yet this look in her eyes was different.

In this hazy dark of her bathroom, only the silver from the walls gave off any light in here. Like the dim lighting on a gloomy, cloudy day, Shepard's eyes had caught that overcast as her own coldness. But even in this grayscale of hers, I saw the collection of rain building deep within those storm clouds, far past the spraying cascade around us: hidden, and filling wide, and brimming with a growing…love for me.

Love, as it may have been, because she chose to make this sacrifice for me. Shepard brought me to her room and pulled me closer to her, when she'd had every habit and every excuse to push me away.

Love, and much more beyond any resentment, because she chose to place my feelings above her pride.

The moment she spotted the quickening rise and fall of my chest, Shepard settled away that learned coldness of hers. She pulled me closer to her, even closer, embracing me in her adoration—as much as she had coveted me with her touch alone mere seconds ago.

"I'll tell you what I do know," she whispered. "Obviously, it's you. It can only be you. After dealing with that Thorian, I know what it's like to feel a forced thrall. To have something unnatural like that trying to get into my head. With you, it's nothing like that. Maybe Shiala shouldn't have said that I'm 'indoctrinated' by you. That brings up the wrong kinds of connotations. Like it's against my will."

"Then what should she have said…?"

"I don't know, Liara… I don't know. I'm only under your control in as much as I naturally want to please you. This is who I am. And this isn't some weird spell, or a love potion, or whatever Sovereign does to control Saren or other people. It's just…how I feel about you. How much power you have over me in…"

She stopped herself, yet I understood.

She must have felt that it was far too soon to voice this.

And, yes, I supposed it was…but I still wanted her to say the words to me.

Shepard no doubt felt this want from me, as more than the potion she had mentioned. Her heart was about to beat out of her chest against me; she let me go. Breathing out, hard, she reached for her conditioner only, and poured some of it into her hand. Lathering her hair with the white substance, it thinned and soaped, streaking down thickest along the blonde highlights of her brown hair. She then rinsed it all out within minutes, knowing that I watched her all the while, learning more of her.

This switch, of her mental dominance over me to my emotional power over her—once again, it fascinated me to no end the way Shepard expressed such a stiff shyness, as if suddenly inexperienced.

Then again, she had mentioned that this dynamic was new for her. Inexperienced, indeed, in a way.

Once she finished taking care of her hair, Shepard told me, "I'm heading back out now. I know you're not that hungry. I'm not, either. I'll have—something for us, anyway, when you're done." Whatever this something was, it lightened her lips over mine as she kissed me. Stronger than this morning, this fluttering in my chest grew, with her lightness as a mere illusion. "…I'll see you in a bit."

I smiled at her.

Shepard bit down on her own smile in an endearing awkwardness, not quite forcing a scowl.

She then left the shower. Grabbing one of the towels hanging nearby, she covered her body before leaving the bathroom, the door closing behind her.

I leaned against the silver of one of the walls, enjoying the warm water for a little while longer; enjoying this everlasting memory of Shepard's presence here with me, and of how she had controlled herself, again, instead of forcing me into doing anything more with her. She showed such understanding in her restraint, in her consideration for my feelings, surprising me over and over again with her tenderness.


By the time I dressed myself in a simple T-shirt and fitting pants, the only thing I dreaded was actually leaving the bathroom. That brief, equalizing moment when leaving the heat of the mist to the relative chill of the next room, I couldn't stand. Depending on my mood, it felt like a sudden snap freeze. I didn't like the cold very much at all. So I prepared myself for that discomfort as I left through the door.

Shepard had turned up the temperature in her quarters, but I would always be far too sensitive to this.

As soon as I felt this expected freeze, I found Shepard walking up the few steps toward me. She wore a sleeveless, white tank top, and black shorts that ended right below her knee, both fitting her in a slender boyishness, always with that duality of hers. In that same duality, she had a serious look on her face by habit, and yet she surprised me with the indigo blanket she held in her lean arms.

"Here," offered Shepard, wrapping me with the soft cloth of the blanket. "I hate it, too. I remembered when I left the shower before you." Cocooned in her hold and in this softness, I smiled wide against her shoulder. I felt her jaw moving again and again along the side of my head, as she kept biting at her lower lip, controlling herself. "…you're really cute, you know. I mean, you always are. This is…more."

"Thank you, Shepard," I spoke against her bare skin that smelled of her same smooth scent, striped by the white of her top. "You are very caring, and extremely sweet—when you want to be, that is."

Her deepened voice thrummed through her chest. "Hmm, don't let anyone else hear you say that."

I laughed. "Why? Would it ruin your reputation?"

"You're already turning me into some virtuous person I never thought I was. I wish you'd let me keep at least some of my usual personality."

Shepard contradicted her apparent wishes, in the best of ways, when she brought me to sit on the couch with her. She had opened a bottle of that wine she'd mentioned before—the white wine from Earth, though I couldn't pronounce the name the way that she had. Washed and glinting with lingering water like morning dew, she had settled a variety of freshly-cut fruits into a bowl, sugared and sweet.

Her large television screen was on across from us, set to what I assumed was her very old, non-virtual reality video game. On the screen, I could see an Alliance blue background, a drell character on the left side, rows of text options, along with an image of our galaxy separated into its official sections.

I did like the calming, atmospheric synth music that played as she idled here in this menu.

By the time she had me sit down along the edged corner of her couch, I realized that I couldn't stop smiling over everything, cradled as I was here in her blanket.

Shepard raised her brow at me, amused as she wondered, "What's with you?"

I giggled again. "Shepard, did I not say how sweet you are? You've surprised me once more."

"When I want to be, yeah," she echoed, holding up an empty wine glass. "You want to try some?"

"Yes, I'd love to," I accepted. Watching as Shepard poured the wine into the glass with a subtle elegance about her, I wished to know: "You mentioned that the wine is from Earth. What did you say the name was? It sounded like it was in one of your homeworld's other languages."

"Sauvignon Blanc," she repeated with ease. "It basically means white wine that comes from this specific grape." She handed me the glass, grinning as I sipped the white-gold alcohol in tentativeness. "The language is French. I know enough of it to get by without translation programs. Interestingly enough, Normandy is a region in France. It's the site of a famous operation from our long war history. Didn't happen in the same region that the wine is from, but still." Pouring a glass for herself, she asked me, "Do you like it?"

"Mmm, it's quite pleasant," I noticed, savoring the taste, as well as her penchant for fascinating trivia about her homeworld. "It is not as strong as I thought it might be. The level of alcohol is…relaxing."

"Depending on your tolerances, it'll creep up on you. White wine usually makes me sleepy. I'm okay with this one, though. Moscato works for me, too."

Finding that this flavor had grown on me quickly, I asked her, "Do you not enjoy red wine?"

Shepard made a face. "Too bitter."

"You prefer sweet to bitter, then?"

Shepard procured a sliced strawberry from the bowl. "Yeah, I do," she said in a low rasp, offering the fruit to me. "I'm not really a typical girl about these things. Hard to pin me down." I let her feed me, enjoying this added taste and sweetness; enjoying even more the way her fingers bent and fanned out in that same, quiet elegance of hers, of such tranquil femininity. "But, about this topic of girls, women—it feels like there's an elephant in the room. Or an elcor, I guess, if you have no idea what I just said."

Pleased by her consideration, I told her, "I am familiar with this human saying of yours, Shepard. And I have to agree, yes. Tell me what you're thinking."

She sipped some of her wine, studying me first.

When she found no expectations in my eyes, Shepard let me know, "I get that you have a broad understanding of my history. I like that I don't have to go over it with you. It's funny, though—before I met you, I had sworn off getting involved with anyone else. Lasted a good few years where all I did was focus on work, or my video games. Then everything changed."

"Would you say that this is a positive change?"

"Most of it is positive. I'm still adjusting to the rest."

Curious, I asked, "What are the positives, then?"

Shepard fed me again. "I keep surprising myself, like I said in my email," she recalled, watching me lick my lips as I chewed, slowly. "When I was younger, relationships seemed like they were all about keeping score. Who was right, who was wrong. Whose fault it was. Who was she; she said, she said. So I'd keep my pride to avoid how shallow everything felt. I wanted to avoid the reality that that was all I could hope to have with someone—that shallowness. You're the exact opposite of that. You actually want me to get deeper with you. Whenever I tried with other people, I ended up destroying them."

"I feel the same way," I admitted. "At least, from what I observed in other relationships around me, they seemed to be absorbed with those surface-level concerns. This is why you are my first, Shepard. I chose to avoid everyone before I met you. Even if it meant suffering their predictable gossip about me."

"What gossip?" she asked, scowling in anger for me.

I frowned over the memory. "In my sophomore year of university, one of my classmates asked me honestly if I was asexual. She and her friends had convinced themselves that I must have been, since I kept to myself so much and never attended social events. They could not fathom the idea that I was just not interested in the same things that they were."

"Seriously? Even if you were asexual, who cares? It's none of their business! That's fucked up."

"I grew used to it over time," I said, glad that she cared this much. "I suppose this is why I became so obsessed with my research. The data never judged me."

Shepard wished to know, "What about with our team? Aside from you-know-who, how are you getting along with everyone?"

"The current crew on the ship have all been very kind to me. And I have found unexpected friends in our teammates. I am closest with Tali. Garrus enjoys teasing me in good fun. Wrex was not necessarily a friend before, but a conversation we had during today's mission changed that. During downtime, Kaidan is rather distant toward me for reasons I am unclear on. You-know-who is obvious."

"And Joker?"

"Joker is…Joker."

Shepard laughed. "Yeah, I guess he is," she agreed. "As long as he's not acting like an ass."

"Never that, Shepard. I believe he respects me more because you do. In a way, I do consider Joker as a friend. It is only difficult to tell when he is being serious and when he is not. He is also prone to arrogance from time to time. Though I suppose that is simply part of who he is."

"He's got a chip on his shoulder because of his brittle bone disease. I've always seen it as his coping mechanism. Joker's the best of the best at what he does, so I have no reason to complain about whatever else. Besides, he has a lot to prove out here, much like a certain someone."

That elephant in the room. "Ashley, yes."

For some reason, Shepard gave me a charming smirk. "There's that edge in your voice again."

Edged harder: "You find this amusing?"

"Not…amusing," she tried to amend. "What can I say? I like it when you don't hold back."

"Shepard, I don't like this part of me. Does it not remind you of the shallowness we once avoided?"

"It doesn't, no. It's…different. You're not unloading your jealousy over me like it's the end-all-be-all. I get the feeling you're trying to understand all of this. Even if you do hate it. So, ask me whatever you want."

I did want to understand.

And I had many questions.

I only feared that Shepard would grow less tolerant of me once I began voicing these problems of mine.

So I suggested, "Would it be possible for us to continue this while you play your game? I would like to watch you."

"Yeah…we can," said Shepard, baffled. "But, why? You don't want my full attention?"

"Not necessarily…"

"I mean, I can play this game with my eyes closed. I'm not gonna be all that distracted. You sure?"

I nodded to her.

Not wishing to push the issue, Shepard settled her lips over my forehead, comforting me, before turning her attention to her game. She was about to explain what everything was, until she looked over at her keyboard and mouse atop the table. Deciding that she didn't feel like using those tonight, she retrieved her wireless controller from a drawer next to her mini-refrigerator, and returned to the couch. In between reconfiguring her preferred inputs and restarting the game, she looked to me.

I sat closer to her, right next to her and against her side, still covered by the blanket.

"I think you'll want more of this," noted Shepard, pouring more wine into my glass. "And the fruit. You can have as much as you want." She set the bowl next to me, on my other side, opposite her. Controller in-hand, she then explained, "As I'm sure you noticed by now, this is a retro game. Old school, non-VR. I like it a lot, though. It's pretty much our galaxy today. Almost two hundred years ago, these human developers somehow predicted everything we have going on in our current year of 2183. I think that's why it's so much fun to me. Like, how did they know all of this back then? It's crazy."

I wondered, "What type of game is it?"

"It's a third-person shooter. Kind of an N7 simulator. You play on a team with up to three other people, killing waves of enemies. I'm not too hot on the limited enemy factions. We can only fight against geth, beefed-up Cerberus goons, and mock battles against the Alliance military. Gets a little repetitive."

"Do you only shoot?" I asked, watching as she cycled through several characters of many different races and specializations: drell vanguard, krogan sentinel, human engineers. "I see some biotic characters."

Shepard frowned. "I'm not that great with adepts," she told me. "Plus, they're better when you're on a pre-made team, where you can coordinate biotic explosions together. I play by myself. That means I get matched with random people. We shoot, we complete objectives, and then we win. Usually."

"Usually?"

"You'll see what I mean…"

Shepard selected a level twenty male quarian infiltrator. She confirmed that she had an N7-grade sniper rifle equipped on him, and then went to find a random match. Though I had spotted a geth infiltrator among her choice of characters! How could she play as a friendly geth when they were also an enemy faction? Was it possible for any geth to be friendly instead of hostile? How did Shepard feel about these concepts, seeing as how we had fought against several geth on our mission against Saren thus far?

I had so many questions about this, too.

She quickly found a lobby of two other players so far, with one remaining slot for someone else to join. I noticed at the top that the difficulty was set to Gold, which I presumed was quite challenging. Although perhaps not challenging for Shepard, as she had expressed how comfortable she was with this game.

During the wait, I watched as she selected equipment for her character, giving him various bonuses such as more damage for his sniper rifle. She then returned to the list of other players in the lobby. The image, or the banner she wore had designated her as a Sniper. I also saw that she had a much, much higher N7 rank than her teammates. But no one left the lobby, so I supposed they didn't mind.

I took note of her gamer profile name—Vespair.

Shepard knew that I noticed. "This is special information, by the way," she informed me. "No one knows my profile name. No one except you. It's why I play alone. If any of the crew found out who I am, I'd have to deal with their friend requests and all of that bullshit. I don't wanna be bothered."

I sympathized, "Of course, Shepard. I don't blame you. I promise to keep the information to myself."

The fourth player finally joined. Someone named Infiltrait0rN7. And they were a geth infiltrator!

Yet Shepard made no comment of it. Instead, she checked herself as ready for the match alongside her teammates. After a brief countdown, their characters all loaded into a map of an Alliance base on Vancouver, on Earth, and the fighting soon began against the Cerberus faction of enemies.

I sipped more of my wine, greatly impressed as I watched Shepard's impeccable gameplay.

As she ran around the map, cloaking and sniping, she always knew where to go. She always knew exactly where to find more enemies, able to predict where they had gone or where they would spawn next. She also used her character's ability to highlight enemy locations, more so to help her teammates see them.

She fired off seamless headshots with ease.

She did not appear to care about vantage points, sniping at medium-range; sometimes at close-range.

Despite the overwhelming amount of Cerberus enemies rushing at her and her team, she never allowed herself to be surrounded or pinned down, always staying on the move.

Without complaint, she revived her teammates during the almost comical amount of times they were knocked out over the course of the match—except for that geth infiltrator, however.

The geth held their own, assisting with revives and bolstering Shepard's flanks as needed. They were not nearly as aggressive as Shepard was with kills, appearing to be more interested in supporting her, regardless of whether she noticed or not.

"You are very skilled at this game, Shepard," I praised. "Though I am not surprised in the slightest. Still, it is enjoyable to watch you play."

"I like hearing that from you," she admitted, grinning, before firing off another headshot.

I noticed such confidence in her precision as well—"You never hesitate."

"Hesitation is defeat."

How insightful of her…

Shepard changed the topic, "So, let's have that conversation. You know, about Ashley. We can play twenty questions if you want. I have to see where this goes. Too curious for my own good, probably."

"If you're sure…"

"I am, babe. I want you to feel comfortable with me."

I smiled over her continued sweetness. "Well, then, I will start with the obvious—do you feel that she likes you in that way?"

Shepard stiffened a bit against me, still shooting. "Yeah… It's more than a feeling, though."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean, I know she does. I can't get into all the details. Let's just say she's not that subtle."

"Does it bother you?" I wondered. "Knowing that she wants you. She is your subordinate, after all. And not like me. I suppose it is different, as you are both in the military. There are rules."

"Rules against fraternization. I think that's the main reason why she hasn't really tried to come onto me. Aside from all of that…it doesn't bother me that Ashley feels this way. I had suspected something for a while, though. I dismissed her as yet another one of those curious straight women who 'liked' me."

Knowing what she meant, I asked, "If you know how she feels, then why did you label her as such? Does she only have a history of dating men?"

Shepard paused, wording herself carefully—"Yes, but as I think you know, I tend to attract women who want the best of both worlds with me. I'm not sure if that's what she sees. Maybe she does."

The most painful question: "Shepard, are you attracted to her?"

"Honestly?"

"Yes, honestly… Tell me. Please."

Shepard took a moment longer to consider her words, and then she told me, "Ashley is an attractive woman to me. She's tough. She's dedicated, dependable. She's confident—in most situations. She's beautiful. I'll admit—I even like her bitchy attitude. You know I have a thing for women who are real with me, and that's part of it. And I'm sexually attracted to her. Anything more…I don't know."

Hmm… "In a different timeline, would you get to know her more? Would you have sex with her?"

"If I didn't know you, and if she and I weren't in the military together? Yeah, I would."

I tried to summarize: "So you find her sexually attractive, and yet you are unclear on anything more?"

"It's not that much of a contradiction, Liara. Or at least, I don't think so. You're attracted to women—don't you think Ashley's attractive?"

Scowling, I replied, "Not at all."

Shepard stopped herself from laughing. "Not even…in an objective sense? She's hot, isn't she?"

"No, she isn't. I strongly disagree. In fact, I am quite confused about this. Regardless of the fact that she and I are from two different species, I don't see how you find both of us attractive. She and I look nothing alike."

Shepard shrugged and smirked, admitting with a swagger about her, "Fine is fine, Liara."

"Even if what you say is true, I am still unable to see what you see in her."

"Babe, you can't tell me Ashley isn't hot!"

I believed I understood now. "If you mean that anyone else could find her attractive, then perhaps so."

"Okay, now we're getting somewhere," accepted Shepard. "I get that you're turned off by her. When I thought she was racist, I was turned off, too—big-time. But now…" She grumbled. "Then again, if she heard us… If anyone heard the way I'm talking about her… Ugh, they'd never let me live it down."

"Shepard, please speak freely," I requested. "No one else is listening. I want you to be open with me."

"Right… I don't want to disrespect her, that's all. Whether it's her or any other woman—I can't do that."

I wished to keep this going: "I get the sense that you have avoided pinning down your feelings for her."

Shepard confirmed, "Yeah, that sums it up. I have to keep my distance. I'm her commanding officer. But a lot's changed in the past few days. I'm starting to rethink this giant gap I keep between the two of us."

"What do you mean?"

"Before I found out for sure that Ashley likes me, I just did my best to ignore the clues she gave. The way she'd compliment me, and praise me all the time. She was a little bitchy when Tali first joined, like she was jealous. Every now and then, I'd get turned on by her voice. Or I'd spot a look in her eyes, giving away how much she wants me. I tuned it out as much as I could. It's much harder to do that now."

Listening to this description of Ashley's habits did somehow arouse me, though I didn't understand why.

I asked, "So, what changed…? What helped bring you to this point?"

Sitting in the lobby once more with those same random teammates, Shepard listened to the comfort of the game's ambient music. As absorbed as I had been in our conversation so far, I'd missed her results screen from her previous match. I had no doubt she'd placed first with her score. Although, this was a cooperative game, so I supposed the score didn't matter to her all that much.

She then revealed, "You opened me up, Liara. You made me reckon with myself. You showed me my own contradictions: how I act like a lone wolf, but I care way too much about making sure that the people around me are taken care of. Whether I wanted to or not, this spilled over to other things that I had no intentions of ever changing. You didn't open one door in me. You opened almost all of them."

"That does sound quite profound," I expressed. "Are you…angry that this has happened?"

"Not angry… I'm confused. Like, why now? I don't like caring this much. About anyone."

"But you do care, Shepard," I pointed out. "You do. You care. You are incredibly caring and protective, and not only with me. Our team knows this about you, too. If this is part of you, then why fight it?"

Shepard chose not to answer me right away.

She played another match.

Though even as she played, and played so very well, I felt her mind and her heart lingering on my question. She knew that my concerns were not rhetorical. Not in the slightest. I did want an answer. I did not want her to continue running away from her own feelings, even if Ashley was involved this way.

Her character ran and ran—cloaking, sniping—but she was not him.

Her secret support-admirer followed after her the whole time, yet she still did not notice them.

Feeling more of the effects of the alcohol, I leaned against Shepard's shoulder. I could feel every movement from her arm against mine as she pressed the buttons over her controller. A bit hazy and warm from only two glasses of her wine, I didn't want to fall asleep. I didn't want to let this momentum, this opportunity leave overnight as we slept. I needed us to keep talking about everything.

I had no idea why I was so infatuated with this topic.

Getting inside of Shepard's head in this way was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.

Her psychology gripped my own. Her existential troubles tugged at my heart. Her private worries hadn't diminished her unyielding veneer I knew so much of, because I saw that as yet another part of her, too.

For as much as she tried to dismiss them, our team meant more to her than she would ever admit.

I hadn't brought up Tali. Her crush on Shepard seemed very innocent in the grand scheme of things.

This situation with Ashley mesmerized me the most, if only because it spoke to Shepard's restraint.

Shepard was here with me, getting to know me, spending time with me.

No one else.

She had chosen me, and she had decided to put up with my double-standards, all to have me to herself.

But because of my sickening desperation, I could not get Ashley out of my head. If she knew how obsessed I was over the mere thought of Shepard having her, she would have found some way to hold it against me. I was fixated, I was infatuated, and I was obsessed, all because of the obvious inevitability… The clear truth that Shepard would be attracted to others, as she already was. The plain, unchangeable knowledge that I could never have her in a vacuum, removed from the rest of the universe.

I craved that impossibility anyway—of having Shepard completely to myself—like a child chasing after the sun.

If this was how Shepard felt about her own confusions and frustrations…then I couldn't blame her.

Once she finished the match—placing first by a wide margin—she turned the game off.

Setting our empty wine glasses over the table, Shepard moved with a pensiveness I didn't recognize in her. She set the bowl over the surface as well, eating the last of the fruit there. So silent in her manners as she ate, I couldn't even hear her chew or swallow anything.

When she finished, Shepard looked me over, watching the way I watched her.

Then she said, "I'm gonna give you my current answer about this situation with her. All right?"

"I am listening, Shepard," I told her, curious as to her choice of words.

"Ashley wants an idealized version of me. The legendary Commander Shepard. And I'm sure she fantasizes about just how far I can go when ordering her around. I'm perfectly fine with letting things stay this way for now. I'd rather not interrupt her with the truth."

"That is fair," I replied. "And I will keep it in mind. I only wonder why this is your current answer."

"I don't want drama, babe. If I'm choosing to be open with you like this, can we be cool?"

"Yes, of course," I promised, holding onto her arm closest to me. "I need to know everything about you. Down to the last…intimate detail. No matter how it might make me feel. I will never hold your truths against you. I couldn't. I can't… I will instead do my best to be more accepting of her."

Shepard found her calm, accepting my promise into her heart.

"Okay, well…the reality is that I do care about Ashley as a person. She's not what I labeled her as before. I only put that label over her to protect myself, anyway. Now that I'm open like this, I'm going to start caring about her more whether I like it or not. I know that I'll be tempted by her. She's very sexy to me."

I certainly noticed, posing the rhetorical, "Then we will have to see what happens with her, won't we?"

"Some advice, Liara," she offered. "I may not know a ton of personal details about Ashley, like her younger sisters' names or what she likes to do during her spare time. Doesn't matter, though. I know her type. She's easy to read. By now, she knows that you and I are involved. So she's going to needle you, try to figure you out. She will get in your business and see what she can learn. I guarantee you."

"I appreciate your wisdom," I responded, at a loss. "But…how do you know these things for certain?"

"Trust me—she's as obsessed with you as you are with her. Now let's leave it at that."

Gentle, with such care, Shepard bundled me in her blanket again, and picked me up.

She brought me to bed with her and had us lie down together.

Protected by this smooth feeling of her comforter layered atop her sheets over us, I let myself come down one more level from this long day.

I rested my head over Shepard's chest as she lay over her back, breathing in this dark of the night with her, swelling in the water-light of her aquarium. Black chamomile exfoliating, of course I felt these stronger pulls, of wanting to do so much more now that I was here.

But Shepard's exhaustion had caught up to her sooner than mine had. And not only from the rest of the day. I understood that our conversation had drained her, emotionally. Yet she'd given me her patience when, again, she had every reason to make excuses, and to shut down my questions and curiosities.

This kept a smile on my face as I listened to her sleepy whispers to me, finally answering my question:

"It would be easier to not care about the team… If I fail, and something serious happens to any of them, it'll fuck me up. If I don't care, then I'll be safe. I'll be fine… That's why I fight my feelings so much."

Curious once more, I asked her, "Is this why you prefer to fight alone, even when we are with you?"

Shepard hummed her tired acknowledgment. "When I'm by myself, I only have to worry about…myself."

"Then why not fight harder, with us?"

"Don't wanna take that chance, babe… I'll protect you all, but it has to be from some kind of distance."

"Shepard…sometimes, like now, you make me feel that you'll run off someday. You'll run into a battle you cannot win alone. We won't be able to support you. No one will be able to help. If that were to happen, I am not sure I could handle it. I could lose you…if you keep running away from us like this."

"Liara, I'm sick of that pain of losing everything. Everything. I'd rather…not care."

"So much so that you would run from me, too? You would put me through that pain instead? Would you really leave me behind?"

Falling asleep, still, she murmured, "If I knew you'd be safe, I'd go…finish the mission… I'd come back."

That wasn't what I meant. "Shepard…"

"I know. Tired. But… I know." She inhaled, enough to sober herself just enough, her heartbeats erratic underneath my ear; breathing out these last words before this sleep took her: "I'm just…scared. As much as I'm about to fall asleep right now…I could fall into something at any minute. I need you…to keep me away from everything else. I don't want to face it… I don't."


Lingering in my head and all through my body, my biotic high from earlier would not let me rest.

Shepard had long-since fallen asleep.

Turning around to look at her alarm clock along the nightstand, I saw that it was four in the morning. The last time I had looked at the clock, it was 3:30am. I hadn't been able to sleep. Not after drifting off for a brief time, only to wake up at around 2:00am, somehow feeling refreshed. Refreshed in this high, I did my best to observe what this was—to truly take in this newness. I felt that I was on the precipice of a new discovery, a new understanding, and so my mind refused to let me rest properly.

Ever since Shepard had fallen asleep, I'd felt something forming in my head. A ruler, a scale, or measuring tape. Anything like this, anything similar that would allow me to measure, weigh, to quantify. Data-driven as I was, I tried my best to figure out exactly why I had these tools with nothing to use them on. Nothing, precisely, came to mind. And so this clock began to tick down.

Seeing specs of pale green through the dark of Shepard's quarters, I continued to wait, to anticipate.

The same pale green that the crew had recounted from the Prothean beacon on Eden Prime, in fact.

As fascinating as this was, however, I felt my patience growing thin. Having waited these two hours for something, anything to happen, I needed this—whatever it was—to show itself sooner rather than later.

I lay over my back with Shepard right against me. She slept on over her back as well, not having moved at all since she'd first fallen asleep hours ago. We had to be awake in four hours, at least, in order to prepare ourselves for what awaited on Noveria, with my mother. Checking the clock again—4:07am—I accepted that I would not have the chance to sleep any more myself. I hoped that I would be awake enough for the mission. I had no desire to try one of Shepard's artificial energy drinks otherwise.

Energy.

So much energy I sensed all of a sudden, so powerful, from deep within Shepard's mind…

I studied her, watching the way her eyes moved in rapid—normal—movements behind her eyelids. Dreaming, of course. Her quickened breathing piqued my curiosity more than anything. Short, sharp breaths she breathed out through her nose. Aggression, building.

Sitting up on my side, and facing her, I whispered next to her ear, "Shepard… Are you awake?" She continued to sleep. Though I felt the slenderness of her bare legs beneath her shorts: her smooth limbs tangling with mine covered by this tighter fabric. "What's the matter…? Why are you breathing so hard?" She breathed even harder, sightless hands touching me, roaming up my arms. Yet she remained perfectly asleep. Deep in sleep, making me wet with these possibilities. "Are you asleep? Are you…?"

Turning over to face me, Shepard slipped her leg between both of mine, spreading me, making room. She then settled her body on top of mine, still asleep, still asleep. This sudden sharpness of her navel against me, pushing against me—I gripped her around her back, clamping my mouth shut to stay quiet, to not wake her. I couldn't trust myself to stay silent, not like this.

Not like this, not at all, feeling myself about to lose control.

When Shepard first took me like this the other night, she had been awake—grinding in purposefulness.

Chaos in her sleep, uncaring, forceful—this time, she fucked me, so impatient and needy in the way she gripped me, too, clutching onto me like this.

I pressed my clamped mouth against Shepard's sweating neck, recoiling and bounding against her in how uncontrollable she was, and somehow so very consistent in her irrepressible physicality.

I could keep from waking her up. The tight fabric of my pants wasn't tight enough—she couldn't penetrate me with this flat of her, as I knew she dreamed of having me in such a specific way, without this tightness in the way.

Asleep as she was, she grabbed at my hips, finding this tightness.

A puzzle, a wall she rammed her head into: she grabbed and grabbed, expecting to find only my skin.

All of this, and her persistence had me whining in her ear—still trying to keep quiet, needing to know:

Shepard growled over my neck, "Liara… I can't…fucking control myself with you—"

Brute-force solution—

She grabbed at the top of my pants, clawing her fingertips against this bend of black and blue.

Lifting her waist up and off from mine, she ripped at this fabric, tearing it down, and down, and off, and off of me. Screaming in need with this tearing, the shock of this liberation alone almost made me come.

This jolt in my core, Shepard sensed, and took advantage of: she lowered herself, lowered her head between me, hiking up my thighs against the bends of her arms. The muscles of her biceps cushioned me in the seconds before I felt her whole, watering mouth against me, devouring me without thought.

Gripping her scalp, tangling her hair, I screamed more from this suddenness, knowing now that Shepard would not wake, she would not wake up. Possessed as she was in her dreams of taking me like this, she ate me with this roughness that she did her best to hide during her waking hours. Aching from this strength of her tongue stroking me, she had already found me; she already knew me.

The perfect contrast, kicking off this fetish in me: the way Shepard's hair moved and flowed against my thighs in silken weight. In that smoothness, I struck a match with this heat in my throat from all of my helpless noise, burning these sensations into my memory: the way Shepard blew out her breaths from her mouth against me; the way she used her entire head to give me mine, and not just her tongue, but angling her neck and putting her back into the thrusts of her tongue against this single spot of me, single-minded in pleasing me; and the way she muffled her own sounds against me, her voice vibrating as she struggled to breathe through this soaking wet of me, yet she didn't stop, she didn't stop.

Spiraling out of control with her, that jolting found me again—harder and unstoppable, just as Shepard was between me. That she couldn't control herself, that she couldn't wake up, that these lines had blurred beyond redemption, and that I felt the outline of her smirking lips against me in her perversions: all of it got to me, got me off in a single, crashing releasing, with this collision shaking me and breaking me apart, unravelling in Shepard's mouth.

As I did, I joined my nervous system with hers, needing to ride this high through her mind's eye:

Dreaming, Shepard was in this same position, this same state, as if watching herself watching, rippling out in an unending repetition with no true beginning. She saw her body glowing blue with mine from this melding, but again, her perception was so fragmented that she could not tell what the reality was.

In real life as in her dream, Shepard licked me from her lips, from the drip down her mouth.

In both, she used her tank top to wipe away and dry the rest, watching me come back down.

In both, again, I brought her head closer to my lips, allowing me to rest as I whispered in her ear:

"This is very fascinating, Shepard. Just as you fascinate me, endlessly. Before you surprised me with this, I had a feeling that something would happen. I have been awake for a couple of hours now, waiting with that feeling. And now that I have you like this, there is more that I want you to explore. Things that I couldn't bring myself to admit while you are awake."

In reality, she continued to lie here with me, sleeping soundly.

Her dream took over, and so I made myself lucid through her perceptions:

Much like during Shepard's episode with the Thorian, when I could see through her eyes in first-person, and when I could feel all that she had felt, she brought me into this same point of view.

She opened herself to my fascinations, to what I wished to explore. Deeper than her unconscious sleep, I felt her permission for far more, our experiences shared through our collective understanding of one another.

In her dream, I was no longer in bed with her. I could not see myself through her eyes. I had become a part of her, absorbed in this intimate way: to see through her, think through her, and feel through her.

I could speak to her through her mind, where only she could hear me—'Shepard, are you there?'

Somewhere between sobriety and unawareness, Shepard only groaned in her sleep.

'Open your eyes.'

Still in that same grogginess, I had this first-person view of her lids opening, her sight blurring before coming into full clarity. Staring off at the alarm clock over her nightstand, the time read 99:99am. An impossible hour, obviously, yet it spoke to the absurdity of her continued dreaming, even as I could speak with her like this while I was awake during this melding process.

'Perhaps this is selfish of me,' I communicated. 'But, our earlier conversation has yet to leave my thoughts. You were right—when it comes to you, I'm obsessed with Ashley. I cannot help how I feel. I should stop fighting it. So there is more I wish to see of you. Far more, now that we are able to do this. However, I won't force you. I can't; you are not under my direct control. This is your choice to make.'

No desire for me to stop: only a powerful emotion, a need to know what I wanted, and to show me.

'Stand up, then.'

Shepard struggled to do so, finding the floor of her room with her bare feet. As she gained her balance, I moved with her sight as she looked down at her long shorts, the boyishness of her sleeveless tank top. She knew that I intended for her to leave her quarters; even through this was not real, she remembered her logic, ruling that she could not possibly be seen like this by anyone else on the ship.

'You needn't worry about that,' I consoled her. 'Go to your holo-closet. There is something I'd like you to wear underneath your clothes. Your strap-on.'

Walking over to the orange glow of the closet, Shepard fought through the remaining fog of her dream-like state. Fumbling a bit, she searched through her sets of clothing, finding the toy that I wanted. The new weight of this appendage—I felt it between her as my own, hanging, and cresting in the somewhat tight fabric of her boxer briefs under her shorts. That tightness wrapped around her in some discomfort.

She breathed harder, though she did not grow as hard as I'd expected her to.

Not yet, at least.

I asked her, 'Is this new? You have not used it on anyone else?'

Shepard hummed her affirmative.

'And do you have other unused strap-ons to choose from in there? To eventually use with me.'

The up-and-down motion of her head as she nodded, growing harder.

She then turned around to her nearest nightstand, the one without her alarm clock sitting on top of it. Reaching in one of the drawers with hands haphazard, Shepard pulled out a few thin, square plastic packages for protection. As there was no seed to shoot out from this toy, the protection, in Shepard's mind, was only to prevent the possible spreading of infections. Again, her logic continued to dictate her actions, regardless of anything else—she pocketed the packages, awaiting my next directions.

'Now head to the elevator. Go down to the crew deck.'

Attempting to walk normally, Shepard still set her hand out beside her, smoothing her fingertips along the surfaces to assist. Logical: she went to her bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth before leaving, savoring the cinnamon flavor of her toothpaste; hating the fluoride of her mouthwash.

During the short elevator ride, she had her hands covering her groin. Still so convinced that this was real, her self-consciousness had taken over. I sensed that she knew what I wanted her to do, further cutting down her defenses and her pride. She did not fight against me. She did not change her mind; suddenly refuse and turn back, no matter how real this situation was.

She'd shown me that logic could pull at her throughout this surreal experience.

None of it, or not enough of it, could convince her to stop now.

Departing the elevator at the crew deck, Shepard stopped at the short hall, where the intersection was between the two sets of winding staircases leading to the CIC above.

No one in the mess hall. No one in the med bay.

No one was around—anywhere.

'Shepard, I want you to go to the crew's quarters. I am sure you remember the way to Ashley's private room—make your way there.'

More awake now, yet still dreaming, Shepard headed to Ashley's room. Navigating the halls of the crew's quarters, with its many doors leading to each of the separate living spaces, I felt her need to hide. As if she would activate her tactical cloak at any moment, to prevent being spotted. In her paranoia, illusions of the other crew members resonated from behind the doors: their auras, their presence, waiting to come out and find her. In particular, Shepard kept expecting Tali to emerge from one of the rooms; from every single room. She continued imagining Tali's indignant outrage, not understanding any of this. Shepard burned with shame and embarrassment at the mere thought of Tali's judgment: accusing her of creeping around like this in her perversions.

No one emerged from their rooms, yet the simple possibility kept Shepard's footsteps even quieter.

When she arrived to Ashley's door, she found that it was locked.

She stared at the red light, fixated on it.

I reminded her: 'This is only a dream. I would like you to act on the thoughts you hold back with her. I want to see how you want her. I want to know everything about you… Including this. Of course, if you would rather turn back now, you are free to do so. You will always have that choice.'

Blinking light of the color change: a Prothean, pale green shined into her eyes as permission granted.

Shepard passed through the automatic door, the low tune and hissing shifts marking her memory.

Alone in this space, and sleeping on that same lower bunk, was Ashley, practically dead to all. She had on an oversized T-shirt again, with her lower half covered by the gray, Alliance-issue blanket from her bed. Eyes fixed on the spread of her legs beneath that blanket, Shepard noticed the way her limbs seemed to bend in such a specific way. She also saw the outline of Ashley's hand and wrist somewhere near her thigh, giving away what she had done just before falling asleep.

Heartbeats picking up, Shepard distracted herself by looking around the room.

Unlike our first visit, Ashley's quarters clearly looked as though they belonged to her.

Her terminal was on another table nearby, opened to her extranet browser with several tabs—her email, both work and personal; an R&B and soul music site; vid-mail from her family; an article about differences between how civilians cleaned their guns compared to the standard Alliance practices; a glamorous lesbian pornography site made 'by human women, for human women'; collections of love sonnets and other romantic poetry; and a fan page led by someone named Conrad Verner that was dedicated to providing the latest updates on Commander Shepard's goings-on throughout the galaxy.

On the table nearest the window, Ashley had stacks and stacks of old-fashioned print magazines with Sol on the covers: Shepard's alter ego as a fashion model.

Her gowns, her androgyny, her avant-garde experimentalism, her tuxedos and other men's wear, and rare instances of the handful of her relationships and breakups plastered over various LGBT and women's magazines—the vastness of the stars beyond the glass glimmered over the complete variety of Shepard's life and career back on Earth.

On the other, smaller table next to Ashley, in between the bunks, Shepard found a few books of poetry, as well as many datapads with notes, letters, and attached photos and vids. Standing next to Ashley as she slept, Shepard picked up the topmost datapad over the unkempt pile, and read its contents:

Commander Shepard,

I don't think I'll ever let you see this.

I'm gonna write my thoughts down anyway.

It's only been a few hours since we left Eden Prime. We're headed to the Citadel now. I'm in the mess hall by myself, and I can't sit still. I'm climbing the walls from thinking about you so much. I need to vent.

I knew about you before we met down on the colony. I've known about you for years. Since Torfan, since your N7 training. You've always been a huge inspiration to me. And when I first saw your scowling picture years ago, I was…mesmerized by you. You're so gorgeous and intimidating, it's insane. Then I looked into you more, found out you're only four years older than me. You were an orphan back on Earth. You've seen some things. Explained the stories I heard about how ruthless and cutthroat you are.

When we finally met, I was on pins and needles, hoping we wouldn't butt heads too badly. I knew I'd be too proud to let you talk down to me; I knew you'd be too proud to let me backtalk you. Neither of us are the type to take any kind of disrespect lying down. I honestly wasn't sure if I'd survive our first encounter.

But during our mission, you were neutral toward me at best. You were never mean, never rude or anything like that. Well, not to me—you shook down those so-called farmers pretty good, and their smuggler pal that was hiding behind those crates. I wondered if you chose to be impartial with me since you knew I'd lost my entire unit right before you showed up with Alenko. Like, did you secretly hate me, and you were only pretending to be objective to spare my feelings? I can't really say. You're hard to read.

I remember the way that Prothean beacon lured me in with its strangeness, like I just had to see what was going on. Then it pulled me in, hard. You didn't hesitate—you saw that I was in trouble, and you grabbed me and got me out of the way. You saved me, and then that thing almost fried your brain, made you see those visions. I was so scared for you. Dr. Chakwas said it's practically a miracle you survived.

You were pretty pissed at me when you woke up. It was my fault you had to suffer through so much pain. You hurt me a lot when you yelled at me…but I couldn't blame you. I never got the chance to apologize to you properly, one-on-one. After Captain Anderson told you that he assigned me to the Normandy, you clearly didn't approve. You walked right by me when you left the med bay; didn't say a word.

I'll always carry that moment with me, Commander.

You made me feel like I didn't exist. Like I meant nothing to you. Like I was trash.

That was when I knew I had to prove myself to you. If I could get through to you, then all of my suffering would be worth it. The crappy assignments, the dickhead COs I had before, never getting accepted into military academy, and people doubting me because I'm a proud Williams—I could finally say that it was all worth it, if only to have the chance to serve with you on this team. To show you that I'm good enough.

But, honestly, this is such a surreal experience. You've been my idol for the longest, and now I get to see you every day on this incredible ship. Then again, you're more than just my idol… You're the one who made me start questioning myself. A lot of things about myself. I mean, I've had a couple of girl-crushes in the past, and I've hooked up with some women in secret…but it was never like this. They weren't you.

And now, I'm stuck between this rock and a hard place: wanting you so damn badly, while needing to prove myself to you on a professional level. My heart and my ambitions clash whenever I think about you. Plus, I know you're a lesbian… I've read the magazine stories about the few girlfriends you had. They were so much prettier than I am, and they had way more money than I do… But I guess none of that matters. There's no way you would fraternize with a subordinate. God, this is tearing me up inside…

This is nothing like me! I'm a mess already and I'm not sure if I'll be able to handle it. Then again, you can handle anything that this galaxy throws at you… I should be able to deal with this, too. I should. I will!

Okay. We're about to pull into the Citadel soon. I'm heading up to the bridge to see the sights with you as we get there. I want to see how those beautiful lights reflect off of that intensity in your eyes. And your skin, and your hair, and…all of you, really. I hope I don't stare at you too much. I'd give myself away.

A single look from you turns me on like you wouldn't believe.

Respectfully,

Ashley

.

Once Shepard finished reading the letter, she set it back down with the rest.

Verifying its contents, she remembered a brief conversation she'd had with Kaidan in the command center, on their way to the Citadel—while Ashley had been in the mess hall writing that same letter:

Standing near the galaxy map, Kaidan had told Shepard, "Am I seeing things, or does Chief Williams know you from somewhere? She seems to be kinda familiar with you…" When Shepard only frowned in disinterest, Kaidan amended, "Okay, okay, I'll admit—I could be seeing things! Or it could be that she's heard all about you through the Alliance and from the vids, and she's meeting her hero for the first time. I don't know how; can't quite put my finger on it. She likes you a lot. Maybe you should ask her about it?"

Shepard had dismissed the idea: "Ask her yourself. Do you always come to your superiors with pointless shit like this? It's high school gossip. Leave me out of it."

"Sorry, Commander… I won't bother you with this again in the future. I was only curious, that's all."

"Go be curious with someone else," she had said, walking away. "Don't waste my time, Lieutenant."

Back here in this dream, back in this version of the present, Shepard ran her hand through her hair, breathing out a sigh polluted with guilt and regret. She'd had no idea that things had been this bad, and this painful for Ashley, even back then. And now, it must have all grown worse over time.

Looming over Ashley's sleeping form, Shepard hesitated.

She stared, and hesitated.

She wanted, and hesitated.

She fixed her sights on the thinness of the blanket over Ashley's body, over the outline of her wrist and her hand just underneath; how Ashley's hand began to move ever-so-slightly, continuing; how Ashley sighed out through her own sleep, moaning Shepard's rank and her name in such defenselessness.

Possessed by her curiosities, Shepard moved the blanket aside. She sucked in a breath, finding that Ashley was completely bare down past her shirt. Still, that shirt was large enough to cover her hand, and to cover her inner thighs, but not entirely. Vague glinting from the stars outside the Normandy shined over the lean length of Ashley's legs, highlighting the wetness dripping down the slight tan of her skin, down to her sheets underneath her. She reached her nails to that moisture in her sleep, coating her fingertips with it, before moving her hand back up between her, touching herself again, a little bit more.

Taking the chance, Shepard reached out to Ashley's thigh closest to her. She stopped her hand right above. Just above. Hovering over Ashley's skin and flesh. Waiting, and watching, and listening as Ashley lay there and breathed, completely unaware of her presence.

Downward, Shepard spotted her own hardness growing out beneath her shorts, extending.

She pressed her other hand down over this lifting, blood rushing, and pumping, everywhere.

I encouraged her: 'This is only a dream, remember? None of it is real. You are allowed to explore this.'

Deploying another defense mechanism—a wall over her heart, a powerful dam—Shepard gave in.

She touched Ashley's inner thigh, slicking her fingers against the soak of her: a thin layer of this pleasant, if not persistent musken scent. Stroking her skin, the sounds rubbed through the silent night in this room. Down to the bend just under her knee, Shepard adored the hard slope on the outer side of Ashley's leg, shaping her skin and this bend in a way that she found alluring—distinctly feminine and graceful.

She lingered here for some time, obsessing through touch; enough that Shepard removed the plastic coverings from her pocket, setting them over the datapads atop Ashley's desk. She then took off her shorts, stripping down to the red of her boxer briefs containing this point of her arousal, leaving her tank top on. Farther down Shepard reached her hand—she admired the muscles here, strong and tight from Ashley's years of military service. And though she didn't reach her hand there, she took the time to enjoy the thinness of Ashley's ankles, both joined in this position she had her legs in, along with the delicateness of her bare, arched feet only barely covered by the blanket.

Stroking her hand all the way back up to Ashley's shirt, she did not go for the obvious. She instead reached farther up, tracing the shape of Ashley's fit stomach underneath the white cotton, of her full breasts hidden by the same, and to her slender neck dotted with sweat, all the way up to her face.

Leaning down, Shepard held Ashley's soft jaw with a dominant slant, at once gentle and controlling. On purpose, she did not linger here, did not take in the details of Ashley's face, the looseness of her hair.

Shepard knew that she would have to face her again in the morning; she did not wish to remember this.

Instead, she settled herself between Ashley's legs, getting on top of her. Not quite touching, not quite far-removed—Shepard kept her weight over her bent knees, over her forearms supporting her as she slipped them under Ashley's shoulders, holding her. She made sure her erection was not anywhere near enough to Ashley's thighs, to prevent her from feeling anything too early.

Intentional, Shepard leaned down, more, to Ashley's lips. She kept her eyes open in coldness, in knowing the weight of her power; though she fixed her eyes to the rise of Ashley's cheekbones, again, to avoid remembering too much of this. She found Ashley's lips with her own, thick on thick and meeting in a supportive, plump firmness. Bottomless in this breadth, Shepard pressed into her more, head tilting to find more leverage, deeper. And Ashley returned the same to her in sleep, tilting her own head higher and up into this, moaning into the meaning. All the while, this dam over Shepard's heart sparked in the beginnings of a motorized fire: protected, prevented, but still shearing and igniting in more drilling heat.

These flames loudened Ashley's moaning into a steady awakening.

Eyes shooting open, she found her sight hidden within the cascading flows of Shepard's hair, that golden brown sheltering her from the shock of finding another person on top of her like this, but not entirely—

"Shepard!" gasped Ashley, breaking their kiss. "How did you—? What…?! Oh, my God… The way you look right now, you're so freaking hot—and you're here with me…? There's no way…" Breathing harder, faint, she double-and-triple-checked Shepard's features, mesmerized and making sure: "Is it really you, Commander…? Is it you…on top of me like this…kissing me awake? Mmm, you smell so nice, too… I smelled this on you a few times before. Having you this close, it's…" Finding her own logic, Ashley calmed herself, reasoning, "No… No! I-I must be dreaming. That's it! This is a dream. It's totally a dream…"

Not wishing to confirm or deny anything, Shepard asked her, "Do you want this or not, Ashley?"

"Do I want this? You mean—you? You're honestly asking to have sex with me…? Oh, God—Shepard… I…"

The way Ashley breathed in her hesitations mixed with her wants, her needs—Shepard grunted, struggling to stay still. The undeniable sounds of a woman's voice sewn through this susurrus of Ashley's rasps, of her fears, her emotions: all joined as one, stuttering and shivering through Ashley's chest. With that stuttering, Ashley looked into Shepard's eyes, needing to see her, even if Shepard wouldn't return her regard directly; more emotion, more feelings, of disbelief, and need, and trust, and far, far more.

Underneath, her breasts shuddered up and against Shepard's on top of hers, reinforcing, reinforcing.

Making a point of what awaited, Shepard pressed just enough of herself between Ashley's legs.

Easing her body into the movement instead of away, Ashley melted from the welcome surprise, moaning this time in sheer delicious delight. And she held Shepard around her back, tangling her hands and her arms through her hair, sounding out more of her pleasure, all of it only from this fore.

Shepard pulled back, and forced her own voice to push through, "If you don't, I'll walk away—"

"Commander, wait!" cried Ashley, gripping her harder. "I do want it. Yes, I want you… Hell yes. I just…" Breathing in, and out, once more. "This is so sudden! And I… I-I've never… I mean—I have, but…"

"I thought you've slept with other people."

Ashley sighed over this vulnerable space: "I have… Some guys, some girls. Not a whole lot… And—and we only had oral. It wasn't… Like, I would always stop things before we got too far! It never felt right, so I didn't let them do anything more to me… One of the girls—I fucked her, but I wasn't her first…"

Tensing her jaw in her control, Shepard asked, "You're a virgin, Ash?"

Shuddering over the question, and over Shepard finally using her nickname, Ashley replied, "Yes…"

Shepard attempted to leave. "Then we're not doing this—"

Gripping her harder around her back, again, Ashley begged her, "Commander, no, please-please-please don't go!" She then let out a sound of frustration, hiking her hips higher against Shepard's pointed lingering between her legs. "Damnit, I'm a mess… I told myself, if I ever got the chance to do this, I wouldn't throw myself at you like some desperate whore… I wouldn't do it. Now I'm fucking doing it!" Discarding those concerns already, Ashley tried again, "Shepard, please don't leave… This feels right with you! This feels so damned right, like I always dreamed it would… I need it from you. I need you…"

Pulse throbbing through her neck, Shepard growled again, this time over her new dilemma:

She knew that there was no escaping this—especially not with Ashley tasting her neck so, sucking and licking her throbbing in this succulence, revering her in a maddened high from this fresh opportunity. Eager in that desperation, Ashley stayed at this in true hunger, pulling at Shepard's control—the unyielding bones of her, the unmoving steel of her—needing her closer, oh so much closer.

More begging, so depraved: "Please, stay with me… God, please, I've needed you for years—ever since I first saw you, how intense you are, how drop-dead gorgeous you are… Exactly like the sun, you're so brilliant and special—I'd go to the ends of the galaxy for you, Commander." Ashley hiked herself against Shepard again, higher and more persistent, rusting at Shepard's restraint—"You could end me with one touch, one look… I want you to do it with your whole body. I need you to destroy me—to take the last of this purity I'll ever fucking have. I want to give it up to you, Shepard… Only you, only you. No one else…"

This gaping, open weakness Shepard had for a woman unrestrained, and needing to please her needs:

Ashley found it, finding Shepard lowering her body in response, and seized at this chance—

"Fuck, I can't stand this… You're so dreamy, Commander. You're everything I've ever needed in another person. There's no way I'm letting you go now. Please, oh please…won't you please take me? I want you to claim me, break me. I need you to make me bleed…just like I've been bleeding for you for years now…"

Ashley's breathing, again, with her breathy breaths laced so with the rasp of her voice: Shepard's entire body pulsed in a rage against her control. Completely uninhibited, Ashley reached for Shepard's boxer briefs. Smirking and sounding out in that same delicious delight, she reveled in this hardness shaping itself within the slight tightness of the red fabric there, pulsing harder and harder underneath her touch. She kept at it, and kept at it, bringing Shepard closer, so close, until she could almost pull her arousal right out from her boxer briefs.

"Fucking take me, Shepard," she breathed, right in her ear. "Fuck me. Own me, finally. Make me your goddamned bitch already. You know I'm yours… I've been holding myself back all this time. I only wanted to avoid pissing you off—making you hate me—because I wasn't sure if we could ever do this… By now, you have to know I'm crazy about you. That I'd kill for you to have me. So what are you waiting for…?"

Caressing Ashley's hand with her own, rounding over the shape of her mounted touch, Shepard made up her mind without thinking at all.

She then pressed her lips to Ashley's one last time, before whispering in her mouth—

"No, Ash. I said no." Pulling away, Shepard growled over the way Ashley could not, would not let go, clinging to her. "There's no way I'm disrespecting you like this! I don't know enough about you… I mean, you sound like you—"

Holding on, holding on, Ashley admitted: "What, like I love you? Like I'm in love with you? That's because I am, Shepard! I love you! God, I love you…" She found some solace in Shepard relaxing over her, barely enough to hold back her tears, shuddering hard. "Fuck, how are you doing this to me…? Why am I falling apart all because you won't have sex with me? I'm losing it… Ugh, what the hell is wrong with me?!"

Shepard held her, giving up on the idea of leaving, exactly—"Ashley…I'm not leaving your room—"

"—no, but you're going to go back to her once this is over! My alarm's gonna go off in a few hours, and then this dream will end… Damnit, damnit…! No, no, I can't—I'm not letting you go, Shepard. I won't!"

"I'm not cutting you off," promised Shepard. "If you really want me, then you'd better make that clear."

Ashley needed her—"I'm gonna come after you. Hard and fast. Is that what you want? You need me to prove myself all over again? You wanna see how messed up I am for you? Because if that's what it's gonna take, just say the word. I'll do whatever you want… I'll do anything, anything at all! Please…"

Once again, not a single thought or hesitation—"Yeah, that's what I want, and that's what you should do. I'll listen to whatever you have to say. Just don't expect anything to change any time soon."

"Okay, Shepard…you asked for it. I swear, when we're not out on active missions—I'll give you my all."

"Good. I don't want you to hold back with me. For now, go to sleep. Go to sleep, Ash. Go back to sleep…"

Chapter Text

"Noveria" from Mass Effect 1 / "Beneath the Mask -Rain-" from Persona 5

VIII. Little Wing

(Liara)

Awaiting Shepard's arrival in the comm room that next morning, I found myself invigorated from the night before. Sitting in my seat, I used my omni-tool to jot down the near-hundreds of thoughts and theories I had about last night. I had already suited up beforehand in my set of all-black armor, as it was quite clear that Shepard intended to bring me with her for the mission. There was no need to waste time with gearing up after the briefing.

Silent, Tali sat in her seat nearby, lost in her thoughts. I remembered how difficult it was for me not to divulge anything to her while the two of us had eaten breakfast together earlier. I simply couldn't.

And now, I allowed my scientific mind to take over—for me to find my objectivity here, and to find the positives in what I had observed last night. I used my omni-tool to jot down my notes, my discoveries, and my findings from just how real everything had seemed of Ashley, and of Shepard's perceptions of her. Thus I gave weight to the possibility that the three of us were connected beyond the normal boundaries of physical reality, of time and space…

Once Ashley entered the room in her dark camouflage armor, all-smiles, this proved my hypothesis.

"'Morning, you two!" greeted Ashley, a clear bounce in her step. "Lovely day today, isn't it?"

Tali did a double-take. "Sure…? I guess?" she questioned. "Ashley, what is this? What is going on?"

Ashley plopped down in her seat across from me. "Hmm? What do you mean?"

"When I left your room last night, you—" She censored herself, knowing that I listened. "You weren't in the best shape… I wanted to stay and talk to you more. You insisted that I didn't need to do that, and that I should go to bed. I stayed up all night worrying about you! And now you're…cheerful?"

"Oh… Sorry, Tali—you didn't have to worry about me like that… I'm okay now, I promise!"

"But how?! What changed so drastically from then until this morning?"

Ashley grinned, sharing openly: "I only had the best dream of my life last night, that's what!"

"A dream…? What kind of dream could be that good to cure your problems so quickly?"

"The best dream of my life!" repeated Ashley. "Undisputed! Unchallenged! It was so perfect, Tali… Oh, man, I can't even talk about it without feeling all giddy like this! Like, did you know it's possible to smell clearly in a dream? And to taste realistic details? And—to have most of your dreams come true, in a dream, after you were dreaming a lesser-but-still-pretty-good dream? I'm over the moon right now!"

I jotted down more notes via my omni-tool, attempting to transcribe their conversation verbatim.

Tali felt the whiplash from these contrasting events. "Ashley, I'm really happy for you… I just, I don't know—this all seems rather strange. Were you experimenting with stim packs or something before bed? I've heard…about some cases where peoples' dreams become affected if they aren't careful with those."

"Nope! No stim packs, no drugs! Oh—um…well, I did watch something before I went to sleep, but…"

"Do I even want to know…?"

I noticed Ashley eyeing me, uncertain.

"Hey, Liara," she said, detached. "Are you listening to us right now? You look pretty busy over there."

I thought up a comeback, but felt that it would have been pointless to voice it at the moment.

Instead, I told her, "I am always listening, Ashley. But please, carry on. Don't mind me."

Not wishing to admit what she had watched the night before, Ashley instead attempted to keep me in the conversation—"It's kinda hard to do that, you know. I get that you're a scientist, a researcher, and that this is your thing. I've never seen you like this… What are you writing, anyway?"

White lies: "This is a compilation of notes that I would like to use later for my next dissertation on the Protheans. I am of the mind to contact my alma mater, to see if they would be interested in receiving more academic works from me. I will need to type up an abstract first. Before I can do this, I will need to verify the data I have collected thus far for my hypothesis. I am in the middle of reviewing my main primary source in order to fact-check my current progress."

Ashley frowned, feeling inadequate. "…right," she tried. "So what's your paper gonna be about? I mean, you said the Protheans…but that's vague. What about them?"

More white lies: "I am exploring the mystery surrounding the Protheans' shared experiences as an interconnected group of different organic species under a single empire. Given that the name 'Prothean' is that of an umbrella term for the worlds and civilizations that spanned their galactic rule, it is curious that they came to share such commonalities. Shiala's explanation of the Cipher caused me to look into the matter. It is a Cipher belonging to many separate species, all collated into shared knowledge."

"Oh. Well that sounds…interesting. What's your hypothesis?"

"The short answer is that it may be possible for different organic species to share a consciousness."

Tali chimed in, "You mean like the geth? If they were made up of different synthetics, I suppose. They do share their own collective geth consciousness. It's how they are networked, and how they think and behave together. Are you saying that it's possible for separate organic species to do the same?"

"Yes, I believe so," I replied. "However, as I said, this is only a theory. I still need more data in order to verify my observations. I expect that this will take quite some time."

"Well, if you decide to include anything about the geth in your dissertation, you can always come to me for more information. I think your research sounds fascinating! It would be exciting to see if we organics could ever become networked in the same ways—unless we already are, and we just don't know it yet."

"Thank you, Tali. I'll be sure to keep that in mind. I would trust your accounts more than anything I might find in a simple textbook. I am envious of your direct and detailed knowledge on the geth."

Tali giggled. "Aww, thanks, Liara. That's sweet of you to say. I'm jealous of how knowledgeable you are, too—about everything, and not only the Protheans. It must be nice to be able to outlive the rest of us and to learn so much over a thousand years. Well, only a hundred so far in your case, but still!"

Ashley, meanwhile, had lost her high from earlier, looking quite frustrated over there.

She found some of her high again, however, once Shepard entered the room in her usual stealth suit—

Only to deflate once more as we all observed the commander, spotting how…subdued she appeared.

Standing in her place at the center of the room, Shepard looked around. She stared at each of the empty chairs one at a time. She acknowledged Wrex, Kaidan, and Garrus' absence this morning in silence. Steeling herself back to her default—somewhat, almost—she then regarded the three of us here, once again, one at a time, finding our thoughts and feelings plain, evident.

Tali couldn't make eye contact with her.

Ashley couldn't, either, for her own reasons as well.

But once Shepard looked at me, I smiled at her with love.

Naturally, she expected me to be upset, and to hate what I had witnessed from her last night.

Deep down, that may have been true…yet I chose not to linger on any of that. Instead, I decided to enjoy this unique and intimate insight I had into her mind. Even now, I wondered if she had made the conscious decision to alter her behavior, knowing that I watched, and that I may have judged her.

Whether she had or not, Shepard translated enough to me through her eyes: this slant of her brows, and the way she wanted to look away, but could not.

She knew what I knew.

There was no taking any of it back.

Finding enough of her voice, she began the briefing: "Like I said yesterday, it'll only be us down on Noveria today. This place is a so-called business planet, where the galaxy's biggest corporations skirt around Council law for their own gain. The specific location we've arrived to, Port Hanshan, is Noveria's capital. Security is pretty heavy here. But Benezia managed to get through with all of her cargo, so we should be fine. She's up on a research station in the mountains, Peak 15, with her asari commandos."

Any other time, one of us would have chimed in with a comment, or a few questions—why did my mother have so much cargo? Why did she have her asari commandos with her at a research complex? And why was security so heavy in the first place? Was it to protect the corporations' secrets?

However, given Shepard's restrained demeanor, as well as the absence of half our team, Ashley and Tali weren't willing to make up the difference. Especially not with all of the troubles they had on their minds.

Shepard continued, "A few days ago, there was a Code Omega that went out across Peak 15. Someone up there is experimenting with something they're not supposed to. An official crew had to go up to investigate the alert and shut it down. They reportedly couldn't find anything suspicious. We'll need to be on our guard anyway once we get to the facility. But, the main issue will be getting up there at all."

Ashley spoke up, "What do you mean, Skipper? If the problem's up on Peak 15, what's there to worry about before we arrive? Shouldn't there be a shuttle or something to take us up there?"

That stabilizing tic of hers: the way Shepard clenched down on her back teeth, jaw flexing.

"Port Hanshan knows we're here on Citadel business," answered Shepard. "The problem is, people are going to be nervous with a Spectre around. It's clear that these corporations are out here for the not-so-ethical loopholes. If I got wind of something, I would be obligated to follow-up on what I learned."

"So, they're giving you a hard time?" asked Ashley.

"Basically."

"Oh… Right. Makes sense. They won't want to help us get to Peak 15, then. We'll have to find a way."

"Correct."

Curling into herself over Shepard's brusqueness, Ashley said no more.

Tali couldn't keep quiet anymore—"Um, Shepard… Considering half the team isn't here, wouldn't you say that this mission will be rather informal?"

"It already is, Tali," confirmed Shepard.

"Okay… In that case, am I allowed to bring up a different, not-so-related topic?"

"Go ahead."

Taking another chance: "Forgive me for asking this… But, are you all right? I don't know, you seem different today. I get the feeling this isn't about the guys being stuck in the med bay."

Shepard scowled, glancing away; arms folded.

Tali refused to rescind her question, genuinely needing to know the answer.

Ashley watched the exchange in a grave need for answers as well.

Out of respect for Shepard's authority, I resisted the urge to take more notes, shelving this for later.

And then, Shepard responded, "Not really, no. I had that talk with Dr. Chakwas. Medically, I'm fine. I don't know how to feel about what she told me, that's all."

Tali asked, "Well, what did she say?"

No supposition of whether the conversation had been private or not.

Shepard chose to be ambiguous: "She said that something about me has changed over the past month. Yesterday, once I got the Cipher, Dr. Chakwas noticed something else that accelerated the change. Shaped it. Gave it a purpose."

"Something…? What is this change?"

Grappling with the reality that Tali would not let this go, Shepard thought of another solution:

"Liara, come here."

"Very well, Commander," I obliged, standing up; walking over to her.

Only a few paces apart—Shepard did her best to dispense of this suspense dragging her emotions down.

Opting for a demonstration over more words, she activated her tactical cloak. Invisible to our eyes, she seemingly disappeared, with only the shining glimmer of her cloak phasing across her body in the dim lighting of the comm room. And then, she deactivated her cloak, reappearing before us.

Visible, Shepard placed her hand over my shoulder.

This time, when she cloaked, I disappeared with her: a joined phasing of light passing over obscurity—

Just as she had done for me down in the mines on Therum, when we had escaped from the geth.

Ashley and Tali both jumped to their feet.

"No way!" yelled Ashley.

Tali stammered, "But—but, how? That should be impossible! Liara doesn't have your same implants!"

Disengaging her tactical cloak once more, Shepard found our memories through my eyes: how they simmered in my remembrance, and now, how I found yet more explanations for the theories I had come up with since last night. This was all connected to the control, the protection, and the bond we shared.

Yet I knew that there was more.

Shepard walked over to Tali. Knowing what to expect, she placed her hand over Tali's shoulder, attempting the same demonstration.

This time, when Shepard became invisible, Tali did not join her.

Not even behind her helmet, through her suit.

Shepard then resumed her normal appearance, not at all surprised.

"Well, it…it shouldn't work on me," reasoned Tali, hiding her disappointment. "Depending on how this is all wired, you couldn't get through my suit, anyway. Too much tech in the way. Unless…unless this process isn't physical at all, and I'm just not connected to you in that way. Hmm, how strange…"

Masking her dread, Shepard stepped over to Ashley, once again knowing what would happen.

Not knowing the same, Ashley only stared up at the commander, fearful of this unknown.

Delaying this, Shepard decided that now was the best time to give us more details, speaking to Ashley directly—"Dr. Chakwas has a theory. She said that I can pretty much share the effects of my implants with certain people. My instincts treat these certain people as an extension of my own mind, my own body, my own skin. It's some kind of wiring through our collective unconscious as organic species."

Lost again, Ashley needed clarification: "Our…our collective what?"

Rolling her eyes in impatience, Shepard repeated, sharper this time, "Our collective unconscious. You know, from Jungian psychology? Ring a bell?"

Flinching under the weight of this disapproval, Ashley tried to recall, "…maybe it's familiar. I-I only took one psych elective back in college… Didn't exactly pass that class with flying colors."

Lips pursed, judgmental: Shepard had little regard for Ashley's admission.

I had learned of a similar theory back in school on my homeworld, though this Jungian psychology was of course native to Earth. Was it particularly common? Common enough to be shameful should any humans not have been familiar with this theory? Either way, I would have to look into the topic later.

Although, this exchange between Shepard and Ashley had certainly enlightened me in other ways.

Feeling this disparity between the two of them, Ashley only lowered her head.

Shepard sighed, and gave an explanation, "Our collective unconscious is our shared ancestral memory as humans. You can think of it as a giant pool of our commonalities. And each of us as individuals, we all have our own archetypes. It's something we can identify in others because of our collective psyche."

"Oh, I get it now," said Ashley, so soon. "Tali and Liara were just talking about this before you got here. They didn't mention anything about archetypes, though… Aren't those…shortcuts for describing us?"

"Yes, they are," replied Shepard, finding more patience. "I only brought this up as an example. It has nothing to do with the rest. I'm telling you so you can get a better idea here. Those stereotypes, tropes, and archetypes in general: we can spot them and discern them because of this knowledge that we all share. It's a shortcut, like you said. A mental shortcut. It's not always helpful, but it's there."

Ashley smiled a bit. "You're a lone wolf. That's your archetype, isn't it? And I'm able to make that mental shortcut because of the experiences we all share?"

Warming a bit more, Shepard confirmed, "That's right. I'm glad you're a quick learner."

"You're a pretty good teacher, Commander…"

"Maybe, maybe not. Seems to me like you just need better motivation to learn and apply yourself."

Shepard set her hand over Ashley's armored shoulder, and activated her tactical cloak.

When Ashley cloaked with her, I was glad to have yet another piece of evidence to prove my ideas.

But Ashley herself—she staggered back in her shock, well out of Shepard's reach, somehow remaining cloaked as the commander did. I could not see anything else on her except for her glimmering outline, separate from Shepard's shape that remained in the center of the room. Yet I really had no need to see her expression or her reactions. She worked to stay as quiet as possible, though she sounded as if she was somewhere between her extreme happiness from earlier and a different, obstinate confusion.

And once Shepard deactivated her invisibility, so, too, was Ashley visible again—back to normal.

Looking rather flushed, Ashley needed to say, "…so, Skipper, if our collective unconscious is only for humans…should I bother asking why this trick of yours works on Liara? Obviously, she's an asari… Then again, they were just talking about how this thing could connect all organic species together… And Dr. Chakwas said the same thing, didn't she? But, it didn't work on Tali, and—… Oh, man…"

"My cloak didn't work on Dr. Chakwas, either," said Shepard. "So, no, this isn't a human thing with Liara as an exception."

"Because she said it only works on certain people…"

"Yes, Chief."

"And you can give these certain people an extension of you. Your mind, your awareness… Everything."

Reluctant, yet honest, Shepard replied, "That's…exactly right."

Ashley sat back down in her seat.

She needed to process everything.

I watched that process through her eyes that had ventured off to a far, far distance from here, piecing this puzzle together. Some lingering disbelief kept her quiet as she did this. Otherwise, I felt she might have exploded from the sudden emotion of this sudden, sudden discovery.

Shepard ordered, "Tali, Liara, you're dismissed. Head to the bridge and wait there. Ashley needs a minute. Once she's recovered, I'm going to take ten. When I find you, we can go ahead and leave."

Tali left the room without a word.

Shepard sensed what I intended to do; she said nothing as I left, knowing that I merely waited near the wall outside the room, listening in.

Pacing herself as she lapped through her emotions, Ashley waited a bit longer.

Waiting for some kind of privacy in the comm room.

Waiting for her waiting, Shepard awaited the inescapable from this encounter.

I chanced peeking in the room, attempting to remain unseen. They hadn't moved from their places.

Some of Ashley's high-pitched breathing pierced through her pacing, impatient in the severity of this disaster, of this absolute shock to her system.

Her shaking voice, her hands covering her mouth in control—"Commander… Did we…? Shepard—"

Unwilling to prolong this: "Yes."

Hiding her whole face with her hands—"Oh, my God… Oh, my God…"

Shepard had no more words.

Yet Ashley, even in her incredulity, needed to rationalize this:

"I had a feeling… I honestly wondered. I just couldn't let myself believe that you were really in my dream like that. Now you're telling me…you were aware of what was going on. You remember what we almost did. And we shared the same dream. The same experience. Is that… Is that what happened?"

Seeing no way to escape the truth, Shepard only nodded.

Gasping in sharpness, Ashley's face heated a bright, bright red. She clamped her hands over her mouth, harder, as if she could have kept all of this from falling out.

Mortified, Ashley then rushed to stand up, rushing herself to speak in a rush:

"Oh, my God, Shepard, I'm so sorry! I was a total brat last night—I didn't think any of it was real! So I just spoke my mind and told you everything that I feel without really thinking because you were there on top of me and was there underneath you and—"

She paused, recalling:

"You know everything…? You remember what I said! What I confessed?! Those three words I gave you… And how I said I'd chase after you when you gave me your permission because that's what you said you wanted—and you told me not to hold back, and it turned me on like crazy, and, and… Oh, God…"

Ashley paced around, nearly hyperventilating.

Shepard remained still, yet prepared to take action to help her if necessary.

Devastated, Ashley went on, "Oh, fuck, I was so desperate… Shepard…I'm so freaking sorry. I swear, that was nothing like me! I mean… Nothing like how I'm supposed to be! And I know Liara's your girlfriend… She probably knows, and that's why she was so fricking pissy with me earlier—!"

Shepard felt my wordless request through her: that she ought to be honest about this.

Because if she held this inside, we both knew that it would one day explode. She would self-destruct.

And so she interrupted with that honesty, "Ashley, she isn't my girlfriend—"

"—wait, what?! Shepard, what are you talking about!? Of course she is. She's your girlfriend! Isn't she?"

"No…"

"But… But! You—you're screwing her, so—!"

"—that doesn't mean she's my girlfriend! Look, it's private, all right? I'd rather you not tell anyone about this. She and I have an arrangement. We're involved. It's not official. That's it."

Ashley let out a hard, hateful exhale, trying to center herself.

"She's not even your girlfriend… I've been losing my mind over her…for nothing? No, no way…"

I gathered that Shepard disapproved of how relatively childish and immature Ashley was, seemingly obsessed with these surface-level details we had both agreed that we detested. The other imbalances between them—their respective intelligence levels, the age difference between them, and the power dynamic of superior and subordinate—likely made everything worse.

Yet even with those issues present, I saw the potential for something far greater here.

I had figured out this new intuition I'd gained last night: the measuring, the weighing. Now able to measure the strength of Shepard's mind and her will, I could tell that something of Ashley had fortified her. Such a noticeable change from before the dream until now—in my blurry vagueness, before, I'd had at least some idea of the value in my care. And now it had grown, surged exponentially.

It was this particular person, no matter how petulant and unbearable, that strengthened Shepard's own resolve to remain unbending. I could not know how or why, only that it was the undeniable truth.

And so I shared with Shepard my approval to explore this with Ashley—if she wished to do so.

And I knew: if Shepard chose to run from this issue, to avoid it, this would have caused problems for us.

I could not continue having things both ways with her—not like this, and not with my scientific curiosities overcoming my personal aversions to this situation. I knew that it wasn't fair of me to cling to this false idea we had of a relationship. I had to be the better person and face reality:

What faith was there for us to have when I could not even trust myself to take that next step with her?

Besides, even if I were to suddenly declare to Shepard that we ought to be in a committed relationship now, this would have been insincere of me… She would sense this; she would lose respect for me, for us.

And this was my fault.

Encouraging her to do what she had done; playing around with forces we hadn't understood at the time.

There needed to be consequences, after all…

Yet Shepard chose to say instead, "Ashley, listen to me… I understand how you feel. What I did, what I said last night—I thought it was only a dream. I'm sorry for letting my guard down. I'm your leader. I'm your commanding officer. I'm not supposed to give in or be weak around you. It was selfish of me."

Straightforward: "Are you…turning me down, then?"

A question for her question: "What are you asking me for, exactly?"

"You're not in a relationship, Shepard," reasoned Ashley. "You say you gave in, that you were weak, but I don't believe that. You held back—big-time. You kissed me awake. You asked me for my consent. You found out I'm still a virgin, and then you… You could have just…" She took a shuddering breath, shaking off her confusing arousal over such implications. "Even though it was a dream, you took care of me. You didn't treat me like some cheap slut, or…you know. Do you even realize what that says about you?"

Fortifying herself inside the strait-jacket of her restraint, Shepard said nothing.

Ashley embraced her anyway, gentleness getting to the core of what had grown between them.

Whispering against this forced stone of our commander, Ashley expressed: "I'm really scared to admit the truth to you, Shepard. Please…I only want you to hear me out with this." More forced stoicism, and Shepard nodded with her permission. "Look, you know me. Since when do I ever act like this around anyone, over anything, except you? You're my hero, Skipper. I've looked up to you for at least five years now—maybe more—and…and I know that makes you uneasy. You know what I'm saying here."

"Speak your mind, Ashley," requested Shepard, fresh with verification that that entire letter was real.

And Ashley's emotional breathing, her feelings and her harsher rasps igniting through her breaths, just like I knew Shepard couldn't resist: "I'd go to the ends of the galaxy for you, Commander… As much as you're standing here right now, with this wall, this stone, this dam over your heart, keeping me out—I'm your rock, too. You can rely on me! My love for you makes me fight harder. I'm stronger because of the way I feel about you. And I want to show you that… So I'm requesting your permission… For a chance."

Shepard closed her eyes in anguish, considering her words carefully.

"A chance…for what? Be upfront with me."

"What else? A chance to change your mind, for us to have something together. It doesn't even have to be a relationship…I can't ask you to leave Liara's side. The way you feel about her: I can tell, it's magical… All I want is for you and me to explore this, what we have between us now. I don't want you to shut me out. And I don't want you to act like you feel nothing for me, either… I'm begging you…please."

Caught red-handed from this whole affair, Shepard did not have the heart to turn her down: "That's fine with me, Ashley. I'll give you an honest chance to change my mind. I'll listen to you. But like I said before, don't expect anything anytime soon. I never asked for any of this. I need some time to adjust."

Ashley held back her excitement, dousing it with this reality: "You don't sound all that optimistic… Or convinced I'd even make a dent in that armor of yours."

"It's easier to doubt you. Before all of this happened, you were like a stranger to me. I worked to keep things that way. Now you're unraveling that work. I have the right to stay guarded. If it gets to be too much, then by all means, keep your distance. I have no intention of hurting you, or disrespecting you."

Hollow with remembrance: "You don't know enough about me… You're such a gentleman."

A sinking dread sounded through Shepard's question: "Are you all right…?"

"Yes, Shepard. Never better."

Ashley pulled away just enough to observe her properly.

Though much of that red had returned to Ashley's face, she remained in a state of reserved determination. In her reticence, Ashley concentrated and consolidated the morning thus far, finding and creating a new imbalance—her own restraint in the face of Shepard's difficulties, always in that duality of hers, even as our commander fought to hide how she felt.

She had Shepard well and truly unnerved, and she knew it.

"Ashley," tried Shepard. "I need you to keep this to yourself. Whatever happens—can you do that?"

"Understood, Sir."

Pausing from that new honorific, Shepard required reinforcement, "Promise me you will."

"Yes…you have my word."

Her word, Ashley laced and lingered over Shepard's mouth in a bold softness.

This continuation from last night, of that motorized heat melting away at the dam over Shepard's heart: whatever quiet contemplation Ashley expressed on the outside, she gave back this same uninhibited life through her tastes, igniting and reigniting those defenses in her way. Yet Ashley gave the same passions and curated attention that she would have given anyway, had Shepard worn herself bare and whole and unbroken. All without discriminating, without intimidating her own love away.

Even once she pulled back, Ashley never truly left Shepard's space in this proximity, staying near.

She kept her hands over Shepard's chest, adoring her face, her body in darkened esteem unending.

Ashley then spoke her mind, "Your kisses last night tasted like cinnamon, too… That your toothpaste?"

Vulnerable to such fixations, Shepard whispered, "Yes…"

"And your scent," said Ashley, angling her nose over Shepard's neck; inhaling. "It's so good… What is it?"

"It's black chamomile… Aromatherapy. I guess it's—a nice placebo, to keep me calm."

"I'll have to buy both of those for myself, then."

Ashley left the comm room, left Shepard staring after her as she went. Departing from the doorway with a deep-set scowl, she went around, far around, away from the side that I was on, as if she couldn't see me; as if it was a mere coincidence that she chose to walk around that other side. And for a brief time, she fooled me into thinking that this only happened by chance.

Inside the room, Shepard sat in my usual seat.

She hid her face in her hands, breathing in and out.

Everything about her aura signaled a need to be alone right now.

Bottling up my need to comfort her, I departed to the bridge, consumed by my patience for her.


Such a bitter cold iced through us all as we left the Normandy for Port Hanshan's outdoor docking bay.

This dull freeze layered itself right underneath my light armor, making it difficult to even think. All I could do was follow the black of Shepard's stealth suit and the light swing of her long tail of light hair as she walked. Practical as ever, she must have thought to wear more layers beneath her suit, as the material was far more versatile to allow for those sorts of extra precautions. Thus she had an ease about her as she strode through this colorless docking bay, the concrete blending into the scenic view of the blizzard raging on past the docks. Highlighting the contrast of the long strip of black over the lettering of the ship's name, frostbitten blue and white blew on in a chaotic flurry just beyond the area, unrelenting.

Ashley was somewhere behind me, suffering the same fate—yet she had far too much pride to do anything more than let out a trembling groan every so often, her breaths quivering through her teeth in this freeze. Tali walked next to her, seeming to be quite well-off in comparison with her own suit. Neither of them spoke a word, too focused on getting inside through customs first before anything.

Through this freeze, I wondered how I would react to seeing my mother. Yet I couldn't begin to fathom the idea of us reconciling again after all these years, after all that had happened…and all that I still could not remember, repressed as it remained. I feared that I would recall everything at the wrong moment.

Shiala had made it clear that Benezia had had the best of intentions when she chose to join Saren, and that she was now indoctrinated, acting against her will. In that sense, my mother was innocent.

A fleeting part of me hoped that we would at least be able to free her mind, if nothing else…

No matter how unpleasant this weather was, I couldn't help admiring this place. Something about this area, indeed, held a nostalgic sense of familiarity. Following after Shepard as she led the way to the port's security force down the long path, this inside-outside scene, of existing halfway out in the haphazard winds and snowing, all while surrounded by an indoor protection—this reminded me of her.

Shepard had me off-balance in her professionalism. Not long after the upheaval from earlier this morning, she had managed to turn off all outward signs of how troubled she may have been. She chose instead to focus on the mission. She decided that anything else was irrelevant, at least for the time being, when she could redirect her energies into something more…worthwhile.

At last, we reached the small group of security officers who awaited us, right next to the glass of the doors and the windows leading to Port Hanshan's incoming customs area. Two human women, a turian, and a handful of security drones hovering above and lighting the area in their cones of vision—the organic guards appeared to want to aim their assault rifles at our team, as we were fully-armed.

Yet the woman in the center—the security chief—gestured with her hand for her group to stand down.

"Hold, Spectre," she stated, direct in her tone. "You've been cleared for arrival by Parasini-san, Anoleis-sama, and the Executive Board. However, I must ask that you and your people relinquish your weapons. This is a secure port—I won't risk any incidents by allowing you to bring in your guns and your gear."

Having expected this, Shepard kept her cool as she asked, "And just who are you, exactly?"

"Captain Maeko Matsuo, with Elanus Risk Control Services," replied the security chief. "Please don't take offense, Commander Shepard. This is a standard process. Once your business on Noveria is concluded, we will be sure to return your items to you and your team in a timely manner."

"Look, Captain, you said it yourself—I have clearance from everyone that matters here. The person I talked to from arrival controls said nothing about weapons not being allowed inside the port."

"This is true," allowed Matsuo. "They would not have mentioned it. However, due to recent events on Peak 15, we can't take any chances. Once more, I must ask that you leave your weapons here with us."

"Right," droned Shepard, bored of this. "Who's in charge here? That Parasini-san? Miss Parasini."

"Yes, Commander. I am glad you're familiar with our honorifics. Gianna Parasini is the secretary for Administrator Anoleis, head of the Executive Board. I would discourage you from attempting to contact Anoleis-sama—he is quite busy throughout all times of the day, and does not wish to be disturbed. I'm afraid that Parasini-san is the only one who might be able to overrule our procedures for you."

"Gianna, huh?" asked Shepard, giving a sidelong glance through the glass leading to customs—finding a tanned human woman with her dark hair in a bun, wearing a pink dress and heels, and ogling quite openly at her. "Is that her in there?"

Captain Matsuo scanned her eyes to the gawking woman in the building, and then back to us.

"Yes, that would be Parasini-san."

Shepard suggested in a sour suggestiveness, "Why don't you give her a call; ask her to smooth this over for me? I'm sure she'll be willing to hear us out. She doesn't look too busy at the moment."

The blonde security officer scoffed in disgust. "Oh, for the love of God! You can't just charm your way into her pants to get what you want! If you seriously think you're going to get away with this…"

"I'm not charming anyone here," claimed Shepard. "She's right in there, right this second, and she's the only one who can get me in this place with my gear. So I want you to call her. Now."

"Very well, Spectre," accepted Matsuo, bringing up her radio. "Parasini-san? This is Captain Matsuo. Come in, Parasini-san. Commander Shepard is here now, and she is requesting that she and her team be allowed to enter Port Hanshan with their weapons. Do we have your authorization for this?"

Inside the building, Gianna fumbled with the datapad in her hands as she responded—"Yes, yes! Please allow the Spectre and her team in with their weapons. They're clear. That is all."

Captain Matsuo gave no reaction to Gianna abruptly ending the call. "You heard Parasini-san," she said. "You and your people may enter through to customs. For your own safety, please do not attempt to cause a scene, or otherwise use violent force against any of the employees or company managers here in Port Hanshan. Should we discover you violating our rules, we will be forced to apprehend you."

Shepard rolled her eyes. "Uh-huh, whatever," she deadpanned. "Thanks for the friendly warning, Captain. Tali, Ashley, Liara—let's go. It's fucking cold out here."

She stepped closer to the doors, and they opened automatically.

Eyeing that blonde security officer who continued to scowl in our wake, Shepard gestured for the three of us to enter first. We headed inside as Shepard watched our backs—though I noticed Ashley and Tali doing their best to conceal their reactions, their glee over such a display of our commander's manners, however unintentional this may have been on her part.

I smiled as we reached the relative warmth of the building's interior.

More security drones, and more of this same cold, cold concrete decorated the area in a drab, non-welcoming welcome. Upstairs, the clerk's desks had no one behind them, no one greeting the new arrivals. The misting heat from the waterfall between the sets of stairs felt as more welcoming than anything else could have, at least in a place like this. And the few people sitting around on benches all narrowed their eyes at us in suspicion and unease, disapproving of our presence here.

Once we reached the top of the stairs, that Gianna woman soon took her place behind the clerk's desk on our left. She settled away that datapad that had slipped out of her hold earlier. On our approach, she attempted to continue busying herself, but this time in a more calm and collected manner.

The security drones blared with their alarms from detecting our weapons.

Gianna quickly disabled the alarms, still trying to remain composed.

Shepard reached the desk first, asking her, "So, are you Gianna?"

"Yes!" replied Gianna, smiling in nerves. "Yes… Yes, I am Gianna Parasini—assistant to Administrator Anoleis. The Executive Board sends their regards… It's not every day we have a fully-armed Spectre and her team passing through here. Might I ask what business you have on Noveria this morning?"

Shepard pointed out, "Your people at arrival controls said I had your personal clearance to dock my ship outside. I told them I'm here on Council business. They didn't give you any details?"

"Oh! Oh, right, right, I—I must have forgotten! Yes, I believe they mentioned something about Matriarch Benezia…? You're here to visit her on Peak 15, then? Or are you perhaps here for something else…?"

In my periphery, I noticed Ashley rolling her eyes, and clicking her tongue in a 'bitchy' sort of revulsion.

"We're here to find the matriarch," confirmed Shepard. "I heard you shut down all the shuttles heading up to the Skadi Mountains, and that surface access to the area is cut off. Is there any other way my team and I can get up to this research facility?"

Gianna informed us, "You could drive up to the mountain through the valley… But, due to the environmental hazard caused by the blizzard, I can't really recommend it. You would also need a garage pass to access any vehicles for the drive. Though you will need clearance from Administrator Anoleis to leave this port at all. If you actually want to brave this blizzard, you'll have to speak with him first."

"And where is this boss of yours?"

"His office is on the main level—take the elevator straight through here, and head left down the plaza."

"Understood," said Shepard. "Can we head over there now, or do I need to fill out a form or something? Your ridiculous layers of security here are a bit much."

Gianna smiled and said, "There won't be any forms to fill out, Commander—not this time… You and your team are free to go. You'll find me in the administrator's office. Should you need anything else, I will be all too happy to assist. If you'll excuse me."

Once that was over, Shepard guided us to the elevator around the corner.

Tali commented, "I'm not sure how I feel about this place so far. Almost everyone is suspicious of us for the reasons Shepard mentioned before—or they're the exact opposite and acting overly-friendly."

Ashley stopped herself from laughing. "Tali, sweetie, if you seriously think that secretary woman was just acting overly-friendly, then I have a bridge to sell you. Wanna buy it? I could use the extra creds!"

"A bridge?" puzzled Tali. "Why would I want to buy a bridge from you, Ashley? That is so strange! Is this another one of your human expressions that I have zero context for?"

"Could be," teased Ashley. "Hey, why don't you teach me some of your quarian sayings? I'm pretty sure I know 'Keelah se'lai' by now. That one always sounded religious to me. What else is there?"

"You're still in a good mood, hm?"

"Mostly, yeah… Why, do you want me to be pissed off and upset instead? I was kind of tragic last night."

"No, I would never want that," insisted Tali as we all entered the elevator—again, after Shepard allowed us in first. "I should have seen this coming, that's all. It feels like I keep getting blindsided these days…"

Close quarters, round, and enclosing in on our personal space: this dark teal-tinted glass surrounded us, cutting out almost all natural light from the area. As the elevator took us to the main floor, each of the other landings we passed by peeked through to us with their light, offsetting the relative dark here for brief moments at a time.

In front of me, Ashley and Tali continued to speak, the tone of their conversation having dimmed a bit.

At my side, Shepard reached for my hand nearest to hers. Intertwining her gloved touch with my armored one, she allowed us to have this time, this closeness. She did not look at me, not even when I gazed up at her in curiosity, maintaining her mask instead. And even with these materials in the way, I could still feel how limber her hand was, filled only with the finest of sinew from her many years of putting her hands to work. Those details made me smile once more, enjoying this pleasant jolting that sparked through our joined hands, all as reminders of our ceaseless feelings for one another.

Ceaseless indeed, because even once she let go of my hand as we left the elevator, she had left her mark over me, making me wish that we were back in her private cabin, back in her bed again.

Shepard had enthralled me so much, I could hardly notice that we were not on our way to the administrator's office, instead heading straight through the plaza to someplace else.

Though even in my haze, I was able to appreciate how much better this location was compared to customs, and compared to the docking bay outside. This plaza was warmer, with more of that nostalgia blanketing me, somehow. The layered levels of the open area was filled with more security guards, employees, and company managers avoiding us, eyeing us up and down—but it was simple enough to ignore them. After all, the ample waterfalls smoking with heat made this place feel like home to me.

So peaceful—even the blizzard raging beyond the picture windows all along the far wall brought me much comfort. Smoothing over my confusions from last night, from this morning, I indulged in that sight, and of how the very picture of that white and tundra blue clouded through here, through to the decorative stone and slanted layers of concrete all around us.

More beautiful than all, Shepard's eyes and skin had absorbed that opaque light, so picturesque in her razor-sharp concentration as she walked by my side, focused on our path ahead.

With her concentration, I also picked up on the subtle whispers passing through this area, heavy with the atmosphere; hiding within the comfort of this space to blend in, to become obscure.

I was not fooled by these civilized surroundings. This was a place of secrets and lies.

"Rock gardens and waterfalls!" spotted Ashley. "Very Zen."

Tali wondered, "What is Zen? Sounds a little familiar."

"It's from a religion back on Earth. I guess the word means…peace. It's this aesthetic, too."

Looking around as we reached another elevator, past a pair of green signs along the wall, Tali asked, "This place is peaceful to you?"

"Yeah, don't you think?" supposed Ashley, entering the similar dark-teal of this glass and limited space.

"Hmm, maybe this is peaceful… Not this port. Not these people. Being here with all of you is Zen."

"That's so adorable—I'm gonna have to steal it from you."

As the elevator took us to yet another area, Shepard held my hand once more.

This time, she used her thumb to caress mine.

Curling my smile inward, I noticed out of the corner of my eye: the way our laced hands reflected in the glass surfaces around us, dulled by that dark.

In that same reflection, I felt Ashley's stare burning a hole through the glass.

We soon arrived to what looked like a bar in the lobby of a hotel. Still more of this dull, colorless aesthetic from the rest of the port, the area was rather sparse at this hour of the morning, as it should have been. The few patrons around sat at circular tables, mostly in groups, having early alcoholic drinks together before heading into the office. At the topmost level up the stairs, I noticed a few lone individuals sitting by themselves, absorbed in their business on their terminals, drinks in-hand.

Ashley hummed, contented as we walked past the heated water and large set of rocks in the center.

"I like the music here," she remarked. "It's so chill. Atmospheric, a little moody. I could listen to this song for hours and never get sick of it…"

"More Zen?" pondered Tali.

"Yes, Tali. More Zen."

Shepard led us to an empty table near the large set of picture windows, open to the comforting view of the blizzard outside. She pulled out my designated chair for me to sit down, right near the window. I smiled at her as I sat, and as Tali sat next to me, with Ashley right across. I also expected her to sit with us in the only other open seat, yet she remained standing.

"Skipper?" asked Ashley. "No idea why we're here first, but aren't you gonna sit with us?"

"Not this time, Chief," dodged Shepard. "I'm going to use my tactical cloak for some solo reconnaissance on that Gianna Parasini. Something's off about her, and I want to find out what it is. Before I go, I'll buy you ladies some drinks. Non-alcoholic, by the way—we're still on a mission here."

Tali laughed softly. "That's really thoughtful of you… Thanks."

"Thank you, Commander," I expressed. "That would be lovely."

Ashley couldn't hide her smile. "Yeah, that's unexpected. Thanks, Shepard…"

Shepard maintained her mask, however softened she was on the inside. "I'll go see what they have at the bar," she said. "Probably not that much. I'm guessing it'll be regular fruit juice that they use to mix in with the other drinks. Will that work for you?" The three of us nodded, lightened. "All right. Wait here."

As she headed over to the bar nearby, I watched her go, watched the perfunctory rigidness of her walk.

Yet even in her mechanical stride, I saw such an air of confidence about her—that professionalism. How she held her head high as she went, not quite physically looking down on those she passed by, although she might as well have anyway; how the tail of her hair hanging from the center-back of her head moved ever-so-slightly as a metronome of her movements; and how she held her shoulders back slightly, leaving her arms a little loose, reminding me just enough of her runway walk from her previous career.

Ashley noticed the same, grinning freely. "Is this real?" she asked—rhetorical. "Shepard's actually treating us to drinks, letting us sit here while she handles this leg of the mission? I almost feel bad, but it's not like I'm gonna turn down her hospitality! Man, this day so far—it's been like a roller coaster…"

"I'll say," agreed Tali, captivated. "She can be really sweet sometimes…when she wants to be."

"And she never loses her scowl while she does it. That makes it even sweeter."

Tali admitted: "Mmm, yes, she used to scare me. I would worry about her moods—if I was bound to make her angry at any moment. For some reason, she hasn't lost her patience with me. Not yet…"

Ashley laughed a bit. "I doubt that's even possible," she speculated. "There's a reason why I'm always calling you cute. Skipper sees what I see; I bet she wouldn't have the heart to yell at you over anything. Besides, you know your stuff. You're fine, Tali." We all watched as Shepard leaned over the plain surface of the bar, monitoring the salarian bartender closely as he prepared our drinks. "You know, seeing her like this, it gets harder and harder to not just…tell you guys what's been on my mind lately."

Even me, really?

"It's okay," consoled Tali. "There's no pressure to tell us anything. By the way, I did tell Liara that Kaidan told me about that 'boyfriend' of yours. So she knows as much as I do. No secrets here."

Gaping at her, Ashley asked, "You think this is related…to that?"

"Um, yes? I'm making an educated guess. This is the main thing you've been upset about all this time, and what you were so vague about last night. Isn't it?"

"Oh… Sure, I guess that makes sense. And yeah—it is about that…"

"Well, like I said, there's no pressure," repeated Tali. "I don't want you to feel like you have to tell us, just because we're all sitting here having drinks together. We're here to support you no matter what."

Ashley didn't believe half of that last sentence. "I'll…think it over. Thanks, Tali."

All of a sudden, we heard Shepard shouting at the cowering bartender—"What the hell is this?! I said dextro! This is supposed to be for a quarian—are you trying to kill her?!" Throwing the drink in the salarian's face, she ordered, "Make the right drink this time, goddamnit. If I scan the next one, too, and it's wrong, this empty glass is gonna end up someplace you really don't want it to go."

"I-I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" cried the bartender, fruit juice dripping from his face as he hurried to find the correct items. "I'll do it right this time, I promise. I promise! Just please don't hurt me!"

"Whatever," dismissed Shepard, picking up the other drinks next to her. "You'd better have it ready by the time I get back here. And I'm not paying for it, either."

As Shepard made her way back to our table with two glasses, Ashley hid her laughter behind her hands.

"Oh, she's pissed," she noticed in amusement.

"Don't let her see you laughing," warned Tali.

"Here," said Shepard, settling two glasses of sugary, fruity drinks over the surface—one for me, and one for Ashley. "Sorry, Tali. The idiot bartender is making yours over. My scans showed that the first one he made wasn't dextro. The last thing I need right now is you dying over some negligent shit like this."

Tali giggled. "I understand, Shepard. Thank you."

Ashley asked, "You have one of those dextro-scanning programs on your omni-tool? How come?"

"For situations like these," stated Shepard. "I also use it to scan our incoming shipments of food for the ship. I've had to throw out more than enough packages because they brought the wrong meals for Tali and Garrus. I filed a formal complaint with the Alliance over it. Hasn't happened again in a while now."

"Shepard," chanced Tali. "I'm going to tell you something now. Promise you won't get angry with me?"

Scowling more, Shepard accepted, "Right… What is it?"

"I have to say, you're the sweetest, most thoughtful, and most organized captain I've ever had the pleasure of knowing—on any ship, including all of the ones in the Flotilla. I could turn around for a moment, and then you already have the solution to my problems waiting for me, without me needing to ask you more than once, if at all. I've learned my lesson to not judge you by how intimidating you look. In fact, I think you're only protecting yourself with those habits of yours. You're a big softy, you know."

Ashley tried to disguise her smirking, to no avail.

I of course smiled in agreement.

In response, Shepard steeled her eyes with her defenses. She bit down on her smile that was about to reveal itself, wrangling it back in favor of her default expression instead, sturdier than before.

She then settled on muttering, "You're…really weird, Tali. I'll…be right back with that drink for you."

Turning to leave again, Shepard's posture was much stiffer this time.

Ashley laughed and said, "Major props, Tali. You had some serious balls to tell that to the commander's face. I'm never gonna forget her reaction. She was trying so hard not to smile at you!"

"Everything I said is perfectly true," justified Tali, sounding much lighter. "Isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," I agreed.

"Mmm, and you would know, wouldn't you, Liara?"

"I would—and I do. Shepard is very considerate of all our needs. If you were to ask her about this directly, I am sure she would tell you it is merely part of her job as our leader."

Sultry in her meaning, Tali pointed out, "She chooses to be good at it, though. Don't you think?"

Willing to play this game with her, I requested, "Do tell. You must have more thoughts on this."

"Recall the last thing she said—'I'll be right back with that drink for you.' Curious choice of words. She was supposed to be so stubborn, and yet she still gave away my importance to her. I get the impression that this is something that comes naturally to her in many different situations. Know what I mean?"

"And you're asking for confirmation," I noticed. "Is that what you're doing, Tali?"

"Liara, I'm asking for more than mere confirmation. We're going to be here alone, just us three, while Shepard is off working for us. Please don't act like you're confused—it doesn't suit you at all."

"I am allowed to act confused if you won't say what you mean."

"Confused… More like coy. Does Shepard like this on you, then? Is that it?"

Ashley pulled her drink closer, staring at it with a focus that felt wholly awkward and uncomfortable.

Letting myself smile over this, I replied, "Tali, you've surprised me. I had no idea that you would ever voice anything like this out loud. Forgive me for avoiding your questions for the moment—I do intend to answer you. Once we're alone, that is."

Tali laughed, much softer this time. "I'll hold you to that."

Far sterner than before, Shepard again returned to the table, final drink in-hand. "Sorry for the wait," she regretted, giving Tali her chilled glass of juice, with a straw specifically for her quarian helmet. "My scans came back clean this time. Do you want to run one, too, just in case?"

Tali sipped the drink, without scanning it. "This is nice, Shepard," she complimented. "I trust you."

Hiding behind her own glass, Ashley drank her dark berry juice, seeming anxious about something.

I asked, "Commander, will you only be doing reconnaissance? Or do you have other plans?"

Shepard explained, "Just stalking Gianna while I'm cloaked, and maybe finding one of those garage passes lying around. I know a spy when I see one. This shouldn't take long."

Tali told her, "There's no rush, you know… Feel free to take your time. We'll be here, waiting for you."

Her face as red as her drink, Ashley stared out to the blizzard past the windows.

Shepard regarded each of us, one at a time, sensing…perhaps too much. More than she could handle at a time like this. She almost faltered in her strength, picking up on the possible, probable reasons behind Tali's coyness and mine, and Ashley's sudden, obstinate shyness.

Narrowing her eyes in deep suspicion, Shepard announced, "I should go."

She turned on her heel and left the bar, ignoring an asari harassing her for her attention as she went.

Tali sighed in contentment once Shepard was gone. "She's something else, isn't she?"

"She is, indeed," I spoke.

Ashley groaned in discomfort. "No, you two are something else," she complained. "What the hell…?"

"What?" asked Tali. "How are you surprised by any of this?"

"I'm not. Not really. I get it—the commander's a total chick magnet. She's gorgeous. Certified stud…"

Tali feigned ignorance, "Oh? Do you think about this often, Ashley?"

Not quite spotting the obvious, Ashley threw her hands in the air. "You know what? Fine!" she conceded—to what, exactly, I couldn't know yet. "I'm gonna come clean with you two. Just—don't tell anyone, especially not the guys. I don't want Joker and Wrex teasing me over this…"

"Your secret's safe with us," promised Tali.

I added, "Ashley, I think we've already agreed that this entire conversation will remain private."

"You're right," she accepted. "Okay, then…"

Ashley found her trust in us—even me, somehow.

"So…for the past—five or six years, since I was nineteen, twenty years old, I've been questioning my sexuality. I already knew I liked guys. With women, there was always a giant question mark… It took me a long time to come to grips with this. Ever since I was little, I've had this fantasy, this image burned into my head that I'd settle down with a guy someday. It's what I learned from my own family: a male father, a female mother, a bunch of natural kids… Any time I tried to imagine something else, it felt like I was betraying them. It sounds stupid, I know… But my family means so much to me. I just—couldn't…"

Tali spoke her awe, "Ashley…are you me? Well, I-I've never outright questioned my sexuality, but…"

Ashley stared in shock. "You can't mean… What are you saying, Tali?"

"I've been going through almost the same thing with my family for years now!"

"No way!"

"Yes!"

Sighing in deep relief, Ashley said, "Tali, this is so crazy! Did you have your other family members and friends and—pretty much everyone asking when you're gonna get married to some guy, someday?"

"I have!" confirmed Tali. "It was the worst with my Auntie Raan when I was in school, and I didn't have a boyfriend! She would ask if something was wrong, or if I needed help; or she would offer to introduce me to so-and-so's son or nephew, as if that was the solution to my problem. I couldn't possibly tell her that I was secretly in love with a straight girl at the time, and that I was depressed over it… There was no way my father would have approved of me being depressed over that, either…"

"Yeah, same here… I only had one boyfriend in high school, though. My younger sisters thought I was allergic to boys or something. They'd give me the third degree, asking why I was single even though I had plenty of guys calling me hot all the time… I'd just brush them off and say I was focused on protecting them from any stupid boys, and they believed me. This is so weird… What a coincidence."

Tali explained her feelings, "It's a lot of pressure… And it's not as if being gay or bisexual, or even trans is some huge taboo anymore. I did a bit of research on how it was for you humans. It sounds like it was the same for my people, too, for the longest. Still, straight is the default, and explaining otherwise to your father—who already has high expectations of you—can be rather daunting…"

"I felt that same pressure, too," shared Ashley. "My family's really religious. If this was two hundred years ago, they would've disowned me… These days, I worry they'd say it's unnatural for me to get pregnant by a woman, like our family wouldn't be real… I just—I don't wanna let them down. That's part of what made me keep questioning. Plus, when I did hook up with girls, everything wouldn't add up…"

"I know what you mean, Ashley…mostly. Except I haven't had the chance to—well, you know…"

Careful, delicate, Ashley asked, "Are you…not there yet? Still undecided, or…?"

"Uhm…I-I don't really know if that applies to me… I mean, I do know for certain that I'm attracted to other women. I've always known… It's amusing when a man thinks he likes me. It's never been anything more than that. Only the amusement, kind of like how I thought it was so sweet that Kaidan liked Liara right away from the sound of her voice. But because of my father and how strict he is, I'm not quite ready to put a label on anything yet. I still can't even admit to a woman how I might feel about her…"

"I'm sure you'll get there someday, Tali. Hopefully your Dad comes around, too. Mine passed on a few years back… I'll always regret not opening up to him about this. Maybe if I had his approval, I wouldn't have spent so much time beating myself up about everything… If he could've given me one of those big smiles of his, and told me it would all be okay, I'd have come out to everyone way sooner."

Tali touched Ashley's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your father… I'll try to find the courage to open up to mine one day. After everything he's done for me, I owe him that much. Thanks for showing me that."

"Definitely," agreed Ashley. "And now, this is my coming out party, with you guys." She raised her glass in the air. "I can't keep denying it anymore! I'm bisexual—no question. There's no way I only like guys. I like women, too, and I've found my peace with that. No more running. Today, I'm starting off fresh. I still don't know when I'll tell my family… I won't let myself worry about that right now. I need this for me."

"That's wonderful to hear, Ashley!" said Tali. "I'm really happy for you."

"I'm glad for you as well," I told her. "It's as if a weight's been lifted from your shoulders."

Ashley soured, "Yes and no, Liara… Yes and no."

Tali wondered, "Hmm, then what's the rest? What's the matter?"

Such specific, nervous laughter. "There's a big reason I can't stay in denial about this anymore…"

"And what could this big reason be?"

"Tali, come on," griped Ashley. "It's someone! Someone that I like a whole lot? You can't tell me you don't know by now…"

"Hmm, refresh my memory?" requested Tali, supposedly innocent.

Raging in code—"The sun, Tali! The sun!"

Tali drank the last of her juice, silently goading Ashley to just say it already.

"After I showed you my entire collection of her sexy fashion magazines last night, you seriously have no idea who it is?!"

More false innocence: "No…?"

"Damnit, Tali, it's Shepard! It's her!"

Tali placed her hands over the mouth-light of her helmet, pretending to be shocked.

Ashley swiped at her. "Will you stop that?! You were just being supportive a few minutes ago!"

Giggling over this whole thing, Tali apologized, "I'm sorry, Ashley. I could have sworn you knew that I knew. You were so obvious about it for the longest—and I don't only mean when we talked last night. The moment Kaidan came to me with that fake story you fed him, he all but confirmed it for me."

"What do you mean, I was obvious about it? You're kidding!"

"You were," I confirmed. "If you had been subtler in your approach, perhaps I might not have noticed."

Ashley groaned, admitting, "Subtlety's not exactly my thing…"

I frowned at her. "You don't say."

"Look, sometimes, I don't have any brakes, okay? No filter, no chaser. I can't help it, and there's nothing I can do to change that. As long as no one else knows, I'll be fine!"

Tali and I looked to one another.

"Oh, God, this can't be happening… Please don't tell me…"

"Ashley," I tried. "I am not saying that everyone knows. Only that Shepard has also known."

Tali nodded. "That's what I figured as well."

Ashley mumbled, "That's even worse…"

"Oh, stop it, Ashley," coaxed Tali. "By now, Shepard knows that I have a crush on her, and she hasn't kicked me off the ship. You saw the way she reacted to me earlier, and the look she gave each of us before she left. She knows that this is the real Team Renegade Shepard. It's the three of us, here."

"But how can you talk about this like it's no big deal?! She's our commander…"

"Is there really any reason for us to keep avoiding this topic? Besides, Liara is right here, and she hasn't told us to shut up already. She's made it clear that this isn't a problem. Why not discuss it?"

Ashley eyed me again.

She knew that she could speak nothing of the allowances that Shepard had given her.

She knew that she could divulge nothing of how Shepard did or did not feel about her.

As long as she followed the rules, she knew—I truly had no issues with this conversation.

Taking a deep breath, Ashley muttered her admission, "Okay, fine… I'm an open book for you guys now. Or at least, I might as well be… What do you wanna know?"

Tali held nothing back: "How are you able to masturbate to her so many times in a row? I can hear you sometimes when I listen closely through the wall connecting our rooms together. It's like you never seem to stop on most nights. So, how do you do it?"

Ashley hid her burning face in her hands. "Right for the jugular, huh…?"

"Hardly. I'm only getting started."

"Ugh, you're such a perv… Spying on me through the wall? Really?"

"Maybe I am. I like listening to someone else lose their mind over her for a change. Now answer me."

Seeing no way to avoid this any longer, Ashley removed the brakes, so to speak:

"It's because I lose my mind, like you said… That and my sex drive is insane…for her and only her. With everyone else I had before, I'd want sex. Not necessarily with them—they just so happened to be there at the time. They were convenient… Then we'd get in bed, and they were too sloppy or clumsy. Or they were too soft, treating me like a doll that could break at any minute. So I'd think about something else, anything else, and I'd get off…and then I'd feel sick to my stomach for wasting my time like that."

Tali knew, "You settled for less, then?"

"Compared to Shepard? Way, way less…"

"Go on."

"Look, I'll be the first to admit that I may be idealizing her…"

"Hmm, Ashley, I don't know about that. You didn't hear the unintentional demonstration Liara and Shepard gave us the other day. And I spared you the details because I wasn't sure how you would feel. I'm surprised the others haven't mentioned it in the chat that much, honestly."

Ashley wanted to know now—"Tell me. Give me the details. What didn't you say?"

Tali looked to me, praising, "Liara, I never did congratulate you. Shepard wouldn't stop that night. By my count, and Joker's estimations, she kept going, kept pleasing you for at least eight hours—"

"—eight hours?!" cried Ashley, lowering her voice enough to prevent anyone else in the bar from overhearing us. "Holy shit, Liara… What did you do to her!? How did you get her to do that for you?"

Rather enjoying this heat in my own face, I explained, "There was nothing I did to her, Ashley…"

"No—I don't buy it," she insisted. "You don't get it… Seriously, I still can't wrap my head around this."

"Be honest with me," I requested. "What do you mean?"

"Real talk, Liara: when we first met, I assumed you were way too sweet and innocent to be on Shepard's radar! And even if she did want you, I thought there was no way she'd put herself out there like that… You were only fresh meat—why take the risk? Then you come out of nowhere, and got her to turn you out like this?! What does she see in you? Why does she want you this badly? Tell me—I need to know!"

And then I remembered Shepard's wise warnings—that Ashley was bound to insert herself into my business, needing to know more about me, exactly in this way.

Tali chimed in, "I'll admit, Liara—I want to know, too. Won't you share with us?"

"I'm not sure where to begin," I prefaced. From the way they hung on my every word so far, they didn't seem to care about my hesitations—they wanted me to give them something, anything to hold on to. "Well…it is rather cliché to say this, but all is not as it appears with me. You say that I am sweet and innocent, yet this is only one side of my personality. I am not that simple."

Ashley couldn't tear her sights from me. "You're saying there's more to you than meets the eye…"

"Yes, that human expression is appropriate."

"Then, what else is there?" she asked. "What am I missing here? What are we not seeing?"

"Don't you think you are already witnessing another side of me? Here, right at this moment."

"I guess… But I want you to paint a picture for me, Liara. I need to understand you, how you operate."

I wasn't confident that she would be familiar with the simpler term, the shortcut.

So I told her, "When I was younger, my mother Benezia would call me her little wing. This is the purity that you know—but the picture, as you say, is incomplete. Because of how controlling my mother was, I was forced to hide the rest of who I am. Yet I have always known that I want more from someone than simple dating, along with any normal, typical expectations. I have never been with anyone before Shepard. She understands me, and she has shown me that it is possible to have far more than just sex."

Tali shifted in her seat and gazed out to the snow, thinking…

But the way Ashley stared at me—it was as if I'd transformed before her very eyes.

No longer the shy bookworm she had assumed me to be.

Such boldness from her: "Liara…are you saying you're into—an alternative lifestyle?"

I smiled over her comprehension. "On a mental and emotional level, yes, I am."

"You said that Shepard understands you… Does that mean—the other night—she wasn't able to resist you instead of it being the other way around? She kept giving it to you for that long because you had her wrapped around your finger… And she gave you that focus of hers, that crazy attention to detail she has. She knows what she's doing when she touches you, when she kisses you… She wants you…as a woman."

"Yes, Ashley… She gives me what I want. Sometimes I am selfish… She enjoys it."

"Does she really give you everything you want…? Everything you could ever possibly need?"

"She does—because she wants to. Because I want her to want it. If she didn't want this as badly as she does, then it wouldn't be the same. She wants to please me as much as possible. It's…invigorating."

Ashley could hardly contain herself: "Mmm, she's a people-pleaser…isn't she? Please tell me she is…"

I nodded. She grinned in the slickness of her own fantasizing.

"You said Shepard's your first. I have to ask—" Even more boldness: "Are you still a virgin?"

Tali snapped out of her daydreaming—"Ashley!"

I replied, "Yes—"

"—oh, my God!" Those memories from last night—Ashley remembered. "Oh, fuck… Oh, my God!"

"What, what's wrong?" worried Tali. "You're freaking out… How is this a bad thing, exactly?"

"Tali, it's not a bad thing—"

And then a certain radio call passed through our ears at the same time: "Shepard to bar party. Shepard to bar party. Bar party, do you read me?"

Quickly muting herself via her omni-tool, Ashley snorted with laughter.

Tali muted her own radio as well, giggling madly.

I smiled over Shepard's dry sense of humor, responding to her, "Yes, Commander, we are here. How is everything going with your reconnaissance?"

"I'm finished here. We can proceed with the rest of the mission now. Bring Tali and Ashley with you, and meet me outside the administrator's office. Do you remember the directions Gianna gave us earlier?"

"I do remember—from the main elevator, we are to head left down the plaza. Well, we will need to go to the right from our current direction. If we can proceed, does this mean you procured a garage pass?"

"Yes, we're good to go," responded Shepard, annoyed.

I could have sworn I heard Captain Matsuo's voice somewhere in the background from where she was.

I asked her, "Is…something wrong, Shepard?"

She went silent for a moment, moving farther away from the sounds of the captain's voice.

I wondered: "Commander, how exactly did you obtain this garage pass?"

"That prick Anoleis had one right in his pocket. I knew I wouldn't be able to cloak past his security drones—their sensors would have found me, setting off every alarm across Port Hanshan. Then the situation with Gianna escalated. I had to take alternative measures to secure the garage pass."

Tali and Ashley looked to me, sharing in my concerns.

We made our way out of the bar, passing by various corporate employees speaking to one another in panicked whispers, fretting over some recent event that had occurred downstairs.

Unmuting herself as we reached the elevator, Tali asked, "Shepard, what do you mean by alternative measures? What are you saying?"

"…you'll see when you get here."

Ashley questioned, "Okay, then how did the situation with his secretary escalate? You said you planned on spying on her, didn't you? To find out if she was a spy?"

"I did listen in on her conversations," confirmed Shepard. "I used my cloak to follow her around. That's when I learned the information I needed to get this garage pass."

As the elevator took us back to the main level, Tali couldn't help inquiring, "Did you…seduce her?"

Muting herself once more, Ashley tried so hard not to laugh.

"Tali, I'm not even going to justify that with a response."

I continued the conversation, "Then what happened?"

"Once it looked like the four of us were a no-show to the administrator's office, she left to go make a private call through an encrypted network. She was on the line with a friend, gushing about—something—and worrying about how she might've blown her cover over the whole thing. She apparently worked for Noveria Internal Affairs as a double-agent, trying to bust Anoleis for his financial crimes."

There was really no need to ask her what this something was that Gianna had gushed about.

"You then decided to bring this information to Administrator Anoleis?"

Shepard replied, "It was only supposed to be blackmail for the pass. Gianna was irrelevant—according to her, there are about a dozen other double-agents sneaking around here on the administrator's ass. She knew she was expendable, and that's why she was so worried about her cover. I figured someone else could do a better job—with some more professionalism—and Anoleis would go down eventually."

We soon reached the main level. Tali and Ashley walked alongside me as we passed through the plaza, doing our best to avoid the many ERCS guards that had nearly overtaken the area. I made sure to lower my voice as much as possible as I continued speaking to Shepard, getting to the bottom of this.

I disapproved of her methods, as we could have found some other way to obtain the pass without allowing an alleged criminal to continue his schemes.

Still, that was irrelevant right now—what was done was done.

"And after all of your justifications, did Anoleis give you the pass in exchange for the blackmail?"

Quite able to hear the displeasure in my tone, some of Shepard's nerves passed through, "Not exactly… And not right away. He promised he'd give me the pass after he had a talk with Gianna. He wanted to confront her. I figured he'd fire her and be done with it."

Almost to the administrator's office, this larger gathering of security officers spoke the obvious.

"Shepard," I said, noticing the way Ashley and Tali regarded me in worry, for they knew I objected to this. "Administrator Anoleis did not simply fire his assistant once he confronted her. Did he?"

More nerves, more guilt: "There was…an altercation."

"An altercation?! Commander—"

We then arrived to the administrator's office—or the open doorway, at least—where this altercation had taken place not moments before. Lifeless upon the ground were two bodies, human and salarian, almost at an angle to one another. That pink dress, and an elite suit that only someone on the Executive Board could have afforded—this had to have been none other than Gianna Parasini and Administrator Anoleis. Guns in-hand, they appeared to have shot one another dead during their argument.

No doubt that Shepard had procured the garage pass from Anoleis' pocket after his murder.

Nearby, I heard Captain Matsuo informing her superiors among ERCS that no one knew how or why this had occurred, including Shepard, after she had questioned the commander as a possible witness.

That possible witness, indeed, whom had retreated to a far corner closer to the snowy windows, away from the gaggle of security guards: Shepard had her back to us, brooding next to the wall over there. She shook her head from time to time, seeming to brace herself for our reactions once we found her.

As Tali and Ashley joined me in heading over to Shepard's side, I supposed I could no longer be angry with her. Though I would have preferred if the appropriate authorities had been able to apprehend Anoleis instead, he was dead now, and so that was the final end to his alleged illegal activities.

Once we were near enough, Shepard only looked to us once, before leading the way to the garage area.

We again avoided any security officers that we could, thankfully finding that the winding hallways just before the garage were empty enough.

However, Ashley could not stay quiet, "You're always on top of things… How did this all go so wrong?"

Shepard knew that she had been shortsighted about this. "…oops."

"'Oops'?! What the hell?! This is nothing like you. Commander!"

"Ash, whatever… It's done. Let's just get out of here."

Disarmed by Shepard at last using her nickname—in reality—Ashley quickly found her forgiveness.

Flirtatious, sexy, yet reserved: "Sir, yes sir…"

Breathing out built-up steam through her nose, Shepard could think of nothing to say in response.

Tali hummed, deep in thought, yet she also chose not to say anything.

I had no idea why I was amused by this.

But I supposed this was better than staying angry at Shepard over her uncharacteristic mistakes.

At the entrance to the garage, Shepard showed the garage pass to the lone security officer standing guard next to the glass doors. The officer gave us a look of bewilderment, before confirming that the pass was genuine, and allowing us to pass through.

Yet once we arrived to the dark gray of this large, large space, there was nothing here. The closed garage doors led out to the Aleutsk Valley just outside—those winding paths suffering from the brunt of the blizzard. Smells of vehicle exhaust mixed with heat desperately attempting to pierce the chill fogging the area: not a single vehicle, including the complimentary Grizzly truck that Port Hanshan normally would have had here, and including the Mako from the Normandy that should have been here by now.

After all of that, we had reached a dead end…

Shepard called Joker right away—"Shore party to Normandy, come in! Joker!"

Joker answered in a panic, "Commander, what the heck is going on?! There's a swarm of ERCS guards outside on the docking bay! The people at arrival controls said there was some kind of incident in Port Hanshan, and now they're on lockdown? They're not trying to get into the ship or anything, but still!"

"…there was an incident, yes. Can you get the Mako here to the garage? We're on our way to Peak 15."

"Negative, Ma'am—they won't let me make the transfer to your location! They told me I have to keep the ship here until we're ready to leave for good. If you can find some other way to get to Peak 15, I'm pretty sure I can pick you guys up straight from the facility once you're done there. I can't do it twice."

Mounting pressure, guilt returning—"There is no other way… The shuttles are down, and there's no surface access up to that area. We'd have to walk through the valley at this point."

"In the middle of a blizzard?! Shepard, there's no way you're walking! You guys would freeze to death!"

Though Shepard had her back to us once more, I could tell that this last setback had thrown her.

Ashley gave her back a dark smirk, actually enjoying this rare and unusual sight of our leader's disarray.

Tali tossed her a lifeline: "Actually, Joker, there may be a way for us to make the walk safely. Could you confirm that the blizzard is only a level one environmental hazard?"

"Yeah, Tali, it showed the hazard at level one when I checked earlier. Checking again now… Still level one, with no forecasts of it jumping up any higher. And no chance of the blizzard stopping until next week or so. It's not like we can wait it out, though. The port's supposed to be on lockdown for like a month."

"Benezia will not wait for us any longer," I pointed out. "Whatever business she has out here on Peak 15 will not last forever. We must find her sooner rather than later—now, ideally."

Joker worried, "I hear ya, Liara—but I'd rather you not die a cold, horrible death chasing after your Mom out there. Unless that blue skin of yours keeps you safe from blizzards, there's no chance you'll survive."

Ashley reminded him, "Tali said there might be a way for us to pull this off. Right?"

"Yes, there is," confirmed Tali. "My suit lets me survive just fine in level one environmental hazards. Even now, I'm not cold at all. I've done this before—it will be like walking on a normal day, in regular weather. I'll be fine."

"Yeah, cool, Tali," dismissed Joker. "You gonna solo Peak 15 and find Benezia all by yourself? I guess your little combat drone could keep you company while you bleed out thanks to her asari commandos!"

"Joker, will you stop that and listen to me? Shepard has implants that help her handle extreme weather in emergency situations. This is an emergency situation. She'll be fine, too. Won't she?"

Shepard replied, "Yes… I can maintain them indefinitely for a level one hazard only."

"Okay… What about Ashley and Liara? There's no way you're pulling another rabbit out of your hat!"

Tali didn't understand. "A what out of my hat?"

"Uh, never mind…"

On cue, Shepard activated her relevant implants. Without needing to make physical contact with me this time, I felt the effects of her changes. Like a furnace, my body heated up with this new source of warmth. Much like Tali's description, I felt as if I was in a normal place, during a regular day, well without any of these extreme temperatures. I also gathered that this was only the lowest setting for these accommodations: once we reached the full blizzard outside, I could have more heat to be just fine.

Ashley didn't quite have the same freedoms: "I feel way warmer, but…" She stepped farther away from Shepard, first, and then closer to her. "Unless I'm right next to you, I can't really feel anything. It gets dimmer when there's more distance between us. Liara looks like she's fine, though."

"Then stay close to me," said Shepard, not meaning anything by it.

"Oh… Okay. I will, then…"

Joker interrupted, "Hey, hello?! Is anyone gonna fill me in on how any of this is even possible?"

"Maybe some other time," offered Tali.

Shepard used her omni-tool to input the coordinates to Peak 15. She then brought up her navigational system, showing the exact path for us to take through the valley to our destination. As an estimate for how long it would take us to arrive to the facility, the orange lettering popped up and flashed: 01h41m.

"Not bad at all," accepted Ashley. "About an hour and a half? Means we can take a nice walk together."

Tali agreed, "Yes, that should be good. It's time we put some work in after the day so far."

"Uh, am I missing something?" asked Joker, still out-of-the-loop. "And don't tell me you can't see how insane this is. The four of you walking through a blizzard, alone? Then again…" His pause spoke of his inappropriate thoughts. "Hey, Shepard… I just realized! You'll have the girls to yourself while you're out there. All three of them! Gonna find a hot spring somewhere out there for some sexy times—?"

Shepard hung up on him.

Finding her N7 helmet, she placed the protective piece over her head, needing to tuck in the length of her hair's tail through the material. She sighed over how predictable Joker was; she sighed over the day.

Ashley and I placed our helmets on as well.

Tali was already prepared to set off as she was.

Shepard then turned around to look at us, finally look at us properly, finding our shared contentment.

She appeared to want to say something—to apologize—yet she couldn't quite find the words.

Tali praised her instead: "You're still the best captain ever, Shepard—by far. The walk should be fun."

Ashley did the same: "Yeah, Skipper. We'll manage. Don't be so serious!"

And I smiled at her, watching as most of Shepard's anxieties left her face, misted and frozen away.

She then spoke what she had wished to say earlier after Tali's initial compliments in the bar:

"Thanks…"

Leading the way out of the garage, Shepard walked toward the massive gates and out to the Aleutsk Valley. We followed close behind—with Ashley only a few paces behind her—as those automatic doorways lifted in their substantial weight, opening us to the expanse of snow outside. Rising temperatures through Shepard's protective instincts: the initial snap freeze halted me only for a moment, before my body warmed back up again. Ever the same as that wonderfully thoughtful blanket of hers, wrapping me up in her consideration—bundling me up in her growing love…

Like my mother used to with her warm embraces—as her little wing—so many years ago, in nostalgia.

Chapter Text

"Don't Be So Serious" by Low Roar (Death Stranding) / "Namir – Trailer Edit" from Deus Ex: Human Revolution / when appropriate, in between: "The End of an Era" from Mass Effect 3: Citadel

IX. Hesitation is Defeat

(Shepard)

Absolute heat as fire radiated in my stomach against full brunt of this blizzard, straight from my core, helping me to press on as I led the team across the winding valley. Lifting and lifting my combat boots through the snow, one by one, step by step, I made a path through the fair amount of weighted white in our path, creating an easier one for Ashley, Liara, and Tali to walk through behind me, directly in my footsteps. Sight obscured somewhat by my helmet, I kept one eye on the road ahead, and another on my omni-tool over my left arm that ticked on with my navigational system, showing me where to go.

Every now and then, I turned my head back, making sure that everyone was all right: Ashley right behind me, and Tali and Liara walking next to each other not too far behind her.

I could hear their footsteps through this persistent flurry of the winds and snowfall.

I needed to see them myself—needed to see them looking back at me, to know that they were there.

Higher, above all, glimmers of the sun shone through as a stretched-out star in the white-blue sky. Watching over us, that half-overcast spanned out to the rise of the Skadi Mountains in the not-so-far distance, of rock formations peaking and cresting in the shape of this tundra, this endless snow. At my sides along the edges of these vehicle-minded paths, structured lights blinked in helpful warnings for anyone driving through, showing where the road peaked off to the fall of the valley's drop below.

Deep down, deep below, the white of that unknowable expanse fogged all else into obscurity. However many unfortunate cars, or stubborn travelers had fallen through there, I couldn't know. Somehow, I felt those depths in me, as this heat continued to gather and gather far within my core, pulling at something in me…something I had never, ever felt before, after having resisted the beginnings for far too long.

I couldn't hear them, but Tali and Liara looked to be in deep conversation.

I couldn't know for certain, but Ashley seemed to be gathering up the courage to do something.

Waiting without waiting, I took stock of myself beyond these foreign feelings blooming within me. This slight tingle in my nose, this dripping of moisture down my throat, and a slight chill passing through me, even though I was perfectly warm… I should have been fine. I should have been, but I wasn't. So I decided to use my omni-tool to check my diagnostics; see what the problem was.

My immune system was at work adapting to an infection from a host of new germs.

Sniffling with this dejection, and with my heavy pulse, I accepted the obvious:

This was from Ashley, from her kissing me earlier—in real life—for the first time.

I hadn't gotten sick from my first kiss with Liara. So why this? Why now?

After the day so far, this was just what I fucking needed.

Interrupting my simmering frustrations, I spotted a notification on my omni-tool:

Request: New Private Radio Frequency (Secure – Encryption Grade: Alliance-Standard)

Requester: Ashley Madeline Williams

Reason: To talk clearly in the middle of this blizzard. To maybe use after we leave this place, if you want.

Requirements: No one else is allowed in. Only you and me. You can opt-in to show me when you're available, and when you're on the line. Opt-out when you're not in the mood to talk to me. No pressure.

Accept/Decline/Save for Later

Taking a deep breath filled with my simmering, hot enough to melt this blizzard, I accepted her request.

I made myself available on this frequency, and saw that she was on the line already, waiting for me.

I really…respected how bold she was in the face of her fears with me.

I spoke to her with that respect, "Ash, it's me."

Ashley hesitated before responding, "Hey, Shepard…"

We hadn't even exchanged more than five words so far, and already I picked up on the pros and cons of this new situation. Which were positive, which were negative—I couldn't know, I couldn't know. Yet I could at least speak to her without needing to raise my voice over the winds around us. I could speak to her as if she was right next to me, as if she occupied this space here in my helmet with me. Though this also applied to her: because I could hear her so clearly, she used a softer tone than she normally would have, tuning me into another novel frequency.

Every single breath that laced itself through Ashley's words, I could hear from her.

Every single layer of emotion that broke Ashley's voice into rasping fragments, I could feel from her.

More simmering, and more simmering, stirring this all together into new temperatures: the heat started to lift from my core up through my diaphragm, like a boiling mist that fully intended on taking me over. I could keep strengthening this dam over that mist, keep blocking its reach and its approach up to my chest—or worse—but my actions on this day had given the game away.

My distractions, my hospitality, my shortsightedness: all because I'd had Ashley on my mind, now that Liara had given me her permissions, forfeiting this game right at the moment when it started.

Ashley wanted to play by my rules, even if it meant exposing her vulnerabilities to me like this.

She would never, ever give up or concede or forfeit, even unwillingly—I knew that she wouldn't.

Her sheer nerve to be this unapologetic with me had fastened this adhesive over us, hardening.

For now, though, she needed me to keep the conversation going.

Simple and clean. "Ashley."

Those nerves of hers. "Yeah…?"

"You good?"

Sucking in a breath—"I'm… I'm okay. What about you?"

"I'm fine," I told her, feeling myself smile. "What made you decide to do this? You surprised me."

"I…wanted to talk to you. You know, without this space in the way. The blizzard all around us. I'm walking behind you; it's not like we can have a real conversation. Not like Liara and Tali back there."

Sounded practical enough. "You're allowed to walk next to me, you know."

Ashley demurred, "That isn't the best idea…"

"Why not?"

"I'd be way too tempted to hold your hand… Or to get you to hold mine. You know how one person's hand has to be over? I would…want yours over mine. And—we can't do that. I respect your boundaries."

I was lucky no one could see me smiling, more. "Sounds like you've put a lot of thought into this."

"You're always on my mind, Shepard. Everything I do, every shot I fire…you're there. All the time."

"You never get tired of thinking about me?"

"Never," replied Ashley, sincere. "Why would I? I made it pretty clear last night where things stood with me, with my feelings. Even though I said whatever came to mind, all of it was true. Besides, I'm usually not that great with words. I'm so used to—clamming up, or relying on my favorite poems instead. I can't see you liking poetry like that. So I'm trying to use my own words more. Really, really trying."

I stopped myself from scoffing. "Yeah, if you started spouting off random poetry, I wouldn't know how to react. Unless I ask you to, then that's a different story. If it's out of nowhere, then that would be…"

"Weird? Yeah, I know. I know. I've thought about this a lot, too. I'll stick to writing my own poems."

"If I'm honest, Ash, I'm surprised you like poetry at all. Your background file mentioned that you earned your undergrad degree in English Literature. Doesn't exactly fit with the rest of your perfect technical scores in handling that M7-Lancer assault rifle of yours."

"Hey, just because my technical scores were great, that doesn't mean I can't like sensitive stuff, too. What can I say? I love the classics—Tennyson, Whitman, even Shakespeare. I liked college. I liked getting to write analytic essays on the novels and poems our professors assigned to us. It was kinda stressful sometimes, fitting homework in between skirmishes and live training… But I don't regret a thing."

I remembered, "So it was just your electives that you didn't like?"

Ashley laughed with her guilt, gentle.

"I was normally fine with school. In general. I almost failed my psych elective because I was…distracted at the time. And I didn't like the class anyway. Hated my professor. Couldn't pay attention. It was mostly because I was distracted, though."

Well, if she hadn't outright failed the class, then that wasn't so bad. I'd assumed she just hadn't cared.

I asked her, "Why were you distracted?"

"This is gonna sound so stupid… It's because of my boyfriend at the time. My first boyfriend after high school, away from my parents and all of that. This was after I enlisted, while I was in Brazil for my training. I was only around nineteen years old. Psychology was too much for me back then."

"What do you mean?"

Sighing in bitter reminiscence, Ashley explained: "He was older than me. Eight years older. When we first met in a club down in Rio, I thought he was so sweet and handsome. He bought drinks for me and my friends, and we bonded over how we were both foreigners. I wasn't from the country; he was an ex-pat from Quebec. He made me laugh a lot, so we dated. Things were okay for a while—until he started showing me who he really was. Like he had been hiding it, on purpose, just to get me to stick around."

Staring up to the clearing skies, I hated this reminder of Ashley's limited view of me. This persistent brushing of the blizzard, this flurry of fury in snow: as winds only, this could have been the hurricane of me, and the same that could have hurt anyone who dared to get too close to me.

Even as I thought about this, I felt such an overwhelming dread.

Dreading Ashley seeing something that she hated in me, and running away.

Dreading her finding me as I was, and not hating me—and staying with me in acceptance instead.

But I didn't want her to think I wasn't paying attention: "You're saying he was a manipulator?"

Ashley was a bit too caught up in her anger to notice my slight delay. "Almost—he wanted to be," she clarified. "Just because he was older, and he had more money than I did, he thought he could own me. Control me. He'd try to keep tabs on me, forbid me from going out with my friends. He tried to pressure me into sex a few times. I kept telling him no—then one day, I finally left. I made up some excuse about how I was getting transferred to another base. I blocked him everywhere and never looked back."

"Why did you make up an excuse instead of breaking up with him for being an asshole?"

"Because…I was afraid he'd come after me. Or that he'd find my family and hurt them. That's how bad it was. He was obsessed. Not in a good way. I'm still mad at myself for not seeing the signs earlier."

I understood: "And the psychology class was a bad mix at the time."

"Yeah, that's an understatement."

"I'm sorry, Ashley," I expressed. "I shouldn't have lost my patience with you earlier."

Sighing again, she sounded much better. "No, it's okay. I shouldn't have let the drama affect my grades. I actually wanted to know his reasons, his thinking. There were some other things, like how he wanted me to call him 'Daddy'. Figured my regular old class wasn't going to have the answers I needed."

Such a natural thing to ask now, "You never had sex with him at all, then?"

Ashley paused, taken aback by how natural this was; how natural it was for her to say, "Only once, a few weeks after we started dating. He ate me out. But it wasn't…" She let the rest of this ease between us carry her through. "It wasn't the best. It didn't feel how I wanted it to feel. The whole time, I kept thinking about my first boyfriend from high school—how it was terrible with him, too. I hated it."

I couldn't really relate, since I'd never let anyone touch me like that before—and I had no experience with men—but I didn't want Ashley to feel uncomfortable talking to me about these things.

So I asked, "Well, aside from the bad sex, did your first boyfriend treat you any better?"

"He did, yeah. Things lasted longer with him than with my second boyfriend. We dated for like seven months in junior year. It was weird, though—he was more like a friend to me than anything. But he really liked me, and I was trying to prove to my family that I was straight at the time, so I went along with it."

"Were you attracted to him at all? Or was he only like a friend?"

Ashley laughed and told me, "He was cute… Super cute. Star of the basketball team, usually surrounded by a bunch of his other jock friends—you know, the works. I think he liked me so much because I didn't worship the ground he walked on like every other girl at school. That and he would always tell me how pretty he thought I was. I remember he really liked my lips for some reason. And I liked that he was so into me. I liked the idea of having something more with him one day. He was the responsible type."

Licking my own lips in full agreement with Ashley's ex, I probed, "Something more?"

"…you know, Shepard—marriage, kids. All of that. I could see myself settling down with him later on in life. I never told him, though. We were way too young at the time. Glad I kept my mouth shut."

"Why? Did he hurt you at some point?"

"No, not at all… I just wasn't—emotionally connected to him. Emotionally attached. That's what I meant when I said he was more like a friend. I've always had this thing with guys. No matter how attracted I am to them, there's never a real emotional connection. That ends up ruining everything else for me."

I wondered, "And I assume that's why you broke things off with him?"

"Yeah, pretty much," confirmed Ashley. "My timing could've been way better, though… I broke up with him the day after we tried to go all the way. I'd told myself that I would let him. To see how it would feel; if it would help me feel more for him. I ended up getting scared. I told him to stop. It was awkward."

Even in her silence, I sensed the strength of that awkwardness in her memory.

"Why'd you get scared?" I asked her. "What happened?"

"Um, he was… Uh, well, let's just say there was another reason why every other girl liked him so much!"

"Ashley, say the words out loud. What was the problem?"

Sounding embarrassed, she replied, "He was…huge. Like—I'm not even kidding. I was scared he wouldn't fit… That's how bad it was."

Holding back my laughter, I had to know, "…was he black, by any chance?"

Absolutely mortified over perpetuating this stereotype: "Yes…"

I couldn't help it—I started laughing, cracking up, while knowing that every single laugh I let out had only made her face redder and redder inside the stifle of her helmet. That made me laugh harder, and how shy she was, and how unexpected this was, and needing to play this off with my posture and my body shaking to not tip off Tali and Liara behind her—

"Oh, my God, Shepard, stop it!" chastised Ashley, shoving at my back, sharp with her strength. "How is this so funny? This is the first time I hear you laugh, and you're laughing at me?!" I laughed harder; she pushed at me harder, enough for me to take an extra step forward, still laughing. "Damnit, Commander, you're seriously such a jerk sometimes! Will you stop already…? Ugh!"

Feeling actual tears streaming down my face, I cleared my throat first, before saying, "Ash, I'm sorry… I wasn't laughing at you. It was unexpected, that's all."

Ashley grumbled at me. "Yeah, well, you had to say it," she reasoned. "It's not my place to say things like that. You can. I know you're mixed with black and white. I respect who you are. I'll stay in my lane."

So she really had done her research on me. "'It's not your place'. Did you learn that from him?"

"Kind of. I felt out of place whenever he brought his other black friends around. Not because I wasn't cool with them or anything—they liked spending time with me, too. There were times when they'd get too comfortable with me. They'd start throwing the N-word around while I was sitting right next to them. I knew that I wasn't allowed to say it, ever. But other than that, I never knew how to react."

"I don't use the word myself," I explained. "At most, I hear it in some of the music I listen to. So you don't have to worry about that with me. You did the right thing, though, even if it was uncomfortable."

"No, I get that I need to be uncomfortable when it comes to this. I want to keep learning. It's okay."

Another surprise from her, in the way she impressed me with her responses, her thinking on this.

And I felt the way Ashley wanted to ask me more—something more personal, about me.

She held back, uncertain.

"What is it?" I prompted her.

Then she proved me right: "Shepard, do you mind if I ask about you? About who you are, how you think. What you like, what you don't like. How you feel. Things like that."

"Go ahead," I accepted, pleased that she cared this much about me. "Ask me whatever you want."

"I'm just gonna come right out, then—did you not like me at first because you thought I hated aliens? I mean, aside from me getting caught by the beacon on Eden Prime, and how pissed you were at me for compromising the mission. When I almost made that stupid comment on the Presidium, it seemed like your whole view of me changed. Like you couldn't stand the thought of being around me."

I had to give her credit for asking the tough questions.

"Basically," I settled. "I had no patience for it—for obvious reasons. But, I figured, as long as you didn't act on it, then we wouldn't have a problem. Made it easier for me to keep my distance from you. We've moved past that, though. I don't want you to dwell on it."

"I'm not exactly dwelling on it," tried Ashley. "Not anymore. Not really. Out of everyone, I felt like you were the hardest on me. And I know what it's like to have my CO busting my ass because of my last name. I never got that vibe from you; you didn't judge me for that. I just can't help but feel like you looked for a reason, any reason not to like me. Am I crazy, Shepard, or does that sound about right?"

I didn't like the turn that this conversation had taken, so suddenly.

I didn't like this feeling of Liara's stare burning against the back of my helmet.

I turned around, checking on Ashley, on Liara, on Tali—on everyone—again making sure that they were all there, as if they'd somehow disappeared during this talk.

I turned back around, facing forward, facing this onslaught of snow and wind.

I took the brunt of it, determined to act as this shield for Ashley right behind me.

She walked with ease, directly in the path I left in my wake, reminding me of the stakes here:

Lying to her or avoiding her wasn't going to do either of us any good.

So I told Ashley the truth: "Yeah, that's right."

She couldn't believe it—"Wait a minute. Seriously?! You're admitting…that I'm right?"

"Yes, Ash," I repeated. "You're right. I chose to be hard on you. More than anyone else on the ship, I avoided you on purpose. I avoided getting to know you on a personal level. I looked for excuses not to like you. I held onto those made-up reasons like a lifeline, all to avoid this situation we're in now."

"But why, Shepard? Why'd you try so hard to avoid me like that? Is there something wrong with me?"

I couldn't handle my heart breaking over her questions, over the way she sounded.

I couldn't handle how much I wanted to stop everything and—hold her right now.

I couldn't handle her insane contradictions, of how she was so strong and independent, making me forget that she did need someone like me who wanted to protect her on an emotional level.

This was why—exactly why I had avoided her before.

"There's nothing wrong with you, Ashley," I reassured her. "I had to follow regulations."

"Then why were the regs so important to follow with me?" she insisted on knowing. "You found a loophole with Liara! Why couldn't you come talk to me in person—get to know me before figuring out if I'm worth it or not? Why'd you work so hard to dismiss me like that right off the bat?!"

The Williams Curse:

This was personal for her.

Any answers unrelated to the real matter at-hand weren't going to help her at all.

And Ashley had the courage—or recklessness—to be this upfront with me, this straight-up with me in her emotions, knowing that I could've hung up on her at any second if I didn't like her tone. But right now, when it mattered the most, she didn't hold back. She didn't censor herself or bow down to me.

Again, I chose to be honest with her: "Because…our rocky start aside, I already know that you're worth it." The way she went quiet: I accepted that there was no going back from this. "When we first met on Eden Prime, I sensed that there was something about you. Something that I wouldn't be able to ignore after a while. But I was too closed-off at the time. I couldn't let myself act on anything, so I pretended like I was above it all instead. That's what I do when I don't know how to cope—I avoid things. I run away."

"You didn't avoid Liara. You didn't make her feel like shit. Hell, you fucked her brains out—and not once did you stop to think about how it would make me feel! And I know you knew that I liked you! So why? Why didn't you control yourself around her like you always do with me? Why did you pick her first?!"

Even the way she was upset, and jealous, and downright hateful over this didn't turn me off.

Not one bit.

"Ashley, I thought you were straight," I justified. "I've had too many bad experiences with straight women who only thought they liked me, or who wanted me to be something I'm not—"

"—damnit, Shepard, I just came out to Tali and Liara at the bar! I'm bisexual! I was in the freaking closet because I couldn't stand the idea of disappointing my family by being myself for once! You're the one who made me realize that there's no way I can keep denying what I am! You! No one else! Until I had our dream last night? Yeah, I was questioning. That's way out the window now and you know it!"

And there went my final excuse to keep my distance from her…

If she was only questioning, or if she was still stuck in the closet, then I could have protected myself.

But now…that wasn't the case anymore.

At a loss over her warranted anger, I assuaged her, "I hear you, Ash. I understand you're pissed at me. And I'm sorry. I really am. I only wish I knew why you're this upset. You know that I never judged you because of your last name. That wasn't the case. So why is this hitting so close to home for you?"

Calming a little, but not nearly enough, Ashley told me, "Because your not-girlfriend loves rubbing this in my face. She can't stand me. She looks down on me, acting like she's so much smarter than I am, even though she's four times my age! Liara thinks she's better than me. You stroked her ego. You inflated her head, and now I have to suffer for it. And I'm not being dramatic about this, either! I have proof."

"Proof?" I asked, thrown by this. "What kind of proof? What are you talking about?"

Ashley went silent.

There was something in her non-response—how she regretted blurting all of that out.

"Ashley," I said. "Whatever this is about, you can tell me. I'll keep it to myself if that's what you need."

"I want to believe you, Shepard… I do. I just—I shouldn't have said any of that out loud. I know you care about her. I don't—I don't want to get in the middle, or ruin what the two of you have. I could never forgive myself if I did anything to hurt you, or if I somehow made you choose between us."

"You don't have to worry about that," I consoled her, knowing that I would have to choose, someday.

"But… But what if you don't believe me? What if I show you, and then you're pissed at me instead? What if you think I'm only starting drama against Liara, and…and you kick me off the team; throw me off the ship next? That'd be the end of my chance with you. My one chance to change your mind about me. I can't ruin that."

I thought back to the other night, before Feros:

When I had stayed with Ashley in her room, all because she couldn't stop crying in hatred, in her heart-broken agony.

If this was related, I could never not believe her reasons for her distress.

I turned around, making eye contact with Ashley through her helmet, the dark camouflage of her sturdy armor a stark contrast against the fluff and flurry of the whiteout around us.

Transparent shame, and fear, and hurt, and all—all wrapped in agony in the dark brown of her eyes, so wide, and beautiful, and vulnerable in her need for me to understand, and to believe her, despite the odds. And even though she was not freezing, not cold in the slightest, she wrapped her arms around herself anyway, needing that self-comfort in the midst of all her uncertainty.

"Listen to me, Ash," I spoke, directly to her, directly through to her eyes. "I need you to trust me. I know that this is related to that night when I was in your room. When you wouldn't stop crying." She forced herself not to do the same now; and so I knew that I was on the right track. "Whatever happened that night, if you need me to take this to the grave, then I will. I get that I don't have the best track record with you. I want to make this right. So please—trust me with this."

Nearly there: "Shepard, if you tell anyone, if you try to act against her… They won't believe me. They'll take her side. And even if they don't, I can't ruin their friendships with her. Everyone loves her so much because she's…the sweet and innocent one. And there's no chance I'll ever be her friend again—as if I ever was in the first place. But—I don't want this to mess with the team's morale. You know?"

"I know exactly what you mean. You have my word that this stays between us."

Unwrapping her arms from around her torso, Ashley set about searching through her omni-tool.

I turned back around, facing forward as I waited for her to send me whatever this proof was:

Ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation.

Damning enough to get in Ashley's head like this and to make her hate.

I sent her my personal email address, to avoid getting this mixed up with work.

She confirmed that she received it, and that she would use her own personal email for me as well.

"I'm about to send you a screenshot," announced Ashley. "I should explain first. We made a chat room, Team Renegade Shepard, where we pretty much talk about whatever without you there. I promise we don't talk shit about you or anything. Never that. It's supposed to be a place for us to bond and joke around. It still is, technically. But when Tali messaged me that night, something shattered—in my head, in my heart. I haven't been the same since. Talking with you like this helps me feel like myself again."

Of course—the chat that Liara had confirmed to me. Team Renegade Shepard, huh? TRS? Interesting.

"I understand," I replied. "I don't mind that you all have someplace that's separate from me. I won't tell anyone I know. So don't worry about it. Like I said, I only want to make things right."

"Okay… Then you have to promise you won't tell Liara that I sent this to you. Don't confront her over it."

"I promise, Ashley. She won't know that I know. My main concern right now is making sure you feel safe with me. That's all."

Seconds later, I spotted the email alert to my omni-tool.

From: Ashley – Proof.

Shepard,

I attached that screenshot here for you. When you read the logs, I want you to remember the timing. Remember when Liara left my room, and when Tali and Joker started messaging me. I'm scared of what this could snowball into if you told anyone. If you told her. You have to keep your promises to me.

Please, don't say anything. Liara's a valuable asset to the team… In that sense, I don't want to lose her.

I don't want to lose her, even though I'm terrified of how much she wants you to herself.

The mission has to come first. Right?

Right.

-Ashley

Attached was the single print screen she'd captured of the private messages that Tali had sent her.

Watermarked at the top: Team Renegade Shepard.

The date, the timestamps: accurate from my memory, from the time that Liara had left Ashley's room in the crew's quarters, heading back to her own room after their tense conversation.

In these private messages, Tali mentioned that she had, just seconds ago, gotten Liara's permission to share: how they'd all overheard me fucking her in her room. How they'd refused to talk about it in the main room of their chat, to avoid Ashley finding out in such a sudden and awkward way. They hadn't wanted to disrespect Liara's privacy like that, either, despite how loud she and I had been that night.

Joker had restrained himself from spamming Ashley about this godlike news until Liara gave the okay.

Up for interpretation: Liara had given them the okay, knowing that this would crush Ashley's heart.

Of course, I had advised then that Ashley should go ahead and read their messages—

Right after she had come out to me about her questioning, all but giving away that she did like me: this was how she had found out that I was already in bed with someone else…

And so of course Ashley had cried about it, raged about it. Of course something in her had broken.

And I'd heard it all.

I heard it again in my head, through those memories wracking me again, even now.

This fear in Ashley's voice, now—there was no room for interpretation whatsoever.

"Shepard…? You there?"

Suddenly, so suddenly, I tasted blood in my mouth. Not having realized I'd bitten down on my back teeth so hard, I'd caught some of the tissue of the sides of my mouth in my grip. Then it started bleeding enough, just enough for this tang to wake me up to all that I had done; and all that I had spun.

"Yes, Ashley. I'm here."

I knew Ashley as a fearless person.

Bold, daring, direct—she wouldn't let anything stand in her way.

I'd had a feeling that Liara had done this. I had denied it, needing to see the best in her. But now…

"Are you… Are you okay?" tried Ashley. "You're dead silent. You're not—mad at me, are you?"

"I'm not mad at you," I promised. "You did the right thing by showing me this. I had no idea. I'm really sorry about everything. I'm responsible for this. I shouldn't have slept with her. Again—I'm sorry."

"I appreciate that, Shepard. But you're not okay, though. You're not. I can hear it in your voice. The way you control yourself so much…it makes me worry. Like you'll explode someday."

"Come walk beside me," I told her, in fact trying not to self-destruct.

"I can't… I don't want to give her any indication that we're talking on this level. She'll know."

This was beyond fucked up.

Ashley was terrified of Liara.

Liara!

What the fuck had I done to make things turn out this way? Why couldn't I have stopped everything once I sensed those dark vibes from her? Why had I given in like that so soon? And why hadn't I stopped—not once—to consider Ashley's feelings, regardless of whether she was straight or not?

Then again, I already knew the answers to these questions. And I felt this shame over the raw truth:

I could never tell Ashley—or anyone else—that I had practically used Liara as a distraction from her.

One more time: "Hey, Skipper? Do you wanna talk this over? You're really getting me anxious here…"

"I want to answer your question from earlier," I explained. "About why I chose her first."

"Okay… Shoot."

"I felt an irresistible pull toward her. And then, she unlocked this capacity in me—she opened my doors, opening me to the way I am with you today. If she hadn't done that, then you and I would have stayed on that same path. I would have kept avoiding you; you would have kept suffering in silence."

"So, if it wasn't for her, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation right now?"

"It's very likely, yes."

Ashley saw the gains there, and yet—"And what about now, Shepard? Are you just gonna close yourself back off again? Is that even possible?"

"I'm not going anywhere," I replied. "I can't. But, for now—we still have about twenty more minutes before we get to Peak 15. I have to take this time to think things through. You and I are just fine. We'll keep this going. Slowly. It's the rest that I need to think over."

"I understand…"

I sensed her last, lingering question: "What is it, Ash? Talk to me."

"Could we, maybe, stay on the line? We don't have to say anything. I need to keep hearing you breathe, that's all… Sorry if that sounds weird or obsessive… I'm—kind of leaning on you hard right now, and…"

I felt my eyes about to pour over with this building stream, heating the inside of my helmet.

I felt the same in my face, and down to my stomach—again, rising up to my chest, or at least trying to.

I felt the way Ashley had downright magnetized to me, polar opposites as we already were.

For a fleeting moment, I feared that I was about to make the same mistakes that I had with Liara.

And yet…those fears left me as quickly as they'd arrived.

They left, and vanished, and disappeared forever, if only because I knew the truth about this, too.

"That's fine," I allowed. "We'll wait until we get to the facility before we hang up. I'll be here for you."

"Thanks, Shepard…for being so sweet and understanding. You're a lifesaver."

Ashley was the main source of my real fears, for painful reasons that went way beyond any of this.

Those fears would only manifest themselves in due time, on their own time—and not a minute before.


Rising high above the valley was Peak 15's tower-like structure, the white and white beaming with lights as a house to guide any travelers through this snowy hazard. Down at the base of the facility awaited the garage, which led to the greater area of the rest of the building. As more salt in the wound, there was a destroyed Grizzly vehicle right next to the open garage, burning and flaming from a total wreck.

I took off my helmet as I stepped just inside the relative dark of the garage—compared to the sheer whiteout of the valley, anyway. I set about surveying the area. Helmets removed as well, Liara and Ashley rested a few paces behind me, with the flames from the wreckage acting as a bonfire while they sat and chatted together about snow and winter in general. Tali was nearby, busy checking her omni-tool, chiming in every so often.

No apparent bad blood between the three; not a single drop of animosity in their shared conversation.

None the wiser, Liara could not sense anything from me, or from Ashley from our walk here. I was aware that she was able to before, back on the ship, and even earlier than that. Whatever that connection was, I had blocked it as soon as we started the trek out to the valley, keeping her out of my head and out of my fucking feelings. I needed to deal with this alone without her hovering, her micromanaging me.

I sensed Ashley's determination to play this game with Liara: saving face with Liara, joking around with Liara, and pretending as if she had no intentions of eventually taking me away from Liara for herself.

And I definitely respected the player, not the game.

Although, Ashley didn't need to play Liara at all. I had already made up my mind on how to handle this.

Then again, I didn't plan on telling Ash about any of that—not by a long-shot.

Cloaking to transparency, I took a look inside the garage.

Scores of asari commandos stood around in that dank darkness of the space. Holding their shotguns in-hand, they waited around there in a strangeness about them… No real life emanating from them, the commandos swayed back and forth a bit, almost like zombies in how deadened they looked and felt, even from back here. Melding in with the dark, they melted in that obscurity around them, dozens and dozens of them occupying this area as if by someone else's will, by someone else's command.

All they did was stand there with their shotguns, the black of their commando uniforms blending into their surroundings, waiting…

Checking the research facility's schematics through my omni-tool, I found a similar story throughout the rest of Peak 15—or at least this Central Station where we were at now. I picked up on at least a hundred different signatures identifying Benezia's many asari commandos, scattered throughout the whole place. She had brought an entire army with her, all to keep other people out of this complex.

I could have cloaked past them all; I could have assassinated Benezia alone and handled this by myself.

Looking back to my team speaking together in lightness, I knew that they would have been disappointed with me if I didn't bring them along. Plus, it would've been such a waste—all of us had made this hike through the valley, after all. I didn't want them to feel like it had all been for nothing.

Checking the schematics once more, I found a series of vents and beams that tunneled through the entire facility—including both Central Station and Rift Station. I mapped out a path for us to take to get us through Central Station and over to the Binary Helix labs in Rift Station where Benezia was now.

All without being seen.

I just hoped that no one was afraid of tight spaces or tall heights.

Until we could get that far, though, we would have to bust past this group here in the garage. There was no avoiding it—this was the only viable path I had. It took us through perfectly fine, but we would need to pass through the nearest elevator in order to get there.

And there was no way we could take on all of these commandos in a straight fight, so…

"Listen up," I said, uncloaking as I headed back over to the team. "I have a plan for how we're going to get through here. Benezia's currently in the Binary Helix labs over in Rift Station. We'll need to pass through Central Station, where we currently are, and take a tram over to where she is."

"Binary Helix?" asked Tali. "The genetics corporation, you mean? Why would she be in their labs?"

I explained to everyone, "Saren is a major shareholder for Binary Helix. Benezia is here on Noveria as his executor. It's no coincidence that an official team had to look into a Code Omega alert a few days ago while Benezia was already here. She must be researching something that she shouldn't be. Whatever she's doing, we need to shut it down and find out any information she may have on Saren's location."

"Sounds good, Skipper," accepted Ashley, leaving the so-called bonfire with Liara and Tali. "Her asari commandos will probably get in our way. What's the plan? Run-and-gun straight through?"

"Yeah, about that: we have a problem," I started, watching as everyone's faces fell. "But I have a solution." Lifting back up, for now—"You won't like it, though."

Liara frowned. "What do you mean, Commander?"

I gestured with my head for them to take a look inside the garage.

Together, they all peeked through for mere seconds—

Before snapping back to me, looking horrified.

Tali freaked out, "What are they all doing, standing around like that?!"

Ashley nearly shuddered. "Looks creepy as hell… It's like they're dead inside."

"So many asari commandos," worried Liara. "Why would my mother bring such an army with her…?"

I told them, "They're posted throughout the entire facility. I mapped out a path we can take through Central Station to the tram, across to Rift Station, and down to the Binary Helix labs. In order to get to the path, we'll need to break past this group first. Once we get to the nearest elevator, we'll infiltrate the building through the vents and overhead beams. We can avoid the commandos altogether."

Tali, Ashley, and Liara each stared at my omni-tool, at the glowing orange that beamed through the path I'd found with the Peak 15 schematics. They held onto that path, that beaming, accepting this unorthodox method—at least for them.

I was perfectly comfortable. In fact, compared to the hike here, this was like an amusement park for me.

I knew that they would need to rely on me if we were going to pull this off.

Internally, Ashley seemed to go back and forth—but she set that aside, looking to me for our next move.

"Now comes the part you won't like," I warned.

"Really, Shepard?" asked Tali. "You mean taking us out of our comfort zone to infiltrate this station isn't the part we won't like?"

I pointed behind me to the commandos in the garage. "We need to get past them first and over to the elevator nearby. Whatever's going on with them, they're not completely out of it. They're not as alert as they could be, either. We have the element of surprise on our side. All we need to do is create an opening and make a run for it."

Ashley knew that this wouldn't be as simple as I made it sound. "If we're not taking them all head-on, how do we pull that off?"

I asked Liara, "Do you think your biotic field could withstand the impact from one of our grenades?"

Gaping at me, she replied, "Yes, it could… What are you suggesting, Commander?"

"Your armor today is black," I pointed out. "You could pass for an asari commando—at least in the dark, like here in this garage. I want you to head inside and walk over to them. Act as a decoy. I'll cloak and stay in front of you as an extra shield in case anything goes wrong. We'll head for the center of the area and draw all of them close to us."

"Hang on, Skipper," interjected Ashley, troubled. "Are you saying you want one of us to throw a grenade at the commandos to take them out? While Liara puts up a biotic field to protect you two from the blast?"

"That's right," I confirmed.

Tali shook her head, incredulous. "You're officially insane, you know that?"

I humored her, "I'm aware, Tali."

"It could work," agreed Liara, still wary. "Should the explosion fail to take out the entire group, we will need to hurry to the elevator. There won't be much time before they decide to retaliate. I will make sure to leave up an additional, static biotic field behind us, to prevent them from following in our path."

"That's the plan," I stated. "Is everyone clear?"

"All right," said Tali. "I don't like this, but there doesn't seem to be another way."

Liara acquiesced, "Very well, Shepard. I will do my best to protect us."

Ashley masked her fears. Of course she didn't want to risk anything happening to me. Of course she didn't want to lose me. And especially not after how much had changed between us in recent times. But, for the sake of the mission, she set all of that away, giving me her trademark perseverance instead.

"Roger that, Commander," she approved. "Who's throwing the grenade, then?"

"You are, Chief," I told her, watching that mask peel off through her eyes. "Throw the grenade on my signal. As soon as you do, you and Tali will need to run. Get to the elevator: it's up the ramp on the left side, then down the hallway. Think you can handle that?"

Loyalty undying as Ashley saluted me—"Aye, aye, Sir."

I let myself smile at her, briefly.

More peeling, more reeling from her—all on the inside.

Not noticing the same, Tali handed Liara her shotgun. "Here, Liara," she said. "You won't make for a very good asari commando without one of these. This should help you blend in for a while longer."

"Thank you, Tali," accepted Liara, taking the gun in her hands. "I'll be sure to return this to you soon."

Pistol in-hand—just in case—I asked, "Liara, you ready?"

"Yes, I am ready. Lead on, Commander."

I activated my tactical cloak again.

Preparing her grenade for the most effective explosion radius, Ashley took a moment to regard this shimmer of me. Her stare gave just enough away—less of a good luck from her to me, and more of a promise that I could count on her.

For the first time in a long, long time, I felt myself genuinely trusting in someone again.

I headed through to the garage with this trust, and with Liara trusting me as she followed right behind.

This dark of the garage gave her the perfect cover, blending in with the horde of the other asari all around. In their touched silence, the commandos watched Liara nearing them, and in-turn, they neared her, wanting to see her better. Drawn to the familiar blue of her skin, the black of her outfit, and her temporary shotgun, they found nothing suspicious, merely seeing her as another one of them.

I stopped, and Liara stopped with me, her front pressed against my back.

Not quite in the center of the garage, but close enough to the ramp leading to the elevator—we would have enough space to run. And behind us, Tali and Ashley would soon have a clear path, able to get up to the ramp from their end, too.

The commandos kept shuffling closer, deadened in their movements.

From right at this spot, Liara could put up a perfect spherical field, keeping us safe and giving us just enough room to get the hell out of here.

I gave the signal via radio, "Now, Ash."

Her confirmation: "On it!"

Biotic blue breached out to the space around us, above us, reaching out as a wide sphere all around. Blocking out any of the commandos, Liara sheltered us in this field of pure defense. Blocking the grenade right as Ashley lobbed it in our direction, she protected us with such an ease. Blocking us from the spatter of flesh and violet blood from the commandos exploding, detonating on impact from Ashley's grenade, nothing reached us here.

I felt as if she'd finally unlocked the rest of her biotic potential after having held back for so long.

Holding her hand to make sure Liara kept up with me, we ran up the ramp together. She deployed another field behind us—a solid wall of see-through blue—keeping the stragglers from following us. Sprinting across this elevated area, I saw Tali and Ashley make it safely across to the hallway leading to the elevator. I had us catch up with them.

Inside the dawn's light of the elevator, I rammed my fist against the button, taking us down one level. Once I did, I took a few seconds to survey everyone. Liara looked just fine as she handed Tali her shotgun back. Tali, as well, seemed to be okay, catching her breath a little. Ashley was a little shaken, as if she couldn't believe we had pulled this off.

Liara couldn't maintain that last biotic field indefinitely, though.

And I didn't want those other commandos to catch up to us; to figure out where we had gone.

"Tali, jam the elevator," I ordered, kneeling down to open the emergency escape hatch. "Do it now!"

"Right away, Shepard!" said Tali, using her omni-tool to fry the elevator's systems.

Halfway between levels, the elevator stopped.

I pulled open the hatch, finding a ladder that continued leading down.

According to my schematics, there was a vent just nearby here that would lead us to the next location.

I went down first, finding enough footing on this thin perimeter of steel that wrapped around the elevator shaft. I gestured for the others to head through next, watching to make sure they didn't fall down to the drop below—so far down, I could only see pitch black angling out to that narrowed horizon.

As they each made it down to me, I held their hand, helping to secure them here on this slice of steeled ground underneath us. All three of them, their hands in mine, one at a time, sent sheer stimulus through me, from them. Strong from Tali, stronger from Liara. Though they couldn't compare to this last:

Ashley in particular—holding her hand was like putting my palm into an open flame without the pain.

But I couldn't let myself focus on that right now—we needed to push forward.

"Come on," I said, leading the way to the nearby vent. "We'll head through here. This will get us to an open cafeteria for the facility's workers. There should be an upper path we can take across to the next location. Keep an eye out for it."

Liara used her biotics to help her maintain her balance as we headed across. Tali and Ashley took a bit longer, needing to keep their hands pressed against the steel walls as they went. As there was surprisingly enough room to maneuver inside the vent, I went in first. Monitoring Liara, and then Tali as they crawled through just ahead of me, they had both seemed to adapt to the situation well enough.

Screeching of weight against this steel—the elevator overhead was about to fall through.

Ashley was still too far away to make it on her own.

I scrambled out from the vent and over to her.

Feather-footed and swift even with my combat boots, I pulled her along, replacing her nearly-lost balance with my own, fortifying her. Ashley fretted and cursed as I moved her with me, trying to get her to go faster. She wouldn't trust me; wouldn't trust herself. The screeching overhead growing louder, clanking in a rankling noise, like nails against a chalkboard. She couldn't focus; couldn't stop shaking with Liara and Tali screaming our names, for us to hurry, or else.

Ashley hesitated, and hesitated—until she stopped.

She froze.

I couldn't budge her.

"Ash," I hissed, pulling at her to no avail, like tugging at stone. "Ashley, come on! We have to get going!"

"I hate heights like this," she panted, shaking her head against my chest over and over. "And I hate tight spaces. I hate all of this! I hate it, Shepard, I hate it—I can't think, I can't move—"

Claustrophobic and acrophobic.

And she hadn't thought to warn me before we did this…

"Shepard—Ashley!" shouted Liara, willing herself to use her biotics to pull us into the vent. "You can't stay there! The elevator!" Her biotics kept bouncing off of our shields; the elevator cracked in another shift of its weight falling over itself, about to fall. "Ashley, snap out of it this instant and move!"

I couldn't risk us staying here any longer.

I wrapped my arms fully around Ashley's body, clamping my grip over her.

Leaning back, I pulled her along with me by my body's momentum, free-falling to the pitch black below.

Falling harder into me, Ashley burrowed her face hardest against my chest, barely stopping herself from screaming. Screaming from Liara, screaming from Tali faded the farther we fell. We had time, though. We had time, as my navigational system rerouted itself using my schematics. We had time before the elevator above gave in and crashed down.

I adjusted my hold over Ashley with this time. Hooking my arm underneath her legs, I kept my other around her back to carry her properly. Her own vice-like hold around my torso nearly suffocated me. She kept her face plastered against my chest, keeping her eyes wide shut right through to my heart. The heat of her hot breaths, her silent screaming, burned through the material of my stealth suit. I cradled the back of her head with my hand, at least, to let her know that we would be all right.

Flashing warnings from my omni-tool—this drop was too severe, and we would land soon.

I waited for as long as I could, needing this boost from our velocity, free-falling at this sheer speed.

Ashley gripped me harder, somehow, speaking just loud enough in her prayers—"God, Shepard, I'm sorry! I love you, I love you; I'm sorry for getting us killed, I'm sorry for getting us killed like this—"

Lifted by her love, I knew I had to pull this off perfectly.

More flashing from my omni-tool—red, blaring, imminent danger and death

I had to do this now, or else.

Mechanical activation from somewhere around my lower-back, I willed for my landing system to kick in: the field from my augmentation began glowing a golden glow around me, and around Ashley here with me in my hold. In this bodily halo, an electromagnetic focus held at me, aiming at the ground. Down to that nearing snowy fall, so close, so close, the gold around us pushed against the ground, against the magnetosphere there, slowing our descent, slowing and slowing to a glide, to a gradual halt.

Slowing to a near-stop as we reached the ground, I could let my boots reach the crunch of the snow as normal, landing with the bends of my legs as my hydraulics.

Ashley relaxed her tight grip around me.

Staring around at the snow-cold steel of the base of this elevator shaft, she breathed out, "We're…still alive? We didn't die from the fall…? Shepard, how did you—?"

Screeching echoes from overhead, bulleting down—the elevator collapsed down the shaft, on its way.

Elevator doors just in front of us were closed—I would need to use my omni-tool to unseal the doors; I would have had to set Ashley down, to use both hands to pry the doors open, and then get myself out; possibly risking her getting crushed if I couldn't pick her back up in time.

Another vent near the ground, right nearby, but sealed.

Still carrying Ashley in my arms, I knelt down next to the snow, to the vent. Using my left hand just behind her head, I worked my omni-tool to burn away at the square perimeter of the metal filter. Burning, heat melting, I had to be precise. I had to follow the line. I had to concentrate while that metallic screeching from up above raced down and down, nearing. I had to block it out, block it all out.

Again, Ashley held onto me as I did this, praying, praying, and praying to God with her love for me.

Prayer, or luck, or both, or something more—I pulled the metallic barrier off, throwing it aside.

Amid that clanging, I fit Ashley's head through the vent first.

But she wouldn't let me go—she refused.

Loudening crashing, thundering from up above, I hurried to fit us both through at once.

Lunging through with the snowy ground as my friction, I slid my whole height with Ashley into the vent.

Right at the ridges of my boots, the elevator crashed down to the ground in absolute noise, destroyed.

And then, the silence of the winds passing through here; the silence of Ashley's disbelief as she held onto me holding onto her. We lay here against the cold steel for a long while. Breathing in this reality, I gave her a moment to gather herself, and to find her steady breaths again, as irregular as hers were.

In that irregularity, I could almost see what she saw, feel what she felt:

Like a lock bolting my body in place, I could resist the sensation as a mere illusion, but this mirage came from such a strong, potent place, deep within my mind. And it didn't belong to me. None of this was—only from Ashley unconsciously pushing her own perception up and through to mine, collective.

"Shepard!" cried Liara through my radio. "Shepard, are you there? Are you alive?! Please, answer me!"

No mention of Ashley, huh?

Even through her own recovering in my arms, shaking off her shock, I felt her animosity brimming.

I saw this as yet another reason to take Ash at her word.

"Ashley and I are all right, Liara," I answered. "The fall was manageable. We made it to a different vent instead. You and Tali keep going—we'll catch up to you at the tram to Rift Station."

Unbelieving, Tali asked, "But Shepard, how did you and Ashley survive?! That's insane!"

"During our briefing before Feros, I told you already," I reminded everyone—Ashley included. "I have other implants. I mentioned an Icarus Landing System augmentation. It helps me survive falls from almost any height. Within reason, anyway. Remember?"

"Oh, right," recalled Tali. "You did mention that… And I'm guessing it worked for Ashley, too."

"Yes, it did," I confirmed. "She'll be fine once the shock wears off."

"I believe you. I just… Ashley, could you say something for me? Anything? I need to know you're there…"

Ashley forced herself to mumble against my chest, "I'm here, Tali… Shepard saved me. I'll… I'll be fine."

"That's a relief… We were so worried! I'm glad you're both okay."

Matter-of-fact, Liara continued on, "Shepard, where do we go from here? We've arrived above what looks to be the cafeteria you mentioned. There is a beam we can cross near the ceiling. Given the number of geth down below, we will have to cross over."

"There are geth in there?" I questioned, checking my omni-tool for signatures. "This is recent… I didn't pick up any of them on my radar once we got here. Must have been what Benezia had in those crates." Checking the original path once more, I gave directions: "Support each other across the beam. When you make it to the other side, there will be another vent. Head right and there should be an elevator. Go down one floor, and you'll arrive to the facility's VI core. You'll be relatively close to the tram."

"Understood, Commander. Are you reading any hostile signatures in the VI core?"

"None—you should be fine. Let me know once you get to the core. I'll guide you from there."

Tali wondered, "How long do you think it will take you and Ashley to catch up to us?"

Checking the rerouted path again, I realized: we couldn't go through any other vents, or risk crossing too many elevated areas. If Ashley locked up again, we might not have been able to pull off the same thing twice. I couldn't put her in harm's way like that, now that I knew her pressure points.

I rerouted the path one more time, specifying what I wanted to avoid.

Beyond this current vent, there were no others, and only one long beam over a stressful drop.

Only having to deal with one occurrence was better than slogging through multiple of them.

My omni-tool showed our estimated arrival, but I still needed to factor in Ashley's current state of mind.

"About an hour or so," I lied, even as the estimate showed only twenty minutes. "We'll need to cloak together and sneak past more groups of those commandos. It's a long way back up to you."

"I see," worried Tali. "I guess we won't have any choice but to wait for you at the tram. If we tried to reach you, we would likely run into more enemies. We shouldn't waste time fighting in that case."

"Agreed. Now get going. I'll wait to hear from you once you make it to the VI core. Shepard out."

As soon as the call ended, Ashley's earlier animosity left her, dissolving to this limited space.

Frustrated with herself as she was, I sensed that she at least wanted to talk to me.

Spotting an opening up from where we were, I decided to get us over there. I knew that Ashley still couldn't move. Not on her own. So I got on my knees, pulling her closer into my hold, enough to move with her just like this, one shuffle at a time. She breathed harder against my chest, listening to me. And I pushed away these memories I had of Liara, of having done the same for her before, out in arid heat.

Reaching a comparatively open space, this was much better. Here at this height above the elevator doors, the ice-hardened glass showed a path that burrowed right through the mountain, leading down elsewhere to another lab. Snow coated the path from that burrow, and over to the elevator, along with the nearby power generator just below us, just below the glass.

Even if someone were to pass through here, the jagged edges of ice through this glass would obscure Ashley and me from view. I sat her down against the wall of metal, and then took my own seat right next to her. We could stay here for a while.

Except this chill almost cut at me. The cold fog of breath that Ashley let out was enough to make me activate my emergency heating for her, for the both of us. She only shivered once before warming right back up, her breaths still as a vapor, as mine were, of heat continuing to blow against the freeze.

I asked her, "You all right?"

Quiet, Ashley responded, "Getting there… Still can't believe you pulled that off. You really are a lifesaver…" She spotted my omni-tool showing our actual estimated arrival time. "I thought you said it would take us an hour to catch up to them. Why does your program only say twenty minutes…?"

"I lied. You need some time to pull yourself together. I didn't tell them because I know you're embarrassed about what happened. Saying something would've made things worse for you—"

So deep in love with my consideration, Ashley rushed her mouth over mine. Searing me open and scorching at my control, she pushed at me, pushed into me in this desperation she couldn't stand, but couldn't resist anymore. As this adoring assault against my senses, she straddled my waist, the rigidness of her armor pressing down on the fabric of my stealth suit. And I gripped her hips without thinking, only-too-late realizing it once she sucked in a gasp through my mouth, moving into me more.

Luscious, firm fullness of her lips against mine, the way Ashley fit into me was so fucking perfect—exactly as she had last night, and earlier this morning—so much so that I couldn't stand it. Agonizing temperature in my chest: every thick press of her tongue against mine, every slow, succulent snap of her lips over mine and nearly on my teeth—her passions burned me like no other, making me ache so badly.

And this taste of her mouth, of thin wetness mixed with mine—Ashley's flavor of hormones, her gently-salivated skin reminded me of ice water, somehow. Dousing me in the remembrance of much colder ice, the eternal heat and comfort of her irresistible lips set me right back on fire, over and over again.

Doing this with Liara had incinerated me as a single action, as something to end and then set aside.

Doing this with Ashley had thrown me in the incinerator and slammed the door shut, burning me alive

I had to pull away.

I had to turn my head away.

I needed to inhale the freeze of the air around us.

Every breath of white mist I let out may as well have been black smoke from my insides set on fire like this, eternal and unending, even as Ashley kept straddling at me, staring at me.

If I met that stare of hers, I already knew what I would do.

Ashley touched my heated face, stroking this red camouflaged through my complexion.

Even with her hand gloved and armored like this, I still felt her as skin-on-skin, so indulgent.

Ashley brought her lips right next to the clench of my jaw, whispering in wintry gentleness, "I think…you just gave yourself away, Shepard. Never thought I'd see the day when you'd give me so much of yourself. You must like it when a girl catches you off-guard… For once." Lowering her hand to my neck, my pulse, she smirked at this drumming against her, laughing in girlish mischief. "Mmm, you totally gave yourself away! No clue why you're acting so shy, though. What are you embarrassed about?"

I could run from her for days, for weeks, for months or more—and this sheer energy and entropy wouldn't have left me.

Or I could have stayed, giving into this temptation, this near-reflex to grin, to smile at Ashley over how happy she was. And that I was the one who had made her this happy, this carefree, so child-like.

I couldn't tell her that.

I couldn't say the words.

She already knew, anyway:

Thermodynamic, raging firestorms—everything combusted more and more when Ashley laughed again, easing her smile against my neck. Breathing me in, she hummed in a low, sexy sound of satisfaction. Her lips, again, she clasped over the sweating skin of my neck, her tongue tasting me, salt and nerves and grime and all. In her delicate pressing, moaning against me at this taste of the day, this taste of the mission on me, she moved her hand down to my chest, to my heart. She felt the same drumming there, harder this time—primed to burst out of my bones into her hand if it would have stopped this pain.

"Hey," murmured Ashley, holding my face now. "Look at me, Shepard. Talk to me for a bit before we have to go." Moving with her guidance, I faced her again, but couldn't meet her eyes. "You hold so much inside. I wish you'd share it with me. Besides, we both could've died back there… So, at least…tell me a little about how you feel for me. Give me something to hold on to. Please?"

"Something…about how I feel for you," I reiterated, needing to make sure my voice still worked.

Ashley smiled again, so beautiful. "Yeah, anything at all. I wanna know."

I struggled so hard to hold on to these last scraps of this dam over my heart.

"Honestly, Ash, it's a lot to handle… It's a lot to describe. If I had to sum it up, then it's…like an onslaught. A fire. An onslaught of fire on my emotions, burning me at all times. This hurts—so much."

"I know, right?" she agreed. "Like it could melt the ice around us. It's the same for me, too. With you."

"It's…overwhelming," I anguished. "And it goes against what I said earlier, about taking this slow."

Ashley got the hint. "That's true," she noticed. "Guess I'm not helping, huh?" She moved herself from my waist, sitting next to me, right next to me instead. "Sorry, Skipper." Resting her head against my shoulder, she sighed. "I promise I won't be that forward with you again. Not in-person, anyway… And not unless you want me to be. Considering what almost happened, I kind of lost myself there."

"Don't worry about it," I accepted. "You were perfectly justified."

"Justified…doing the right thing," she mused. "You're way less impulsive than I am, that's for sure. As soon as I see an opening, I take it. It's hard to make myself wait. But I can be patient for you…"

I sensed that she had more on her mind. "What is it?"

"Why do you need to take things slow with me?"

I couldn't blame her for asking that.

I explained, "I get what you're thinking, Ash. The fact of the matter is, I moved too quickly with Liara. I gave in to her and made concessions that I shouldn't have. Thinking back on it, I'm not sure that I got involved with her for the right reasons. There's a lot I forced myself not to face over this past month."

Ashley asked in concern, "What do you mean?"

More of what I'd suppressed:

"I tend to stick to women who like me way more than I like them. Makes it easier to feel like they won't leave if I get in too deep. Even if it means they obsess over me to the point of turning me off, that's what I'm used to. It's what I know. It's what I'm comfortable with. I found that same comfort in her without realizing it. And then you came along, pulling me right out of my comfort zone. You stopped me from falling into that old familiarity any more than I already had."

"But Shepard, don't you think…?"

"That you like me way more than I like you," I finished for her.

"Well…yeah," she whispered. "What else could it be, if not that? I've… I've loved you for five years now."

"I'm not comfortable with you, Ashley," I clarified, so moved by her. "That's the major difference."

"You mean Liara doesn't challenge you at all? Not one bit?"

"She challenged me when she opened these doors in my heart. But now that I'm starting to see her for who she is, I don't like it. I hate how much she hurt you. I despise it; I can't fucking stand it."

"It's that serious for you?" wondered Ashley, in genuine curiosity. "How come?"

"Injustice is a deal-breaker for me," I stated. "Not just about crime. I hate when someone thinks they're better than others, or when they look down on people because of their damned egos. Anything could happen. There are no guarantees. We could lose our status, our power at any minute—and then the people we looked down on would have every excuse to treat us the same way. That's no way to live."

She knew, "And even when you are mean, or if you take extremes, you're always justified…"

"Pretty much," I said. "If someone needs to make the tough choices, be controversial—fine. They should take decisive action. But if it's not justified, then fuck it. It's never worth it for petty bullshit like this."

Ashley wanted to keep rationalizing, to understand me—"Even though she didn't do this to you, it still makes you mad? It still pisses you off? You'd turn on Liara at the drop of a dime like this—over me?"

"Ashley, it's because I'm able to turn on her that I'm choosing to do it now. If I couldn't do it, then I would be stuck on her. And if I was stuck on her, I wouldn't feel this way about you. The idea of being stuck on someone like that—not being able to shut my feelings off and walk away… It stresses me out."

And then she did understand: "No wonder you're so guarded… You are just trying to protect yourself."

"It's too late to keep protecting myself from you," I explained. "That ship has sailed by now."

"Then, aside from the regulations, why won't you give your heart to me? Why do you hold back? Or is this just about taking things slow, to help you make sure that this is right?"

In choosing to be this considerate, I had given her some of my heart.

And I already knew that this was right—that Ashley was worth it.

But I couldn't keep making the same old mistakes with the women in my life.

Now was the time for me to change my ways—otherwise, nothing would change.

"Ashley, it's not that simple," I insisted. "I care for you. More than I can express right now. This isn't about changing my mind on whether I want you or not. I need to see if you and I speak the same language on a mental level, on an emotional one. And if we don't, can we get along? Could we trust each other and work things out? That's what I don't know yet. That's what I need to take my time with."

Embracing me in her gentle joy, in her relief, Ashley smiled against my shoulder.

"I completely understand," she conveyed, sincere in her approval. "I'll be honest—I'm used to dealing with dumb drama from other people. And I guess I'm drama sometimes… But I love that you're so thoughtful and mature about this, Shepard. I want to follow your lead. I will. I just hope you won't get turned off by me at some point. I mean, we're pretty much polar opposites in terms of our personalities. Like, I'm way more of a hothead than you are—and I can really have my moments…"

"Be yourself with me. Follow my lead, and go at my pace—but I want to see you for you, Ash. You're so bold and outgoing. Full of life. It's part of why I like you this much. Don't ever compromise who you are."

The warm tenderness of her smile, Ashley settled against my face, holding me tighter in her arms.

"You're one of a kind, you know," she breathed next to my ear. "Thanks—for everything…"

Even the way she didn't mind my reticence, how I couldn't return her touch, her affections right at this moment—all of it made me melt into her, not wanting this moment to end. And she still made me smile.

Then again, we had to push forward with the mission eventually.

Such a reminder Tali gave us when she called, "Shepard, are you and Ashley still there? Sorry we took a while to give you an update. We ran into a few problems, but we're all right now."

"I understand, Tali," I replied, glad that Ashley chose to stay on me for this. "What happened, exactly?"

"Well, when we arrived to the VI core, we found several large…insect-like corpses lying around. Liara thinks they might be rachni. That could be what her mother has been up here experimenting with. I suppose you wouldn't have picked them up on your radar, since they're all dead."

Checking my omni-tool again, I confirmed, "Yeah, I'm not seeing anything about rachni, or even any unknown, uncatalogued signature types. The rachni, though…? I thought they all went extinct during the Krogan Rebellions hundreds of years back. There's no way any of them should still be around for Benezia to experiment on at all."

"I know, it's very strange. We couldn't look around at first because the other rooms leading out of the VI core were blocked off. So we had to waste a bunch of time getting the VI back online, and following its instructions to help repair the station. We can continue on now if you have those next directions for us."

"Good—let me pull them up," I said, taking a look. "Right, so you want to head to the decontamination chamber next. If you're facing the elevator where you came from, with your back to the actual VI core, it's the door on the right. Pass through there and you should find the tram not too far down."

"Oh, I see it!" replied Tali. "Yes, this is the correct door. Liara and I will head through to the decontamination chamber, then. We'll wait for you and Ashley at the tram once we get there."

"Understood."

As we ended the call, Ashley sighed, separating herself from me.

I wished we could have stayed here longer, too.

But we had to get moving.

"We only have to crawl through to the exit nearby," I guided. "It's by the elevator—or the doors, anyway. Then we'll jump down and head to the next area. Will you be okay—about this vent?"

"I'll manage, Skipper," replied Ashley, shifting gears with ease. "Lead the way. I'll follow you."

Following this new path, I moved past these windows, through to the connecting vent. I passed through and around the corner, finding one last filter to move out of the way. I could hear Ashley's quickened breathing reverberating off of the metal around us—quickened, but manageable, as she'd said. I felt her putting more trust in me, allowing that to see her through.

Once I made it to the filter at the end of this vent, I situated myself around, kicking at the metal. Kicking it off and out, the steel fell down to the snow below. I checked behind me to make sure that Ashley had caught up. Seeing her rounding the corner, I jumped down to the ground, the weight of my combat boots breaking the blow of my fall well enough, without me needing to bend my legs too much.

Not quite confident enough to do the same, Ashley fit her legs through the opening first. She had plenty of room to angle her head out as well, the bend of her body still sitting in the vent itself.

I reached up to her armored legs, locking them together as I pulled her down.

Supporting her more around her back, I held Ashley in place, lifting her down as I bent my legs this time, lowering her reinforced boots to the snow. She kept her hand just over my back, over my shoulders, both to support herself and to thank me—all in a way I found so…soothing and validating.

Standing anew with her, I enjoyed her smile, even with this question on my face about her phobias.

"Yeah, about that," began Ashley, still smiling. "I got up to some dumb trouble when I was a kid. Imagine me as a tomboy roughing around in a space station where I wasn't supposed to be. I got stuck somewhere up high, in a cramped space. I couldn't move. All I could do was scream and stare down at that long drop. My Dad had to come and get me. He wouldn't let me hear the end of it for months."

"I can see you getting into that kind of trouble," I told her, light enough. "Thanks for sharing with me."

Ashley smiled more. "You bet," she replied. "Well, I'm ready. Let's do this."

She was about to pull out her trusty Lancer assault rifle, out of pure habit.

I stopped her with the reminder: "You don't need that, Ash. Not yet. We're still doing this my way—at least until we get to the tram. Save it for now."

Like setting away another one of her limbs, Ashley holstered her rifle over her back.

I held out my hand to her.

Trusting me again, and smiling again, Ashley let me hold her hand, situating mine over hers, fingers interlaced through these blockings of our respective choices of wear.

Cloaking with her, we headed out together, over to the next room.

This supply line raised upward across several floors, with a long staircase along the edge of the room. More of those asari commandos stalked around the space, deadened in their movements; searching for everything and nothing at all. In their stupors, it made it that much easier for me to lead Ashley up to those stairs, avoiding the hostiles in our way. She kept up with me with ease, not thinking twice as I led her; as if she could have closed her eyes and walked, without stopping in fear or uncertainty, not once.

Even as we nearly breathed on some of these commandos to walk around them, Ashley didn't hesitate.

She stayed with me, having learned her lesson from earlier: to stop doubting me, now, finally—now that I was able to be this for her, after spending so much time resisting it before.

And I knew—that if it ever came down to it, and we were in a straight-up gunfight where I couldn't escape on my own, I could see myself trusting her to push through. She had a lot of unused potential, too, now that I noticed. Hopefully, it wouldn't have gone unused for too much longer.

But by the time we made it to this final obstacle just near the VI core—a long beam passing over several fuel tanks, and an even longer drop below to a few open flames—I expected us to have another setback.

Uncloaked with me now, Ashley looked to me with her anticipation.

She waited for me to lead her.

The flame-coloring of this atmosphere around us, I glanced up first to the catwalks and pathways above. It would've been a lot simpler if we could've gotten up there instead. But in taking the most direct path as we could, getting up to that area was impossible at the moment. We needed to get across this beam, and then find another ramp that would get us to a back entrance to the decontamination chamber.

This beam, though: it was barely wide enough for Ashley and me to walk across side-by-side if I decided.

Or, in the worst-case scenario, I could have carried her if it really came down to that.

Not wanting to doubt her capabilities, I thought of something else instead.

Climbing up to this new footing, I found that it was sturdy enough to cross.

And if it wasn't, I could at least angle our descent to avoid those open flames on the other side.

I spotted Ashley staring off at those fires, likely thinking the same thing.

"Come on," I said to her, holding my hand out. "I'll support you across. It's not as far as it seems."

Ashley accepted my help, letting me pull her up with me.

Right before her breathing changed, I locked my hands around her hips, guiding her along. I wanted her in front of me. She moved with my wanting, walking ahead first as I stayed here behind her. Like that leap of faith I had taken with her, Ashley chose to move in a similar trance of instinct and intuition.

Leaning her back against my front, she continued across this beam. That sharp drop below, the hissing of the fuel tanks, and the billow of the embers in our periphery: Ashley was fully aware of everything around us, and the risks below us, yet she pressed on in that awareness. If not for the quavers of her breathing, and the sheer grip of her hands over mine—still over her hips, reinforcing her balance—I wouldn't have known how she felt about this at all.

Only one hang-up—

I felt myself about to sneeze, still plagued by this damned cold.

Somehow, I pulled it back, swallowing this uncomfortable dripping down my throat, before sniffling, and unintentionally smelling Ashley's dark hair: how it smelled of the icy metal we had sat against earlier.

Ashley found the fortitude to ask me, "You okay…?"

"I'm all right," I reassured her. She leaned back against me, more. "I've got you, Ash. Almost there."

Relaxing as much as she could—relatively speaking—Ashley welcomed my words into her heart, continuing on and on.

All the while, I couldn't help feeling struck by how this felt like it was…meant to be.

All of this.

Everything.

Reaching the other side, Ashley jumped down to the metal walkway there.

As soon as she found her footing again, I jumped down with her.

I knew that she didn't necessarily need my praise. Still, I at least smiled, holding her hand anew.

Ashley beamed at me with her relief that we had made it across, accepting my hold once more.

Cloaking one last time—for now, in our incredible solitude—I led her up this ramp, up to the decontamination chamber, and back up to the reality of the mission, of the situation we now faced.

Regardless of whether Ashley and I both stayed quiet about this, the others were bound to find out.

Even if we said nothing, I already knew—and expected—that they would all feel this change between us, and wonder accordingly. Because as much as I struggled to contain this fire in me that Ashley had started, it would be twice as bad now, now that the rest of the team could intuit these ravaging flames.

I decided not to fight that inevitability.

I decided to focus on keeping my promises to Ashley, and to say nothing of the rest.

Whatever anyone else assumed…as long as it didn't end up hurting her, then I could live with this.


Letting go of Ashley's hand to put my figurative mask back on: this was more difficult than I'd expected. I should have expected this difficulty, though. This was one of the many reasons why I had kept my distance from her for so long. Because even though she knew not to be disappointed over this unlocking, from me taking my hand from hers, I felt her continued longing for my touch anyway. And she walked beside me with that longing, wearing it proud as her own type of mask, knowing that no one would have been able to discern what it really was.

At least for the time being.

At the tram, stationed in waiting as an extension of this facility's perpetual metallic blue, Tali and Liara stood up from where they had sat nearby. It didn't look like their conversation had been too deep, unlike the one they'd shared during the hike through the blizzard. And it didn't look like either of them suspected anything as they walked over to us, intercepting our path to the tram itself.

Liara wanted to smile at me.

I wouldn't look at her, too focused on getting to the tram doors nearby.

"There you are!" said Tali. "It's good to see you both in one piece."

Mmm.

Ashley went over to Tali first. "Good to see you, too," she replied. "Sorry about earlier. Wasn't exactly my best moment… I should've told you guys I can't stand heights. Or tight spaces. That was my bad."

Opening the tram doors, I gestured for everyone to head inside.

They did so, still speaking; still trying to make eye contact with me.

"Of course you wouldn't mention it," reasoned Tali, knowing better. "Why make yourself vulnerable like that when you can keep your pride instead? And nearly get yourself killed in the process! That's the Ashley I know. I'm not surprised in the slightest."

"Gee, thanks," quipped Ashley. "I get what you're saying, though… I'll speak up when I need to."

"Ah, no, that won't be necessary. I enjoy almost having a heart attack from watching you and Shepard fall to your almost-deaths. Really. This should happen again."

Ashley laughed, taking a seat. "Okay, Tali, now you're pushing it," she warned in good-humor. "You're traumatized. I know. I hear you. I promise I'll be absolutely open with you from now on. Deal?"

"Deal," accepted Tali, sitting across from her. "How are you feeling, then? You seem to be all right."

Liara sat down next to Tali, again angling her eyesight to somehow meet mine.

As good luck, or bad luck—I didn't know which—I felt myself about to sneeze again.

That rushing collection of scratching energy through my throat, my nose, making me heave.

I couldn't stop it this time—I angled my body out from the tram, sneezing off to the side, wracking me.

Tali and Liara both giggled over the suddenness, the surprise.

"Bless you!" said Ashley, grinning as I sat down next to her, nearest to the doors. "Catching a cold, Skipper? Thought you were safe from the blizzard outside. Did you get sick anyway?"

"Something like that," I grumbled.

Only once the tram began to take off in smoothness did Liara and Tali manage to calm down. Their joyful amusement persisted, though, along with Ashley's, helping to make this ride less awkward than I had originally prepared for. Still, we had ten minutes before we would arrive to Rift Station, needing to sit in this relative dark of the cobalt blue around us. As chill and comforting as this place was, I knew better:

I prepared myself for more to change within these next ten minutes.

But maybe that was cynical of me.

Tali and Ashley carried on a conversation about something else, not willing to tease me over my cold.

Liara chimed in every so often.

I had lifted the weight of my boot over my knee—instead of crossing my legs altogether like Ashley did next to me, so feminine—needing to stretch a bit like this. Even so, our legs managed to touch anyway. Her thigh closest to mine felt as a prop, or a pillow, helping me to stay as I was. This was all we could do in subtlety. And so I lounged my arm out, opposite her, across the top of the length of this seat. Already I imagined her here on this other side, replacing the seat with her shoulders instead.

Sheer vigor coursing through my veins—I needed to touch her.

I rested the back of my head against this seat, staring up at the ceiling of the tram; wondering how Ashley sounded when the sex was good. By the texture of her voice, I could almost hear her clearly.

As she shifted, I sensed Ashley thinking the same, about me—on top of her, pleasing her non-stop.

Tali hummed, checking her omni-tool. "Is it just me, or is it rather warm in here? I could have sworn I had my internal temperature set appropriately for this station. I'll need to adjust it again at this rate."

"Yes, it is quite humid," agreed Liara, looking around. "Could there be a heater on nearby?"

"More than likely," accepted Tali. "Perhaps it's here as a convenience. Though I can't help but feel it hasn't been set up properly. This is definitely humid, not warm. Like there's an old furnace in here."

Quiet enough for only me to hear, Ashley let out the softest of sighs, sounding so very pleased with me.

This sudden, humid pressure in my chest and in my head was about to make me explode.

Tali stood up. "Okay, this is strange," she worried, the orange of her omni-tool glowing in this partial dark. "I'm going to investigate. Something may be broken." Scanning around the area, she took her time, looking everywhere except over here. "I'm actually not finding any sources of heat… Hmm."

"I believe we will be fine, Tali," advised Liara, not entirely convinced. "Should anything begin to malfunction, it will have to reveal itself to your scans. I suppose we won't need to worry…for now."

Glancing over at how apparently relaxed I was, Tali mentioned, "Well, Shepard looks comfortable enough. Ashley, are you warm at all?"

Ashley obfuscated in a fine, lovely tone, "Mmm, yeah, kinda… I'm okay, though. In case something does break, I trust you to be our handy-dandy mechanic."

Tali laughed as she sat back down. "Handy-dandy," she repeated in mirth. "You and your silly sayings…"

As the tram neared Rift Station, I managed to pull myself together, enough to study our approach.

Once more with my omni-tool, I mapped out the best way to reach the Binary Helix lab where Benezia was. I found that I could crawl through a series of vents, wrapping around to a place in the lab with a good enough vantage point. Depending on Benezia's physical location in the room, I could assassinate her with my sniper rifle as I had bargained on earlier. There appeared to be a large, tank-like structure in the center of the lab, elevated and in the way from the far side.

If Benezia was over there, I wouldn't have been able to make the shot.

Banking on Benezia being over there, I searched for an alternate route for the others to take on-foot.

Ashley watched my progress all the while, the orange light coating her eyes in a striking dawn-like glow.

Having her attention on my work like this made it easier for me to concentrate, and to do my best.

Locating a suitable path—the only path—there looked to be several other signatures, all of them packed along the med bay, the security rooms. Humans, turians, drones. Maybe some type of security force. If they were with Benezia, then they wouldn't just let my team walk straight through without a fight.

In that case, it was time for Ashley to redeem herself.

Tali noticed that I'd finished with this, asking, "Have a plan for our approach, Shepard?"

"Yes," I replied. "It'll be straightforward enough for the three of you. After we leave the tram, we'll head down for a bit until we find some elevators. One leads down to the med bay area and security. Take that one and head straight through. You'll find a sign above the Binary Helix labs. Benezia's waiting in there."

Liara needed to know, "Where will you be, then, if not with us?"

I responded, "Taking the long way through the vents. I'm aware that your mother's a powerful biotic. I get the sense that her barriers will complicate things in a straight-up fight. Plus, she's bound to have more of those commandos and geth at her disposal. So I'm heading to a vantage point in the lab. There's a location where the vents connect just right. I'll have room to go prone with my rifle and shoot there."

"Doing things your way, Skipper?" noted Ashley, smiling.

"You'll get to do things your way, too," I told her. "There will be several security guards and drones posted in your path. You'll need to push through them. I want you to take point, Ash. Lead the charge and get Tali and Liara to the lab with you. Once you're there, expect Benezia's army to be out in force."

Ashley sat up straight, complying, "Aye, aye, Sir!"

"Good. Keep your radio on so I can listen to your progress. Now let's get out here and get this done."

Once the tram finally stopped, the four of us headed out together.

Arriving to those elevators—one leading to the med bay, and another to the hot labs—Tali and Liara headed to the correct one.

I expected Liara to at least look back at me.

She chose not to, or she forgot to do it.

Ashley kept eye contact with me, unwavering. Stealth in these seconds, she knew we had only so much time to do this before she fell behind; before the others found us here like this. She gave me her determination during these seconds, though I sensed she needed me to give her something as well.

Something that I had never given anyone before.

I had only given mere imitations of this for expediency's sake—to make sure someone got the job done.

Not an imitation, and not for expediency: I truly wanted Ash to see that I believed in her.

Bolstering her determination, I told her, "Fight hard, Ashley. I'm counting on you."

Bolstered, absolutely, Ashley nodded to me. "Will do, Commander! See you on the other side."

We broke away—her to the elevator, me to the nearby vent—with our exchange lingering in our wake.

And now, as I crawled through these vents, knowing that I had a ways ahead of me, I felt the change in me. I felt it more as I listened to Ashley and the others through my radio—how they fought their way through the waves of security guards and drones in their way. I felt it again each time Ashley shouted out orders over the sounds of their gunfire and Liara's biotics—tactical orders for Tali to hack the drones in their way, general orders for Tali and Liara to hang back while she created an opening for them.

This wasn't an ordinary mission anymore.

Get in, get out, and get the job done—that was long-gone now.

The fire that Ashley had started in me extended to this, too. Not just my emotions, with her. Not just with the way she could make me feel. A new involuntary process, reviving old systems in me that had long-since been cut off for my own self-preservation: that was what this fire had turned back on, reminding me that my life had more meaning these days.

Becoming a Spectre had notified me of those offline systems.

This mission, these surprises from today had powered them up again.

I moved with that power, finding even more concentration, and more determination of my own.

Tali gave me an update over the sounds of continued gunfire, "Shepard, we've made it right outside the lab! Ashley and Liara are pushing back against another wave of security guards. I can get us through the door, but I'll need to seal it behind us to keep the guards out. Have you made it to the vantage point?"

"Not yet. Get through that door and seal it behind you. Go ahead and confront Benezia. See if she's willing to talk first. If she won't cooperate, you know what to do."

"Understood. I'm getting the door open now!"

Continuing on through these near-endless vents, I knew I had a ways to go. The vantage point wasn't a straight shot from where I was before. On purpose, probably, the path wrapped me around to other locations before getting me into the actual lab itself. And even then, it was on the wrong side.

But this was better than getting shot at by dozens of geth and commandos, and with nowhere to run.

Sometimes, like now, I wished I had gone into a more direct specialization. I did feel a little cowardly, hiding and scurrying around like this, while not being able to protect my team like a 'real' leader. I had to rely on someone like Ashley who could put up a fight to the enemy's face, even though she was completely out of her element here in my world.

Not just polar opposites in our personalities, then.

Once the gunfire stopped from their end, I knew that Tali had gotten everyone through to the lab.

And then I heard a woman's voice: raised, commanding, confident. A leader's voice. An orator's voice.

That had to be Liara's mother.

"And now you have finally arrived," said Benezia, almost mocking. "The time has come for us to end this—even with your temporary, lesser leader… Though perhaps this will make for a fine test of her mental capabilities. Have you faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have."

"Watch it," warned Ashley. "This human can still mess you up. Keep trying me—see where it gets you."

Benezia ignored her threats, speaking on, "Where is your commander, then? Is she wasting her time in the shadows, hiding away from the inevitable? Whatever she plans to do will not work. You must realize the discrepancy between us—how it is impossible for anyone to penetrate Saren's will. He will succeed in his endeavors, no matter your useless attempts to stand in his way."

Liara chose to plead with her, "Mother, you must stop this… You are not yourself! Though we left much unspoken over the years, I still know you. This is nothing like you! Why do you follow Saren? Why have you allowed him to twist you into this person I no longer recognize? You have become so misguided…"

"Misguided? My sweet daughter, it is you who is the misguided one. You hold such power, and yet you have chosen to squander it in your trivial weaknesses. Had you surrendered on Therum, you could have found your true calling at Saren's side. You and I could have found our peace together at long last. Now you are bound to be usurped by a lesser tool. You have only yourself to blame. How unfortunate."

"Power? Tool…?" questioned Liara. "You speak in such riddles. What do you believe I have squandered? What exactly do you mean?"

Benezia derided her, "It is no longer of any importance. You have already wasted your potential. Soon it will be too late to recapture your power. And when you realize the only path to greatness, you will hesitate. You will hold back. You will allow your fears to shackle you. The tool will become the greater glory. And you will become a footnote, an asterisk in history—just as any deviant ought to be."

"A deviant… Is that how you see me? After all these years, you still don't understand. You know nothing about me… Just as these lofty claims of yours make no sense, you will never know me as I am!"

"I am your mother, Liara. I am all-knowing. I am all-seeing in these matters of your mind, your heart. Your darkness festers in you, unused and unrecognized. I chose to punish you for your dark ways. In so doing, I shattered you to these wondrous heights—heights that you now refuse to soar. You will only be bested at this rate. It is…ill-fated. Somewhere, my heart breaks for you. But your path is decided…"

Echoing flare of Benezia's powerful biotics, and the weighty clicks of my team readying their weapons—

"It is now my duty to save you from breaking any further! You must die—by my hand!"

Liara's exertions, how she worked so hard to protect Tali and Ashley behind her—she should have fallen to Benezia's biotic blasts, shooting at her over and over again. No matter how powerful Liara had become lately, she still should have fallen. She should have been dead on arrival against an asari matriarch, and an indoctrinated one who refused to hold back, even against her own daughter.

If Liara didn't know her mother so well—enough to predict her powers, to understand her mind—I knew this would've been the end of her.

She protected the others with that knowledge, giving Ashley and Tali free reign to handle the outpour of geth and asari commandos swarming in from the lab's corner exits. I heard those firing shotguns and biotic abilities; pulse rifles, and the clicking and stuttering and malfunctioned honking from synthetics.

And now I had to hurry up to support them—to end this quickly.

"Circling the perimeter to the far side!" announced Ashley, shooting her way ahead. "She's got commandos running in non-stop up there! Tali, hold the geth coming out near the entrance! Can you keep them stun-locked with your combat drone and tech skills? Finish them off with your shotgun?"

"Yes, I will!" said Tali. "If you need backup on the far side, just let me know! I'll do what I can!"

"Roger that!"

Despite the sheer numbers against them, Tali and Ashley both had the advantage.

I trusted Tali to keep that stun-lock going for days if she had to, as skilled as she was with her tech. She could pick off the weakest geth with her shotgun, and snare more geth as they kept pouring through the door, chaining them in her deathtrap.

And Ashley was an absolute tank compared to those commandos. Their hit-and-run tactics left them vulnerable in the single, confined space of that lab where they couldn't run and hide. From the commandos' screams blasting through our radio, their weak barriers and armor couldn't withstand her onslaught, like fish in a barrel.

I finally found my vantage point.

Intersected between two paths, this filter was open just enough to let me work without detection. I could set my rifle down on this so-called ground of the vent, and go prone beside it, giving me plenty of flexibility to aim and shoot throughout the lab.

All I needed to do was line up the shot against Benezia, but of course, I couldn't at the moment.

There was some kind of structure in the way, right in the center, and raised from the rest of the lab. I could see Liara battling her mother with her biotics—or at least, the bright glares of blue and violet flashing everywhere—but she was behind the structure, up along that elevated platform.

And I couldn't exactly ask her to move: I knew that she was at maximum capacity.

Liara needed to fight where she was or not at all. Otherwise she risked dying to her mother's superiority.

Needing to think of an alternative, I used the scope of my sniper rifle to check around the room.

Tali looked like she was more than okay on her end. I could have likely asked her to investigate that structure; see if it was possible to move the thing. If not, I'd have to break out of this vent instead.

Ashley was fine, too, even as she pushed herself. In any normal situation, regardless of how paper-weak the enemy was, she shouldn't have been able to last this long. Her shields seemed to hold at a much greater level compared to what I had come to expect from her in battle. And if her shields did fall, she only needed to take cover behind the nearby crates for a second or two, giving her Lancer a brief break to prevent her rifle from overheating. She was ready to go in a near-instant, as if she'd never stopped.

So I picked off some of the commandos where I could, firing off headshots at anyone who was about to break her flank. I couldn't mind this booming noise reverberating through the vent after each shot I fired. I had to be precise, and I had to shoot with purpose, as I had little room to maneuver. And my shots were much slower than Ashley's, but I did keep her from getting overwhelmed at one point.

As time went on, though, there was no need for me keep at this.

As soon as I was about to pull the trigger on this commando in my sights, already the black of her uniform bloodied and burst open from assault rifle fire, right from Ashley's direction.

This kept happening over and over—more and more often now that she knew I was here, watching her.

Muting my radio, I muttered in amazement, "Well damn, Ash…"

Accepting that she could hold her own now, I shifted my focus back to ending this as soon as possible.

Looking to Tali still keeping up against those geth, I spoke over the radio again, "I'm at the vantage point. Ash, keep up the heat on your end. Liara, do what you can to hold on. Tali, are you comfortable with your stun-locking over there?"

"Yes, Shepard, I'm fine!" responded Tali, before firing off her shotgun. "The geth's numbers are thinning by the minute! I should have them all down in no time! I can help Ashley once I'm done here!"

"Hold off on that for now. We need to take Benezia out. Liara's holding, but I won't risk anything happening to her. I can't get a clear shot from where I am."

Tali took a second to glance behind her, to that large thing in the way.

"Right, you mentioned that there might be something blocking you. Do you need me to take a look?"

"Yes—get up to the platform over there and see what you can find. Be careful. I don't want you getting hit by Benezia's attacks. Liara should be able to protect you. Just hurry."

"Okay, no problem! Moving now!"

Keeping Tali in my periphery, I did what I could to pick off some of those geth from this angle. She soon reached that elevated platform where Liara and Benezia battled it out. Waiting a bit to dodge that fight, Tali was able to slip through to the path right in front of the obstruction in my way.

Liara erected a wide biotic field just behind where Tali was, protecting her from Benezia's blasts.

I took note of the unusual strength of her field, drawing from the same font of power that Ashley did.

Or maybe not quite the same. Similar enough, at least, with both sources clearly revolving around me.

"There's a control panel here!" said Tali. "And there's a tank right in front of me. I should be able to move it if I… If…"

"What is it?" I asked. "What's going on?"

"I see some kind of…creature inside this tank. It's…it's staring at me. And it looks like those insects we encountered in the VI core. Keelah, is this—a rachni? It's definitely much larger than the others were…"

"Ignore it. We have to get that thing out of the way."

"But—Shepard, I think this is a queen! It's a rachni queen! If I move the tank, she'll be able to escape!"

A rachni queen? What the hell?! Was that what Benezia was up here experimenting on?

Shaking that off, I gave my orders, "Doesn't matter. Let her escape. I need you to move the tank, Tali!"

"Understood," accepted Tali, uneasy as she interacted with the control panel. "Should be moving now." I watched as the structure lifted, high and up and out of the way, revealing Tali there—and Liara fighting her mother behind that field. "I also see some of Benezia's things here. An OSD, schematics on Sovereign's layout, and her notes for Saren… Something about the Mu Relay out in the Terminus Systems…and—encrypted data on capital-class Reaper ships? Looks very useful. Should I take these?"

"Take everything there and get to cover. I need to line up my shot."

"Yes, Shepard!"

Tali knelt down and out of the way. She scrambled over to the corner nearest to the last few geth. Continuing with her stun-locking from this distance, she deployed a new combat drone and refreshed her tech abilities, shooting at any geth near enough in range for her shotgun. After a few more rounds of this, she could head over and provide support for Ashley against those unending commandos.

As for Benezia, I had her in my sights through my scope, analyzing. Even as she scuffled with Liara, she wouldn't stand still for obvious reasons, likely knowing that I planned on assassinating her in this way. I could handle that; and I could handle her potent barriers that kept Liara's biotics from breaching her defenses. I trusted that my shot would make it through.

But Liara's extra biotic field may have posed a problem.

I could punch through one crazy source of biotic power, but two? I wasn't so sure.

"Liara, get that field down," I ordered, watching her every movement, zoomed-in. "I don't want to risk shooting through that and Benezia's barriers. I'll take care of this from here. I need you to—"

Harsher than ever, Liara pushed back against Benezia as a rage of dark energy, managing to stagger her.

Short of breath, all she could do was stand before her mother kneeling there, glaring down in wrath.

There was no way she should have been able to take down an asari matriarch, no matter what…

Light returning to her eyes, Benezia seemed to awaken from something, breaking her indoctrination.

She lifted her head to stare up at Liara, at Liara's lessening anger, finding herself again.

"My little wing," I heard Benezia say through Liara's radio. "You have grown so powerful… I did my very best to hold back, to prevent the worst from happening. Still, it is difficult to do so, even now. Pounding on the glass in my mind as my hands attempt to kill you—it almost feels useless. Pointless to try. I will fall again. You should… You should end me now…"

"Shepard, wait!" called Liara, kneeling down with her mother. "Mother, please, can't you hold on? Can't you stay like this? Is it not possible to fight this indoctrination completely? There must be a way!"

"I'm afraid I cannot… Saren's will is too strong. Sovereign has already indoctrinated me to the point of no return… Forcing me to carry out Saren's wishes… It is too late to save me."

Benezia kept enough control to hold Liara in her arms, one last time.

Liara let the moment get to her, lowering her guard.

I aimed my crosshairs right at Benezia's head, just in case—just in case.

"Liara, you and the commander must go on," implored Benezia. "You must defeat Saren… You must…face Sovereign… You must defeat the Reapers when they return, and save the galaxy from this overwhelming threat. I believe in you. Find your reign. It is not too late to do what must be done…"

Liara couldn't know what her mother meant. "Please, won't you explain…? What is it that must be done? And what power do I have? You broke me, destroyed me years ago—I have nothing anymore. Nothing! How can you claim to know otherwise? Tell me, please—tell me before you lose control!"

"It is control, little wing… It is control before destruction—just as I did to you. I apologize…for breaking your spirit, and for creating this hesitation that now plagues you… Know that I accept you for who you are. And I will always love you. May you find your courage to act…before…before…"

"Before what, Mother? Before what…? Please—"

Benezia grabbed Liara's head.

Nearly crushing her, she stood back up, dangling Liara in the air; biotics flaring, raging, unhinged.

Ashley broke off from her position, running toward them—"Liara!"

Tali ran up to the biotic field, pounding her fists at the wall there, helpless.

Liara reinforced her own barriers, keeping her mother from doing too much damage all at once.

She couldn't keep this up forever.

Shooting through Benezia's barriers, through Liara's field, around Tali's form—I had to concentrate.

Zooming in and crossing my sights over Benezia's heart—I emptied my mind, hands steadying.

Right at the center, and right when she stopped moving for mere seconds—I took the shot.

Booming of this sound, and the kickback from my sniper rifle: I blinked, and my shot connected, piercing through Liara's field, her mother's barrier, her mother's heart.

Benezia's hand and arm went limp.

Eyes rolling to the back of her head, she let go. She fell and slumped to the ground, lifeless.

Liara had landed back on her feet, breathless at the sight of what I'd had to do to save her.

She remembered to lower her biotic field at last, letting Tali hurry over to her.

As if in direct response, even more geth and asari commandos rushed into the lab, making a beeline right toward my team. If they kept standing there, they were bound to get surrounded.

I shouted my orders, "Tali, Liara, Ashley! Get the hell out of there! Move it, now!"

Ashley snapped out of it first. "We're going!" she confirmed, making an opening. "Tali, Liara, come on!"

I watched to make sure the three of them ran safely out of the room. "Tali, seal that door behind you!"

"Sealing it!" answered Tali. "There, it's done! But there are more security guards out here!"

"Shake them and get back to the tram! Get back to Central Station! Go the way you came, and find the garage! I'll call Joker for extraction directly outside the exit!"

"Commander, what about you?!" worried Ashley. "If we take the tram, that's your only way out of Rift Station! I'm not leaving you behind!"

"Ash, there's no time for that!" I yelled, already crawling back through the vent. "I'll find my way over to you—just send the tram back to me once you make it to Central Station! Do you understand?!"

"Understood, Sir! Shaking these hostiles and getting on the tram now!"

Doing my best to rush through these tight spaces, I got Joker on the line: "Shore party to Normandy! Joker, we need immediate extraction outside the Peak 15 garage area! How fast can you get here?"

"Getting clearance to leave Port Hanshan, Commander!" confirmed Joker. "The blizzard's gonna cause some visibility problems! It'll take me eighteen minutes to get to you! Not exactly immediate, I know!"

"That's fine!" I allowed. "We still need some time to get out of this place. Just get your ass here!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

The entire research facility had activated against us.

Not even my cloak would be able to keep me safe once I made it to Central Station, since there were bound to be even more enemies trying to find me. I trusted my team to push through on their own—they had the firepower and the determination to do it, high from the adrenaline from the last fight.

I was going to have to take some alternative measures to get out of this place alive.

Not quite halfway through these vents yet, Tali contacted me again, "Shepard, we've made it to Central Station! We're sending the tram back to you, then heading for the garage! I remember the way there! There are quite a few more asari commandos and geth in our way. We should be able to run past them!"

"Then I'll need you to take point now, Tali," I said. "Ashley didn't take the same path. She won't know the way, and I'm going into stealth mode soon. I can't give directions unless absolutely necessary."

"Yes, of course! I'll lead the way! Liara will put up her biotic fields behind us when she can!"

"Good. Stick together and get back to that garage!"

I had less than ten minutes to get back to the tram area.

There were going to be hostiles posted over there, waiting for the tram to come back—waiting to follow after my team. If they got aboard first, that would've caused way too many problems for me. I had to hurry up, faster, to get there as soon as I could.

Emptying my mind as much as possible—

Pushing ahead, with all of my experiences that had led me to this point—

I made it to the vent that wrapped around the tram area.

Outside this opening I had made earlier, I could see several of those security guards standing around, waiting, but without their drones. Activating my cloak, I snuck around them, and over to the tram platform. The tram itself wasn't here yet. I still had a little bit of time. And the guards themselves were distracted in their own waiting: guns at-the-ready, they talked and wasted this time, not nearly as alert and prepared as they should have been.

Crouching right next to the platform, like a cat, I waited.

I listened to the nearing rush of machinery, of the tram's arrival.

Only a couple of the guards seemed to notice, as the rest were still too busy with their conversation.

As soon as the tram pulled in, I slipped through the doors, still cloaked. I forced them to shut back, and for the tram to pull off again. Mostly avoiding detection—

One of the security guards noticed, and tried to catch up. He stuck his hand through the door, getting it stuck right as they closed, making him scream. Sailing away with the tram's momentum, the guard flew on and on with the vehicle, hanging on by the grip of his soon-to-be-broken hand.

I pulled out my pistol and shot at his fingers.

Some far-off scream outside, and he fell away from the tram, left behind to crash against the rails.

"That's too bad," I said to no one, willing myself to sit down in the same place I had earlier.

I found my alternate route to take through Central Station—the only one I could take that would get me back out to the Normandy in time, while avoiding all of those hostiles around. I couldn't afford to wait—if I took too long, the team would have to fight off anyone who followed them to the ship. We had to be out of here just before anyone could track them. So I accepted my need to pull off this stunt.

Not really able to empty my mind anymore, I took this time to process what Liara's mother had said.

I had a feeling I knew what Benezia had meant to say…almost. Not everything, not all of it.

And I knew that Liara still had no idea, too distressed over her mother's death to put the pieces together.

But I had already decided: I couldn't stay on this path.

I could navigate it, and I could decide what to do from here—but I couldn't keep doing the same thing.

Because throughout that whole interaction, I couldn't give a damn about Liara's actual emotions. I cared, yes, but not in the way I would have yesterday, or the day before that. And that was just the thing—this thing that we had, it had only gone on for a few days, despite the month I had spent lusting after her. Lusting after her, while ignoring my original curiosities about someone else.

I had to face the facts:

Instead of getting to know Ashley—really getting to know her—I ran away. I ran because I knew that she would challenge me in too many ways. Just as she did now, like today. I ran because I didn't want to care.

I had made a mistake with Liara, plain and simple.

I couldn't own up to my mistake properly, because I had promised that I wouldn't confront her.

Liara had definitely opened me to these new possibilities…and for that, I was grateful.

But all I could do for the foreseeable future was navigate, navigate, navigate these tight spaces, the tightrope and the fine line of keeping my promises to Ashley, and supporting Liara through her inevitable mourning. I knew that I would at least care for Liara. I would always…care about her, in this tender space, and in these valuable lessons she had given me on how to stop running from my feelings.

Still, I had to take a side.

I needed to be decisive about this.

I needed to open my heart a little more to the possibility that she wasn't right for me.

I needed to accept the fact that she wasn't able to be fair, to give me what little I did still want with her.

I couldn't blame Liara for her hesitations. She had made herself clear, and I respected that.

She couldn't keep me if she kept hesitating, staying in love with her problems instead of moving forward.

And if that wasn't fair of me, then oh well—too bad. I had to make a fucking choice here, or else.

I absolutely had to, now that my ten minutes were up.

Bursting through with my decision, I cloaked again, running across to my new path. Through the decontamination chamber, through the VI core, and up, up, and up, partway atop the mountain surrounding Peak 15—the same one we had trekked toward through the valley on our way here.

I ran across this snow, following my omni-tool's directions as it warned me about the imminent drop.

Spotting the Normandy as a stretch of black and white down below, I uncloaked and kept running.

Gangplank leading to the lower level opened, waiting—Tali, Ashley, and Liara had almost made it there. They had spread out across the snow just outside the garage way under me, looking, searching around with their guns drawn. Even in this environmental hazard, and even without my shared implants to help them handle the cold, Ashley and Liara stayed out there with Tali anyway, needing to find me.

Lightning bolts of my legs striking through this thick snow, I couldn't let them know where I was.

All I could do—was run.

"Shepard, where are you?!" called Liara, her voice echoing up to me. "We don't see you anywhere in the garage! Are you cloaked? Did you even make it across from Rift Station? Say something!"

Freezing to the bone, Ashley started to lose her nerve. "Skipper, you have to make it… You have to! If you don't respond in the next two minutes, I swear, I'm tearing this place apart to find you!"

Tali consoled them both, "I'm sure she'll be fine. Just—try to be patient for a little while longer…"

This drop was way longer than the one from the elevator shaft…

Still, I had to see this through.

Focusing on Ashley down below—as near as she was to the gangplank, perfect for my momentum—I ran all the way to the edge. I focused on her, on her anger, her desperation, her need to find her control over this situation, and to find me—now, right now, right this second, or else—

Right at the mountain's edge, I vaulted across to the height below.

Bulleting down, this icy wind cut at me a thousand times without making me bleed, as high as I was.

Joker spotted me first from the windows in the cockpit—"Holy shit… Shepard! Are you fucking CRAZY?!"

Perfect performance with this audience: Tali, Liara, and Ashley looked up, finding this gunshot of me.

And so pitch perfect—I could have smiled from the sheer shock and awe about them, even Tali in her relative obscurity with her helmet. I could still see it anyway, seeing myself reflected there in the hard material over her face, shining in this blizzard.

I looked down at my landing point, nearing it now, so soon and so much quicker than I'd expected.

Clear and away from the others, I had enough room.

Enough room, finally, to run and to run and to run to my heart's content—only I had finally found a reason to stop running, to accept reality instead. As harsh and as cold as this reality was, worse than this weather, I felt this infinite flame in my chest keeping me warm, warmer than my implants could.

Soon enough, before, and right before, I activated my augmentation.

This golden halo around me, slowing my descent, and canceling my velocity out: I stuck the landing, legs bent, finding the snowy ground as normal again, all as normal.

Running up to the gangplank, I ordered the others, "Come on! We're done—let's get out of here!"

Finding their senses again, Ashley, Liara, and Tali hurried after me, back onto the ship.

And in this adrenaline, I had my clarity.

The mission came first; Ashley's well-being came first.

They had to become one and the same for me.

Anything less, and I could have lost it all, all over again.

Chapter Text

"Afterglow" from Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood / "Toxic (Peter Rauhofer Reconstruction Remix)" by Britney Spears

X. Thessian Wine

(Shepard)

This time had given me wisdom in ways I hadn't expected.

In time, I would come to learn just how much Noveria had changed my life—for better, or for worse.

And in this fine time, aging and maturing, I sat alone in my cabin, drinking this white wine that would forever remind me of Liara—with my email open to several messages from Ashley in the present—thinking all of this over. But even as I drank this in remembrance, I felt firmly in the present, inescapable.

Three months had passed since that snow and ice had frozen me on this new path.

Four months since the mission began, and so much about me had changed in this time.

Technically autumn now, at least on Earth and on solar time, it was almost my birthday.

Tomorrow, I would be thirty years old.

Obviously, I chose not to make a big deal out of it. And I wasn't even certain if anyone on the ship knew. I hadn't spotted them sneaking around to make secret plans for the day, which was a relief. No one asking those not-so-subtle hinting questions about the things I liked, all as a ruse to figure out what I might have wanted as a birthday present. Then again, if they were up to something, they would have used their drama-chat room to coordinate together. So I didn't entirely rule this chance out.

Besides, if anyone on the Normandy would know my birthday, it would've been Ashley.

Not that Liara wouldn't have known. But she was used to Thessian time. So much so that Liara had asked me if we could visit her homeworld Thessia for a few days—for shore leave while we stayed at her childhood home, for her to square away her mother's affairs after Benezia's death. I had agreed: we were on our way there now, due to arrive in Armali, her hometown, within the next few solar hours.

Sipping more of this white wine, I scrolled to find the relevant email from Ashley—one of several that we'd exchanged over the past three months, just in getting to know each other. We had hundreds of messages to each other, all linked to the same chain, in chronological order. While she cleaned our guns down in the armory, or while I worked on admin duties for the ship, or while I was in between tactical briefings with Alliance brass, we would constantly write to each other throughout the days.

During missions, Ashley was as dedicated, as reliable, and as formidable as ever. She did her best not to give the team any indication that we had anything going on between us. Aside from her following me around like a puppy again whenever possible, she had learned to be as subtle as she could about this.

Because this was what I had limited us to—getting to know each other, taking this slow:

Emails—many emails—private radio calls before bed at night, and talking in-person in the mess hall.

Oddly enough, Ashley seemed perfectly happy with this, following my lead just as she had promised.

So, whenever we were alone, I would let her steal a kiss from me in that sexy mischief of hers.

Nothing more…yet.

From: Ashley – Re: Getting to know you.

Shepard,

So what do you think about astrology? While we were talking the other day about religion, and how you're actually agnostic, it got me thinking. Not sure I buy the whole horoscope thing myself. Like, how could our personalities be based off of star alignments from when we were born? And I'm pretty sure things have shifted over the centuries. Isn't there some thirteenth Zodiac sign now? Who knows…

I was curious, so I looked up your birth chart anyway. Libra, an air sign. Your reading surprised me. It did sound a lot like you… How you can be diplomatic when you need to, smoothing things over. How you care a lot about justice and fairness. You're a people-pleaser. You need your balance and peace. You're drop-dead gorgeous and handsome at the same time… Everything about you is so beautiful. And you're supposed to be a real romantic, too… From what I've seen about you so far, I can believe it.

This thing said you're indecisive, though. I definitely don't believe that. Or maybe you are, deep down? Do you force yourself to make tough decisions when you'd normally hesitate? You're more of a natural leader in my eyes. Whatever you do in the background to keep that going, it sure does work for you.

With the rest of your chart, I can't say either way if it's true or not. Are you secretly emotional, Shepard? Do you need someone in your life who balances you out? Would you rather keep your distance from others if it means you won't get hurt? I guess that last one is true… Maybe not so much these days. And maybe not with me. Not anymore. I'm really happy that we get to talk like this every day.

I'm an Aries. Fire sign. April 14. I'm apparently your opposite Zodiac sign, too. I spent a long time reading about our compatibility together… Instant attraction, bringing out the best (or worst) in each other, learning new perspectives, amazing sexual chemistry. Everything I've found says we're pretty much soulmates. That's a strong word, I know… It's making me rethink how much I care about this stuff.

Why don't you read some, too? It could be fun.

-Ashley

I had done my reading on it back then, seeing that it was kind of fun to compare and contrast.

So much of spending this time with Ashley was fun. She excited me a lot. She made me smile in her curiosities, in the way she said whatever was on her mind at any given moment. Even when she managed to sound like a complete airhead sometimes, I could still laugh about it, or enjoy how different she was from me. I saw that I wasn't so hung-up over our differences, finding beauty in them instead.

And when we did argue about something—usually her disbelief that Liara and I hadn't done anything else—I couldn't stay angry at her. Ashley chose to do as I said, after all: she didn't hold back with me. She didn't hold her tongue. She held her ground instead, knowing that I respected her more for being honest with me, no matter what. So she respected my respect, reassured by it, giving me her real self.

But honestly, I had wondered if things between us might have fizzled out at some point. Especially by now. I questioned if I was exciting enough for her—if Ashley would get bored of how much I kept guarding myself, kept holding back. Or if she would lose interest in me, simply because of how quiet and…shy I sometimes was, almost stuck in my head at times. So this three-month, or four-month marker—sort of—helped me to see that my wonderings, and my questioning weren't based in reality.

Ashley was still here.

She was still into me, and she wanted me more than she did yesterday, every day.

And I was still into her, finding that this feeling in my lower chest was such a constant, pervading flame.

All because Ashley trusted me enough to know that I wasn't going anywhere.

She gave me drama, she challenged me to be sensitive with her, and she made me feel an entire spectrum of fire for her—but I wasn't sick of her at all, and I didn't want her to stop.

I didn't want her to compromise who she was, just to placate me.

On the other hand, there was Liara, who had every reason now to compromise herself, to placate me.

This started a couple of days after Noveria, when she had emailed me with a senseless assumption:

From: Liara – Concern.

Shepard,

Did you ask her to send me this?

If so, you shouldn't have bothered.

-Liara

.

From: Williams, Gunnery Chief – FW: Sorry.

Liara,

I don't expect you to respond to this.

I only wanted to say—I'm sorry about your Mom dying.

I could tell she meant a lot to you. I can't ever know why the two of you stopped talking over the years. Not the details, anyway. Sounded like it was a big deal. Glad you got some closure with her.

I hope you're not mad at Shepard for doing what she had to do. She took the shot, just like she always does. She saved your life.

Despite everything, I would've done the same for you.

-Ashley

This petty shit from Liara had burned me up at the time.

I couldn't even bother to fucking respond to her.

Seriously, Ashley had set her pride aside to send Liara a sincere message. She chose to be the better person here, and to do the decent thing. Still, Liara was so damn cynical and mistrusting that she couldn't accept the gesture for what it was. This wasn't even about her having the right to be irrational while she mourned Benezia's death. It was just plain mean.

I hadn't responded to her damned email—at all.

I had chosen not to say anything to her in-person, either, avoiding her on the ship.

Liara had picked up on how pissed off I was.

She had waited a few days before sending me this change, this revelation:

From: Liara – Re: Concern.

Shepard,

I must apologize for my last message.

I understand that you are angry with me. I allowed my negative emotions to get the better of me, and now you think less of me as a result. Ashley tried to do the right thing in sending her condolences. I shouldn't have assumed that you asked her to take pity on me. Thinking on it now, it was the natural thing for her to do. It is clear that family is important to her.

Perhaps I was bitter. During our walk through the blizzard, I could no longer feel you. In fact, I still can't. It is as though our bond has shifted, changed. It is there, but far less intimate than it was before. The timing is obvious… This change began as soon as you and Ashley finally began speaking to one another.

I can't help but feel that this is for the best, at least for now.

Given my state of mind these days, maybe we ought to take a step back. Did we not rush into things together? Did we not give into our passions too soon? I believe we did, and I know that you feel the same. In fact, this is all that I know of how you feel. The rest, as I said, is blocked off. I don't wish to subject you to the pain that this brings me. Otherwise, we will have more repeats of my last email to you.

Are you in agreement, or do you wish to discuss this first?

-Liara

.

To: Liara – Re: Concern.

Liara,

Yeah, that whole thing with Ashley's message did piss me off. You didn't have to send it to me. That was between you and her. For the record, I didn't ask her to send it, and I don't want her taking pity on you. Whatever the two of you talk about is your business. Please, leave me out of it.

You're right about the rest, though.

We should cool off.

Now's not the best time to risk any arguments between us. Not while you're going through all of this. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want you to be in pain, either. I have to accept that I can't change this. It is what it is.

I still care about you, Liara.

If you need me to be there for you, or if you'd rather I stay away, it's your call.

If you choose not to respond to this, then I'll know where you stand.

-Shepard

Once it became clear that Liara wasn't going to respond, I had such a mixed reaction.

I wasn't relieved.

I wasn't happy.

I wasn't angry.

I wasn't frustrated.

Somewhere in between, perfectly balanced, perfectly mixed. Ambivalent, for now. I couldn't know why.

And I couldn't help feeling that I had dodged a bullet somehow—that this was a blessing in disguise.

Sipping more of this wine, I swallowed back this sudden stinging in my throat. That indigo blue blanket was here on the couch with me, too—over there, in the corner, where Liara had sat with me for a time. The only time she had been in my room. But probably not the last time. I found some comfort in knowing that she would likely be back here with me at some point. In what capacity, I didn't know.

I was positive that Liara knew we weren't exactly done, either.

Taking a step back, cooling off—feelings interrupted, and maybe shifted: I found that I was perfectly fine with being in this space with her. I knew that Liara would always feel something powerful for me, regardless of whether or not I chose to act on my own feelings for her. I had my peace with her like this. I had forgiven her for the drama from before, even knowing that she was in so much pain without me.

With that pain, Liara really seemed to be biding her time for something…

Whatever this something was, she had managed to find her own peace that way, pressing onward.

And we had our connection: I felt her protecting the very base of my mind, supportive as my foundation.

Somehow, I understood that she would always be here, no matter what happened between us.

Still, I had revoked Liara's access to my private cabin.

I couldn't let myself think of giving Ashley the same access, no matter how much I wanted her here.

I had a much stronger feeling about Ashley in the long-run: that our own foundation was strong, powerful. But because of how much Liara had opened me up, these memories of her were way too fresh.

Needing to set these emotions of mine aside, I skimmed through my emails from Ashley, choosing to read one at random:

From: Ashley – Re: Getting to know you.

Shepard,

What made you think of that? I just said whatever came to mind… I can explain it if you want me to.

The whole "griffons never die" thing comes from my family. It's an old Williams saying, going back centuries. We say it to the marines we admire most. One of my ancestors picked it up from a super retro video game. Ended up carrying through the generations. It's part of our blood now.

The thing is, I can't remember the title of that game. Wings of the Goddess, or something?

I know you like video games. I'll have to ask one of my uncles if he can find out the name for you.

When I saw that you were okay after the Thorian, I thought of my family's saying. I would hear them say it to each other all the time. Never really stuck until my Dad used it with me, right after I enlisted. It was around the time he stopped calling me his baby girl. Totally used to get on my nerves whenever he would call me that… Now that he's gone, I miss it. I miss him. He was my rock while he was still alive.

You're my rock now.

You're legendary, like a griffon, and you never die.

You always get the job done. You'll never die.

-Ashley

Smiling over the memory, I put my headphones on, listening to the real source of her family's saying.

One of Ashley's ancestors must've enjoyed this super retro video game, including the music. I loved the game, too—it was one of my favorites of all-time. I still played it every now and then. Somehow, the servers were still alive, carried over to the extranet from the original code from the early twenty-first century. I had a few maxed out characters, though, and there was nothing more to do. Since the developers were all dead by now, they obviously weren't able to update the game with more content…

Griffons Never Die was the title of a song in one of the game's expansion packs, Wings of the Goddess. It was from one of the original starter cities, reimagined in the past. Kings and queens, knights and nobility, medieval castles and battlements, duty and honor, and the color red—I could definitely see how this place, and this song had meant a lot to someone in the Williams family, military-minded as they were.

One day, I'd have to show Ashley this place in-game through some virtual reality play. I wanted to completely immerse her in the place and in the music that her ancestors were so fond of. Playing with a simple screen and a keyboard or controller just wouldn't cut it. Not for something like this.

After listening to the song a few more times, I took off my headphones.

Too curious for my own good, I went back to my email inbox, staring at this other chain of several successive messages from Ashley, again.

Aside from the getting to know you emails, she also sent me these…

The subject: Hard and fast.

I had read every single one of them…but Ashley had specified that I shouldn't respond to these. Not until I was ready. She only saw that I had 'read' each of them, and she was content with this. For now.

She had attached certain files to some of these emails to me.

Pictures.

Vid messages.

I was a visual person. I had a feeling she was well-aware of this about me.

So far, I had resisted the urge to look at these, to watch these. I knew what they were…and I knew, once I started indulging in them, I would want to immediately take the brakes off of this thing we had going.

I risked re-reading her latest of these emails to me anyway:

From: Ashley – Re: Hard and fast.

Shepard,

Do you remember why I'm using this subject line? Aside from the double-meaning I want from you…

In our dream, you told me I should chase after you. And I said I would.

Hard and fast.

I know—I can't exactly do that right now. Not in the way I imagined at the time. I honestly want that physicality. I want to run after you, chase you down, and make you pin me down on the ground… Sending you these instead…it helps me get some of this energy out. If I keep it inside any longer, I'll explode. Plus, it's way harder to control myself around you these days. I'm trying to learn from how controlled you are. I'm trying to do my best. When I feel myself about to give in, I turn to this instead.

I love that you're reading this. I love that you won't respond…for now. It makes me wonder if you're really shy, or if I have that much of an effect on you. There's no doubt in my mind that you want me, Shepard. You keep holding back anyway. I know why you do it. I respect your reasons; I always will.

Thinking about you like this, I finally figured out why I was so confused all those years.

I can't get emotionally attached to men. I'm only physically attracted to them. Like I told you, the ones I've slept with were…not so great in bed. On the other hand, I have no problems getting emotionally attached to women. And I can really want a woman to fuck me… But the ones I've been with, they never did it right. Not that anyone's actually fucked me—you know… You get what I'm saying.

I wasn't sure if I was actually bi. I couldn't put two and two together. I couldn't realize that the people I had sex with before were just bad. My sexuality had nothing to do with it. I guess since it's easier for me to feel closer to women, I stressed myself out, wondering why my experiences with them were so terrible.

Then you came along.

With everyone else, I'd keep my pride. If they wanted me, then they had to come prove it. I wasn't going to throw myself at anyone. I wouldn't be head-over-heels. I refused to make things easy for them.

That was simple for me, because I really wanted you, not them.

Now you're here.

Now…every time I see you, no matter where we are, and no matter who's around, I get the same urge.

I want to get down on my knees in front of you, Shepard. I want to get your dick out and suck on it, choke on it. I want you to hold my head and guide me while I do it. I want to feel your nails digging into my scalp, showing me how much you love my tongue on you, my lips around you. And even though it's only a strap-on, so what? I bet anything you'll taste better in my mouth than the ones I wasted my time with.

Even better, I want your mouth in between my legs. Whenever you kiss me, I feel how strong your tongue is, how thick your lips are. It gets to me every time—I imagine you on your knees instead, devouring me. I know you want to please me. I know you want to make me scream your name. You're so fucking sexy.

The best part is, we haven't even done anything yet, and you already make me feel like I'm good enough.

Let me show you just how much.

But I learned my lesson with you. I'm not giving up the goods that easily…

If you want all of it, you'd better come after me this time.

-Ash

Light-headed and throbbing like hell, I almost slipped up and opened one of the attachments.

A notification sounded from my terminal at my desk, snapping me out of this daze I was in.

Setting my empty wine glass on the table, I went over to my desk. I had completely forgotten: I'd decided to make a copy of something for Tali, for her Pilgrimage. Not that long ago, we had hit several geth outposts across different planets. Geth that had separated from Saren's operations, while also staying far outside the Perseus Veil where they should have been. We found some encrypted data on the geth's operations, but it probably would have taken years to crack what was on here.

Tali hadn't asked me, but I chose to make a copy of this for her. The process had finally finished. I could give her this, and then hand the original over to the Alliance once I had time.

Hopefully this would be a good enough gift for Tali to bring back to the Flotilla.

Before heading out, I brushed my teeth and freshened up, mostly to get this smell of wine out of my breath. I was already a little more relaxed than usual. I didn't need anyone knowing for sure that I had been drinking up here. Not that it really mattered. I had…a feeling about this, about alcohol in general.

After brushing my hair out one last time, I took the copy of the geth data and headed to the elevator.

Going all the way down to the storage area, I leaned against the back wall, arms folded.

As soon as these doors opened, I knew that Ashley would look over at me.

She wouldn't expect me to go and talk to her. She would want me to, though. And I would want to go over to her, to see how she was. But, again, I had such a weird feeling about this. Like, if I did it, then it would change things, somehow. This was all really vague and I didn't understand any of it.

Then again, I was relaxed enough to not care that much.

Why not just go with the flow for once?

Once the elevator opened to the dark blue of the vehicle bay—with Wrex on the left side examining our armor, and Garrus on the right side calibrating the Mako's guns—I stared back at the inevitable.

In her usual place at the armory, Ashley looked at me with her filthy mind, looking damn fine. From the single look I gave back to her, she nearly dropped the gun in her hands that she had been cleaning. Interestingly enough, it was my Spectre-grade sniper rifle. And she almost dropped it to the ground.

I had paid a lot of credits for that gun at the C-Sec Academy on the Citadel.

I changed my look—heated, warning—before rounding the corner to head down to Engineering.

But I did let myself smile once I heard Wrex grilling Ashley on what all the ruckus was about.

Through the door to Engineering, I found the bright blue-violet pulsing of the Normandy's drive core in the center of the room. This mesmerizing view comforted me. As chill as I was at the moment, this sound, this atmosphere could have lulled me to sleep if I wasn't careful.

Thankfully, Tali didn't notice—she had her back to me, working at the panel on the leftmost side of the room, right by that pulsing. But I wasn't sure how this conversation would turn out. This was the first time I had ever spoken to her down here. Aside from speaking in-person during missions, we had only ever communicated by email here on the ship. Or I would sometimes find her in the mess hall with Ashley or someone else, and we would speak in passing. Never a one-on-one conversation, alone.

There was only one way to find out how this would go.

I gave a nod to Engineer Adams, who saluted me with a smile, before heading over to Tali nearby.

She wasn't quite working on the drive core itself.

Instead, Tali typed away on what looked like her private terminal.

She wrote into a text box on an extranet page—and she had written quite a lot already…

Something about how frustrated she was.

Frustrated…that she couldn't take her suit off, or even her helmet, without risking an infection. And that if could have seen her face from behind her helmet, maybe things could have been different between us… She noted that she was not vain, but she accepted that I appreciated beautiful women. She knew that she was one, too, and she expressed more frustration that she couldn't show me just how much.

According to her, if I could have seen her face and her body, then maybe I would want her, too.

Tali felt trapped in her suit. Like it was a cage, or a prison, making people judge her or dismiss her.

She mentioned that Liara and Ashley were beautiful, so of course I was attracted to them, and not her…

But then Tali retracted that, not wanting to think I was shallow, or that I only cared about looks.

Tali instead expressed her amazement for how I continued to impress her, day after day, mission after mission. Especially on Noveria, where she knew that something about me had changed that day, even if she couldn't put her finger on exactly what. She did wonder a lot about how it was I'd caught that cold…

And Tali venerated me—how dashing she thought I was, how skilled she saw me as, how strict I was, how sexy she felt I was, and how much she loved my preparedness and my intelligence. Tali hated that she couldn't express herself to me, and that she couldn't possibly compete against her two best friends for my affections. She felt inadequate compared to them, like she had nothing to offer me.

Tali could never let me see her face, or let me feel her skin; she could never let me kiss her, or let me have sex with her—otherwise she could have gotten sick, or possibly died, jeopardizing the mission.

Because of how she was raised—as a quarian, as her father's daughter—she had learned to put others first. Being selfish may have endangered the Migrant Fleet. So she had convinced herself that Liara should have had me before, and now Ashley these days. And she believed that this was best, as she felt that I wouldn't have given her the time of day regardless. She figured I didn't care about her like that.

On some nights, Tali would purposely listen in on Ashley getting off to me, just to make herself cry.

All so she could exhaust herself, crying herself to sleep. Because she wasn't able to rest otherwise, wanting me as much as she did, all while dealing with these frustrations on a daily basis. Because, once the next mission began, she had no room to let her personal feelings get in the way. She knew that I needed her to be on-point, at her very best, and she didn't want to…disappoint me. Not in the slightest.

This in particular stood out to me in a curious way: 'I'm making her sound like my father, aren't I…?'

This as well, even more so: 'Liara made it clear to everyone in the chat that she and Shepard aren't an item. They're still attracted to each other, and they still appear to have that special bond of theirs, but she needs to keep her distance for her own reasons. She's upset over it, yet she's also choosing to press on. I'm not sure why she chose to give up while she was ahead. Whatever those private reasons of hers are, they must be serious. She won't tell me at all.

'And Ashley must think I'm stupid. She claims that she has no chance whatsoever. I know that she's chasing after Shepard as I write this. The raw attraction between those two…it's palpable. Shepard can certainly control her actions; she can't stop that impossible heat from burning up each time she and Ashley are around one another. It's even stronger than it was with her and Liara, how there would be sparks everywhere. She and Ashley want each other very, very badly. I wish they'd get a room already…'

Tali was seriously…blogging about me, like this.

I'd had no idea her crush on me went this deep. And I'd had no idea she so was hurt over this, either…

Regardless of the pain that Tali was in, I was struck by how—beautiful her feelings were for me.

Standing right behind her, I realized why she hadn't heard my approach. My footsteps were already quiet enough, on top of the drive core's pulsing causing this much noise.

If I waited any longer, she would know that I had read these tender feelings of hers—even by accident.

I sighed, hoping this wouldn't scare her.

I tapped her shoulder. "Tali—"

Tali whipped around to face me, the vague outline of her bright eyes growing wide behind her helmet.

"Shepard!" she squeaked, slamming her terminal shut. "Shepard, what are you doing here?! You frightened me! Keelah, you really need to invest in some heavier boots! Or—or something!"

Dry in my sarcasm, I offered, "I could try wearing a bell around my neck if that would help."

Tali huffed at me, "This isn't funny!"

"Sorry," I said, finding it cute—even sexy—how pissed off she was. "I have something to give you. Figured I'd bring it to you in person. If you don't want it, I can just go instead. No hard feelings."

Softening a bit, she asked, "You mean…you have a gift for me?"

"Yes."

"Oh… Well, that's—sweet of you… What is it?"

I handed her the copy of that data, explaining, "These are encrypted files on what the geth are doing outside the Perseus Veil. We found this when we hit their outposts the other day. I'm handing the original files over to the Alliance. So I made this copy for you to have. Might take a while to get this unencrypted. But I figured you could bring it back to your people. You know, for your Pilgrimage."

Gently, Tali took the gift in her hands, staring down at it for a long while.

She whispered to me, just over the drive core's pulsing, "Shepard…this is perfect. I can certainly use this to complete my Pilgrimage once we stop Saren. I… I almost don't know what to say, except—thank you."

"Glad I could help, Tali," I told her.

The way her breathing had changed—it gave her away.

Shy, and frightened, almost, Tali couldn't raise her head to meet my eyes again.

Knowing better, I asked, "You okay?"

"Err, yes, I'm…" Tali exhaled, trembling. "…I'm—I'm all right. I am."

"You know I don't believe that," I lectured.

"I know you don't… But, I'm telling you anyway—I'm fine, Shepard…"

One more chance: "You're sure?"

Tali sighed, admitting, "No, I'm not… You caught me off-guard. Your gift is incredibly thoughtful. You've pushed me into new territory with this. And this, it's… It is… This is…very difficult to discuss, and…"

She glanced over at Engineer Adams not too far away.

He wasn't close enough to overhear, and he had his back facing us, but Tali worried anyway.

"We can go someplace else," I offered. "If you need to speak with me in private, that is."

Tali placed her hands over the sides of her helmet, as if blushing under there.

These soft stutters of her attractive voice, broken by her breaths so emotional: "Shepard…I want to tell you. I don't… I don't feel that I'm allowed to. I'm not—I'm not allowed…to be honest with you. Not without compromising other things… As much as I would like to…we shouldn't speak in private."

"I get what you're trying to say, Tali."

"What…? But how could you know? No, that's not right… You don't know. You shouldn't lie to me…"

I leaned closer to her, speaking in a low voice, "I wish you wouldn't lie to me. This is where we're at anyway. Then again, maybe it's for the best. If you're not ready to be honest, then I won't force you to get this off your chest. That's your choice to make, not mine."

Tali only stood there, letting out these shallow breaths; quavering underneath my height above her.

Out of anyone, I knew that I had to keep this mask on with her.

How fragile she was, deep down, and how inexperienced she was beyond her tech expertise:

I could've broken her mind in half like a twig, like a flower stem, without even trying.

"The offer's open, Tali," I said, stepping back—knowing she might not have taken it. "And the offer will always be open. Whenever you wanna have a real talk with me, you're free to ask for my time, in private. Other than that, I want you to stop treating me like I'm stupid. Do whatever you want around me—just don't make the rookie mistake of assuming I don't notice what goes on under my watch."

More emotional, yet still controlled, Tali breathed much harder.

Whether she was mad at me, or turned on—or both—I couldn't know.

Staying firm with her, I needed confirmation: "Tali, do you understand me?"

Oh, she was livid with me now.

felt how much she wanted to call me a bitch, right to my face…or a bosh'tet.

"Yes, Captain," scorned Tali. "I understand."

I was about to leave things at that, not wanting this to go on for too long.

But then Tali pressed her hand to my chest—pushing me back, and back, and back, out the Engineering exit and back out to the hall blocked by the elevator.

This elevator was the only thing keeping Garrus, Wrex, and Ashley from witnessing this right now.

Still keeping her voice to a near-whisper, Tali put her foot down:

"Shepard, I respect you as my leader," she warned. "And I feared you would find out that I don't just have an innocent crush on you. But I won't allow you to talk down to me like this… Out of anyone on this ship, I have the least amount of freedom to be honest with you! Why can't you see that?!"

Setting aside my anger with her anger, I asked, "What are you talking about?"

"I'm juggling two close friendships with the other women who want you! You and Liara may not be directly involved anymore, but Ashley is a different story! If she were to find out about my real feelings, it would cause too many issues for us. I don't want to lose her again! Especially not over this, when I have no chance with you! Keelah, you're still so insensitive at the wrong times…"

"Seriously? Ashley and I aren't—"

"—no, no, no," interrupted Tali. "Don't bother with that, Shepard. Don't go there with me. It doesn't matter if the two of you aren't in a relationship. I see how you feel about her; I see how she feels about you. We all do! You can control yourself all you want. That won't stop us from spotting the insane amount of chemistry between the two of you. You're going to burn the Normandy down at this rate!"

So much for the damned regulations keeping me shackled. And if everyone already knew, then…

Tali continued, "You could have fooled us with Liara, you know. Sure, the attraction was there. It still is. But then you had to go and bed her for everyone to hear, giving yourself away. With that said, I spend a lot of my time observing you. You can't tell me that Ashley isn't special to you. You want her like no other. Even now, I can feel it, radiating off from you…like it does all the time, everywhere. So why should I have a real talk with you if you're not able to give me anything in return?"

Holding up this figurative shield of my guard:

This was all I could do.

Nothing more.

I had already made my decision about this, about Ashley, and about staying on this path with her.

"That's what I thought," concluded Tali. "Now do you understand why I tried to lie to you? To get you to drop this? I'm completely vulnerable to you… This is going to make things worse for me. I hope you're happy. And in case you forgot, Shepard, this is also about my health… You're literally toxic to me."

Unsticking my voice from my throat, I told her, "Tali, I'm sorry… I wish I could make this up to you."

"I know. Better late than never, I suppose… It's what made me fall for you this hard in the first place."

Tali embraced me, angling her helmet up just enough to rest her head over my shoulder.

I let myself hold her back.

This smooth material of her enviro-suit, and how small she was in my arms—she felt…warm, and inviting to me. But even with her attitude that fired itself right back at me in hot, short bursts, I still knew better. I knew, as smooth, and as small, and as warm, and as inviting as she was, Tali was…vulnerable, as she said. She was a firebrand in her own ways, but she was susceptible to me. I could've hurt her, badly.

Ashley was tough enough—even hard-headed enough—for me to not worry about this with her.

Tali was way too precious for someone like me.

I moved back, maybe premature, given how relaxed Tali had felt against me.

Waking up from her bliss, she asked in worry, "What is it?"

"Nothing," I tried. "You gave me a lot to think about, that's all. Maybe I underestimated you."

"Maybe you did," agreed Tali. "And maybe I should be more patient with you." Having my arms around her had changed something in her, once again: "And maybe…I'll take you up on your offer to have that talk. One day."

"Then we'll do that. Whenever you're ready. I care about you. I don't want to compromise that. I hate admitting this, but you're right about Ashley…how I feel about her. If she were anyone else, I wouldn't think twice about exploring this with you. She is really special to me. And I'm not in a relationship with her now…"

Tali responded with levity, "Mmm, I know," as if she even loved how much I…felt about her own best friend. "I'm not asking for anything more. I couldn't. I'm just…extremely glad to see that you could still like me, even with my suit in the way. And I do want your friendship. No matter what."

"Then let's be friends," I accepted. "I'll keep you in my thoughts. Either way, your secret's safe with me."

"Thank you, Shepard," replied Tali, relieved. "I feel much better now. I think…this should help me in the long-run. I can stop hating this situation and find my peace with it instead." She sighed with the start of that peace. "I should get back to it, then. I need to…finish up some work before we arrive to Liara's homeworld. I'm still trying to unencrypt those notes we found from her mother. I'll see you later?"

"Yeah, I'll see you."

Tali let out a soft laugh, and returned to Engineering through the door.

I took a moment to reflect on our conversation: on how much I had admitted, how much I had realized.

I accepted that I wanted to keep Tali safe and cared for, even as a friend.

And she was way more complex than I had given her credit for…

With that complexity, I had actually looked at temptation and turned away, focused on one woman.

Heading back out to the vehicle bay, I found my own peace in how all was well over here—how no one had overheard. Garrus continued working on the Mako. Wrex set Kaidan's armor back in his locker. From this angle, Ashley mostly had her back to me, working diligently to clean her own rifle this time.

Clinging to my professionalism for dear life, I decided to go over to Ashley at her station.

To avoid any unnecessary surprises, I angled my approach so that I was in her periphery.

Though I noticed something different about her hair.

Ashley had it tied up behind as usual, but it seemed like her hair was shorter. Did she get a haircut?

Spotting me out of the corner of her eye, Ashley set her rifle down, gently, before turning toward me.

This was the first time I had ever come to speak to her down here, too.

The only times I had been down here for chatting was when Wrex had emailed me, requesting that I speak to him about a personal matter. He had given me the details about his family armor that some turian had stolen away. We'd then retrieved his armor, and I came back down here again to talk to him about it some more, learning about how his father Jarrod had betrayed him back on Tuchanka.

And then there was Garrus, who had told me about a legit maniac, Dr. Saleon, who went around pawning off organs from innocent victims. He had tracked down the doctor's location, and then we had gone to find him, making short work of that freak and putting an end to his operations. And I remembered how even though Garrus was grateful for my help, he had held back in what he really wanted to say to me. He had kept our talks professional, to-the-point, for the sake of appeasing me.

I knew that Garrus wanted to be my friend. He needed to find the courage to tell me that on his own.

During each of those occasions, I had decided not to speak to Ashley, instead letting her work.

Surely that explained this muted look of bewilderment on her face as I approached her now, today.

"Commander," greeted Ashley, trying to stay neutral. "…what can I do for you?"

Experimenting with this new concept, I asked her, "What's your opinion on the last mission?"

Finding her nerve again, Ashley scowled in remembrance. "My opinion is that it was all a huge mess, Sir," she replied. "Rear Admiral Kahoku didn't deserve what happened to him! And before that, those researchers in the excavation site getting turned into husks? That fake Alliance distress signal leading the admiral's men straight into a thresher maw's nest? Cerberus is a straight-up terrorist group!"

"I agree," I remarked. "It was pretty bad all around. But we couldn't get to the admiral in time. We have to accept that and move on."

"You make it sound so easy…"

Low-hanging fruit for an inappropriate joke, there.

She knew it, too—her knees were about to buck, like she wanted to get down in front of me.

Ashley caught herself, catching her breath thickly against this sight of me.

I was still relaxed enough to be amused by this, though not quite letting myself smile at her.

Needing to act oblivious, Ashley continued, "…I guess you did the right thing, handing over that data to the Shadow Broker… If that's the deal Admiral Kahoku made for more info on Cerberus, then we've repaid his debts. I hope he's resting in peace somewhere up there now."

"More than likely," I said. "He was a good man, dedicated to his service."

Ashley could no longer keep up this chain of the conversation, avoiding my eyes now.

She all but tied her hands behind her back, tangling, taut.

Experimenting some more, I went on, "Do you have a few minutes to talk, one-on-one?"

This shuddering breath she let out, still unable to look at me—

She inhaled, once, stronger—smelling my usual scent, and holding herself back.

Overwhelmed by me, Ashley still whispered, "You know I always have time for you, Skipper…"

"Always?" I wondered.

"Always," she repeated, just as soft. "Whatever you need me for, Shepard, I'll… I'll give it up to you."

Uncharacteristic with everyone else, anyone else—Ashley's regard of me made it nearly impossible for my professionalism to keep carrying this talk with her. And she did look at me, now, her wide eyes so all-encompassing in the breadth of her feelings. And I almost hated myself, now, for taking this long to appreciate how sweet she was in this way, lowering that guard of hers to be completely open with me.

This sensation that had heated my stomach first, with her, had misted up my chest, almost to my heart.

Almost…

Still working on someone's armor, Wrex's playful shouting wasn't enough to break this between us—"Hey, Garrus! That another fire you feel coming on? Might make its way over here soon!"

Tinkering with the Mako, Garrus called back over his shoulder, "You're telling me! The fire alarm's sure to go off at any minute now! We need some emergency sprinklers on, stat!"

"I don't know about sprinklers! Maybe a fire hose! Better yet, we gotta drop this entire place in water!"

Scoffing in annoyance, Ashley questioned, "Again? What are they even talking about?"

This joke of theirs had gone on for way longer than it should have, if it were only that—a joke.

Now that I thought about it, my temperature implants may have been malfunctioning…causing me—or even Ashley, too—to give off this literal manifestation of our internal body heat rising whenever we were around each other.

really didn't want to ask Dr. Chakwas about this…

"Don't worry about it," I offered, not wanting to explain.

Ashley frowned, complaining, "Kinda hard not to. They're so obnoxious. Every time you and I are in a room together, they make these same stupid jokes! Why won't they shut up already?"

Joker's message sounded over the comm, "Pulling into Armali on Thessia in the next ten minutes. It's a bright and sunny day out. Make sure you've packed all your best stuff for some extended shore leave!"

"Shit, ten minutes?!" fretted Ashley, scrambling to turn back around. "Um, I-I really need to finish this, Skipper! I told myself I would—you know, before we arrived." She then faced me, again, not wanting to show any disrespect. "I guess…we'll all be staying at Liara's Mom's house while we're here. Might be weird—I hope she's not haunting the place. But, if you want, hopefully…we can talk again soon."

Nodding in acceptance, I smiled a little. "Dismissed, Chief."

Finding enough neutrality: "Sir."

Joker had more to say, "Hey Commander, you've got a transmission incoming from the Citadel. Top-priority clearance. I think it's from the Council. Want me to patch it through to the comm room?"

Of course…

"Patch it through, Joker," I allowed.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!"

Leaving past Wrex, who grinned at me, I chose to acknowledge him—"Wrex."

He grinned more, and chose to acknowledge me back—"Shepard."

"Behave yourself," I ordered, heading back to the elevator. "And maybe I'll see you around."


Shore leave delayed, I found myself back in the comm room instead, starting this call with the Council.

Whatever this was about, hopefully it was enough to push our mission forward. After all, it'd been months since our last solid lead on Saren's whereabouts. We had that information from Benezia about the Mu Relay, but there were dozens of systems through there. We needed something more specific.

Then again, maybe this delay was a good thing—for the others.

We had docked at a port not too far from Liara's childhood home—and Benezia's huge mansion—here in Armali, right beside a large park. I'd told my squad to go ahead and head over there without me. I had no idea how long this talk with the Council would take. And I didn't rule out the idea that someone else from the Alliance may have decided to call afterward, taking up even more of my time.

The team seemed to be in the middle of more planning for my birthday tomorrow, so indiscreet.

Now I somehow had to pretend like I didn't notice.

I guessed it was nice that they cared this much, anyway…

The turian councilor, the asari councilor, and the salarian councilor's forms appeared as this familiar tint of vague orange, almost as if they were actually here with me.

"Good day, Commander," said the asari councilor. "Thank you for accepting our call on such short notice. We understand that you are currently on shore leave on Thessia. We promise that this communication will be brief."

"I'll believe it when I see it," I commented, unconvinced.

Moving past my impatience, the turian councilor explained, "Commander, we believe we may have a new lead for you on Saren's next location. The only problem is, we're not yet able to verify if this information is correct or not. We will need some time before we can make sure if this is legitimate."

Curious now, I asked, "What kind of information might this be?"

The salarian councilor informed me, "We're awaiting information from one of our infiltration regiments out in the Traverse. Salarian Special Tasks Group. This particular unit is gathering intelligence on Saren's activities on the planet Virmire. However, we're still unable to validate the type of signal they are attempting to send us."

"This could be significant," expressed the asari councilor. "If this unit has located a solid lead on Saren, then we will want to send you to investigate. Unfortunately, we cannot ascertain that they need assistance. Thus we will need some time first."

"Yes, the message we received was little more than static," clarified the salarian councilor. "We suspect that this unit is unable to set up proper interstellar communications. Still, we will contact you as soon as we learn more."

The turian councilor stipulated, "And by that, once we have more information for you, we will expect you to drop everything and leave to Virmire right away. Not a moment later."

Arms folded, I told him, "Councilor, you're asking a lot here. What do you expect me to do? Sit around and twirl my thumbs until you call me back?"

"Need I remind you, Commander—this is about Saren. This is classified information, at the highest levels of galactic government. We will expect you to free up your schedule over the next week or so. Once we can confirm that our unit on Virmire needs you, you will be going. No questions asked. And yes, you should, in fact, sit around and twirl those thumbs of yours."

"What's with the attitude? I've done everything you asked so far! Now you're making these ridiculous demands, and you expect me to just put up with it?"

"Shepard, don't take this personally," sneered the turian councilor. "If it were any other Spectre on Saren's trail, we would obviously ask them to look into this instead. We are giving you special treatment. We expect great things from you. You should see this as an opportunity, not a punishment."

I waved him off, dismissing, "I don't have time for your patronizing bullshit, Councilor."

"Commander, I don't appreciate that kind of language—"

I disconnected the call.

The Councilors' forms disappeared from in front of me, leaving me to silence and peace again.

Joker sniggered over the intercom. "Communications cut, Commander…"

"Joker, what are you still doing here?" I asked. "I thought you left with the others."

"Nope, decided to stay for a bit," he replied. "Figured you might need me to be your operator. I guessed right, 'cause you have another call coming in! This one's from Alliance Command. Looks like a tactical briefing for you—last minute."

Sighing, I told him, "Fine, I'll get the call… But I want you to head out. Let the team know that I'll probably be here for a while. I'll make my way to Liara's place whenever the hell I'm done with this."

"Well, if you really want me to go already, I can…"

"I do, Joker," I insisted. "Now beat it. Have a good time."

"All right, if you say so! Try not to stay gone for too long. See ya, Commander."

Once he was gone, I accepted my fate, and accepted this next call.

And of course, one call led to another, and then another person had to be included, and then yet another person needed to tell me every single detail of their report, and…

And I ended up not getting to leave the comm room until evening time.

After getting a bit to eat in the mess hall, alone, and then taking a shower, I finally left the ship.

During the short walk to Liara's place, I couldn't believe how stunning her homeworld was. Such a beautiful afterglow of the sun shone at all times of the day on Thessia, affected by all the element zero in the atmosphere. This pale red, glowing orange, and the long, wide glare of the sunlight edging off of the tall, off-white skyscrapers everywhere: I fell in love with this place, with how otherworldly it was compared to Earth, existing in this fantasy of an eternal sunset's dream.

Following this long bridge next to the decorative bodies of water spread out across Armali, I almost couldn't focus on the path. I even enjoyed the way the shallow water underneath here sparkled in the light. And following that light back up, my eyes inevitably reached the buildings around me, noticing:

They looked a lot like Prothean beacons.

Rounded at the base and narrowing upward to that rectangular shape, I saw the beacons there, too.

Once I made it to the large park secluded from the rest of those skyscrapers, I saw the large mansion in the near distance, right next to the green of the grass: Liara's childhood home, blooming as a blue and silver structure of mostly glass. There had to have been at least three or four floors in this place, and at least a dozen rooms, easily able to house plenty of guests from across asari high society. Though it definitely did look fitting for a home that had belonged to an asari matriarch—and now Liara herself.

My city apartment back on Earth was nice, but it couldn't compare to this. Not on this level, anyway.

I had made that conscious decision, though. Even with all the money I had from my other career, I hated spending too much on things and on space that I didn't need. Especially while I was deployed. Still, I sort of missed home now, and I wouldn't have minded going back there sometime soon.

At the front door, the security system recognized me, allowing me to enter.

As soon as I made it inside, I felt how homely this mansion was, despite all the space around that I normally wouldn't have liked. The interior design and the furniture everywhere matched the exterior in a near-obsessive way, as if Benezia had felt the need to direct and control every fine detail. Luckily, it didn't seem like it would've been easy to get lost in here, since there were only two hallways here, one leading to the east wing where the bedrooms were, and another to the west wing where the kitchen and other living areas were.

Heading over to the living room nearby, I found Kaidan sitting at a round table in the corner, watching the TV screen in the center. He had a glass of whiskey in his hand, only sipping as he tried to keep up with the sports broadcast from Earth there on the screen. American football, it looked like.

I couldn't hear anyone else nearby. They must've been out, or someplace else in the house.

He had probably elected to stay here alone.

This far-off look in his eyes—he wasn't well.

Having monitored his mental health over these past few months, Kaidan had looked okay. But now that I was able to see him like this, when he didn't think I was around, it was clear that he had put on his best smile for me, all to keep me from noticing his pain.

"Kaidan?" I said, walking over to him.

A bit startled, Kaidan almost shook his whiskey out of the glass. "Commander! You're…you're back already? Sorry, I… I didn't see you there."

"It's almost nighttime. I got held up on the ship. What are you doing here by yourself?"

Sighing, he gestured to the TV, and explained, "Wanted to catch up on the game…you know. Couldn't grab a beer and kick back. Liara has Thessian whiskey here. Not quite the same as the Peruvian brand I prefer… Then again, I guess it's not so bad. Wanna try some? Who knows, you might like it!"

And there he went again, trying to put on a front of good spirits.

"Don't play me, Kaidan," I warned, sitting down across from him. "What's wrong? What's going on?"

Hesitating, he stared down at his drink.

Now that I wouldn't buy his faking anymore, he didn't know what to do, how to react.

Then Kaidan finally told me, "Honestly, Commander, I didn't think you'd ask… Didn't think you'd find me here, either. I mean, when's the last time we had a non-work-related conversation? Tried to have a conversation? Think it was after Eden Prime, months ago. You said you didn't want to be bothered with my thoughts, my observations on how Ash likes you. So I left you alone. That was it…"

"And that upsets you?"

"Of course it upsets me, Ma'am… I'm your second-in-command. That's just how you see me. We're not friends, we're not pals. You ignore me on the ship whenever possible. You don't see me… You don't."

"Kaidan, are you still struggling with what happened on Feros?"

"Struggling," he echoed, hollow. "Struggling…you think I'm struggling. If that's the case, then…I guess I am. I guess I am—struggling, again. All over again, like I did years ago…"

I set aside how uncomfortable I was with this baggage of his.

I couldn't blame him for it.

From his file, I knew that Kaidan had dealt with a number of struggles and setbacks in his life. He put on a brave face for everyone else. But now, now that he had suffered this next setback with his mental health, I wasn't positive that he could simply bounce back and be okay again.

"I'm sorry for ignoring you on the ship," I expressed. "I didn't think you needed to speak with me."

"Well, you never asked…"

I really didn't like this.

Any of this.

Still, I was responsible for whatever happened to him. Right now, I had to be the best leader for him.

So I continued, "And if I had asked you to talk to me one-on-one, what would you have said?"

Kaidan drank, once, scrunching his face in bitterness, before replying, "Then I would've told you…how empty I feel, all the time. All the damn time. No heart, no soul. Just—an empty shell of a man, broken. Nothing special about me. Nothing unique about me, besides being a human biotic, a freak who used to be addicted to the wrong things. Nothing…remarkable about me… Nothing at all."

"This feeling of emptiness… When I don't speak to you on the ship, does that make things worse?"

Grabbing his head, he nodded.

"Yeah, it does," he groaned out, hoarse. "Do you hate me, Commander? Do you look at me and see nothing? Is that why you don't give a damn about me? I disgust you with this, don't I?"

All over again, Anderson's letter came flooding back to me: his warnings that my team might have lost faith in me unless I worked to maintain their morale.

I'd assumed that I was fine, basically outsourcing that responsibility among the squad themselves.

Apparently not for Kaidan, not for him.

"You don't disgust me," I told him. "And I don't hate you. Why is this such a big deal for you?"

"I'm nothing like you, Ma'am," lamented Kaidan, more. "You're a legend. A hero. An icon. Compared to you, I might as well not exist!" He drank again, finishing the blue-gold of his whiskey. "You know, it's no wonder all the girls are crazy about you. They're losing their minds over you, Shepard… Someone's gonna lose it, and something terrible is gonna happen. And you know why? Because you're just…that…great. You're that amazing. You're incredible."

That was it.

He couldn't keep going like this.

"Kaidan, I appreciate the compliments," I attempted. "But right now, I'm concerned about you. Doesn't matter how much you've had to drink. The things you're saying, they're getting to the heart of who you are. Your struggles. Your own self-worth. You don't have to keep suffering alone."

"I am sick of being alone," he agreed, his eyes misted by a painful fog. "There's something else you're saying, isn't there? What is it? Lay it on me."

"You need to see a counselor about this, at minimum. Soon. This is non-negotiable."

Kaidan lowered his head, accepting this quickly enough: "You're… You're right, Commander. I might need—I need…some professional help with this. It's getting more difficult by the day to keep…trying."

"Then I'll make arrangements for us to get you to the Citadel—"

"—Commander, wait!" he tried. "Not the Citadel. Not there. We were just there yesterday! If you take me back there now, the others might know. If they found out… If they got wind that I'm not well, it'd only make things worse for me. Can't we go someplace else instead? Somewhere secure?"

"That depends," I bargained. "Will you be able to hold out for our plans to stay here on Thessia for the next few days? The shore leave might do you some good."

"It would," agreed Kaidan. "I can hold out until then… I'll—try to be more social, while I'm here."

Checking my omni-tool for suggestions, there was really only one solution.

Going back home to America, for me:

"After we leave Thessia," I said, "I'll tell Joker to get us to Earth. We can go to the main Alliance Navy base in Coronado, down in San Diego. Make an appointment to speak with one of the counselors. Aside from Ashley, the rest of the team won't be able to get onto the base and possibly find you. No one will have to know. We'll stay there for as long as we can, at least until you find a way to move forward."

Kaidan managed to give me a genuine smile this time.

"Thanks, Commander," he expressed. "That's…pretty thoughtful of you. Sorry it took this much for me to reach out for help. I just—I didn't wanna let you down, you know? You're counting on me, and…"

I stood and went over to Kaidan, setting my hand over his broad shoulder. "I'm counting on you to get the help you need. Don't worry about the rest. Your health is more important. We can't lose you, Lieutenant. I can't lose you. So, for now, I want you to enjoy yourself while we're here. All right?"

Kaidan stood up with me, smiling brighter. "Yes, I understand."

"Good," I replied. "We should go find the others. Any idea where they are?"

Picking up his empty glass, Kaidan led me down the next hall. "They're just through here," he guided. "Over in the other, bigger living room, connected to the kitchen and the sliding glass doors. The park out there is really beautiful. And this place is huge…"

Before we could even make it to that living room, I heard everyone's loud voices from down the hall.

Arriving to this wide, high-ceilinged space, we found Wrex and Garrus on their feet next to the gigantic TV against the wall, even bigger than the one Kaidan had watched in the other room. Standoffish, Wrex shook his head, appearing to be in an argument with Tali sitting on the gray suede couch nearby.

Garrus had the remote in his hand, cycling through a bunch of movies.

Joker sat next to Tali, scoffing over the argument; chiming in every so often.

As Kaidan went to sit with them on the couch, I finally understood what they were arguing over.

"Wrex, this isn't fair!" complained Tali. "You said that I get to pick the next film we're going to see! I gave you my suggestion. Now you and Garrus decide to team up against me? This isn't a democracy! I waited in line, and this is what I want us to watch together!"

"Nuh-uh, Tali," scolded Wrex. "No one wants to watch your cheesy little chick flicks. don't wanna watch 'em. Feels like I'll turn into a little girl myself if you turn that thing on."

Tali raged at him, "Don't be ridiculous! Besides, what's wrong with turning into a little girl?!"

Wrex pretended to sniffle. "Maybe I'm allergic."

"Ohh, don't you get started on that…"

Joker sighed in exasperation. "Guys, come on!" he protested. "We've been arguing about this for like fifteen minutes! I'll watch Tali's damn chick flick if we have to. There, I said it! Rules are rules, right?"

"Wow, Joker," said Garrus. "Can't believe you actually want to watch the romantic tragedy between a turian and a quarian that is Fleet and Flotilla. I thought you'd be—allergic to that kind of thing."

"My popcorn's getting cold! I don't care what we watch, all right?! I just wanna stuff my face already!"

Kaidan excused himself to the kitchen to refill his glass, since this would be a long night of being social.

Where was Ashley, anyway?

I was so put-off by this damned yelling, I didn't think to look in the kitchen—not even when I heard Kaidan sharing warm words with someone in there.

While everyone kept going back and forth, I was about to make my way out.

Intercepting me in the hall, by chance, I found Liara passing by.

We both stopped at the same time.

I stared down at her, and she stared right back up at me.

Catching herself first, Liara found enough of her voice to say, "Shepard, I'm…glad I found you. I wasn't sure if you were still on the ship. Joker told us that you would likely be there for a while."

Pushing down these lingering feelings for her, still, I responded, "Yeah, it was one call after another. I couldn't get away. Sorry I'm late."

Liara smiled at me, warm with patience. "It's all right. You're here now. That's what matters."

I stopped myself from smiling back at her too much.

Now that this time had passed, it was as if my grievances with her had all but disappeared.

Yet I knew better than to dwell on that, to put too much stock into that.

"Liara," I prompted her. "You said you're glad you found me. Were you waiting for me to get here?"

Shy all of a sudden, Liara replied in a lower tone, so smooth, "I was, actually… I wanted to ask if you would come out with me tomorrow morning. Now that you are here with me on my homeworld, there are certain things—and places—I would like to show you. But I will understand if you'd rather decline…"

"Is this supposed to be…a date?"

"Yes."

Heart pounding like crazy, I asked, "A friendly date? Or a romantic one…?"

Liara smiled again, rather sad. "That depends on you, Shepard," she specified. "Whatever the mood ends up being, I wish to have a conversation with you. Away from the ship, from the others. I know that I have left far too much unsaid these days. More than anything, I want to correct this. Will you join me?"

She had picked this timing, this day—tomorrow—on purpose.

She had to know that it was my birthday.

Considering how thoughtful she was, I couldn't turn her down.

"That's fine, Liara," I accepted. "We can meet up at seven. Where will I find you?"

"Here, in this living room," decided Liara. "As you can see, the sliding glass doors lead out to the park. I spent much of my childhood out in that grass. I would like for us to walk around there first."

"Sounds good to me."

"Thank you, Shepard. I must be off now to take care of a few matters… I will see you in the morning."

I stepped aside and out of her way, letting Liara walk by me through the hallway.

Even though I was glad she didn't seem too broken up about our situation, it still made me wonder:

What was she biding her time for, and why was it special enough to keep her so normal like this?

Needing a drink, I passed through the living room, headed for the adjacent kitchen.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Garrus grinning as he held up the remote, way out of reach from Tali, who kept trying to jump up to reach the device, to snatch it out of his hand.

Kaidan walked by me on his way out the kitchen, in a much better mood from earlier. Cold beer in-hand this time, he nodded as we made eye contact, making his way back to the commotion over by the TV and couches. I returned his nod, deciding that I didn't want any beer. I couldn't stand the taste of it.

Maybe some Thessian wine, if Liara had any here—just to try some…

After that, I had no idea how I would spend the rest of the evening.

I figured I could sneak back to the ship, back to my room.

Maybe I could play my third-person shooter in peace—

"—shit, sorry!"

Stopping right under this tall archway of the bright, open kitchen, I had nearly bumped into Ashley here.

Stopping herself, Ashley clutched onto the blue bottle of wine cooler in her hand, to keep from dropping it, shattering the glass to the marble flooring.

She stopped there, stayed there, staring up at me in apology…

Here, in this lighting—with the brightness shining in from the kitchen's tall, tall windows—I felt as if I had been transported to some other time, a different place.

Ashley had definitely done something new with her hair.

Leaving it down for once, all the way down, I saw her differently.

She'd had it professionally cut and layered, letting it fall right down her shoulders, down to her chest.

The layering, the sleekness of the dark brown there—almost black in illusion: Ashley had shaped the left side as that layered, round sleekness, and tucked the right side behind her ear. Such a simple, imprecise thing to do, probably off-hand and without much thought behind it… And yet the way this new style fit her face, it brought out an unexpected softness in her, even as she relaxed her apology to her doe-eyed misunderstanding, oblivious to why I stared at her so.

Doe-eyed, as only Ashley could get away with in my heart: shaped by the kindness of her eyes, shaped even more by the natural thickness, and darkness of her lashes, so enticing. Fanning out, the fine follicles of her untouched brows outlined her face in a masterclass of proportions, raised at just the right distance above her eyes. Her eyes, I found myself mesmerized by, as this dark of her widened pupils extended up and into the lushness of her brows. Spots of light, spaced so right, they dazzled the actual color of her irises, of the dark brown there that I had never allowed myself to gaze into this deeply.

And I still couldn't, not yet—not in my moderate shyness.

I traced my stare instead down the straight angle of her nose. The strength of her bridge, pulling her face together in a toughened edge, offset so by the softness of her cheekbones, so womanly in looks.

Ashley's skin had reddened, and remained red with my eyes on her like this. But it was such a pleasant shade. So very pleasant, highlighting the random spacing of the darker, freckle-like pigmentations scattered over her skin in attractiveness. Not a single layer of foundation to cover any of it. No mascara to thicken her already-thick lashes. No powder to conceal the slight shine over her T-section of her nose and her brow, letting her keep her child-like brightness.

More brightness, far more so in her incredible lips, parted just so as she looked at me, wanting subconsciously—not on purpose, not in any real awareness—for me to kiss her.

Out of everyone I had kissed in my life, Ashley was the only one who made me melt at the mere thought of kissing her again, as perfect and divine as her lips were, so firm and welcoming, like a warm hug.

And her eyes again.

The way this dark brown existed in her irises, it had pulled me in, all the way.

The way the color didn't quite fill her eyes, jagged and stretched more by the width of her pupils.

All at once, in my vanity, I realized that Ashley's effortless looks were everything to me.

I had lived a life of fashion, living and breathing style to survive back at home.

I had an eye for style like no other. This eye had helped me survive. This sight of mine had kept me alive.

Aside from this simple haircut, Ashley didn't even have to try at all, and already she was…

Waking up from her own trance, she raised her free hand to her cheek, investigating.

Ashley then asked in cluelessness, "Is there something on my face?"

And she was such a fucking airhead sometimes, ruining this romantic moment—I wanted to laugh.

I finally felt this eternal heat for her breach my heart.

No longer confined to my stomach, to my lower chest alone, I felt everything for her, short of knowing the sexual bliss we would inevitably have. Just short of knowing that, still, it didn't matter. I had already given her a taste; she had already given me a bigger taste in dreaming, in writing.

It was too late for me to turn this back off, to ever shut it off—in case of emergency.

Fight or flight response: I turned around and left, leaving her standing there, shouting after me—

"Shepard, hey!" called Ashley, even as everyone else continued to argue, not hearing her. "Will you get back here?! What was that all about? Where are you going?"

I cloaked.

I escaped down the hall.

I left the house.

I left, even as Ashley ran out the front door after me, unable to follow me beyond that point. She couldn't see the slight glimmer of my invisibility underneath the pale red of this sunset glow. She couldn't think to follow me back to the ship, my destination now—my only one, my obvious one. As good luck for me, she didn't see that only, that obvious, likely assuming I had disappeared to go on some random walk, away from her.

Retreating back to the safety of the Normandy, back to my room, I needed to see the rest for myself.

I chose to avoid Ashley in-person one last time, instead facing this one final thing—hard and fast.


Back in my private cabin, I had switched the settings on my omni-tool on the way here:

Unavailable.

I didn't want anyone calling me, disturbing me.

Not even Ashley.

Not yet, not now.

Sitting down at my desk in a rush, I used my terminal to pull up my email. Already, Ashley had sent me a new message, seeing as I was unavailable for her to call me:

From: Ashley – You left?

Shepard,

Why'd you run off like that?

Where did you go?

Call me.

-Ashley

I couldn't respond to her now.

I couldn't call her now.

I could only focus on one thing at a time right now.

Finding that other email chain from her—Hard and fast—I went back to the same email I had re-read earlier. Three attachments here from Ashley: two pictures, and one video message. Hovering my mouse over the first picture, I swallowed this air down my throat, needing to swallow more from her, already.

One thing at a time.

One thing at a time.

I clicked on the first picture from Ashley in this message, opening it.

Searing me, the full monitor of my screen expanded with this showing of her skin, her body—teasing.

Topless, she wrapped her arm just around her breasts, only showing me the perfect length of her cleavage, keeping me from seeing everything.

Her other arm, her omni-tool arm, she had angled just enough to show that she had used it to take this picture of herself.

Her shoulders and her arms, lean and fit, but still angled in softness all at once, and the gorgeous slope of her collar bone—her skin radiated in this light, giving off an aura of how much she wanted me.

Her loose hair spilled down to her back, longer than today, and shaped around and out of the way.

And she had kept most of her face out of the picture, only showing me her lips:

That cocky, confident quirk of her lips shining in the light of the room, so thick in lusciousness.

This angle, this lighting, this tease from her—this was pure art.

She had absolutely picked up a thing or two from my photo shoots, from the fashion magazines I was in.

Ashley knew exactly what she was doing with this. She knew…how to stimulate my mind, how to surprise me:

Because the second picture was this same subject of her, this same view of her—this time with her face. With the continuation of that cocky smirk, and with her eyes edged in such knowing amusement, knowing that I couldn't resist: she knew that I wanted her. She knew that I craved her, and that I still forced myself to sit here and look, keeping myself caged here in my control.

Because if I gave in right at this very second…

Then I would have gone back to find her.

Back to Liara's house.

Back to the living room, where Ashley likely sat with the others, probably not even watching whatever movie they'd finally picked out, instead stewing over my strangeness and my silence.

And if I gave in, I would have gone up to Ashley on that couch she was on, and tore her clothes off with everyone around, with everyone watching. I would have pinned her down and fucked her right then and there, non-stop. I would have claimed her, humiliating her in front of everyone, reducing her to this whining mess that I couldn't stop thinking about, couldn't stop imagining.

I was such a monster, deep down.

Still, I knew that Ashley wanted this from me, and not deep down—but right on her heart over her sleeve, for me…for me, and no one else, since she had way too much pride, and for good reason.

I was about to open the vid message she'd attached.

I needed a drink first.

Going to my mini-refrigerator, I found a pre-mixed cocktail of Blue Thessia that I'd saved: fruit juice, vodka, cognac, white wine, and a sweet blue Thessian wine. Since I only had wine glasses—only had room for wine glasses—I poured some of the azure drink in one, before stowing the rest of it away.

I had saved this for the eventual trip I knew we would take to Thessia at some point, for Liara.

When I'd bought it, Ashley and I had been in the middle of a fight—over Liara, pointlessly so—and not speaking to each other. Because I was mad at Ashley at the time, I had wondered if I might not have wanted to be in a monogamous relationship with her at some point. Because I knew she would ask me eventually. Because I knew she would want to set that condition, despite what she'd said when making her case before, about changing my mind: how she could never ask me to leave Liara's side.

At that time, I had entertained the idea that I'd go back to Liara instead, if only to get away from Ashley's audacious drama. But I had felt stuck, because I was secretly turned-on by her drama, by how much Ashley wanted me and valued me—even to the point of making her feel insecure at times.

That, and I found it incredibly hot how Ashley just had no brakes whatsoever, unlike me…

Not that I would ever admit this to her.

Seeing this bottle of Blue Thessia mix at a store on the Citadel down in the Wards, I'd thought of the double-meaning: how I had walked away from the chance to take Liara's virginity for myself.

Asari blood was purple.

This drink was very much blue, but with the right extra ingredients, it could've been purple instead.

Once I'd realized where my mind had gone back then, I had felt sick to my stomach. Because, again, even though Ashley and I weren't in a relationship, we might as well have been. She got on my case over another woman like this. She hated when other women gave me attention, or flirted with me, or even stared at me from a distance—especially if they were pretty, and especially if she knew that I knew they were pretty. She understood that I could've been a real player and a heartbreaker if I wanted to be.

So I had bought the bottle anyway, of the mind to drink the cocktail only when I could fully accept Ashley's drama for what it was. Not with the expectation that my acceptance would keep us from ever fighting again in the future. Far from it. Though I had still apologized to her soon after—regardless of whether the argument was really my fault or not. I always had to apologize first in these instances. But she'd appreciated it then, as she had every other time, loving that I chose to set my pride aside for her.

And now I took the drink back to my desk with me, preparing myself to accept her completely.

All of her—not just her drama, her stubbornness, her insecurities, her unfairness at times.

All of her, as she was, as this unbelievable woman I was going to fall in love with someday.

Ashley was bound to email me again soon.

I wanted to watch at least one of her vids before she did, and before I felt obligated to finally call her.

Taking a sip of this heady sweetness, I opened the attachment with Ashley's vid message to me:

Similar posing, similar lighting—Ashley was on her bed in the crew's quarters, over her stomach, and looking right at me. The way she covered her breasts with her arm, and that cocky smirk of hers, wanting something so damn specific in her mouth then—she breathed with that one thing in mind, giving me this moment to really take her in. And even though she wore nothing up top, she angled her body just enough to show me the tight black pants she wore, alluring in that outline of her strong legs.

Still smirking, Ashley spoke directly to me, so full of her sexy confidence: "Hey, Shepard… I already know you're not gonna watch this any time soon. Not right after I send it to you. Probably not for a while. That's okay, though… Once you finally see me like this, I have a feeling I'll be able to tell. You won't admit it on your own. I know you won't. You're so stubborn—it drives me crazy sometimes…

"But, you know what else drives me crazy? I've been thinking…about the few times I managed to get you to talk about sex, what you like. You were kinda vague when we talked about it last. Was it because I only kept asking you about vanilla things? I'm not exactly experienced in the same ways you are—I'd want us to start off normal, at least the first couple of times you take me. After that—I think I know what you really want. What you won't talk about. Maybe you think it'll scare me. It doesn't."

Ashley waited here for a moment.

She just…looked at me with the suggestion of what she planned on saying next.

I hadn't intended to bring this up with her yet, if at all.

If Ashley would've preferred us to have a vanilla relationship, then I wouldn't have minded. The intensity we shared already was stimulating enough.

But Ashley wanted more.

She wanted everything with me…

"I wanna know, Shepard. You're the dominant type, aren't you? You're used to using your power to get what you want. You love it when a woman's completely submissive to you. That exchange of trust… I get the idea behind it. I want to experience it with you one day, and every day after that. I want you deep inside my heart, and my mind, enough to turn me on… I need you to show me all the things I never knew I wanted, to expand my horizons. And I've already started on my own, sort of.

"I want to be submissive to you…but not always. Not every time. It's automatic for me to do it these days, because of our situation… I'm not supposed to get aroused whenever you give me an order, but I do—and I fight harder with that feeling. It's like a high, a shot of pure adrenaline. But, sometimes…I think about taking you instead. Sometimes…about half the time. I want to top you. I want to know how you sound, how you feel underneath me. I want you to trust me. I want you to let go with me…

"I know—it's a lot to ask for. It's a lot to want, a lot to need. You more or less said that you never let anyone touch you. You didn't mention if it's because you don't like it, or if it's just a trust thing. Right now, today, I can't see you giving up your power like that. And I'm really not sure if it's a mistake for me to bring this up at all… I guess, for now, I only want you to think it over. Someday, I hope you can trust me enough to let me feel you completely. I want you to love me like that, too. It could be beautiful."

Ashley smiled at me in sincerity, and in her own love, before ending the vid.

Only a black screen over my vid player—and my face had reddened with this steaming ardor of mine.

No one had ever dared to be that forward with me. And I'd had a fleeting feeling, before, that if Ashley was into power plays, then she probably would've been a switch. Her strong personality, and mine—I had worried in the past that we would only clash when it came to this, and that I never could've trusted her like this, to let her in completely.

Now that she had said the words, I felt this back-and-forth, this switch of my own, switching on and off:

As much as I saw myself fucking Ashley down to the bone one day soon, I could see the opposite, too.

I could see myself wanting her like that.

I held my head, reeling over this, just before another email from her came in:

From: Ashley – Re: You left?

Shepard,

I'm not messing around here.

I'm worried about you. I don't know where you are. I'm going to start freaking out soon.

I need an explanation.

Just fucking call me already.

Now.

-Ashley

I called her through our private frequency.

Ashley didn't respond right away, likely surprised that had called her right away—this time.

She'd said to call her now, and I was turned on by her sense of urgency about this, so…

"Shepard, what the hell?!" shouted Ashley, sounding like she was on her way to a different room. "Why'd you just bail like that? You're staring at me one minute, then gone the next! Did you go back to the ship? Back to your cabin where I can't follow you?! If you needed some space, you could've said so!"

I spoke from my heart, with this low husk in my voice, deep from my throat, "I'm sorry, babe…"

Ashley paused.

Just like I knew she would.

Catching her breath, her own voice lightened in breathlessness, "What…?"

Firmer, deeper: "I said I'm sorry, babe."

Harder Ashley worked to breathe, nearly light-headed in her disbelief.

"No… No, Shepard, no… You can't do that. You can't—say that to me, like I'm… It isn't fair."

I told her, again, "Babe, it was my bad. I wasn't thinking straight. I shouldn't have left you like that. I understand I made you worry. I hear you, Ash. Let me make it up to you…"

So light, so breathy, "Oh, my God… There's no way… No way you just said that to me."

"Ash—"

"—no, Shepard, I… I-I didn't plan on any of this happening—not any time soon. Not today, not tonight. I mean, I figured… I thought would be the one to keep doing this. I never thought I'd get to hear you like this… Not for months. Maybe even years… And now…"

Making sure that this wasn't the alcohol talking, I made myself clear: "I want you, Ashley. I want you, all of you. Everything about you. I want you to be with me—"

She panicked, "—fuck… Fuck!" Forcing her senses back in place, Ashley told me, "Shepard, if that's really true… If—if you're not actually drunk right now, and…and if you're not just saying whatever… Then I need you to say it in person. Not like this… I need you to look into my eyes while you tell me."

I stood up from my desk. "Then I'll go back over there to you—"

"—damnit, no! No! Not yet! Are you… Are you drunk right now?! Is that it?"

"Ash, I'm not drunk," I replied, letting her hear the sobriety in my voice. She groaned, loudly. "What's going on? Why can't you believe what I'm saying?"

"…because, it's you. You. And…and maybe I don't believe you've gotten everything out of your system."

"What is there to get out of my system? What do you mean?"

Agonizing, Ashley said, "What else could I mean? Liara! I know you still want her!"

"Fucking hell, Ashley, I'm not talking about Liara right now!"

"Well I am! You still wanna fuck her, don't you? You feel like you missed out! You didn't get to take her virginity! And don't fucking lie to me, Shepard—I know you! I know how you feel… You think I didn't see her talking to you in the hall earlier? The way you two looked at each other… God, it pissed me off…"

I nearly lost it—"Then why didn't you say that when I almost ran into you?!"

"You left, remember?! You left, you bailed! I thought you went after her!"

"Goddamnit, the only time I ever think about Liara like this is when you bring her up! Why do you always insist on starting these motherfucking arguments over her?!"

"Did you not hear me? I said you still want her! You do! You're not even denying it!"

"Ashley, there's always going to be someone else that I'm attracted to! It's inevitable; it's how shit works! What matters is that I chose you! I picked you, and I want to be with you, no matter how much you piss me off like this!"

When she paused again, I thought that I might have gotten through to her.

Instead, Ashley chose to ram right back up against my head—"I'll believe it when I see it, lover girl. I learned my lesson with you. I'm not just gonna get down on my knees and be oh so grateful that you chose me—not anymore, now that you've admitted this. You're used to me being submissive to you. You're used to giving out the orders while I take them. Not with this. Hell no."

The one fucking time I finally give her my heart, and this was what happened?

"What are you talking about?" I questioned. "Why do you keep bringing up shit that doesn't matter?! Why are you acting like this? Can't we just have one conversation without you blowing up at me?"

"No, Shepard, we can't!" yelled Ashley, incensed again. "That was easy enough to do before, back when I thought you'd never really make up your mind about me. I was ready to go at your pace, exactly like I promised. And I did that! You changed the game now. You're the one asking me out! You put power in my hands, and you're wondering why I'm acting like this?!"

"Damnit, Ash, I don't understand you—"

"—don't give me that bullshit! You do understand me! You know what I want, and you know why I won't say the words out loud! You're just ignoring it because of your stupid pride!"

I almost sputtered, "Are you asking me to kick her off the ship?!"

Ashley derided me, "No, I'm not. Who's the one bringing up Liara now? I wasn't even talking about her."

Nearly losing it, again—"Ash, you did NOT just fucking twist this around back on me! Stop being such a brat! Stop being so unfair! Just tell me what you want already!"

She laughed softly, venomous. "You know exactly what I want, Shepard. You always do… Stop playing dumb. It's not a good look on you. If you want me to be yours, then give me what I need. Do what I expect, what I crave from you. If you can't do that, then I'll know where we stand."

Ashley hung up in my face.

In a raging reflex, I called her right back.

She picked up right away, aggravated: "What?"

Beyond pissed off, controlling myself—"I wasn't finished, Ash."

"Well, I was," she sassed. "And you sound like you're still pissed off. Look, I don't wanna do this again. Don't call me back if all you're gonna do is argue. Don't come over here starting a fight, either. Your intuition's like a knife against my mind, cutting away at every single thought I have. Your head is right against my heart… You know what I want from you! How's it not obvious by now? Have you not been paying attention to me?! Seriously, stop playing dumb! If you want all of me, you'll prove it. So prove it."

Ashley hung up on me again!

Son of a bitch…

I resisted the urge to call her back—again—choosing to stew with this instead.

Drinking more from my half-full glass, I pulled from this well of my feelings for Ashley, and worked to put these pieces together. But even as I somehow kept my anger at bay, I felt like I couldn't accept the only answer. I couldn't reckon with this singular solution in the back of my head, tingling and reverberating as the only, obvious thing that she wanted from me.

So I watched a few more of her vid messages, trying to fill in these supposedly missing clues.

As much as my mouth watered from her teasing, and as much as I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen, I had those singular answers reinforced.

I found more supporting evidence, even more, in some of the things that Ashley said to me:

"You're a real boss, Shepard, but I know you. I know what you really are. You wanna please the woman you're with. You want to get on your knees in front of her; do whatever she says. And you'd do anything for her…once you get rid of your pride."

"Would you drop down and kiss my legs if I told you to? Would I even have to say the words first? If you felt it from me—if you felt what I wanted—would you give it to me on your own? Without me needing to ask? If you could, then it'd be a dream come true… Sometimes, I don't want to speak. I want you to just know. To just—give me what I want, right then and there. Read my mind. Feel me. Love me…"

"Maybe I shouldn't admit this. Maybe it's way too soon… I want you to make me the center of your universe, Shepard. As hard as you work for the rest of the galaxy, I want you to work twice as hard to satisfy me. And I know I'm greedy. I'm selfish. I can be a major brat sometimes when I don't get my way. I wish I could change that… I wish I could be perfect for you. But I can't. All I can be…is consistent, for you. You know what you're up for with me. Everything I do, and everything I am, is for you.

"I know you, Shepard. I know what you're scared of. I know the things you won't say out loud. You're scared of getting attached to someone; falling in love with them. You're afraid of losing them once you do. Or you're terrified that you'll get so attached, you won't be able to shut off and protect yourself anymore once things go wrong. Hell, I'm scared of turning you off with how ridiculous I am. I'm always terrified I'll wake up to an email from you one day, saying you can't do this anymore. That you're sick of me. You're tired of me. All of that. But I keep going, because I know you want me to be real with you.

"I completely understand why you feel this way… I only wish you could see that I'm not going anywhere. I love you to death. I'm always going to love you. I'm always going to be here—living with you, fighting with you, learning with you. Deep in my heart, I know you want to do the same for me, too. Swear to God, I feel how much you have it in you. I cling to it, so hard. And I want you to believe in that. Please…"

After about an hour of this, I couldn't keep denying the truth.

The only, obvious truth.

Ashley wanted me to take her as she was—or not at all.

Even if it meant staying in this limbo together, she needed me to be all or nothing about this.

And not only that.

There was way more, not-so-hidden in the context of this power dynamic she craved with me.

Was this fair? Would she be fair with me if I did this?

Ashley was always fair, and sweet, and loving again—only after I apologized and made things up to her…regardless of whether the fight was my fault or not…

I should have resented her by now, just like I had when my exes had tried to do this with me.

Why…didn't I resent her, at all?

Maybe because she loved me so much, nothing could stick. Nothing could build, or collect, or decay.

Almost shivering with these fears of mine, I managed to subdue myself.

I called her back.

Ashley picked up, sounding terse in her false neutrality—"Hey."

I remained subdued: "Hey…"

She noticed this change, and changed a bit herself. "…you sound different."

Feeling my neck heat up over this lovely sound of her voice, I confirmed, "I do, yeah…"

"Why, Shepard? What changed?"

"I know what you want from me."

Ashley gave herself away in the quivering breath she let out, still trying to keep her tone steady: "And what do you think I want?"

"If we're going to be together, then you want to be in charge. You want me to please you. You want me to do what you want, as long as I want it, too. You have to have things your way or not at all. You need me to make you the center of my universe. I'm prepared to do that."

Breathing harder in her fulfillment, she made my last point for me, "Even with all that…you still need me to be fair. Reward you. Show you my appreciation."

"That goes without saying," I confirmed. "But if I'm going to do this, then you have to understand—it's only between us, personally. The second work is involved, I'm in charge. No questions asked."

Making yet another point—"Yes, Sir…"

I already knew what she would say; I had my follow-up ready—"It's your call, then, Ash."

Ashley responded as I'd predicted: "…I'm not ready to give you my answer yet. I want to see how shore leave goes. And I want to see you tomorrow. I want to spend the whole day with you. All day, all night."

"We can do that," I promised. "I'll be over there by noon."

"Yeah, that's probably for the best… Something tells me I'm going to be up all night with everyone. I'm surprised you can't hear them—it's like a madhouse in the living room. Should be fun, though…"

"Ashley."

Sounding a bit dazed: "Hmm?"

"When you're ready to give me your answer, I need you to have a contract for us to sign."

Taken aback, she fought not to stutter, "You mean—a contract? Like, with what we agreed on just now, and—a list of…the things I want from you… For later. Way later on."

"Yes, that's right," I responded. "If you have to do some research first, by all means, go ahead. Make a list of what you're interested in, what you want from me, what you expect from me. I'll look it over. If I'm not into something, I'll let you know. We'll talk about it. We can adjust the contract later if something comes up—if something changes. Just be sure to include the safe word you want."

"But, Shepard… What don't you like? I-I've never done this before, and…and I don't want to mess up."

I already knew: "Let's just say I don't need a whip to make you scream out in pleasure and pain."

Ashley hissed her breath in, and out, straight through her teeth.

She may have known exactly what she wanted out of me in a relationship—but I was still allowed and able to flip the script on her whenever I felt the need.

She was a brat.

I knew how to handle her type.

"Okay…so you're not into those toys," she figured out. "Those tools. You're more into…raw power, on a mental level. On an emotional one. You'd rather use your body, your words. Your presence. Your intensity. You love mind fucks. Does that sound about right…?"

"That's right, Ashley," I said, patronizing just enough.

Another hiss, and a barely-concealed whine. "I can't believe the way you…you switched on me like that. I'm only now noticing, and—and you're good. You're too good. It scares me…but I really like it. Still, you have to be fair with me, Shepard… You're way more powerful than I am. Go easy on me for now?"

"Already planned on it, babe."

Ashley's beaming smile sounded through her voice, "Mmm, that works for me… Hey, why don't you give me time to do my research tonight? I'll hang out with the others first; wait until they fall asleep. I already know they'll be on my case if I don't go back out there soon. Ugh, they're already looking for me…"

"Go ahead," I allowed. "I'll stay here tonight. You should spend some time with everyone."

"I know," she accepted. "It's too bad, that's all. I wanted to see you at midnight…"

Smirking, I kept my amusement out of my voice, "Why?"

"Uh…n-no reason! Just…just to see you."

Ashley was so damn sweet.

Maybe next year.

"If you say so, Ash," I told her.

She laughed softly, barely containing her glee with me. "All right, then… And Shepard, bring your video games tomorrow. Definitely that shooter you mentioned a few times—you know, with the N7 characters? I wanna watch you play. Maybe you can teach me the ropes!"

"Yeah, I'd like that. I'll bring it over for you."

"Good! Can't wait to see you again. Bye for now…"

"Bye, Ashley."

Even after we hung up, I knew that this night with her wasn't yet over.

Indirectly, at least.

I finished my drink, staring at some of Ashley's pictures as I did, before logging out of my terminal.

I took another shower, to make sure no one would be able to smell the day on me.

I then headed back to Liara's place, cloaking to invisibility once I was close enough.


Nighttime partying amped up, the team hardly held back on this first evening of shore leave. Music blasting, synth sounds practically waving through the walls, I was impressed with this atmosphere. Benezia's highbrow, ultra-classy mansion had been taken down a peg, at least, all for everyone's amusement and enjoyment, having turned into a nightclub with picture windows and high ceilings.

I took extra care in navigating these halls, the walls reddened by the light glare of the music video blasting through the gigantic TV screen in the living room. Not quite a college frat party, but definitely not a civilized gathering: I couldn't help feeling like everyone would have cut back a lot if they knew I was here, not wanting to get too fucked up around me.

Still, aside from the drinking game going on right now in the living room, everyone seemed to be fine.

Standing around the coffee table by the couches, Wrex and Joker took turns knocking back shots. Sitting down nearby on one of the couches, Tali egged them on, sipping her one drink through a straw. Kaidan sat next to her, expressing disbelief that Joker could somehow keep up with Wrex—so far, at least.

Liara wasn't here.

Off in a corner by the kitchen and the sliding glass doors, Garrus stared outside, drinking. Every so often, he would glance into the kitchen, looking at Ashley there. And Ashley took her time sifting through the refrigerator, deciding what she wanted to drink. She eventually settled on another one of those blue wine coolers she'd had earlier, and left back to the living room.

She found Garrus on the way there, stopping to rib him, seeming to ask why he was alone over there.

Keeping to the shadows as much as possible, I approached them, listening:

"Hey, Garrus, what's up?" asked Ashley, grinning wide. "Couldn't handle the drinking game?"

Garrus returned her grin, easy. "I'm not much for drinking games," he replied. "Prefer to keep my head on. The second I start seeing double, it means I've lost my concentration. Just feels weird."

"Totally know the feeling. I'm…trying not to drink too much tonight, either. Don't wanna deal with a hangover tomorrow. Especially not tomorrow."

"Yeah, I bet," teased Garrus. Thinking of something specific, Ashley laughed a bit, so bright. "You know, Ashley, you're really glowing tonight. Not used to seeing you smile this much. New haircut, new you. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're looking to score soon. Know what I mean…?"

Playing coy: "I don't know what you're talking about…"

Garrus chuckled. "Sure you do," he insisted, so smooth. "A lady as good-looking as you are? You must be used to getting all the attention. I bet you know just the thing to make everyone's heads turn as you walk by. And you seem like you know exactly what you want. Your confidence is definitely infectious."

Ashley almost giggled in delight—"Garrus! This is a surprise… Are you…flirting with me?"

"Well, I have to say," prefaced Garrus, "I'm not normally attracted to humans… But I can tell you're attractive, among your kind. Can't say I'm trying to hit on you, though. Besides, if I was, I wouldn't be nearly as coherent as I am now. I'm usually not that great with…actual flirting, when I am trying. I tend to get tongue-tied. Saying all the wrong things. Missing my chances. Not a pretty sight."

Laughing with him, Ashley let herself smile fully. "That's still sweet of you to say," she told him, flattered. "I had no idea I was…glowing. It's not like there's anything happening with me…"

Garrus drank from his cup, eyeing her in amusement. "Nothing's happening with you? Nothing at all?"

"Nope! Nothing going on here… Just the same old, same old. The usual!"

"Oh come on, Ashley. If you think I buy that, then I've got a bridge to sell you."

Then, Garrus gestured to Ashley, for her to follow him into the kitchen, farther away from the others.

She did so, asking, "Hey, where'd you hear that from?!"

"Tali taught that one to me," replied Garrus, leaning against the center island of marble. "Said she learned it from you. Figured I'd use it right back. You know, really drive the point home."

Ashley still tried to act coy, sipping her own wine cooler to buy time. "Not sure what point that is…"

"Are we really doing this, Chief? Playing dumb? Or should I make another joke about fire alarms? Sprinklers, to cool you and Shepard off? That should be enough to jog your memory." When all Ashley did was groan, playing it off, Garrus kept going: "Hey, think the commander's into exhibitionism? The way she looks at you sometimes, she may as well have ripped your clothes off in front of everyone—"

Glancing behind them to make sure everyone else was still in the living room, Ashley hissed at him, "Oh, my God, Garrus! I can't believe you just said that!"

Garrus pointed out, "Well, if you won't say it, then someone has to. You and Shepard have had this thing going for months now. Think we didn't notice?"

"We? You mean everyone knows?! What the hell? How!?"

"You can't tell me you're that clueless…"

"Garrus, seriously, if you're just pulling my leg…"

Drinking again, and observing her in fascination, Garrus said, "I think you think I'm joking. Right?" Ashley sighed and nodded, wracking her brain to figure out how everyone else had figured this out. "Listen, I'll help you out. Shepard and Liara have cooled off lately, after what happened on Noveria—for obvious reasons. When those two are in a room together, there are sparks, sure. When you and Shepard are together? It's pure fire, we're all burning, and everyone's just sitting there, like this is fine."

Ashley rolled her eyes, snapping, "Ugh, is that what your damn jokes are about?! Man, no wonder…"

"So, what are you waiting for?" prompted Garrus. "She wants you. You want her. Why not go for it?"

"Garrus, it's not that simple… We tried to keep it a secret before, because of Alliance regulations. Since everyone knows now, I guess there's nothing holding us back these days…"

"You guess?"

Uncertain if she should tell the truth or not, Ashley only hummed, thinking.

Garrus speculated, "This about Liara? Her feelings for Shepard?"

Smiling now, Ashley surprised me when she said, "No… I can actually deal with that. It's not a problem for me. Sure, it used to be a huge issue—I'd get jealous or whatever… Not anymore."

"Then what's holding you back?" asked Garrus. Noticing some of her reservations, he added, "Hey, I'm here to support you. Nothing we talk about leaves this room. Scout's honor, as you humans say."

Ashley smiled over his consideration. "Okay, okay," she accepted. "I'm just…really scared that she'll get sick of me one day and leave. I'll admit—I'm a total drama queen sometimes. I already know I drive Shepard crazy whenever I pick fights with her or whatever. I start shit on purpose, almost like I'm trying to drive her away. And then I'll probably force her to go, and I'll be like…well, I'm too much for her…"

"Sounds like you're self-sabotaging," spotted Garrus. "Think that's a good idea?"

Sitting on a nearby barstool, Ashley grumbled, "Of course it's not a good idea… It's a terrible idea! Shepard's going to end up hating me sooner or later, and it's gonna be all my fault!"

"Well, what does she usually do when the two of you argue? What happens?"

"At first? We have it out. She finally stops controlling herself, and she just—yells. Even if I'm pissed off and seeing red, I'm so…turned on by the way she lets go with me. You know how reserved Shepard normally is. So when I get to hear her real self, unfiltered, it's like a high… But one of us eventually shuts down the argument. Then we stop talking for a while."

Garrus wondered, "For how long?"

Ashley hummed, searching for an estimation. "Never for more than like…a day," she recalled. "Sometimes it's less than that. Just recently, we got into it again… I hung up on her. She called me right back, and—God, I fucking loved that from her… I tried so hard not to show it, since I was supposed to be mad at her… And I was…so then we kept fighting. I hung up on her again. She waited like an hour before calling back that time. She was so different—so smooth and sexy and subservient to me—and…"

"Think I figured this out the second you said you hung up on her."

"Figured this out?" asked Ashley, worried. "What do you mean?"

"You hung up on Shepard. On Commander Shepard. And she called you back, even after you did it again. I assume she chose to make up with you. Didn't bother waiting for you to cool down first—she just went for it and smoothed things over. Sound about right?"

Smiling in mischief—"Yeah…she did… So what?"

Garrus spoke the obvious, "Ashley, this is Shepard we're talking about. If she can set her pride aside like that to put you first, don't you think you have your answers?"

Not getting it at first, she only stared at him.

Sipping his drink, Garrus gave her a look—that she knew exactly what he meant.

And then Ashley grinned, delighted…before falling back to her fears.

This sounded like something that wouldn't go away with one simple conversation.

I headed back down the nearest hall, retreating far enough away to break my cloak, resetting the vague strain I felt in my head. I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to keep eavesdropping on Garrus and Ashley, since I had already overheard way too much.

Ashley's self-sabotaging…could have grown into a major issue for us.

On the one hand, I was glad to know why our arguments were so intense—even getting her off at times.

On the other, this awareness helped me see into a possible future with her—one that I didn't want to look at, to acknowledge, or to know about at all.

But wasn't this the point of my feelings for her now? To love her unconditionally someday?

And wasn't it better for me to know that Ashley struggled with this? Instead of assuming she just didn't give a fuck about stressing me out? She did care—so much so that she hesitated to tell me yes.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to head back to the Normandy, needing to reflect on this throughout the rest of the night. If I was really going to put Ashley first, I had to learn to do the impossible. Finding patience deeper down within me, in the bones of me, the marrow of me. Drinking myself dry, all for her to fill me back up again with her appreciation…if I could survive for that long.

Chapter Text

"I Want You" by Madonna ft. Massive Attack / "Saints" from Madlax (OST 2)

XI. Collective Unconscious

(Shepard)

Lying down in bed, surrounded by this tangible blue all around me, I turned over to look at my clock.

12:00am.

Exactly midnight.

Thirty years old.

I was supposed to be completely mature now…

Reaching under my comforter on top of me, I felt my dilemma. After I'd showered and all of that about twenty minutes ago, I had taken the time to put on my clothes for bed: one of my usual white tank tops, a regular white T-shirt on top, a pair of boxer briefs. Reinforcing that, I'd put on this tight, stretchy fabric of black under-armor on, like pants—like those yoga pants that Ashley was so fond of, despite not doing yoga herself—just to keep this in. I'd tried putting on my black sweatpants over that, as another layer, but I had kicked those off a few minutes ago.

This strap-on I wore underneath all of this: it pulsed and throbbed, petulant from being ignored.

The clothes I wore were enough to keep this latched down.

I was about to. I wanted to. Watching more of those vid messages from Ashley all night had gotten me in this perpetual mood. And I surprised myself in wanting her this way. It wasn't just about the heat, the sex—fucking. I was so close to falling into something more with Ashley, from the way her very soul pulled and tugged at mine, daring me to be bold and to fall for her, all of her.

Sex was usually a gateway for me. I knew, if it was truly meant to be, I'd feel it; I would express it to her.

The moment I could feel and hear Ashley's validation me from pleasing her—that would've been it.

I had a music playlist on through my alarm clock: simmering trip-hop, and soul, soothing in chill and in heat. These mixed beats and smart usages of samples had me entranced. Low enough volume to let me sleep, but loud enough to let me hear everything just right…I still couldn't let myself rest.

But then I would always think of Liara. How I'd had her here in my bed—how I'd lost control with her.

Now that I really let myself think about this, I realized: she gave up. Or at least it seemed like she did.

And I could admit how it bothered me so much, messing with my head. Were her personal issues more important than fighting for me? Did she not care enough to put up a fight in the same ways Ashley did? Would she have given up completely if it looked like Ashley was about to lock in a relationship with me?

What Liara and I'd had—it only lasted a few days in reality, in-person.

But those few days had changed me, indelibly so—forever. She continued to impact me, even now.

The same was true for her, otherwise she wouldn't have asked me out on this date in the morning.

Without Liara, there was no Ashley and me.

Without Liara, I wouldn't have grown, changed, or matured at all over these months.

And, realizing this, too, maybe I hadn't been able to let go of her at the drop of a dime…

Open and exposed, I felt my eyes misting and my chest constricting, finally missing her after all this time.

Missing her…and so much more, so fucking sudden, terrifying me damn near to death as I lay here.

Slipping and falling away in my exposure, that block I'd kept up, keeping Liara from feeling me: it dissolved away in the salt of this mist coating over my eyes. So transcendent, I felt her essence wrapping back around mine, lifting me to a higher plane, higher and higher than anything I had ever witnessed before. All of her knowledge, all of her experiences bolstered mine, reinforcing my mind's foundation.

Before, I had only felt Liara as my protector, my healer, soothing me in the waters of her eternal calm.

This was…new, more—having grown for me over this time, having evolved even while dormant in me.

But in this same vein, whatever dam I'd had left over my heart keeping Ashley out, those same waters had crashed right through. And I saw everything with Ash, absolutely everything, heightened and lifted by this transcendence flowing through me. So meant to be, I needed to know her, mind, body, and soul.

My last defenses, gone.

I only had one option left in case this all went south.

The Normandy's VI sent an alert to the panel behind my alarm clock. Grunting over the interruption at this hour, I sat up, leaning over my nightstand to check the panel. I wiped at my eyes to dry them, sniffling, as I saw the request: someone was in the main elevator, requesting access to come up here.

I frowned over this person's timing, but otherwise gave them my permission.

Putting my sweatpants back on, I couldn't even think to change out of my strap, my toy. Consumed by fire again—though it had never truly left me in the first place—I decided to go along with whatever this was. All of it. Not just tonight. Not just tomorrow. Whatever came from this whole situation I was in, there was really no point in fighting it any longer. I had tried doing that, and it hadn't worked.

What was that saying, about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…?

I headed over to my door, right as the person outside knocked—not quite so gentle, not quite so hard.

From that alone, I knew who this was.

I lowered my shirt and tank top down, as far as they would go over my sweatpants, concealing.

At this hiss of air from my door spreading, opening apart, I found Ashley out in the dark hall.

Infinite in her effortless allure, she had on one of the plain, oversized T-shirts that she wore to bed, and those black yoga pants of hers. Lovingly so, she had kept her hair down, as I hoped she would do out of habit from now on; and it was a bit damp, like she had recently gotten out of the shower, her rose-vanilla perfumed scent emanating. And she had her hands behind her back, holding something there.

Ashley gazed up at me through this deep indigo, so pure in her anticipation.

"Hey, Skipper," she greeted, a bit shy. "Hope I didn't wake you up. Sorry…for showing up like this."

"It's okay, Ash," I accepted. "I wasn't asleep, actually. I'm glad you're here." Stepping aside, I gestured for her to enter. "Come in. You're always welcome to see me, no matter what time it is."

"Thanks," said Ashley, smiling as she walked inside. "I know, when we talked earlier, I said I wouldn't get to see you at midnight. Figured I gave myself away… You were nice enough to not point it out. I guess since I blew the surprise, I might as well go all the way. Take the risk; come pay you a visit."

When I smiled over her consideration, she took a deep breath, steadying herself.

"Well, you're right on time," I mentioned, hoping to calm her nerves. "I'm happy you took the risk."

Ashley smiled more over the sensual ambiance around us.

"I love your taste in music," she remarked, giving me the square box she held in her hands. "And…I love you. Happy Birthday, Shepard."

Grinning without realizing it, I accepted her gift, her thoughtfulness:

A pro gaming controller, more than comfortable enough for long-term use, with customizable inputs.

And it wasn't huge, either, unlike most of these things designed for men with bigger hands than mine.

Coated with the color red, too, always reminding me of her.

"I really like it, babe… Thank you. This must have cost you a lot, though. You didn't have to do this."

"Hey, don't worry about that," she insisted. "I wanted to do something nice for you. You're always putting up with my drama. I don't know how you do it sometimes. I appreciate you…everything you do."

Enflaming as ever, Ashley held my free hand, guiding me a little farther into the room. She stopped near my desk, near this first half of my aquarium, still up the handful of steps. Stepping back against the aquarium, ethereal white-blue lights highlighting her silhouette, she seemed to want something else from me. So I set her gift down over my desk, and went over to her, right up to her, up against her body.

Subconscious, her frame almost shrunk underneath mine: smaller, shorter than me. So passive in her receptiveness, yet active in loving these differences, Ashley looked up at me in a quieted hunger. She studied my eyes, finding the light of the water reflected in the sunlight of me, melting in those rays. And she held my hand again, pulling my arm around her waist. Needing me closer, even closer, I let her feel me, almost forgetting what I still had on between me:

Ashley gasped in her pleasant surprise, pressing herself into me more.

I caught her mouth open with mine, cherishing her, this absolute heat undiminished.

Firmer and more possessive, I pulled her even closer to me by the slant of her back. Reverberating against my knuckles from the glass of the aquarium, vibrating deep through Ashley's lips in her perfection, the bass from my music pulsed through her, as strong as her heartbeats against my chest.

Slipping my lips down to the slope of her neck tensing, coiling and uncoiling in reaction to me, closer to this pulsing, I smiled over her indulgent scent. Ashley curled her hands through my hair with my amusement, fit to burst in sensuality underneath me. An aromatherapy of her own, and one to die for: a pale, almost powdery rose scent that kicked in at the back-end, more aromatic right at the top of my nose. But still soft, and sensitive, as a tangible marker of these raw emotions in her touch, of her love for me.

Ashley eased her nails along my scalp, comforting in her rare restraint. "You…can't be real," she whispered, right into my ear. "Every single day with you feels like a dream. Like I'll wake up any second now. You won't remember any of it…and I'll be devastated."

I bundled her up in my arms, supportive. "I'm here for you, Ash. I'm not going anywhere."

"I believe you," she accepted, sighing. "…you know, I was lost without you. Now I never want to let you go. I'm holding on to you no matter what… I can't lose you, Shepard." Ashley sighed again, dispelling her fantasies for the moment. "But…before we do anything else, we should—talk first. About that research you asked me to do. Turns out I didn't have to search all that hard to find what I was looking for."

Pulling away just enough, I raised my brow, asking, "You had something specific in mind?"

Ashley pressed her hands just along my forearms for support, for control in my hold. "I did, actually," she told me. "I just…didn't have the right words for it. The right terms. I couldn't define it—not until I looked everything up. I guess, because I'm so ashamed of it, I avoided pinning things down. It gets really deep into my head, and—and I'm not sure how you'll feel about it."

"We don't have to talk about it right this second," I reassured her. "I'll ask you about something else first. Something related to this, but not quite the same. We should discuss everything."

Still ashamed, unable to meet my eyes—"Okay…"

I had a feeling I knew what this kink was that had her so ashamed.

I'd picked up on it, and sensed it way before, subliminally, back when we first met on Eden Prime: how she was so eager to prove herself to me, and almost soothed by my orders, needing my leadership.

For now, I held Ashley's hand.

"Let's sit down," I guided, walking with her to the couch. "I can get us a drink if you'd like."

"I'd like that, yeah."

And even though it was only a few steps, I curled my hand upward, hooking four of her fingers under my thumb, supportive. Beyond appreciative, Ashley curled the glee of her smile into her mouth. Such a natural thing for me to do for her; such a novel thing for her to experience with me, with anyone.

Sitting her down, I took a moment to turn my TV on: reflected in the music, automatically, were the accompanying vids there on the screen.

Still holding Ashley's hand, I knelt down in front of her, just to make sure that she was all right.

She definitely was, beaming when I settled my lips just over her knuckles, still keeping her hand in mine.

"Babe, listen to me," I told her, whispering my words over her perfumed skin. "With all of this, I want you to understand: you have the power here. I know how powerful you think I am. The truth is, I have nothing that you aren't willing to give me. I will never force you into anything you're uncomfortable doing. I won't abuse my own power by harming you or pushing you too hard. Can you trust me?"

Hypnotized through her eyes: "Yes…absolutely."

"Good. Even though we're only talking about this tonight, we should establish a safe word anyway. It doesn't just have to be a word—it can be a phrase instead. Anything that will put an immediate stop to whatever we're speaking about, whatever we're doing. I want you to include it in the contract."

Finding enough awareness to answer me: "Okay…I will. And it can't be stop or no. Some of the things I need with you…I want to tell you to stop; I want to say no, and for you to keep going anyway. Unless…unless that's—" Ashley found an abundance of acceptance in my eyes, and of how I wanted the same. "I should…quit trying to censor myself, huh? I guess I'm just so used to it. Being ashamed of these things. Wondering what my family would think of me if they knew…"

"Ash, this is only between you and me," I said, kissing her hand. "No one else. They don't have to know."

"Right—you're right," agreed Ashley. "It's all burned into my head. I'll…I'll work on this." Finding her voice again: "As for the safe word, it can't be something that I might say by accident. Kinda drawing a blank here. You know, since I tend to blurt out whatever's on my mind, whenever…"

I pointed out, "That may be true, but you're not necessarily a vulgar person."

"Not unless we're arguing, no… And it's not like we'd argue hardcore like that in the middle of a scene."

I remembered that experience I had with Shiala's clone forcing herself into my mind.

I remembered what I'd yelled out in vain, to get her to stop:

"Would you ever tell me to fuck off?" I asked.

Ashley stared at me in shock. "What? No!" she said straightaway. "I could never say that to you…"

"Then that's the safe word we'll use. Tell me to fuck off, and I will. But only if you're fine with it."

She couldn't deny the value, the logic there. "I see what you mean, Shepard… Okay, then."

"Okay," I settled. "Do me a favor and think about the rest of what you want from me—and what you don't want. Let me get your drink while you do that. You have a taste for anything specific?"

"Mmm, you like sweet drinks, don't you? I'll try whatever you're having."

"All right. Wait here."

Searching through my refrigerator, kneeling here at this low height, I couldn't ignore the obvious parallels here in my memories. Skin lit by the ice blue of the neon lighting here, I skipped right past the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I still had, unfinished from the night when Liara was here with me, and from yesterday when I had sipped some more of it, thinking everything over. And I couldn't settle on the Blue Thessia mix, either, because I didn't want Ashley to get the wrong—or right—idea about why I had this.

Ashley even went so far as to pick up the red blanket I had next to her, smiling as she watched the music vid playing on the TV in such a feminine sexuality; thinking everything over as I had asked her to do.

All I had left was a few varieties of other white wine, of moscato specifically.

I had some plain, normal types that were relatively inexpensive. But, no—those wouldn't do. Even if Ashley couldn't tell the difference, I wouldn't let myself give her anything cheap or common. I needed something that reflected how I saw her, how I felt about her.

I reached back for my bottle of vintage white wine from a similar grape. Natural sweet wine, honeyed and sweetened in richness and in pure fruit. This was maybe a bit more sophisticated than I'd planned for on such short notice. I brought the bottle and pair of wine glasses with me back over to Ashley anyway, deciding that I wanted to impress her with this tonight.

Kneeling in front of her again, I set my glass down on the table and out of the way.

Ashley watched me pour this wine, knowing me; knowing that this glass was for her, first.

"This is normally supposed to be for dessert," I explained. "You're not hungry, are you?"

"I'm not—I'm…nervous, actually," she admitted, taking obvious note of the wine's golden brown shade, similar to the color of my skin. "Not in a bad way or anything… I've never seen this side of you before."

I handed Ashley her drink, reminding her, "A while back, you said I'm supposed to be a real romantic."

"I didn't forget, Shepard… I think about it all the time. You've really surprised me tonight so far."

Red like the rose of her scent, Ashley's face heated when she smelled the wine—softly, just enough.

Letting myself smirk, I told her, "Try it, babe. It's sweet."

As she did, I poured my own glass, not wanting to make her feel self-conscious about this.

Her face reddening even more, if possible, Ashley let out a low moan of delight.

She breathed out, "You weren't kidding… It's sophisticated, just like you are. This is—wow."

"I'm glad you like it," I said, before sipping my own. "You ready to have the rest of our conversation?"

Ashley pushed her doubts away, warmed by how I hadn't moved from this spot. I was certain she understood my meaning, my intention in doing this for her. I knew she found her enjoyment in this, covering her possible throbbing beneath the blanket she'd quilted over her legs. And so she crossed her long legs over the couch, fitting them under the blanket anew; she then faced me at a direct angle, keen to let me lead her through this talk of ours.

As low as this couch was, and as tall as I was, Ashley was still above me, just enough.

"Yeah, I'm ready," she confirmed. "Ask me anything. Well—aside from that one thing… I'll tell you about it later, after you take your turn."

"Tell me your other turn-ons, then," I requested. "Besides that one, major thing."

Ashley sipped her wine, looking through the glass and down at my concealment.

"Well, I hinted enough about one of them," she began, sounding a little more relaxed. "You wanting me like that… It is a major thing that ties back around. When we had our dream, if you had just—taken me—I would have loved it. I know I talk a lot of shit about not being easy or whatever… The thing is, I want you to bulldoze past all that sometimes. I want you to reduce me to that…even if it hurts. I want you to fuck me up. Then soothe me when it's all over."

"I can definitely give you that… But why am I not surprised you mentioned this type of edge play first?"

"Hey, you asked!"

Laughing again, I said, "Ashley, from that alone, I think you're more hardcore than you give yourself credit for. Don't get me wrong—I fucking love it. I expected I'd have to pull teeth with you on this."

"Mmm, no pulling teeth here, Shepard," reassured Ashley, serene. "Listen, I've spent my entire life pushing my own limits. I still do it today—you know that. So I know a thing or two about hardcore. I wasn't willing to put a label on these things that I wanted deep down. And it's not like the people I was involved with were good enough for that anyway… Just means I get to start fresh with you."

"Works for me," I accepted. "What else is there? What's something else you need?"

Glancing down between me again, Ashley licked her lips in such thoughtful mischief.

"Our dream made me think about this, too: what about…when the lines are blurred another way? Like…when you're asleep. You're sleeping, and I want you. I don't think I'd go all the way, but—I'd think about…touching you. Giving you a blowjob. Basically doing something I'm not supposed to. Waking you up so you can take me. Or even if was asleep, and you touched me, slipping inside of me… It's so fucked up, but I want that with you—badly."

"Yeah, I'd like that," I said, grinning over the ideas, all of them. "We could have that type of trust."

Ashley laughed, so soft.

"You keep on surprising me, Shepard," she delighted. "You're pretty open-minded. I love that about you so much…" But then, she paused, looking between me again. "…the one you're wearing right now, is it—I mean, does it…? Could you…?"

And then she surprised me with this.

"There's no mess with this one, Ash," I explained.

Ashley wanted to laugh over my euphemism. "Okay, that works," she replied, before falling back to her same hesitations. "I'm just wondering…do you have one with the mess?"

"Just one," I told her. "I haven't used it with anyone before. It's a replacement for another one I had. I didn't want to keep carrying those memories around with me."

Cringing, not wanting to come off with the wrong tone, she asked, "Does it…work? Like, you know… Is there—a risk? There's always a risk when—when there's a mess, but… You're a woman, so you'd have to use one of these if… You get what I'm saying…"

Not quite getting why she was so shy about this, I said, "Yes, if I don't use protection, then there's more of a risk." Avoiding my stare, shifting—she was clearly into the idea… "Ashley, are you on birth control?"

"Yeah, I am," she shared, so quiet.

"How long have you been on it for?"

Ashley looked into my eyes, securing the truth here: "Since I was seventeen. Back when I tried to go all the way with my ex in high school, I took the extra precautions first… Thank God the colony we were on at the time let me see a doctor about it without my parents' permission. If I'd had to ask them, it would've been…awkward. There's no way they would've let me do it."

Accepting her truth, I followed-up, "Do you have any backup meds, just in case?"

"Just in case, yeah," she promised. "The ones I have are supposed to work right away. Right after… I can show them to you—if you need me to…"

"It's all right," I told her. "I trust you." When Ashley's nerves still wouldn't settle over this, I understood that there was more here. "Ash, if we're going to do this, then we need to communicate. You don't have to tell me everything right this second. I still have some questions about this. I'd like you to answer me honestly. Yes or no."

Shuddering breaths, and then, "Okay… I'll be honest with you, Shepard. Go ahead…"

"This is something we can't experiment freely with," I started. "Not if I'm inside of you. If we're going to do that, then it can only be on rare occasions. And not any time soon. Can you agree with me on that?"

Ashley's face heated in her immediate pleasure from my words.

"Yes."

Well, this was definitely new for me…

"Do you need to feel me like that inside of you?"

She touched my face, leaning into my lips in such a succulent sweetness, so eager and needy in this moment, whispering through my wine-filled breath: "I need you in me, Shepard… I need you to claim me, make me yours—take the risk. I have to know you. I need you to come inside of me, as a woman, as you, with me… I want to hear how you sound, when you finally let go like that; lose yourself so deep inside of me. And I want to hold you the entire time, unprotected. I need it like hell. I really do…"

Overwhelmed by her admissions, I fought to keep myself together.

Ashley wouldn't let me break our eye contact. I couldn't let myself do it, either, unless I ceded the control and the flow of this conversation to her. This was my responsibility, to lead her… If I got caught up in the moment; if I let myself be weak, giving into these maddened thoughts I now had of doing everything she'd just said, then that would've been it for me.

She at least allowed me to be overwhelmed, leaning back, away from me, returning to where she had been before. Already, I knew she saw it in my eyes: that I did want what she'd said, no matter how new and terrifying this was for me.

I told her instead, "Okay, Ash… Okay. I'll…keep that in mind."

Ashley gave me such a kind smile, before a mass of indiscernible thoughts clouded her eyes.

She wouldn't tell me what this was about.

There seemed to be more here that I wasn't quite able to grasp.

She and I weren't on the same wavelength. Not with this subject.

Ashley knew that we weren't on the same wavelength here, and so she moved on, "Aside from that…I don't think there's anything else that I need. Not necessarily. We can figure out the rest down the line."

I nodded, directing her, "Tell me your hard limits next. What you definitely can't stand. Non-negotiable."

Smiling in a sort of half-frown, Ashley explained, "I'm not a fan of those, um, gross things. You know."

"I do know, and I agree," I stated. "We're not going there."

"Okay, good," she accepted, relieved. "I mean, I figured you weren't into them anyway. You made it clear that we have to communicate. So, I'm communicating a real, non-negotiable aversion to this! Totally not judging anyone who is into it. It's just not for me…"

"Understandable, babe. What else?"

"This is gonna make me sound like a total wimp, but… I don't want you to yell at me, Shepard. When I'm in that submissive headspace, the last thing I want is for you to be mean to me like that… It brings up bad memories—like after Eden Prime, when you were pissed at me for getting caught by the beacon. And…there's more I'll tell you about soon."

"I wouldn't do that to you, Ash," I promised. "I care about you too much to harm you like that again."

Something of what I said stung her, yet she continued, "Thanks… It's different when we're in a full-blown argument. Obviously, if we're in that situation instead, you should yell as much as you need to. Plus, I know I should be used to it—with the military and all. With you, things are never that simple."

"Then what do you want from me? I feel like there's something you're not saying here."

Quietly, she confessed, "I want you to nurture me instead. I want you to take care of me, Shepard. This always gets back to the biggest thing I need from you. I need you to be patient with me. I need you to be understanding when I'm basically self-sabotaging, saying shit I'm not supposed to. And I need you to help bail me out when I get in over my head. Not only with you. In life, in general…"

Making a point, I caressed her legs covered by this blanket, firm in my vow, "Then I'll be that for you, babe. I understand that some things are out of your control. You can rely on me like this."

Letting out a long-delayed exhale, Ashley said, "Hearing you say that…it helps. So much. I really love that you're such a sweetheart. And you're a lifesaver—like always."

Before I could prompt her to continue with the rest of her hard limits, she already knew what to do.

Ashley finished the last of her wine, already, and set the empty glass down on the table. She took my glass, still with some wine in it, and put it down next to hers. Pulling at my T-shirt, Ashley stood up with me, guiding me over to the couch; having me lie down on my stomach over this blanket that smelled of her. The warmth from where she'd sat before: it heated me just under my legs, relaxing me even more.

And then she settled herself on top of me, along my lower back. Not quite pressing all of her weight down on me at first, Ashley seemed overwhelmed by having me here like this. Still, she found the courage to lift up my shirt, my tank top underneath—going all the way up past my sports bra, and leaving things that way, leaving the spill of my hair off to the side, nearly down to my waist.

I folded my arms, resting my head here while she took me in like this.

Hesitant touch kneading at the strong muscles of my narrow back, I felt Ashley's mind processing how unexpected this was. Compared to her, to the decent sinew of her own body, I was way more limber than she was. Not quite fragile, though not as lean as she was in trained fitness, I must have seemed comparatively small next to her. Of course, my height over her made up for things—and we had different specializations—but I really was a glass cannon in the face of her relative sturdiness.

Ashley chose to delay the last of her hard limits, saying instead, "Tell me what you want, Shepard. Tell me what you need. Tell me how I can give it to you, and when."

"Ash, in this sense, I'm a very simple person. I want to give you what you want. That's all."

Curious in darkness, she asked, "And what if I want something you've never done before? What then?"

"Hmm, it depends," I mused. "Ask me and we'll talk about it. Where are you going with this?"

Sensing Ashley's intentions through her touch, I had my answers: how her hands had lost that hesitation from earlier, growing firmer and firmer by the second. She found her surprises here. She found her novelty here. She found her own answers here, in this sight of the skin over my back soaking in the light of the TV, in the ambiance of the blue around us, and in the heat of her abject fascination with me.

She continued along this line, "So, it's true then? No one's ever eaten you out? Fucked you?"

Still oddly relaxed, I replied, "That's right."

Ashley understood the implications here, and controlled herself accordingly.

"What about me, Shepard?" she needed to know, so bold in her darkened edge. "Do you think about letting me give that to you? Does it ever cross your mind?"

I closed my eyes, thinking back to her vid messages specifically about this, and said, "You're the first person I've ever considered this with. The only person. But not everything you said."

"What don't you want, then?"

"Unless it's for a blowjob, I don't like the idea of having your mouth in between me like that. I've never liked it. Maybe someday. I can't force it to happen any sooner."

Ashley leaned her touch into me, harder, steadying herself against me like this. Stretching in place, she let her mind open to the possibilities of my permission. She did it more over the way I didn't react to her, aloof in my methods so unintentional, in making her want me more simply by giving her nothing.

But she needed me to paint a full picture—the entire picture in all its shades and shadows, at all costs.

She pressed onward, "What about my hands? What if I touched you there, took you for myself? Would you let me do it?"

Unmoved, unimpressed: "Again, that's not really my thing. You're getting warmer, though…"

Ashley couldn't quite keep herself from whining low in her throat, before asking, "Then what if…what if I took off your clothes? Could you do that with me?"

"At minimum, I'm not taking off my tank top, and I'm not letting you anywhere near me unless we're in a bed, underneath a comforter. And if I'm the one fucking you, I'm leaving my boxer briefs on. You're getting colder now, Ashley. You should be able to tell these things about me by now."

Moaning over my denials, Ashley lowered herself against me completely. She clutched at my shoulders, at the toned shape of my arms, down to my hips, and my legs that she could reach of me. And even though I loved this feeling of her weight and her heated presence fully on top of me like this, I wasn't about to let her know that. Not directly.

"Fuck, you're such a tease," she groused. "Reminds me of your pictures, your runways… How you're always so confident that everyone's going crazy from just…looking at you. Wanting you. You're so beautiful and stylish—how could anyone look at you and not want to please you? And maybe you enjoy it, but you won't admit that. It's all part of what makes you so special. Your sex appeal is unreal."

"Well, I do like that you want me this much," I told her. "Even if I don't show it. This is new for me."

"But Shepard, you're so powerful… Why do you think about this with me? What's your angle here?"

"Because I know you're hard-headed enough to push me, to overwhelm me. Given the chance, you won't hesitate. You won't falter in front of me; treat me like I'm some porcelain doll. You'll go for it. And if you're gonna do it, then it had better be hard and fast. Don't give me a chance to escape from you. I know you're just the type to want to do that. You're possessive of me in that exact way."

Ashley let herself laugh, burrowed as her face was along the curve of my neck. "That's…perfectly true. You're right. You get me!" Pressing her grin against my skin, she chose to open up about the rest: "There's something else, though… When I think about this with you, it's never…an equal thing. There's still a power dynamic. You're still stronger than me. I'm just…trying to prove myself to you."

"Yeah, I figured," I revealed. "That's why I like this with you and only you. You get me, too."

"But there's one last thing," noted Ashley. "There's always something. Something in the way. Something bringing me back down to our painful reality." Collecting herself first, she then told me, "I wouldn't say this is a hard limit, Shepard. It's just what I want, what I need. If I'm going to be vulnerable with you like this, then I need you to be faithful. I have to know that you're with me. And I only want to be with you. I can't share you with anyone else. Not with this dynamic. Not with how much I want from you."

A bit drugged from how exposed she was, emotionally, I could only say, "I understand."

"Do you?" she questioned. "When we started this thing, I told you I wouldn't try to take you away from Liara. I would never force you to choose between us. I would never ask you to leave her side…"

"Ashley, I knew from day one that you didn't intend to keep that promise forever."

She couldn't even hide her mischievous smile over getting caught like this.

"Then…why'd you agree to it?" she wondered. "Why did you seem to take me at my word?"

"Because you were bold enough to play this game in the first place. In your own way at the time, you were confident that you'd win me over. I respected that, deep down."

Too realistic: "We still have this issue, though. You want her, Shepard. Maybe you…maybe you even love her—I don't know. I want you to get this out of your system. Whatever it takes."

I held my pain back, asking her, "Is this an ultimatum? You're asking me to go have sex with her before you'll be in a relationship with me?"

"Not an ultimatum… I don't expect you to fuck her before I tell you yes. You should do it eventually."

"Ash, if I just go up to Liara and ask for sex, she'll know I'm up to something…"

"Then spend time with her," allowed Ashley. "Get to know her again. Then fuck her. Whatever. I only want you to see how you feel once you do it. You can't keep running away from this. Because if you do, you'll never know what could've been. I don't want that to haunt you. At the same time, I can't help feeling like something terrible will happen if you do this… Like you'll fall for her all the way."

That was…a real possibility. Then again, it had probably already happened, and I just hadn't noticed yet.

Ashley didn't need me to say the words.

Holding herself together well enough, as if she'd prepared for this, she stood up. She took a few paces forward, enough to meet me here at the corner, the bend of my couch. From where I sat, looking up at her, I couldn't read her. I couldn't know what to do, just from feeling her, from sensing her like I normally could have before.

"Shepard, I'm sick of arguing with you over her," she said, level-headed. "I'm sick of feeling insecure over her. I'm sick of losing my mind all because you didn't put me first, way before it was even fair of me to expect you to do it. When you asked me out, it helped me come to terms with things. I accept the situation for what it is. I trust you now. You have my heart…but I don't have yours. And it hurts."

"Ash, I'm sorry," I expressed. "You're right. I wish I hadn't hurt you like this…without knowing."

Enough coldness in her eyes, enough monotone through her rich, textured voice, "Then you two have unfinished business… Go finish it."

Right as she started walking away from me, I held her hand.

Ashley stopped with my hold.

She wouldn't face me.

I tried to stand up, until she said—"Don't, Shepard. It isn't fair. You're wearing a strap-on right now, and…and if you try to hold me from behind, I'll feel you again. I'll lose control this time. I'll give in to you. I can't let myself do that tonight. So just say what you need to say to me."

"Ashley, I appreciate everything you've told me," I began. "I don't want us to end things on this bad note. Not like this. Today of all days, I can't let us be in another fight."

"Oh, I plan on spending plenty of time with you later on. Don't worry about that. And after what I've told you, I'm definitely not letting you go. I'm not going anywhere. I just can't spend the night with you."

Caressing her hand in mine, I asked, "Why not?"

"It's the same issue… We haven't slept in a bed together since our dream. I know I'll have sex with you if I do. I don't want to lose my virginity to you in a bed, Shepard. I need something more exciting than that. I'm not in the mood to experiment right now. So we're going to have to sleep separately. I need my space."

"All right," I respected.

Expectant in mild petulance, in veiled need: "Say what you have to say to me so I can go to sleep."

Her hand, her fingers, so lithe and shapely, and thin, and round right at her tips, letting her natural nails jut out in shortness, so perfect in this soft touch of hers.

This wasn't fair for me at all, yet I loved the way Ashley expected perfection from me.

So I expressed myself to her: "When I first saw you on Eden Prime, I didn't know my life would change. I had a feeling you were special, Ash. I sensed everything you wanted with me…and I ran away from it. I can never erase that mistake. I can never justify why I was so closed-off, set in my ways. Maybe I was scared to admit that I'd found something I had been looking for my whole life. I'm admitting it now."

I felt how much Ashley wanted to turn around, to forget all about our fight and kiss me already.

But I felt her restraint tying her up twice as much, as she had learned to do from me.

"I love you, Shepard," she said instead, walking away and out of my hold. "Good night."

Her absence in my hand as a phantom limb—"Good night, babe… I'm sorry."

Once she left the room, I fell right back into that fiery pain she had disturbed me from earlier.

Not necessarily because she left.

But because I still felt her here, even though she was gone.

Pulling the red of this blanket closer to me, I sat here for a while, feeling these emotions Ashley had left behind. The more I felt them, the more they made me question if my intuition still worked properly. I could have sworn I sensed something far darker than Ashley had let on or even alluded to…aside from that coldness in her eyes, that monotone she had given me. That coldness, that monotone rose higher, co-opting her smell of roses and vanilla, and twisting that non-vanilla talk we'd had into the silhouette of her absolute need of me.

Deeper than any ocean, thicker than any blood, I couldn't deny Ashley's ruthlessness…again, that she had learned from me, as her…father-figure.

And now I had unlocked her in how much she trusted me.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back to bed, leaving this blanket behind.

Embraced again in this reminder of Liara's presence here between my sheets, I could admit to myself:

She and Ashley both scared the hell out of me.

But it was this memory of Liara that helped soothe me from this, even as much as she terrified me. Thinking of her brought me back down, kept me from shaking, crying. Letting myself feel for her again was like a salve over these wounds from Ashley constantly ramming against my head and my heart, from Ashley continuously throwing me in this damned incinerator and expecting me to survive.

Still, I knew I fucked up. I had fucked all of this up. I should've stayed away from both of them—or at least one of them. I should have resisted their temptations. I shouldn't have been selfish, and weak, giving into them like this. If I had stayed strong like I was used to, then none of this would've happened.

Now, I was exposed like this…

Now, I wished I could've had Liara's arms around me again.

I couldn't hate her anymore. I couldn't stay angry at her anymore. I couldn't keep pretending that I felt nothing for her; that I didn't need her like this. Because she had sustained me, even after all this time.

Because if she really did give up on us, and our date was only a final talk, then I would've lost her.

If Liara had given up on me, what then…? What about our bond? Would she let it go? Was it too late…?

I felt like a fucking kid again, afraid and abandoned after I'd lost everyone and everything—again.

And whatever depths I had fallen into in this bloody water, it was too late for me to come up for air.


From: Anderson, Captain – Happy Birthday, Commander.

Shepard,

I know you're on shore leave right now on Thessia. I would have loved to be there with you, for your birthday and for the mission. Duty calls here on the Citadel.

I figured I'd send you a quick line or two instead. The big 3-0. Time sure does fly, doesn't it?

Wasn't too long ago you were still that stubborn young woman, angry at the world, the galaxy—and for good reason. I'm happy to see you've cooled down over the years. These past few months included. Have you taken my words to heart from my letter, from after you became a Spectre? I believe you have. It's done wonders.

Going by our email exchanges about your progress with the mission, and your visits to me here on the Citadel, I can tell you've gone through some positive changes. I don't sense that same, impossible edge about you. But you're not completely different, either. Seems like you've finally found a good balance.

I don't expect you to go soft on me, though. Tough-as-nails, but still sympathetic and understanding. I hope this commander sticks around for a while. Longer than a while.

Have a good one today. You've earned it.

-Anderson

.

From: Vakarian, Garrus – Birthday message.

Commander,

Sorry if this is a little weird. We (the team) all agreed to write up some birthday messages to you. If you get everything at once a few hours after midnight, that's on purpose. We're having a party here at Liara's place. I suggested we schedule our emails to get to you at a certain time, in case we're kind of indisposed when the hour hits. You know…

I just wanted to say, Shepard, it's been an honor serving with you on the mission so far. Getting things done without all that red tape from C-Sec has been liberating. I finally feel like I'm making a difference out there. I have you to thank for that.

I know I'm not the most talkative member on the team. And I haven't been the best at asking for your time, even though you left the offer open. I hope you haven't taken it to mean that I respect you any less. I value you as my superior officer, and maybe as an accidental mentor. I really do look up to you in a way that I find hard to express in-person. You've opened my eyes, changed my thinking in a lot of ways; made me less cynical about believing in the fight for justice and fairness. You've taught me that we have to keep fighting for what we believe in, no matter how bleak things look. You never give up on whatever you set your mind to, so I shouldn't, either.

For the record, I fully support anything you care about. Anyone you care about. Let's just say it's another inspiration to me. I wish I was better at actually saying these things out loud. I'm trying to work up the courage to tell her about this myself. It's not going so well. Not sure how she'll react, if she'll think it's strange or out-of-place. I should find a way to break the ice anyway.

Maybe we'll get to see you today, spend some time together, even indirectly. Would be nice to kick back with you around, for a change.

-Garrus

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From: Ashley — Your birthday.

Skipper,

Garrus said he would be the one to tell you about our timing thing. I wanted to give some extra context for when I'm writing this.

I'm waiting for you to call me back right now. I kind of hung up in your face while we were arguing. Twice in a row. Not the best start to your birthday, I know…

It's your special day today, and I'm sitting here alone in this guest room in this gigantic mansion, wishing I could take everything back. Everything I said. Everything that spilled out without me meaning to say it. All the stupid accusations, all the pointless jabs I made at you. Even from before today. I mean, you asked me out, as a dream come true for me, and then I made this huge mess. I hate that I can't just shut my mouth when I need to do it most. Shut up and listen. Shut up and apologize.

I already know when you call me again, if you do, my pride's going to come right back up. I wish I could shut this off, set it aside.

Sending myself those love letters and poetry meant for you, hoping you'd find them through my work email. Hoping you'd see them, somehow, by chance, without me knowing. Hoping that my words would move you somehow. Hoping you would take that next step, start a conversation with me, get to know me, take me out on the Citadel, and maybe even fall for me…all of that. I wanted it to be special for us. I wanted to have that realistic fantasy with you. I wanted to have that star-crossed love affair with you, where you chose to be with me anyway, taking that risk even with the regulations in the way. Risk getting in trouble with the Alliance. I wanted you to risk it all for me.

I wanted to be your one and only. I still want that. More than anything.

I'm so forward with everything else. Sometimes, with this, you turn me into someone I don't recognize. Not on purpose.

I admire you so much. It's like I could lift you to the skies myself if you'd let me. Up to the heavens. Even way beyond that, whatever's out there.

That's how much I love you, Shepard. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being such an ass.

I'm hoping and waiting for you to call me back soon.

Hoping you can forgive me, too.

-Ash

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From: Chakwas, Karin — Birthday Greetings.

Shepard,

What a wonderful day today is. Happy Birthday, Commander. Thirty years old! I can hardly believe it.

I won't bore you with anything long-winded or emotional. I simply wanted you to know how proud I am of you. You've come a long way over these months since I was first assigned to the Normandy with you and Captain Anderson. I am glad that you're no longer resistant to having a full conversation with me about your health.

I must say, Commander, you have also improved in other ways. After our initial discussion about my theory on the collective unconscious, I have kept a close watch on your progress. I am not certain how I know this, but your mind appears to be greatly fortified in comparison to when we first met. Your will seems to be exponentially stronger than it was when you interacted with the beacon on Eden Prime. If your mind could withstand that kind of punishment back then, I can only imagine what you are capable of handling these days.

Enjoy your time with the team on shore leave. I will be here at the local medical university picking up what I can on the asari's practices, in case any of it proves to be useful to our operation. Should you need anything, you will know how to reach me. Do try to keep the others from going overboard with their alcohol intakes, if at all possible.

-Dr. Chakwas

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From: Urdnot Wrex – Shepard Day.

Shepard,

I suck at writing things. I'll keep this nice and neat for you.

Wanted to say Happy Shepard Day. The real custom makes me sad. Krogan don't celebrate birthdays.

Made an exception. I follow you, respect you.

We're warriors. Keep kicking ass, Shepard. Even if no one can see you while you do it. You find your own glory, your own way.

-Wrex

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From: Alenko, Lieutenant — Happy Birthday.

Commander,

Thanks again for the pep talk earlier. You did me a solid.

I wonder how excited you are for your birthday today. Probably not at all, huh? I can't really see you as the celebrating type. I'm sure you'd be just fine hiding out in your private quarters with your video games, as usual. Just a regular old day for you.

If I'm honest, I'm at a loss for what else to say here. Kind of intimidating, sending you a Happy Birthday message. I don't expect you to respond or anything.

And maybe this is too forward, but I'm glad that Ash isn't hurting anymore. You know, from your distance. I tried to do what I could for her, back when the others weren't speaking to her. Made things a little awkward with Liara, knowing that she liked you, too. I had to keep my distance from her. Didn't want to overstep my boundaries. With those types of feelings involved, I knew I had to make a choice, pick a side. I chose Ash because I knew you'd see one day that she's worth it.

She's more than what people assume about her. She's flawed, but we all are, and she wants to do better, every day. She's just a little more upfront about her imperfections; she won't apologize for them.

I was right about her way back when, wasn't I?

-Kaidan

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From: Tali'Zorah – Your birthday today.

Shepard,

Now that it's your birthday, I see the age difference between us in solar years. You're thirty. I'm twenty-two. You are eight years older than me. That's quite a lot, isn't it?

I wanted to tell you how happy I am that we're actually friends now. You make me believe in something more than what I had grown used to in my short life so far. Like I can finally think for myself for a change, and not feel as guilty about it anymore. I can be my own person while still wanting to help my people in whatever way I can.

You taught me that the galaxy is definitely a hard place. But if I look closely enough, there is still plenty of kind, caring, and sensitive warmth under that hard exterior. I will be sure to let my old ship captain know about this change in my perspective, once I present the Flotilla with the gift you gave me for my Pilgrimage.

I will always be here for you, Shepard. I somehow feel stronger in making this choice to stand by you, no matter what. I'm glad to be here with you on this team.

-Tali

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From: Moreau, Flight Lieutenant – Fun times!

Commander,

Awesome stuff—you're thirty years old now. Who cares what people say about that age? To me, it's like you're just getting started in life. How do I know this? I just do!

Kind of creeps me out that I'm actually sending a normal message to you. You know, not about work. Not that I'm convinced we're friends or anything, even though I want us to be. You keep your distance. I respect that. Mostly, anyway. Wouldn't mind getting to hang out with you today.

By the way, I'm trying to figure out if I should drop a MAJOR hint about something. If you know that I know what you're thinking, then go for it already. It'll be epic!

And I know better than to risk asking for pictures or whatever. That would be dumb of me. Sure keeps me smiling. But not for those, uh, reasons. I want you to be happy, and I want her to be happy with you. Yeah, she's a tough one. So are you. I get the feeling you make her all weak in the knees from how smooth and serious you are. I guess it's sweet…

Just don't tell anyone I said that. I can't be all sensitive, otherwise my mask will come right off. That wouldn't be a pretty sight.

-Joker

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From: Liara – This morning.

Shepard,

I hope that you are able to read this before you meet me in a few hours.

Yesterday, there was more I wished to tell you about our date. I held back—because the others were nearby, because Ashley watched us from the kitchen behind you. Because I was afraid that, if I mentioned this, you would decline my offer outright. I understand that now is not the time to hesitate any longer. So please allow me to be frank in this message. And please excuse the length. There is much that I have not been able to say to you over these three agonizing months. I must say it now—or never.

I see your frustrations, Shepard. Do you believe that I gave up on you? On us? Do you feel that I simply stepped aside, ceding victory to Ashley in this game between the three of us? Or did you convince yourself that I am more in love with my problems than I am with you? Anything to keep yourself from thinking about me again. Anything to help you run away from how you still feel for me, after all this time.

I want you to know now that none of those things are true.

Perhaps it was easier for you to believe those lies. It was more immediate for you to find ample validation in the way Ashley chases after you with such restless vigor. It was more convenient for you to discard me, and pretend as if you could leave me behind at the "drop of a dime," as you humans say.

I wanted to give you time. I wanted to know if you were only pretending, or if you had truly moved on.

I found my answer not that long ago, while we were on the Citadel. I believe you purchased a bottle of something to drink. Something you would not show to anyone else, not even when Wrex had inquired.

Our bond began to reignite that day. I could finally feel you, like a light turning back on in the darkness.

And then, early this morning, everything transcended, as a sheer ocean flooding past your barriers.

I recognize now that you don't enjoy me prodding around in your mind, in your 'fucking' feelings. You don't wish for me to micromanage. And so I am writing this to you, instead of merely communicating without words, privately, in the way I had done before. At the same time, however, I know that you would rather not give your own words to me. You will run from the worst of those words, from the truth.

Deep down, suppressed, I know—you will always hate that I didn't fight for you.

Just as you hated the way I crushed Ashley's heart in my attempt to keep her away from you.

You despise me for this: less so for my hasty mistake, and more so now for not fighting to keep you.

But you must know by now that that is not my way. Have you forgotten that we are from two different species? As Ashley has proven over and over again, humans are high-strung, impatient. Even reckless at times. You live for the moment. I must take the long view in life, as most asari are prone to do. Fighting for the short-term is too often unwise and extreme. I will  only  take that path if I see no other option.

Giving you time was the best option. You have found a small measure of peace with me in my absence.

If you would like to stop running away from me, Shepard, you are free to do so, beginning today.

I have more to offer you than the stress you have been subjected to over these months. Far more. So much more, with the opportunity for you to explore something far deeper with me than we have ever known. Something so much better than the petty issues we have been mired in throughout this time.

Do what you will with Ashley. As long as she does not hurt either of us too much, I will not intervene in your relationship.

With that in mind, if you decide to stop running, to stop pretending, and to stop lying to yourself, then make yourself clear to me. Be honest in your intentions with me this morning. Open yourself to the possibility that you may have acted in error over these past few months. You are not always right.

Do this for me—for us—and I will shift the mood for our date as you desire.

Or don't, and continue running.

Make your choice, and meet me at seven o'clock in my mother's living room—not a moment later.

-Liara


Early morning light shone in through the full panes of the sliding glass doors here in Liara's living room.

Beyond that glass, the gleam of the green grass reflected back in here to me, warming me to the reality of the day, and thawing me from the ice cold of the night I'd suffered through, barely able to sleep.

Anderson's email had helped before, initially, and I had been glad to reply to him. Everyone else's emails had surprised me, too. Really surprised me, since I hadn't expected that kind of sentimentality from them at all. I did write back what I could to them anyway, before I got hereexcept for Liara, since my presence here spoke enough as it was. Though the rest of the team's not-so-subtle hints, and their more direct thoughts and well-wishes stayed on my mind. Most of them had encouraged me to do one thing, and yet here I was, facing something else instead.

Ashley had sent me another email, separate from the normal birthday one I got from her around the same time as everyone else. I'd chosen to ignore it, not wanting to face her right now, even through a screen. Her confessions to me in her 'normal' email had already reached at something in me I couldn't describe. But, again, I didn't want to dwell on that, didn't want to linger on it just yet.

And now, the rest of the day started to kick in.

High above along one of the walls, a gigantic clock there read 7:00am, seconds ticking forward and on.

Here on this level, illuminated by the sunlight, Liara shuffled back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. Wearing a fitted lab coat of blue and white that suited her body and her intelligence quite well, Liara collected the various shot glasses, tequila bottles, slices of lime, and salt packets that had littered the coffee table by the television. She worked to clean the faint mess the others had left behind from their not-so-rowdy and rather respectful night, not having torn up the place all that much.

Still, Joker had crashed on the couch, and Wrex snored heavily as he lay face-first on the floor nearby.

I assumed that Tali, Kaidan, and Garrus had all found their way to their own guest rooms, at least.

And…

And I saw that patience there in Liara's eyes and in her movements as she cleaned, accepting that the team had chosen to honor her requests for order and cleanliness—as much as possible, anyway.

I would have offered to help.

I should have, but I couldn't push back this feeling.

This feeling that someone watched me in that moment; that someone watched Liara as well.

Liara must've had the same feeling, because she tempered her movements, going at a slower pace than she normally would have.

I couldn't shake this feeling off, no matter how hard I tried, like a phantom heating the back of my head.

Glancing over to Joker and Wrex, and the handful of heavy alcohol bottles and shot glasses still on the table, I knew I couldn't keep standing here like this. I went over to the coffee table, of the mind to at least get the bottles over to the kitchen with the rest of the team's drinks.

Liara found me here soon after, pupils dilating as her eyes took me in, took in my intentions for this day.

"Good morning, Shepard," she greeted with a faint smile. "Thank you for joining me."

"Yeah, of course," I said, grabbing those heavy bottles for her. "Where do you want these?"

Taking the last of the shot glasses with her, Liara guided me to the kitchen. "Just through here."

The team had amassed quite a war chest of cognacs, more tequila, and several other bottles of room-temperature alcohol, keeping them on the counter next to the sink. I set these bottles down here, grouping them as needed, like chess pieces. I needed to stay organized, even though none of this alcohol was mine. I did this as Liara washed off the glasses near me. She looked over at my scrutinizing, at my attention to detail, smiling at me in fondness as she finished the last of this cleaning.

I knew that everyone was bound to mess up my efforts before the day was over.

This was really an excuse to double and triple-check that this abnormal feeling hadn't gone away.

It seriously still felt like someone watched us from somewhere, somehow.

Once we finished with this, Liara showed me out the sliding glass doors, out to that park. Finally escaping the sounds of Wrex's snoring, the peace from the morning found us instead.

Only a small measure before, this peace and harmony helped to soothe me, more.

So unlike Earth, the mornings here on Thessia looked like the afternoons, the evenings. But there was a softness about this sunlight instead, reddening the grass and the spread-out trees as vermillion as Liara walked by my side. Not a soul around for acres—aside from this phantom feeling—we could have gotten lost here together. We could have lost our way, if Liara didn't know exactly where to go. We could have, if she didn't know exactly what she was doing; if she didn't have this solid grasp on her own intentions.

Whatever our intentions were, and whatever this phantom was, all of that came second to this serenity.

And neither of us dared to turn around, to spot our disruptor.

Right now, it couldn't matter.

I'd had no idea how much I needed this moment with Liara, pressing this reset button with her.

She had us stop at a specific spot in the grass, shadowed in the shade of what looked like an elder tree.

Liara leaned against this tree with leaves of red, staring at that spot.

I wondered, "Is there something here?"

"Yes," she said, smiling in nostalgia. "This is where it all began. Where I first found my obsessions that led me to you. When I was a child, I would dig for ruins here in the grass. Right here, in this exact place. My mother gave me such a lecture when she discovered what I had done… But, she did buy me my first history book the next day. I will always appreciate her for that, however temporary it may have been."

I remembered that shot I had taken on Noveria, straight through Benezia's heart.

Still, I asked, "Do you miss her at all?"

Liara's eyes shined and glistened in such an emotional expanse of heavenly blue, making me ache for her.

"I do," she admitted. "I miss her, Shepard."

Leaning next to her on this tree, close to her, I wanted to know, "What was she like? You know…"

"She loved to wear yellow," reminisced Liara. "I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was once kind and compassionate. Very understanding. Committed to her work. Committed to protecting me from…everything. Even from myself."

"How've you been dealing with this? With not having her here anymore."

"I have come to terms with my demons, Shepard. And I have accepted my own need to protect and to control, within reason. Sometimes, without. Or at least—not entirely justified ones. The fact remains that I am my mother's daughter. There are certain traits and habits I have inherited from her. Traits and habits that I have since stopped fighting, and learned to embrace. No matter what the future holds, I must be true to myself…despite how terrified I am to stare back into this mirror without you."

"What do you mean, Liara? What's there in that mirror that you can't face unless I'm here?"

Liara gave me another sad smile, just like from yesterday. "I am not entirely sure myself," she lamented. "It returns me to the same place that I had repressed many years ago. And…this place: it is the peak of my worst fears. It is what I attempted to avoid with our arrangement together. I tried to deny it."

I reminded her, "Aren't you the one always telling me to stop running? Running from my feelings?"

"I know," she accepted. "Perhaps it was projection. I'm sorry for that."

"You know, Liara, you really are a walking contradiction sometimes."

This time, she smiled in reality and in warmth, as I needed. "Just as you are a walking allegory."

"An allegory?" I questioned. "A metaphor? A metaphor for what?"

Liara giggled a bit. "You are what you practice, Shepard," she riddled, again. "You are what you know. And I understand now that you could not possibly know what I see, despite how intuitive you are. I suppose there are some things that extend even beyond our bond. We seem to be creating our own collective unconscious together as we go, making things up along the way. Doesn't this bother you?"

"I guess it does. I'd rather be prepared. Know what I'm doing, what I'm up against."

"That is natural to feel," guided Liara. "I would like to open you to the possibility that there is more. Far more out there, past the boundaries of our own mortal understanding. This is something we could never prepare for. But now that our bond is uninterrupted once more, we can continue on together. I can assure you, there is a much deeper layer that you've not yet accessed with me."

"We got pretty deep before," I recalled. "You're telling me there's more?"

"Yes, Shepard. There is more. Come with me, and I will show you some of what I mean."


About a twenty minute walk through the proper city of Armali itself, and Liara led me up to what looked like a tall, winged temple overlooking the metropolis. She'd had us take a route to help shake off our disruptor—at least for now. And so Liara let me hold her hand—so delicate in mine—as we passed through here, passed through this walkway of shallow water glistening in the pale red sunlight, holding our footsteps in its rippling. I couldn't even mind the hem of my jeans getting damp and darkened as I crossed this space with the ridges of my heavy black boots. I enjoyed being here, being in this moment.

I found Liara gazing at the white of my plain, long-sleeved shirt, enjoying the way the sun embraced the cotton of me. She stared at the flow of my hair down behind me, too—not quite so sunny and golden here on Thessia, living under this perpetual vermillion.

I let myself smile over this, over the view of the city's skyscrapers piercing upward in the near distance; over everything, even all that we couldn't yet sense.

Once I spotted the barriers of security over the temple's entrance, I assumed that we would just stand out here for a bit while Liara explained what was inside the building.

Silver and violet everywhere, otherworldly in the significance there: I could kind of see some of the interior, fluting upward in its architecture, with the main centerpiece of a goddess standing tall and high in the very middle. I saw a number of statues and artifacts circling the perimeter, too, with a bunch of benches lined up facing the goddess, and an unobstructed aisle running right down the middle.

Liara went up to the security barriers, disabling them with her omni-tool.

I had to make sure, "Looks like government-level security here. You're allowed in this place?"

"No, actually," said Liara, pulling me inside with her by my hand. "We should not stay here for too long. We would suffer grave consequences should Asari High Command somehow discover us here. But this temple is far too important for us to play things safe. I must have this discussion with you here."

"All right, that's fine," I accepted, watching as she put the barriers back up behind us. "I don't mind getting into a little trouble with you."

Liara laughed softly. "You believe grave consequences will merely add up to a little trouble, then?"

"I'm up for whatever, Liara," I said instead, grinning. "I could always lean on my Spectre status to bail us out. Then again, I have to wonder how it is you have access here if you're not allowed inside."

"I found the access codes among my mother's many belongings at home… I thought that she might have fortified the codes with several layers of encryption instead. Benezia secured her information in a way that ensured only I would be able to find and read her secrets. It is safe to say that I learned far more than what I bargained for—and not just these codes. Let us sit first, and I will tell you the rest."

We headed down the center aisle together, with the goddess towering over us up ahead.

The closer we neared her, reaching the front row bench, on the left side, the more I felt like there was…

"There's something here," I noted, letting Liara sit down first. "In that statue. Do you sense it, too?"

"Yes, I do," she said. "I am not entirely sure what is there. Only that something does exist in this place." Liara tugged on my hand a bit. "Sit with me, Shepard. Allow me to explain what I know for certain."

I did so, sitting at the very edge of the bench, near the aisle. I kept her hand in mine, knowing that we were safe here, at least as much as our follower could look through and spot our backs.

Liara stared up at that statue, this art in deception as it sheltered a familiar pulsing and understanding.

"This is the Temple of Athame," began Liara. "And Athame Herself is the goddess of prophecy and fate. She is from a very old religion, as you can see. This religion has fallen out of favor with the asari, somewhat. We may reference it at times in saying things like by the goddess. But it is only tangential at best. I never meant anything by it whenever I would use the expression myself."

I remembered, "You think this has something to do with what Shiala told us? And Benezia?"

"Yes, I believe so. I am not entirely clear on the details of their mystic clues, however. Whatever the case is, there is a reason why I am able to sense what you also sense here. I must have acquired a Cipher of my own, one that helps me understand the Protheans intrinsically as you do."

"Shiala mentioned a Cipher, too… A second one, different from mine. Yours sounds way more advanced than mine, or at least—not quite the same. This must be the potential your mother talked about."

"It is different," settled Liara. "And I have finally seized this potential, now that I have stopped hesitating with you; now that our bond is true. As for where this came from: Benezia had a collection of writings passed down through generations of matriarchs in our family. This collection is titled Requiem of the Goddess. I presume it means the death of an idea, or a belief, rather than a literal goddess."

"That sounds…ominous. What'd you find out?"

Staring up at Athame again, Liara explained: "This statue is a lie, Shepard. This artwork, this deification, these beliefs…they are all lies. Athame looks like an asari. She is no such thing. Our gods across all asari religions are Protheans. I have dedicated my life to studying the Protheans, and not once had I come across any information about this. These secrets are classified at the highest levels of asari government."

"You mean Asari High Command knows?" I asked. "They know this, and they're purposely keeping it all a secret from the galaxy?"

"Yes…this sadly explains why we asari are so advanced compared to other species. It is not by any true merit of our own… We had ample assistance from the Protheans, first, when they arrived to Thessia during the Reaper invasion in their time. They uplifted my ancestors, teaching us everything they knew. They gave us the gift of biotics, of agriculture, of knowledge… All that we are is because of them."

"But…" I ran through all the information I thought I knew about the asari. "But how—is that possible? How could your people be so reliant on all this knowledge, without anyone finding out? Why wouldn't the Protheans want your species to worship them with the truth?"

"I cannot know for certain," said Liara, disappointed. "They left no records of their thinking on this. However, I did mention that they uplifted us in the middle of their war against the Reapers, when that war had not reached us here on Thessia. It is possible that the Protheans knew they would fall to the war. It is likely that they did not wish for my ancestors to become entirely reliant on them. We could not have sustained ourselves otherwise."

"So, this Cipher you have—Shiala said it's from you studying the Protheans for all these years. I guess, absorbing their experiences through sheer osmosis. Do your colleagues have something like this?"

"That is possible," replied Liara. "Unfortunately, theirs would only go to waste, if they had one. Mine is useful because I have come into contact with you, Shepard. Or, at least, someone like you. Someone who has also been touched by the Protheans, by their experiences. Someone whose mind can withstand the deep resistances any normal person would face when coming into contact with those experiences."

Everything made sense: "Then…this is how you're able to protect my mind. Protect me from indoctrination, from outside influences. This has to be why Saren was so obsessed with capturing you back then. He could've used you to keep himself from getting indoctrinated by Sovereign."

"Yes, I think that's correct."

"Okay, but—how are you able to keep me safe from something like the Thorian? That thing was thousands of years old. It was around even before the Protheans. Why would Saren think this Cipher of yours is powerful enough to protect him from a Reaper? Do you even know how crazy that sounds…?"

Liara gave me her thoughts, "Like the bond we share, much of these answers are known unknowns. Perhaps many unknown unknowns as well—things that we cannot possibly fathom on our own. They are unconscious. Though I do have a solid source for you to read over: it is what I discovered on Therum when you found me that day. I did not understand it at the time, and unfortunately, the text is incomplete. But, before that, I would like to give you something else first. It is related to the answers you need."

Reaching into one of the pockets of her lab coat, Liara pulled out what looked like…a photograph.

An actual picture in her hands, printed and laminated:

And it was of…us. The two of us, Liara and me, standing together on the Presidium not that long ago. The clear blue of the artificial sky above and of the waterways behind us, the specs of skycars flying by up above, and the perpetual white of the scenic buildings everywhere, in such harmony and peace—

In the photo, I looked down at Liara next to me, giving her what I remembered was an unintentional smile, easygoing. And Liara looked right back up at me, giving me a serene smile of her own: the same one that I had always loved her for, and still loved to this day…

And in the picture, I had my arms folded—a little guarded—but in my hand, I had that bottle in a bag.

That bottle of Blue Thessia mix, from the day I'd had those latent regrets come back up to the surface, about how Liara hadn't fully given herself to me…how I'd walked away from that chance.

Liara gave me that same smile, setting the picture in my hands. "Happy Birthday, Shepard."

She'd said our bond had started to reignite that day.

Was it only a coincidence that someone had taken this photograph of us, on that specific day?

"Liara, this is…something else," I breathed out. "Who took this? And why didn't I notice?"

"Tali did, in secret," she told me. "She noticed us there and saw the perfect frame. I also noticed her taking the photo with her omni-tool, and waited to ask her about it later. I then requested a copy for you. She has a wonderful eye for photography. I would not be surprised if she has taken more of these. Though I will also be sure to send you the digital copy, should anything happen to this one."

I wasn't usually sentimental, but… "Thanks for this, Liara. I really…appreciate it."

Liara beamed at me. "I am glad you approve," she expressed. "There is more on the back. It is a copy of the Prothean text I discussed before." I turned the picture around, finding a foreign language written here beneath the lamination. "Are you able to decipher the words there?"

"Yeah, sort of," I replied, struggling to match the letters in the right order. "…Liara, there's no way. Is this about—power plays? Dominance, and submission? One mind, one master. Ruling over someone's mind in that intimate way, as if it could keep them safe from anyone else indoctrinating them…? It looks like this process really is enough to protect someone from a Reaper taking over their mind. As long as they have their single master protecting them, secured, then absolutely nothing else can get past them."

"Yes, Shepard," confirmed Liara. "According to my mother's classified writings, this is how the Protheans tried to resist Reaper indoctrination as well. It would appear that they have passed that knowledge down through several generations, including to my ancestors when the Protheans uplifted us. This seemed to be their most reliable way of avoiding indoctrination entirely, which helped them to wage their decades-long war against the Reapers. But, of course, they lost to sheer attrition in the end…"

"And now you passed that knowledge on to me…? How? When?"

Liara reminded me: "Do you recall when you first activated your tactical cloak around me, and I was able to cloak with you? On Therum, deep down in the mines. That was the beginning."

"Sure, I fully intended on protecting you at the time. It fits with Dr. Chakwas' theory about how I'm able to transfer my abilities to you, through our collective unconscious. But, Liara, we didn't even know each other back then… If this is all true, then that part still makes no sense."

"I know," she resigned herself to accept. "I know, Shepard. I do not fully understand this, either. If I could give you all the answers, I would. This is all I know. This is all we have. Until we learn more, I cannot speculate as to the rest. I am relieved that we know this much, at least. Aren't you?"

"Yeah, I am…"

Taking all of this in, I did believe what Liara had told me.

Still, there was always something else. Something else we didn't know.

I thought back to Benezia's other notes from the lab on Noveria where we'd found her—the ones that Tali worked to unencrypt for us. Because if Benezia had known all of this information about the Protheans, there was no telling what we'd find on these other notes of hers.

But, regardless of what we did and didn't know at this point, we had a fighting chance against the Reapers now. If we could find a way to replicate the way Liara protected my mind from indoctrination—if Liara could study the Protheans' methods with this, and give our soldiers and maybe our civilians a more accessible way of fighting this—then we had a way to defeat the enemy.

Even if it meant fighting a long war that we might not have won in the end. There was always a chance.

There was always a chance…

There was always hope.

That faith, that belief, even if it was fleeting—it would keep the galaxy fighting.

I wanted to believe that. I really wanted to; this was our best shot. But for some reason…I couldn't.

No matter how much I'd changed lately, I still only knew how to rely on myself.

Was I too cynical? Too hardened, too damaged to trust in a hope and a prayer like this?

Staring up at this false goddess Athame, I couldn't help feeling that maybe, just maybe…I actually was right to only trust in my own abilities. At least for now. Like it would've been pointless—a stupid waste of time to put my faith in the rest of the galaxy in this way. How the hell could I let myself rely on other people like this, when people constantly proved themselves as unreliable in the best case scenarios?

Even I was unreliable.

I was about to be in a relationship with Ashley, and yet here I was, out on a date with Liara instead…

"You seem troubled, Shepard," noticed Liara. "Is everything all right?"

Why did she ask me that? Shouldn't she have known already?

"Liara, I feel like there's something missing here," I shared. "Like there's a giant piece of the puzzle that we're just not seeing somehow. Like we're thinking way too small about this indoctrination thing."

"Really?" she asked in genuine surprise. "This all seems quite clear to me… What do you mean?"

I rubbed my temples. "I don't know… This is all way over my head. I didn't get nearly enough sleep last night—maybe that's the problem."

Liara stood up. "Then you should return to the ship," she soothed. "Catch up on your sleep. At least while you can."

I found it strange that she knew about this, but not the other thing. "You know about that?"

"Of course," she responded. "You promised Ashley you would meet her at my mother's home at noon. The two of you plan on playing video games with one another—at least until you are interrupted by the others, as you predict. And I recommend being on time. We don't need to speak. I understand you."

"Well, I can't read your mind," I reminded her. "Aside from your email, I don't know what's going on with you. I don't know where we stand here."

Discreet, Liara guided me over to a corner of the temple, one with plenty of structures and artifacts in the way, shielding us from view. Shielding us from anyone outside the entrance, outside those security measures, and from someone who may have looked in and found us like this.

She leaned into my arms, into my hold, so smooth, like water fitting right back into this container of me.

I held her head close to my chest, needing her to hear me, to feel me like this again.

"Shepard, we needn't rush things," murmured Liara. "Not like before. It is clear that you and I will always have this between us. We will always have our bond, as well as the special intimacy it brings. I will be happy as long as I can feel you in this way. Do what you will with Ashley, as I said. What you and I have is important."

This was all I could say: "I guess I just…need some time to get to you know again."

"And I'd like that. Very much so."

I figured it wouldn't hurt to tell her, "Once we're done here in a couple of days, I'm going to tell Joker to get us to Earth. I can show you where I'm from. We can spend time together. Talk again. All of that."

Liara smiled in her gratitude. "Yes, that would be lovely," she replied. "And even if I must share you for now, that is fine. Ashley will inevitably hurt you beyond repair. When that happens, you will let her go."

I already had my answer, but I asked anyway, "How are you so sure…?"

She eased me down by my neck, by my shoulders, lowering me to her.

Liara gave me her answer, wrapped in this patience of her lips under mine, over mine, against mine: like the breadth of entire worlds here in her breath laced with mine, like infinite possibilities spread out across the way she moved into me, needing me again.

Not in desperation this time, like before. This time, she needed me in confidence, because she knew we were unbreakable, no matter what.

And she sewed me back together with this new confidence of hers, building me back up from before.

When Liara pulled away, studying me in this closeness, she found her own answers, whispering to me: "I know you, Shepard. And I know her, how reckless and demanding she is. One day, it will grow to be too much for you. Your tolerances can never bend that far, hence your fears over falling in love with her in the first place." She set her lips over my face, lingering. "Ashley only waited five years for you. I will wait for a thousand, if that's what it takes—until I die."

Surrounded by this divinity around us, I found comfort in Liara's words, in her clairvoyance: how she spoke to my own fears. And I found even more comfort in my own convictions, as confusing as they were right now.

But once we left the temple, and Liara and I parted ways—with her off to wrap up more of her mother's unfinished business, and me heading back to the ship—my intuition sharpened again.

I stopped right in the middle of the city, in this metropolis, staring up to the skyscrapers so high above.

Whatever Liara had been biding her time for, this date of ours was not it.

Even now, obscured from her, I felt that biding from her brimming and brimming more. Such a sense of foreboding overtook me—about her, about Ashley.

Once I felt this anxiety, I remembered that Ashley had sent me that email earlier this morning, before I left to meet Liara, and after she had left my room after our talk at midnight. I couldn't keep ignoring it.

Standing along this pearl white walkway that led back to the Normandy, I checked what this was, consumed right back in the flames of my choices. Consumed, because this was so new and unusual for me—this symbolism, this sentimentality. This appeared to be such a simple email, yet I saw far more here than the words on-screen:

From: Ashley – Superiority.

Commander,

I'm sorry for what I said back in your room earlier. It's your birthday. You were so romantic with me… I should've been more considerate. And…I shouldn't have walked away from that opportunity with you.

I didn't get much sleep after all… Needing my space turned into feeling guilty pretty much as soon as I made it back to the crew's quarters. I spent the whole night in heat, tossing and turning in my bed from how much I want you. I wish you could've heard me. I wish you could've come down to my room, finding me like that. I was such a mess.

Fuck, I need you to do it, right away. Right now.

But, we can't. I guess it's karma—my period started a few minutes ago. It's so annoying… I forgot to tell you I usually get it during the middle of the month. And it tends to last for like four days or so. Depending on how long we're on shore leave for, I seriously screwed myself by keeping my pride with you.

I doubt I'll get much sleep if I try. So I'm going to head back to Liara's place. Watch TV or something until you get here at noon. I still want to spend the whole day with you. All day, all night. I hope you're not too mad at me.

Again, I'm sorry. I miss you. I miss you so much… You have no idea how much I trust you now.

-Ash

Chapter Text

"Give Up" by FKA twigs / "After Hours" by The Weeknd

XII. Libra – After Hours

(Shepard)

To: Ashley – Re: Superiority.

Ashley,

You don't have to apologize. You had every reason to be upset.

With that said, I have some thoughts of my own about this situation.

For the record, I will take some time to speak with Liara again, as you told me to do. Beyond that, I don't want you to assume anything about me spending this time with her. You more or less gave the impression that you don't want to know the details. So if you agree to stop bringing her up, and to stop arguing with me about her, we're golden. I understand your resentments, but it's best if we move past this, to avoid the worst happening. Find some other way to vent about it. I'm over it. I'm done.

Regardless of whatever else, I still want you to be with me. That isn't going to change.

And maybe the four days or so are a blessing in disguise. It should give you some time to think about whether you really want to be with me on this level. I don't doubt your convictions. I only get the feeling that if it's not Liara, there will always be someone else you'll feel threatened by. I can't help who ends up being attracted to me. I get the sense you that you'll hold it against me anyway. That wouldn't be fair.

Either way, we'll spend the day together. All day, all night. I'll go along with whatever you want to do.

A small aside: I want you to wear your hair down, with this same style, from now on. I like it on you a lot.

I'll see you soon.

-Shepard

.

From: Ashley – Re: Superiority.

Commander,

I understand what you're saying… I promise I won't bring her up anymore. Not like that. I'm afraid of pissing you off with this. I'll leave it alone. Sorry.

I know it's selfish that I need you to be faithful to me. It's not what we agreed on when we started this thing we have. And I really shouldn't tell you this…it's so pathetic. But if you did cheat on me, if you did break my heart, I still…wouldn't leave you. No matter how many times you might hurt me, I wouldn't be able to let you go. I couldn't move on. I can't quit you. Trust me—it's the truth…

You're the only person in my life who has this kind of influence on me. And I know exactly what I have to do to be the same for you. Whatever you need, Shepard, I can give it to you. I'm the only one who can. No one else. I want you to believe that. I wish you'd accept that I'll never stop fighting for you. Ever.

I'm not letting you give up on me, either, no matter what anyone says. I love you way too much for that.

You'll never admit it, but that's just what you need. As long as you know that I know, then we're fine.

Unrelated, but…I'm really happy you like my hair. I got it cut while we were on the Citadel the day before yesterday. It's a little too short for me to tie it back like I did before, even in combat. So I'll leave it down from now on, just for you. Shouldn't get in the way…not like if you kept your hair down during missions.

I know it's impractical—I wish you would anyway, at least once. You're that gorgeous.

Still can't wait to see you again.

-Ash


Chest constricting, heart tightening over and over again, tighter and tighter, I could hardly hold this in.

Walking along this path to Liara's house, I saw the building in the nearing distance, blue and silver as glass glinting in this late-morning light here on Thessia.

Neck and face heated and humid like I was in the middle of a sauna, like some kind of heated, flaming firewall had erected somewhere deep in my psyche, I had started sweating on my way over here—enough to make me fan out the collar of my white shirt, my long sleeves billowing with this wind; not enough to cancel out this fresh scent of me from my shower not too long ago. I ruffled my hair along my scalp to try and alleviate this, the length fanning out behind me as a brief air conditioner. Too brief.

Almost trapped in the dark blue of my jeans, this throbbing heat between me made it difficult to walk normally, but I forced myself to look normal anyway. And my heavy boots seemed to catch more gravity, more ground underneath me, black glistening in the occasional shallow waterways I passed through.

The way Ashley was with me, pedal to the metal at all times, it was…

It was enough to make me lick at this faint bleeding over my gums, from having brushed my teeth too hard, chafing them raw with my cinnamon-flavored toothpaste, to keep Ashley from tasting her.

And it was enough for me to make my way here earlier than I'd planned.

Checking my omni-tool as I stood outside the door to Liara's place, it was only 11am.

Ashley had already said she couldn't wait to see me.

So I headed inside, not knowing what to expect.

Glad that I had dodged a possibly-awkward birthday surprise encounter with everyone waiting for me right by the door, I continued on. Though everyone did seem to be awake, as I heard the sounds of their echoing conversation coming from the kitchen. I followed their voices, curious that they were actually up relatively early after their partying last night. Then again, maybe it wasn't by choice.

The TV in the usual living room was on a news channel, oddly enough: a live broadcast of the Alliance News Network. Showing grainy footage of covert Cerberus operations, the newscasters went on about the organization's efforts to create super humans through their experiments on rachni. They didn't seem to know the official story of what Cerberus had done to Rear Admiral Kahoku—or they did have the information, and they chose not to report it to the masses. For better or for worse, anyway.

I pulled out from my pocket the red pro controller that Ashley gifted me this morning, setting it on the coffee table for now. I looked forward to showing her at least one of my games today.

I went over to the kitchen nearby, finding Wrex, Joker, Garrus, Tali, Kaidan, and Ashley all surrounding the center island in the bright room, engaged in their discussion. They were so engaged, in fact, that they failed to notice me here. So I leaned on the archway of the entrance, arms folded as I listened in:

"No way, we can't get that!" dismissed Joker. "Pizza? Why the heck would Shepard wanna eat something basic like…pizza? Dude, seriously, can you picture it? 'Cause I sure can't!"

Kaidan spoke up, "I'm gonna have to agree with Joker on this one. Shepard's a sophisticated person, don't you think? Whenever we go to the Citadel, she refills her alcohol stocks with some pretty expensive bottles. That's not someone who'd settle for eating plain old pizza all day on her birthday."

Joker persisted, "Of course she's sophisticated—she was a freaking model for crying out loud! This is why I said we shouldn't buy her an actual present. It's the same thing!"

Tali wondered, "Why did you say we shouldn't buy Shepard a real gift?"

Sensible, Ashley said, "We can't afford her. Not on these salaries… Then again, maybe Liara could. I bet she earned a fortune from her Mom's inheritance money she mentioned… Too late to ask now."

She certainly looked nice today in her form-fitting, black sleeveless top and that pair of tight, light jeans. I was intrigued by the classic red-and-white sports sneakers she had on. Ashley would wear those.

Seeing her bare, toned arms supporting her as she leaned over the counter; her long shirt tightened over her breasts and the thin straps of her bra underneath, shaping her hips and rounding around her ass; and the slender slopes of her taut jeans around her long legs down to her shoes—it was perfection.

"True," agreed Garrus. "Just means we have to get creative. Win her over with the right food instead."

Wrex grumbled, "You make her sound like a real snob. What's wrong with pizza? Even I like it, and I hate most of your damn human food! That eezo thing sounds weird, though… I don't trust it."

Ashley gestured to a closed box atop the counter, insisting, "Look, I'm telling you, she'll like what I bought! Why won't you believe me?"

"How do you know for certain?" asked Tali, suspicious. "I thought you knew nothing about her, hm?"

Bailing Ashley out, Garrus said, "Hey, I don't know about you, but the pizza idea sounds like fun for the rest of us. It's got eezo in it, right? And there's a flavor that won't kill Tali and me if we try it? I sure wouldn't mind having some biotic powers for a few minutes after eating some. Even if they are weak."

Flexing blue with his own biotics, Wrex joked, "How 'bout I toss you around for a bit on my own? See how those puny turian scales hold up when I send you flying across the room!"

"Let's settle down, Wrex," cautioned Kaidan. "We don't want any repeats of last night, do we? If we pull this off, and we get the commander to come out with us tonight, she's not gonna be impressed if you start playing hockey again with beer bottles and your biotics."

Wrex defended himself, "I cleaned it all up before Liara found out, didn't I? Unless you ratted me out!"

Before this got heated, I finally asked the group in an unimpressed monotone, "What are you doing?"

Everyone turned around and found me here, gaping at me in their own different ways—until all of their complaints and shock mangled together, indiscernible as a bunch of noise.

Joker's objection pushed through, "Jesus Christ, Commander, it was bad enough when you gave me a heart attack the first time! Why'd you have to go and give me another one?!"

"Yeah, Shepard," hassled Wrex. "What are we doing? What're you doing here?! You're early!"

Tali took note of my heavy boots. "I stand corrected, then," she soured. "It seems you're always silent no matter what kind of shoes you have on. If I wasn't so startled by you right now, I'd be impressed."

Fuming, Ashley stormed over to me—"What the hell?! You said you'd be here at noon! It's only eleven!"

As soon as she reached me here, everyone's attention shifted: they watched us closely, and they watched us with such a telling, nosey interest, trying to learn us here as we interacted together. I figured, since they all knew, there was really no point in pretending anymore. To some extent, anyway.

I gave her my dry reminder, "I said I would be here by noon. There's a difference."

Realizing that I was right, Ashley gave her sheepish reply, "Well, that's not fair…"

Joker sneered, "Wow, way to go, Ash. I guess we can always count on you to be the honorary blonde on the team, huh?"

"Damnit, Joker, no one asked you!"

I pulled Ashley's attention back with ease: "I emailed you about this already. Did I not tell you like half an hour ago that I'd see you soon? Or did you not read the whole thing before you responded to me?"

Ashley explained, "I thought you meant in an hour and a half—half an hour ago…"

"Ash, just because you kept saying at noon, I wasn't going to change my plans."

"So you did know I expected you here at noon!" she spotted. "You just came here earlier to be a creep!"

"Who's creeping around? Does it look like I'm cloaked? Come on."

Exasperated, defeated, Ashley spoke the obvious, "It's like Tali said—you're quiet, that's all… Sorry."

I shrugged, justifying, "Well, I'm here now. Do you want me to come back in an hour or something?"

Nearly everyone shouted, "No!" in unison, making me roll my eyes.

Then they all exchanged looks with one another—disjointed, unprepared. Their emails to me hadn't been enough. I felt their intentions: an impromptu chanting, or worse—singing—of Happy Birthday.

I held my hand up, intercepting them—"Don't. Please, I'm way too cynical for that shit."

Kaidan laughed first. "That you are, Commander."

"Damn," mourned Garrus. "I always wanted to do that for a human at least once. Seemed exciting."

Tali sounded amused, "Hmm, why am I not surprised you hate this particular tradition?"

Wrex ridiculed, "I wasn't gonna sing it anyway. Sounds dumb to me! And depressing, for my people."

"Crap," worried Joker. "I thought you'd at least stand there and let us make things awkward for you."

Ashley snapped at him, "I told you! You should've listened to me!"

While the team continued their debate about what to eat for the rest of the day, I stood by Ashley's side at the island in the middle of the kitchen. This box of whatever food she had bought had me intrigued. I pulled it toward me, opening it, and finding a pleasant surprise that reached my nose first:

Buttery, fresh, and still warm—Ashley had decided on cinnamon rolls for me.

Leaning over the surface, languid, I couldn't help smiling a little, eyes lighting up, almost child-like, feeling like a kid again. I helped myself to some of the rolls, glad they weren't obnoxiously huge: small enough to fit in my hand. I enjoyed this taste, much more savory than my usual toothpaste, obviously.

I thought back to home, back to the days I used to spend out on those pearly beaches with my old friends. There was always a trusty stand out on the boardwalks where someone would sell fresh, warm churros, or fluffy baked cinnamon sticks. Back when we didn't have much money, we could at least afford these, sometimes surviving a couple of days on a single one if we really had to.

All I needed was a frothy, sweet Orange Julius drink and that would've rounded out the nostalgia.

I hadn't thought back to those days in a long time, though. How unexpected… So much had changed since then.

Most of my friends had died on the streets, depressed and alone, having overdosed on red sand—or they'd gotten shot to death over stupid shit, over nothing, over the gang wars that had plagued us.

Or we had gotten separated after losing our only real home, once the city's gentrification efforts had evicted us and bulldozed away our memories, our stability—and the only dignity we'd had left.

Or we had just lost touch over the years, especially once I saved myself by taking on a job I didn't want.

On a superficial level, anyway, I hadn't had these same mannerisms of mine back then: hooking this roll with my thumb and middle finger, keeping my smallest one fanned out ever so much; and chewing with the faintest of indications that I even had anything in my mouth at all. And even when I did chew, I hated the thought of anyone seeing me do it. Instinctively, I kept this roll right in front of my mouth, only a breath away, guarding myself behind it while I stared off in a focused intensity, thinking on this.

Of course, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Ashley staring at me, giving herself away, more.

I didn't mean to lick my lips, tasting this lingering aftereffect of butter and cinnamon.

Ashley couldn't even think to hide her burning face in her hands or anything. She kept staring. She kept her thoughts plain in her eyes, and in her beautiful face, of how much she wanted me. How much she needed me to lift her onto this counter, get on top of her and kiss her, and fuck her—immediately.

Or she wanted me to eat her out, though not quite as graceful as I was with this cinnamon roll.

Too bad she was on her period…

And everyone watched her watching me with those filthy, desperate thoughts of hers.

I kept on pretending I didn't notice; kept on pretending my attention was elsewhere as I ate.

I fooled the team into thinking I was oblivious, getting them to give themselves away, too:

"Ash!" interrupted Joker, waving his hand in front of her face. "Earth to Ashley! Thessia to Ashley! Hey! Stare any harder and you'll broadcast this thing to the whole galaxy! You know what the vid's gonna be called? Will They or Won't They: How Ashley Williams Needs Commander Shepard to Bang Her, Badly!"

Ashley realized what she'd done, and turned a brighter red, hiding. "Oh, God… Did I seriously just…?"

Tali teased her, "You're terrible at this, you know."

Wrex gave a bellowing laugh. "No shit! I wondered how long it'd take before you cracked in front of us."

Garrus just had to say, "Looks like the cat's finally out of the bag, huh? I told you, Chief."

Kaidan almost laughed. "You've been saving that one for this exact occasion, haven't you, Garrus?"

"Maybe I have, Kaidan. Maybe I have."

"Hey, wait a minute!" protested Ashley. "I mean, Garrus told me that you guys probably knew… But—am I really that obvious?"

This time, mostly everyone said, "Yes!" at once.

Tali reiterated something that Ashley had very likely said: "Subtlety's not your thing, remember?"

"Hah, yeah right!" mocked Joker. "Screw being subtle! This is like you firing off a gigantic flare whenever Shepard's around, begging her to f—"

"—okay, okay!" conceded Ashley. "I'm the worst at hiding what I want. I get it! Can we drop this now?!"

"Oh, hell no! Ash, we are so having this conversation! Do you even know how awesome this is!? We spent the past three months giving you chance after chance, just waiting for you to slip up! Aside from you and Shepard burning down whatever rooms you were in, we had nothing. Turns out, all we had to do was put you and the commander together while she eats something that could be a lot like your—"

Kaidan stopped him there. "Whoa, Joker… Might be a little too early in the day for that conversation…"

Finishing my breakfast, I stopped myself from licking this cinnamon off of my fingers, even in subtlety. I went over to the sink instead, washing my hands with this blueberry-scented soap. That was enough to get the group to drop their so-called conversation, however abrupt, not wanting me to know what they then went back to their innocuous—and less heated—discussion about food for the day.

I left everyone to their supposedly innocent debate, returning to the living room.

Too humiliated to stay with them now, Ashley followed me to the couch, suffering the sounds of Wrex and Joker sniggering in her wake.

Sitting down with her right next to me, I fiddled with the remote and the TV appropriately. I used my omni-tool and my new controller to connect my virtual game console to this screen. Sorting this all out, I figured it was best to give Ashley a moment to get herself together. Then again, I wasn't exactly clear on why she was so embarrassed. She gave the impression that she would've been proud for anyone to know that we were involved.

Unless she wanted to avoid the truth of how deep this went, knowing that the others would ask.

Not ashamed with me in private; still ashamed of anyone else discovering those depths.

Once I found that my system needed to download and install an update, I looked to Ashley again.

I said to her, "Thanks for the food, by the way. I have a weakness for cinnamon. You all right, babe?"

That one thing set her off again and again, all over again.

Ashley shifted in her seat, shifting against me, wondering, "How long is this update going to take?"

"About ten minutes, maybe," I estimated. "One of the downsides of playing such old games. Why?"

Standing up with a suddenness, she held my hand and said, "Come with me. Right now."

I let her pull me along, knowing that the others stared and stared from the kitchen.

Down the hall Ashley dragged me to the nearest guest bathroom.

She opened the door. I gestured for her to walk inside first. Appreciating my manners while at the same time having no patience for them right now, she yanked me in the room with her. Ridges of my boots snapping atop the marble of the flooring, Ashley closed the door shut behind me. I hardly had any time to take in what the bathroom looked like, aside from the impressive amount of space in here.

Slamming me, hard, Ashley pushed my back against the surface of the door. Before the back of my head could slam there, too, with that momentum, she pulled my shoulders, pulled at my neck, pulling me down so that I was level with her. And she angled herself up to me, holding on to me for support.

Penetrating my mouth with the thick of her lips alone, and in one continuous motion of deprivation, she pushed at mine, so hard and so deep against mine.

Needing to breathe me, Ashley all but fused herself with me, hating this separation, hating this distance.

Rebelling against it all, she licked at my lips and bit at them with enough restraint, instead pressing herself so hard into me, reinventing my own breaths and body heat to compete with hers, breathless and relentless—and I couldn't breathe, I couldn't keep up with her sudden onslaught, the way she pulled at my hands to make me grip her hips, the way she climbed me, the way she kept pushing me back against this door in impatience, impatience, impatience—

Trying to break away to fucking breathe, "Ashley—"

Ramming me, harder, she refused to relent.

As much as I tried to breathe outside of her, Ashley took everything right from my mouth for herself.

She expected me to take enough right back for myself, right from her, even as much as her tongue burrowed against mine in this strength of hers, igniting me.

As soon as I gave this back to her—wrapping her torso in my arms, locking her in my own strength—she let out such a sound, such a high sound of surprise that made me smirk against her, baring my teeth.

Ashley couldn't take it, not even for this brief moment.

She burrowed her face against my chest, heaving for breath in my hold.

And once I let her hear this deep laugh of mine—sinister, knowing—she almost bucked her knees.

"Oh, no," she whined. "No, why now? Why today? Fuck, I should've stayed with you last night…"

"I'm sure you've learned your lesson," I lectured.

Ashley pushed at me a bit, enough to make me relax my hold around her. "Yeah," she agreed. "I'm letting you know as soon as this is done with." She then looked up at me all of a sudden, sheepish again, but more…apologetic this time. "Um…could you—give me a minute?"

Suffocating my laughter back, for now, I asked her, "You have to change it now?"

"Ugh…"

She was so damn embarrassed; I cracked up, freer than I'd meant to, and loud enough for all to hear.

Even more embarrassed, Ashley maneuvered me aside, and then maneuvered the door open.

"Get out, Shepard!" she shouted, as she all but ejected me back out to the hall. I kept laughing. "God, you're such a fucking jerk! Will you go back to the living room and wait for me already?!"

Somewhere down the hallway, I saw someone tugging Joker back around the corner, causing his pilot's cap to fall from his head. Groaning and cursing in agony, Joker struggled to bend down and retrieve his hat from the floor, his brittle bones aching and protesting against him as he did.

Barely able to breathe as I leaned against this wall, I just kept on laughing anyway.

Ashley shut the door, locking it—red of the door controls gleaming in heated warning.

I managed to amble far enough away from the bathroom, for now, still catching my breath.

I gave Joker and his accomplice, or rather his accomplices, enough time to run back to the kitchen, again with me pretending as if I didn't notice their ridiculousness.

Once that time had passed, I went back to the living room, back to the couch, still smiling.

I knew that the others wanted to come in here—they wanted so badly to ask what that was all about.

Somehow, they managed to restrain themselves, keeping their conversation to a curious whisper.

My system had finished with this update, anyway. I continued the setup process of logging into my profile, scrolling through my virtual collection of games afterward. With Ashley on my mind, I paused over a few other games—stealth, action-adventure, RPGs—wondering if she would like them. I already planned on playing the one she had asked me about yesterday. Still, it was nice to think about her in this way, figuring out what she might've been into if she ever decided to play something on her own.

For some reason, I could really see her liking competitive shooters, instead of this cooperative one.

Or anything competitive. Anything with multiplayer, with a ranking system. Anything to prove herself.

I started up my N7 game right on time: Ashley returned to the room, looking grumpy.

I stood up on her arrival and faced her.

She stopped, noticing me, noticing my meaning.

Grumpiness subsiding, Ashley instead burned in reticence with everyone's attention on us. She made her way back over to me. I tracked her with my eyes and my body, keeping any other distracting thoughts out of my expression. I seemed peaceable enough, and I was. But once Ashley reached me, her lingering embarrassment wouldn't let her enjoy this; she put her hands atop my shoulders, plopping me back down over the couch. She then hid her face against my shoulder, holding onto my arm, clinging.

She said nothing, so I took my cue, picking the controller back up and getting started.

Though Ashley did smile into me when she saw that I chose to put her gift to use.

I cycled through my roster of characters and classes, figuring out what to show her first.

I always played infiltrators.

Maybe I could pick something different this time; or maybe I'd look through all of these characters, humor myself as usual, and then go back to what I was used to.

Ashley gaped at the screen. "Is that a geth?!" she balked, offended. "You can play as a geth in this game? Different kinds of geth? And vorcha, too? Vorcha can be sentinels?! What the hell!?"

Sighing, I told her, "It's just a game, Ash… It isn't real."

"I know, but… We've scoped down tons of those tin cans out there! And this game lets you…be one?"

"This is only a game," I reiterated. "It's not blasphemy. We're not going to hell for playing as a geth. There are friendly units we can play as, and there's an enemy faction of geth to fight against. And there are even mock battles against the Alliance as another enemy unit. The geth here are just as flexible."

"That's so weird…" Ashley seriously reconsidered this, for me. "I wanna watch you play as one, then."

I asked her, "Which class do you want me to be? There's only geth soldier, engineer, or infiltrator."

Humming as I showed her the selection, Ashley settled on, "Infiltrator."

"I'm not surprised," I replied, smiling.

"I want to see you in your element, Shepard. No surprise there."

I assumed that Ashley also wanted to see my sniper rifle play, so I made sure I had my weapon and equipment set up accordingly.

I then searched for a lobby on the usual Gold difficulty setting, finding one right away.

I was only the third person to join. As we waited for one more player, I spotted Ashley taking note of the information about me on the screen: my profile name, my Sniper banner and designation, my N7 rank.

"I like your gamer name," she complimented. "Vespair. It's—easy to remember. Unique, too."

"Just don't tell anyone what it is," I said. "For obvious reasons."

"My lips are sealed."

While we waited, though, I sensed that Ashley wanted to ask me about something.

Perhaps she wasn't sure if she should ask, hence this hesitant flavor to her silence.

I prompted her, "What's on your mind, babe?"

Getting straight into it, Ashley recalled, "You never mention having cramps or anything. No headaches, no mood swings. I've been trying to figure out when that time of the month is where you might seriously need your space. So…why don't you talk about those things with me?"

"Because there's nothing to talk about."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

I tried again, differently, "I don't have those problems, Ashley."

"Wait. Are you saying…?"

"I dealt with this a long time ago—permanently," I explained. "As soon as I had the money, I got the procedure done. I did it for personal reasons and professional ones. With my specialization, it would be too inconvenient to have that get in the way of a possible long-term operation, like how Torfan was for me. If I'm stuck somewhere for several days, and there's no way to leave for a while, that's…too much."

"Oh… Makes sense," reasoned Ashley, disappointed. "Then what were your personal reasons?"

Once this fourth person finally joined, I checked myself as ready along with my other teammates.

We began loading into the match. But this fourth person's name, Infiltrait0rN7, seemed familiar to me…

"It was too…inconvenient," was all I said.

Ashley wanted more, "That's all…?"

I knew this was personal for her. "Ash, I grew up in a fucked up world. Yeah, I had adults who cared about me, who looked out for me. They kept a roof over my head, kept me in school, all of that. But the rest of the world gave up on us…on me. I could only watch as I lost those adults to their own demons, to drugs, to the bottom of a bottle of alcohol. I've seen my own best friends get shot before my eyes all because they walked on the wrong side of the street, wearing black instead of red. That was all I knew until I got out. Why would I want to bring a child into that world? It would've been irresponsible of me."

And I somehow told her that story, all while playing this game with my usual concentration, and all while sniping headshots one after another, like it didn't matter.

Meanwhile, Ashley's breaths tightened, all as she held my arm tighter, watching me play. I couldn't help noticing the way she tracked my thumbs, how I flicked the analog sticks in precision for those headshots.

Aside from how much she valued family in general, I got the sense that this upset her for other reasons. Reasons that she wouldn't dare tell me at a time like this. Some of those reasons, I was sure, had to do with how much she worried for me—how much I had seen, and how desensitized I was to everything.

Even now, I shot these virtual Alliance units like they were nothing, blood spattering; not caring at all.

Yet Ashley wished to learn from me: "How did you do it, Shepard…? How'd you keep yourself together?"

"I didn't," I admitted. "I avoided most things, and I ran away from the rest. I found enough control that way. Anything to keep me from feeling that uncontrollable anguish of losing everything—again."

She still wanted to know, "But how? How'd you pull it off? How'd you keep going? How'd you stay alive when it seemed like your entire world wanted you dead?"

"I survived, Ash. Survival at all costs. The moment I felt threatened by someone, it was either kill or be killed. I usually had no time to de-escalate the problem; to use my diplomacy you're so familiar with. If I had time, then the person was already dead anyway. Give me time, and I will plan, stalk, and then kill. Don't give me time, and I will snap and terrify someone; overwhelm their mind. Either way, I'll win."

Reinforcement: Ashley watched my gameplay, watching how I never hesitated, how I never stopped.

Planning my approach with my cloak hiding me, stalking—and then I took the shots, every time.

And she didn't shy away from me, listening to me speak like this in such coldness.

"I have a lot to learn from you," said Ashley. "Tell me more about your instincts. I want to know."

We spent a few hours talking about this as I kept playing, with Ashley absorbing my every word.

Though speaking of my instincts: at some point during our conversation, I spotted Tali out of the corner of my eye, walking down the hall. It looked like she was on her way upstairs to the bedrooms there. Probably heading to Liara’s room. Tali had her head canted down, attention intensely focused on her omni-tool, the orange glow reflecting off of the violet of her mask. I imagined she was in the middle of talking with Liara through the chat room. Maybe they were busy messaging each other privately. And even though I couldn’t see Tali’s face, there was something about her that seemed highly emotional. Emotional, yet controlled. Anxious?

I was tempted to go follow her. To ask if she was all right. Something told me to give Tali her space instead. She was clearly in the middle of something important. Something that was likely none of my business. I didn’t want to interrupt her.

But about Ashley:

Compared to me—her family and sexuality issues aside—she'd grown up in a relatively sheltered life.

Ashley had a biological family who cared for her. She'd had normal friends at school. She'd had her sports teams to focus on, and a future to look forward to. She'd never had to worry about protecting herself or her sisters from yet another gang war, from yet another drive-by shooting at home. She'd never had to deal with the danger of surviving in that world: to either join up with one of the gangs and start dealing, start walking the streets for credits, or finding some other miracle to make it all stop.

I had found some other miracle, and now I was here with Ashley, as her dream come true.

It always came down to this.

It always came back to this, with Ashley's heart prevailing over all else.

After these few hours discussing this brutal topic, she asked me to stop playing, at least for now.

I left the lobby and returned to the main menu, letting the ambiance from this music fill the room. I set my controller down on the table, out of the way. And I turned to face her, giving her my full attention.

The rest of the team had found their way to the other, smaller living room, staying quiet over there.

They'd ceded this larger space to us, giving us this privacy, somehow without spying on us—all as the best birthday present they could've given me.

As for Ashley, I had felt this conversation coming for a long time now. Whenever she brought up her family, telling me anecdotal stories about her sisters or her parents, I never knew how to feel, how to react. I knew everyone's names. I knew their quirks, their personalities secondhand. I knew the objective details. But I could never know what it was like to have that kind of bond with someone, romantic or otherwise—to rely on that someone, and to trust that they would always be there, no matter what.

"Shepard, I have to ask you about this," said Ashley, pushing her caution away. "You know how much family means to me. And I've always known you were an orphan… I don't think it's really hit me before: how different we are from each other. It's hitting me now, with this conversation. The girlfriends you've had in the past…did they ever want something more with you? You know—marriage, kids, a home…"

I responded, "They all did. One of my exes admitted that she planned on proposing to me."

"Why didn't she go through with it…? And how long ago was this?"

"She didn't go through with it because I wasn't there. We'd planned on taking some elaborate trip together. But about a week before, we got into a stupid fight. For me, it was one stupid fight too many. I ended up not going with her. She had bought me a ring and everything. This happened seven years ago."

Ashley didn't want to know the answer to this, yet she asked anyway, "Would you have told her yes? Even if you were just—caught up in the moment?"

"No."

"Then why were you with her if you didn't…if you didn't want to be with her long-term like that?"

She had gotten to the heart of a foreign, uncomfortable issue for me.

"Ashley, not every relationship leads to marriage," I said instead. "Otherwise the divorce rate across the galaxy would be much higher than it is now."

"That's not what I mean, Shepard," insisted Ashley, getting right back to this issue. "I'm talking about your ex. I'm talking about you. Why be with her like that if you didn't want to marry her? She wouldn't have proposed unless you two were serious. You were serious, right?"

"We were," I replied.

"So…?"

"I was too young. I wasn't ready. And I didn't know what marriage meant. I wouldn't have known how to honor her as my wife. All I really cared about was work. When I wasn't deployed, I would stay with her, and she would try to take care of me. We argued too much. I checked out from the relationship. I left."

Now that Ashley seemed anxious in her silence—shallow breaths, shaking—it suddenly hit me.

Back when I'd assumed that Liara was the type to not have sex unless she was in a relationship with someone—unless this someone valued marriage; unless the relationship could have led to marriage—I had made the wrong assumption. Or I'd made the right assumption, but about the wrong person.

Or maybe not quite, still.

I remembered that Ashley had hooked up with others in the past. She'd been able to make that disconnect, living in the moment. And perhaps, at some point, she had been able to make that same disconnect with me, not really minding either way if I did or did not share these strong values that she treasured so much. Regardless, she had been happy to be with me in the moment, every moment.

But our situation kept escalating.

And now that we had shared our feelings on what we wanted with each other in trust—in dominance, in submission—the situation had escalated once again.

Obviously, Ashley would not ask me the most direct questions about this.

She knew that it was way too much, way too soon.

Still, there were plenty of other questions she could have asked me to fill in the blanks instead.

But she seemed to only draw those exact same blanks in her nerves.

"Ash, let me help you out here," I offered. "My situations with my exes are all in the past. And even when I did tell you my state of mind at the time, it was also just that—in the past. I'm not the same person I was years ago, or even months ago. A lot's changed. My life…has changed. I've changed."

Searching my eyes, Ashley needed to know, "How've you changed, then? Tell me. Please…"

I wanted to dodge her question.

I wanted to point out that she already knew the answer to her question.

She had watched me change over this time.

The team had watched me change over this time.

Everything around me had watched me change over this time.

"I'm more…responsible," I listed. "And I'm more likely to put someone else's needs above my own. I tried doing this with my exes, since it is a natural part of who I am. That clashed with my unwillingness to actually love them. I didn't know what any of that meant… I have a better idea these days." Taking this risk, I chose to remind her: "I know you're upset about what I did with Liara back then… But the truth is, she unlocked this growth in me. I wouldn't be this way with you now if not for her. Really."

Ashley was satisfied enough with that, and took a figurative step forward to ask, "Could you fall in love with me, despite how afraid you are? Could you do it, knowing what I want someday down the line…?"

"I could fall in love with you because of how afraid I am. And I've already accepted this about you."

Listening to me speak with my fears and convictions both, with my convictions overriding all else, I saw the change in Ashley's eyes, in her demeanor.

After all this time, she'd chased after me, relentlessly and without rest, without expecting anything in return. She had been content to express herself to me, to get to know me, to go at my slow, glacial pace. She had loved me in my distance, promising to stand by me anyway.

Now, these flames had evolved and converged, enough to unsettle her in what this meant.

And I hadn't even told her the full truth: that I knew for certain I would fall in love with her someday.

Someday continued to speed closer, sooner and sooner by the second, ready to shatter me, to end me.

I had Ashley lie down along the couch, her head and her shoulders propped up by the armrest.

Knowing that we couldn't do anything, I settled myself between her anyway, resting my head over her chest. I felt blanketed by the tightness of her jeans, her long legs around me. Buffered by her quiet shock, and tempered by these limitations, Ashley held me closer in a natural instinct. Breathing slowed and under duress from her thoughts, she let herself be here with me in this moment, uninterrupted.

As natural as this was for her, it was not natural for me.

As much as this soothed her, to have me level with her like this, she didn't soothe me as I'd expected.

During these hours, Ashley gave me a much different feeling than I'd imagined.

Afternoon passing to evening, and evening passing to night, I fell asleep with her here, knowing that she stayed awake the entire time. Staying here with me, Ashley refreshed all that I had already felt. She reinforced me, reinvigorated me. She stroked my hair and held me around my back, my shoulders, in a way that reminded me of what I was, strengthening me; not once pulling me out of my own reality.

Ashley needed me to exist as I was—without letting me run away, without letting me stay in my head.

Restoring me, adoring me, I could rest with this feeling from her. At least until it was time to wake again to the rest of the night, the rest of what she and everyone else—and time itself—had in store for me.


Armali's city lights at their brightest after sunset: that time was now.

Ashley and the others managed to get me out of the house after dark. As another birthday gift, sort of, Liara had rented a skycar for us, to help us get around the city without needing to rely on public transportation. And she wanted me to drive, letting me decide where I wanted us to go for the night.

We hadn't really eaten anything that day. Aside from me sneaking more cinnamon rolls before leaving Liara's place, I knew I should have gotten some actual dinner tonight. So we headed out to the car—thankfully with two backseats, leaving plenty of room for everyone—while I used my omni-tool to locate the coordinates to the destination I had in mind. I figured we could head downtown, park in one of those communal lots, and then walk the short way to a strip mall and entertainment center nearby.

The team would never ask me directly to take them out to a nightclub. Still, I knew that they wanted to go, so I added that as the second stop to our itinerary, after everyone had eaten dinner at the mall.

Tints of orange and vermillion still distilling across the night skies, I opened the automatic car doors for everyone, lifting. I was glad that they were all wrapped up in conversation already. They broke off into groups: deep in a private discussion as usual, Liara and Tali claimed the backmost seat for themselves, their arms linked together in closeness. That left Garrus and Wrex to almost crush Joker and Kaidan in between them in the middle seat.

I held Ashley's hand as I helped her into the passenger's seat, knowing that she didn't need my help, necessarily, but more for the gesture. Girlish in her delight, she beamed at me the whole time, brighter than the metropolis' lights in the far distance and the glowing clusters of stars in the night sky above.

Music blasting just under everyone's conversations, I drove us to that parking lot in the heart of the city. Feeling no need to rush, I found myself relishing this time, this energy, with the team seeming to enjoy the simmering booms of my trip-hop and electronic music drilling through the skycar's speaker system.

I felt that drilling even more through Ashley's hand in mine, using my other hand to drive just fine. Out of the corner of my eye, I held her serenity and joy unbridled as she gazed at me from time to time. I knew she enjoyed this more because everyone watched us, even as the guys joked around right behind us, making it quite obvious that they saw our hands interlaced over the center armrest in their view.

Though I did spot Liara leering at me each time I looked in the rear-view mirror, the hard focus of her blue eyes lanced by the passing headlights and brighter lights as I drove along.

Maybe Tali, too, at least from the way her helmet faced me in this intensity, her obscurity crossed and lined by the same flashing lights.

Ashley couldn't notice them from where she sat, busy enjoying the music, the moment, the memory.

After making it to the parking lot, we then took the short walk to the tall, tall city center that housed all kinds of places for leisure and entertainment here in downtown Armali.

Holding Ashley's hand again as we walked, I felt myself guiding her with pride, however subtle. I kept my thumb over hers, interlacing laced appropriately—and in this lacing, her touch heated mine in continuous pulses, radiating without sweating. Clean comfort and a perfect fit, our fingers equally thin.

All around us, I spotted the passing asari and the handful of people from other species, staring at us.

Staring at Ashley here with me, staring at me here with her; walking around us to cede a path.

I knew Ashley liked the attention—this kind of attention with me.

As high as the skyscrapers raised around us, skycars whirring by way overhead in lines of brake lights and headlights, this was what kept her attention here on the ground with me, smiling up at me often.

Every now and then, she would turn around to talk to the guys, too, though her real focus never left me.

I did note her efforts to keep Kaidan included in the conversation about the city, as Joker, Garrus, and Wrex talked about our surroundings. The asari and other pedestrians made an extra effort to walk around us because of Wrex, because of his size and his stature. Enjoying the wide berth, Wrex made a point to flex his arms and lean forward every time he noticed yet another asari staring at him in terror.

And still, Tali and Liara stayed at the back, almost removing themselves from us to speak alone.

Once we made it to the mall at the top of the city center, the other people around us weren't so concerned about our group, instead going about their own business and entertainment up here. Rows and rows of shops, restaurants, bars, play centers, and more, I liked how this place felt like an indoor plaza with the roof open to the stars above. Plenty of waterfalls, statues of silver and blue marble, and fine architecture that somehow reminded me of the Temple of Athame, I enjoyed this aesthetic here.

We soon splintered off into groups to go do our own thing.

Garrus and Wrex went to go play laser tag, with Joker joining them to help keep score.

Liara and Tali meandered off somewhere.

I lost sight of Kaidan, but I knew he had to be alone. I decided to find him, sooner rather than later.

And Ashley stayed with me, letting me keep holding her hand as we ambled through the mall together.

"So what do you want to eat?" she asked me, as we passed by a tall, scenic waterfall. "Or did you just wanna walk around for a bit? This place is really pretty… I figured you'd pick out something like this."

"I'm actually looking for Kaidan," I said. "He wasn't with the guys when they left to go play laser tag."

Ashley realized all of a sudden that we had lost him. "Oh, shoot! Where did he go?"

"Not sure. Any idea what type of place he might've gone to?"

"Probably somewhere to catch the game. I think it's live right now. I was gonna watch the vid later."

"Game?" I asked. "What game?"

Ashley replied, "Football, what else? American football, I mean. Not soccer." I remembered Kaidan had been watching a football game when I found him yesterday, but… "Come on, Shepard. You know!"

"Can't say I do. What's the big deal?"

"It's kind of crazy this season," explained Ashley, pretty animated. "Looks like an American team might finally make it to the Super Bowl! The New York Giants have the best chance so far. Depends on what happens tonight. We have to get one of our teams in there next year! The Beijing Dragons are looking way too strong. The Giants are the only ones who can put them down and get that championship!"

Even though she had been kind enough to use layman's terms with me, I still gave her a blank look.

Smirking now, Ashley asked me, "You don't know anything about sports, do you, Shepard?"

I made an attempt:

"…I know that my hometown's football team sucks so hard that we lost our stadium way back when. And I know that they have a rivalry with the Oakland Raiders. We felt that rivalry out on the streets when I was younger. Our basketball team sucks, too. It barely exists anymore next to the Lakers up in Los Angeles. I also ran into a lot of basketball players whenever I was in L.A. walking for Fashion Week. I met some football players, too, when the Super Bowl was in San Francisco a while back. After parties."

"Yeah, you should know that!" said Ashley. "San Diego Chargers versus the Oakland Raiders—that's required learning. It's amazing that you got to meet all those players. When I was in high school, I swear that was my dream…" Ribbing me, she asked in a teasing voice, "That all you know? Anything else?"

One last attempt:

"And…I know that the fifty-yard line is the center of a football field. That's it."

Ashley laughed. "Okay, now that's adorable," she teased, more. "You'd think a SoCal gal would know more about the games. The Lakers are legendary. Five championships in less than a decade? No one's managed to beat their record yet, and that was from centuries ago!"

I bit back my own laugh. "Ash, what did you call me…?"

"You heard me, Shepard! You're from sunny Southern California. SoCal. SoCal gal. That's what you are!"

"Sounds like some kind of reference to a song or something…"

"Might be… Can't remember where I heard it from. Just that it made me think of you."

"Well, you're not even from Earth," I pointed out. "You were born on a colony, weren't you? Sirona, out in the Ursae Majoris system? Why do you root for American teams instead of, say, Canadian ones?"

Ashley smiled, happy to tell me, "Yeah, you remembered right. It's not like we had a dedicated team out on Sirona or anything. So, we got to pick and choose. Dad usually had the game on when he was home, cheering for the American teams. I miss when he'd have his military friends over for watch parties. He'd throw something on the grill and crack open a bunch of beers. He'd let me drink a little while I watched the game with them. And he'd brag to his friends about how I'd make the League myself someday…"

That was impressive. "Really? You never mentioned that before… Just that you played sports in school."

"Mmm, I know," she replied, wistful. "I mean, it's pretty obvious I was a jock back then: I loved swimming and football. It's how I met my first ex—you know, the basketball player. I was a linebacker for the varsity girls' football team. Or, teams, I guess… I didn't get the chance to stick to just one school. I transferred three times before settling in junior year. That's…the one thing that hurt my chances."

"Right, since your family was always moving around whenever your father got deployed somewhere."

"Pretty much," confirmed Ashley, sighing. "That's why I never brought it up. Still hurts to think about how different my life could've been. If I had the chance to make a name for myself at one school, I could've gotten a sports scholarship. Every NFL rep I met was impressed with my stats. Maybe I really would've played on one of the co-ed teams in the League. I could've been a pro. Now I'll never know."

I wondered, "Is that another reason why you resented your responsibilities at home?"

"Yeah, no kidding there… I was so mad about it. Made me rebel against the whole military family thing, too. I kept telling my Dad I wanted to play professionally one day instead. He wanted me to carry on tradition. All that bragging he did during game nights and Super Bowl Sundays was just for show…"

She went quiet as we continued walking together, passing by a string of restaurants.

The smells of so many different types of cuisines from across the galaxy—it made my mouth water.

More important than my hunger, Ashley frowned, staring down at our shoes in-step, deep in thought.

Hoping to cheer her up, I recited, "God makes no mistakes… Or so I've heard."

Within seconds, Ashley found herself again, laughing in brightness.

Giving me a swift kiss, still blazing enough to singe me, she kept on smiling.

"I've heard the same," she joked. "Thanks, Shepard. For putting things back into perspective for me."

"Any time, babe," I told her, smiling with her smile.

We soon found Kaidan standing by himself outside a loud, packed restaurant called the Fifty-Yard Line Sports Bar & Grill. He lingered there, staring inside with a pale sadness about him, seeming to wonder if he should bother going inside alone. But it looked like that football game was on across the large TV screens above the restaurant's bar and around the rest of the building. So he kept considering.

Ashley noticed the sullenness about him. "Is he okay…? I haven't seen him like this in a while…"

I knew it wasn't my place to tell her.

I couldn't even let her know about the plans for San Diego without possibly giving this away.

"Why don't you go join Kaidan for dinner?" I suggested instead. "The two of you can watch the game together. Have those beers at the bar, maybe, after you eat."

"That sounds like fun, but… What about you? Where will you go?"

I pointed behind me. "I'll find somewhere to eat. Maybe a Japanese place. Don't worry about me."

"If you're sure… Just—call me if you change your mind? You could always come with us. I know you're not the galaxy's biggest sports fan or anything…"

"Go ahead without me, Ash," I encouraged.

Not understanding, Ashley agreed anyway. She held my face with both of her hands, so luscious in her goodbye, lingering. I held her waist on instinct, supportive. And even though she was only here with me like this for a moment, that lingering persisted on in near-endlessness. Breathing through me, over me, everyone around us disappeared, evaporating in the heated mist of her longing for me, even now.

I whispered over her parted lips, "Let me know if you need anything. All right?"

"I will…"

Holding my hand, not letting go until the last second—Ashley headed over to Kaidan, giving him an easy smile. The two of them talked about the game for a bit, before walking inside together to the cheering rowdiness of the restaurant. Already, Kaidan looked much better, glad that Ashley had found him.

Pleased that the two of them were settled, I wandered off in a direction at random.

Through my instinctual rear-view mirror, I realized that I wasn't alone.

I escaped into the nearest, dark store filled with such over-the-top grim-dark clothing, speakers blasting with melodramatic goth rock. Activating my tactical cloak, I watched from a corner as Tali and Liara poked their heads inside the store. They looked around, speaking in frustration over how they had lost me. Sighing, they then decided to wait outside the store, basically going on a stake out until I exited.

Seriously?

Seething over the whole thing, I waited in this corner for a bit, suffering the sounds of this stupid music.

It took me too long to remember to put my headphones in.

I relaxed somewhat once I started listening to my own music.

But only that—somewhat.

What the hell were those two doing, stalking me like this? They must've followed after Ashley and me the entire time we'd spent walking around the mall together, watching us… I really couldn't know at a glance what their deal was, and it wasn't like they would tell me if I went up to them and asked.

I needed to figure this out:

From what I knew, Ashley had lied to Tali about the two of us not being involved.

She had kept her word about keeping this a secret. Even if it had meant lying to her best friend, Ashley had fulfilled her end of the bargain…despite everyone already knowing anyway, having figured it out.

So now that things were out in the open, I assumed that Tali was upset over the lies.

And maybe something else, too, more obvious.

I couldn't even begin to know what Liara had told her about this whole thing—or what her deal was.

I had a headache just thinking about it.

Didn't help that I was starving.

Uncloaking and leaving the store, I found Tali and Liara across the way, staring at me. They were right at the entrance of a store, Stargazers, apparently filled with navigational star charts. Whatever conversation they'd had, they stopped, focusing all of their energies into regarding me over here.

I lowered the volume on my music—for now.

Visibly annoyed, I went up to them, asking in smoothness, "So, how are you ladies doing tonight?"

Liara and Tali both clammed up, not knowing how to react to me.

They saw that I was annoyed; they heard that I was not.

Tali chanced replying to me, "We're fine, Shepard… What about you? How are you doing?"

"Not bad, actually," I chatted, throwing them off more. "I was about to find someplace to eat. Think I have a taste for some Japanese food. There's a tempura place a few restaurants down from here. Do you two want to join me?"

They paused again.

They were pretty fucking bad at this, not having planned this far ahead at all.

Liara told me, "I am not particularly hungry… But thank you for the offer."

"Me neither," claimed Tali. "Thanks for asking, though… Why don't you go on ahead?"

I shrugged, saying, "All right, then. I'll call you once it's time to leave to the next place for the night."

Too curious not to ask, Tali inquired, "The next place…? What did you have in mind?"

"Joker wouldn't stop hinting earlier about going out to a club. I picked one out. We'll go there soon."

"Which club might this be?" wondered Liara.

"Dark Goddess," I told her. She widened her eyes. "What? It's the only place around here that plays trip-hop and alternative R&B. I'm sick of the same, tired ass synth dance beats. We're doing this my way."

"Shepard, are you not aware of the club's history? It is the site of a popular film of the same name…"

"Yeah, the cerebral erotica movie about two asari together. Dark Goddess. I know. I like that film, by the way. But as far as I can tell, the club itself is nothing like that. They just play good music. It's dark, and it's not too loud. There's a nice view of the city on the balconies, over in the VIP area. So, we're going."

Tali puzzled, "The—VIP area? How do you even know they'd allow us in there…?"

"I'm a Spectre," I reminded her. "They'll let us in."

A little flirtatious: "Oh… Well, I do enjoy your confidence about this."

"Mmm, I bet," I soured, even though Tali's voice turned me on. "I should go. Try to get something to eat before we head out. You don't want to drink on an empty stomach at the club. Could be dangerous."

No acknowledgments, no goodbyes.

I did my best not to roll my eyes as I left, heading to that Japanese place I'd mentioned to them. Raising the volume back up on my music, I hoped that Ashley had a better time with Kaidan than I had with these two jokers. She hadn't called or emailed me, so I assumed that she was all right.

I also made sure that the Council hadn't emailed me about that Virmire and STG situation. Though I went ahead and configured their alerts to come in as a priority alarm on my omni-tool. I knew, as soon as they did contact me, they'd expect me to head to the Normandy ASAP for a briefing. Their timing was bound to be terrible; I'd have to rush the team off on this mission at the worst possible hour. I knew it.

So far, it looked like we were in the clear to head to San Diego in a couple of days.

I could finally go back home and sleep in the calming peace of my own apartment, in my own bed, awash in the pale golden glow of the city misting in through my windows as everlasting light…

Thinking on it now, maybe I missed home a lot more than I gave myself credit for. Maybe.

Besides that, I couldn't even speculate as to how Tali had changed so much since I'd spoken to her on the ship yesterday, let alone Liara from this morning, after the deep revelations she'd shared with me.

Better yet, why was Liara acting so clueless as to my thoughts and intentions? She should've known.

And, sure enough, she and Tali continued following after me, so indiscreet.

Even once I made it to the restaurant and put my order in, they remained just across the way, staring.

I resigned myself to eating this crispy tempura and drinking my warm sake in false isolation, hoping that the remainder of the night would somehow make up for this unexpected drama.


Elevated from the rest of everyone else here in this nightclub, heightened in subspace from this environment alone, I sat and observed, sat and observed. Black leather of a long couch beneath me, hazy darkness of this ceiling above me, the pulsing rhythms and moody beats of this music had tuned into just the right frequency for me, my heart throbbing and drilling in-time with this booming bass all around me. Shining wine glass resting along my upturned palm, the flute of the stem settled between my middle and ring fingers, I drank the fragrant blue of this pure Thessian wine, so refined in flavor.

Such generous space in this VIP area of Dark Goddess: spread out in front of me, across from me, the crowded dance floor roiled in a heady heat from everyone's dancing. Packed even more, the normal area downstairs, we had a view of from up here beyond the railing not too far away, with droves of asari and some other species flooding into the front doors. Coveting all, the walls and halls of this space held everyone in a freeing adventurousness, the coloring of blue so dark that it looked black from here.

That balcony nearby overlooking the glittering lights beneath the night sky, the bustling bar just on the other end of the dance floor: I had the perfect vantage point to observe almost everything from here.

I had the single, sublime view of all that I cared to perceive tonight.

Drinking more, keeping my arm outstretched along the top edge of this couch, and keeping my heavy boot resting atop my opposite knee, I kept Ashley in my view.

Not having had too much to drink yet, she was with Kaidan over on the dance floor. He wasn't one for dancing, just as I wasn't, but Ashley wouldn't let that stop them from having a good time. Surrounded as they were by dozens of others dancing in freedom, Kaidan only stood in place. He smiled as Ashley held both of his hands in hers, shifting his arms back and forth in-time with the beat while she danced a bit. The two of them laughed over the silliness of it all in between the conversation they shared together.

In between keeping an eye on them, I scanned the VIP area to keep track of the rest of the team.

Joker had found some company by one of the booths in a corner. Grinning in shock and just enough slickness—thanks to the drinks he'd had already—he leaned against the leather as two asari stood quite close to him. They fawned over his neckbeard, over the tightness of his shirt, having removed his pilot's cap some time ago. Because he was up here in VIP instead of downstairs with the commoners, they figured that he was someone, so they teased and flirted with him with that one thing on their minds.

Sitting together at the bar, Tali and Garrus drank while they talked, looking to be in quite a serious discussion. Possibly emotional, Tali kept sipping and sipping from her straw, one drink after another; at a loss, Garrus kept buying her more drinks, foolishly hoping to help alleviate whatever the problem was.

I knew for a fact that Tali hadn't eaten any dinner tonight. This was bound to turn into a problem.

I hoped that Garrus kept his Scout's honor over there, too, protecting Ashley's secrets as promised.

Liara was…somewhere, out of my view, perhaps on purpose. I sensed her with such a sharpness tonight.

Nearby, a few people stumbled out of the way as Wrex walked by them. Bottle of alcohol in-hand, Wrex sneered in amusement at the asari fleeing from his line of sight, speaking in fear about the mangled scars over his face. He then noticed me here sitting on the couch, and decided to walk over this way.

Standing in front of me, Wrex acknowledged my presence—"Shepard."

I stared up at him, acknowledging him back—"Wrex."

Wrex guffawed with laughter, before drinking. "You sure do crack me up sometimes, you know," he commented. "You're a real comedian! Anyone ever tell you that?"

He had clearly had more than a few drinks already.

"No, actually," I humored. "You're the first person who's ever told me that."

"In a good mood tonight, then?" he probed.

"You could say that."

Smirking, Wrex gestured to the free space next to me. "Mind if I sit? Wouldn't mind chatting with you tonight, Shepard. My friendly comedian."

I gestured to the same space, saying, "Go ahead." Amused by how the couch shifted somewhat with Wrex's weight, I looked to his drink and asked him, "So what are you having?"

Wrex raised his bottle. "Ryncol," he replied, drinking more. "This is the good stuff. Some of the hardest liquor in the galaxy. Real krogan liquor! It'll mess you right up if you don't have the quads for it. Didn't think they'd have any on a dainty little planet like Thessia. Glad they proved me wrong." He noticed the blue of my wine, the grace of my mannerisms. "That wine you're drinking?"

"Yeah, it is," I confirmed. "Why do you seem surprised?"

Humming, Wrex pointed out, "It's blue, Shepard. Thought you were kind of done with…blue things."

"I wanted to try some."

"Huh. Was that it, then? I don't buy it! You and Liara still have that bond of yours. It's damn powerful. We all see it, every day. That why you're still drinking her tonight on your birthday?"

I needed to know, "Wrex, what are you getting at? Are you making some kind of metaphor here?"

Thinking for a moment, Wrex admitted, "I gotta tell you, I've been following this saga of yours. Listening to the kids go crazy over you, it sure is interesting. Kept me from brooding over other…stuff." Bitter with the reality of his peoples' suffering from the genophage, Wrex drank more. "Your blue tale stopped me from drinking. Your story with Chief? Makes me drink like a fish in radioactive water."

"What do you mean? Are you saying you're stressed out now? Because of Ashley and me?"

"Stressed? No," said Wrex. "You two get me thinking way more these days, feeling all sorts of crap I never wanted. Thought I could care about my problems from a distance, see? Then I watch you of all people opening up your heart to something real. You. Commander Shepard, tougher than the Tuchanka greats, throwing that toughness aside for this real shit. You sure do care about her like that, don't you?"

I wasn't prepared for this conversation at all.

Not with Wrex, of all people, who normally would've been the last person to talk about these things.

I glanced up and across the way, finding Ashley sitting with Kaidan at the bar. The two of them tried to talk to Tali, who wasn't having any of it, and promptly stormed off. Garrus sighed and shook his head, trying to explain what he knew. Then Kaidan stood up, leaving after Tali, determined to follow her trail.

Whatever Garrus did explain, it wasn't enough of an answer to Ashley's concern and cluelessness; brows knitted together in concern, she searched with eyes vacant for a reason as to Tali's behavior, unable to come up with anything solid. Tali must not have mentioned Ashley at all—no indication whatsoever.

By chance, Ashley soon looked up in my exact direction, finding me here with Wrex sitting at my side.

Locking her eyes to mine and mine to hers, her concern and cluelessness vaporized in the faint haze of smoke fogging above the bar. Pulsing from the music, the moody beats and bass from this song darkened my sight red-blue in reflection of this wine, of her, blended as both hues. And this familiar steaming sweat coated my body, my skin, everywhere, covering me in this outward trance.

Sipping more of my wine with this lock of Ashley's fixation on me, I told Wrex in honesty, "Yeah. I do."

"That's…legendary," noted Wrex, drinking again. "Maybe I should finally let myself care, too. Stop running. Stop fighting it. Completely, this time."

Ashley only broke our stare once Garrus waved his hand in front of her face, forcing her back down.

I smirked along the circle's bend of my glass over her deer-in-headlights expression over there.

"I think you should, Wrex," I encouraged. "Let yourself care about your people. Shutting it all off and pretending, running…it never works. All it does is make shit worse in the long-run. Then, you're stuck cleaning up those other problems…before you can face what actually matters. That's wasted time."

Wrex held his empty Ryncol bottle out in front of him, contemplating.

I reminded him, "For now, we're still on shore leave. Enjoy yourself while we can."

"Yeah," agreed Wrex, standing now. "Then that's my cue to get another one! Good talk, Shepard. Good talk. Glad to see you're not scared of getting into this deep stuff. I sure was for the longest… Not anymore, though." He offered his hand. "I've got you to thank for that. Appreciate you hearing me out."

I grabbed his hand with my free one, joining in his tough pull, firm in shared understanding.

"You bet," I told him. "See you around, Wrex. And stay out of trouble."

Chuckling, Wrex headed in the direction of the bar. "No promises there, my friend. No promises there."

As I glanced to the bar again, I spotted Ashley curling her lips into her mouth as she drank her own choice of red, fruit-filled poison for the night, hiding a smile there. Still sitting with Garrus, she seemed to have watched my exchange with Wrex, finding more joy as they talked. I had my confirmation once Wrex made it over there to them: the way he spoke with her first, Ashley gave him such a genuine smile as they chatted, not appearing to notice Garrus looking out and around to the rest of the club.

He must've been looking for Tali, or at least Kaidan, who had gone off to find her earlier.

Finishing the last of my wine, I left my empty glass behind and went looking for Tali myself.

As I walked around, I overheard Joker with those same asari. The three of them sat together at the booth now, with him in the middle bragging about his skills and stories as the best pilot in the Alliance. His companions hung on his every word, oh so captivated and charmed by his cockiness and pride.

And I was sure that Joker had certain plans in mind as he told his tales, inflating his ego even more.

Shaking my head, I returned my focus to finding Tali in this crowd somewhere, somehow.

I circled around the railing that overlooked the lower area, searching both the VIP area and downstairs.

With my attention halved like this, I almost didn't notice that I'd nearly made my way to the bar. Not quite, but still close enough anyway, I could see and hear Ashley laughing with Wrex as they drank together. Garrus had lightened up a little as he drank as well, probably deciding to trust that Kaidan had found Tali somewhere, since he had not returned to the bar empty-handed by now.

Yet I found Liara standing here by this railing near the dance floor, eyes focused on everyone at the bar.

Everyone…or maybe just one specific person.

"Liara," I called, snapping her attention to me. "What are you doing?"

"Shepard!" said Liara, startled. Placing her hand over her chest, she sighed. "I am sorry… You frightened me. I was just contemplating if I ought to join the others… I am not one to drink much alcohol—or, at least, not as much as they appear to be drinking."

"I'm sure they wouldn't mind having your company. You don't have to drink with them."

"Yes, I know… I do not have the best experiences with—social pressures. This awkwardness and anxiety continues to linger, limiting me… I wish I could get rid of it."

"Just go for it, Liara," I told her. "Like I said, you don't have to drink. Let yourself have a good time with the team. They're your friends, right? They'd never pressure you like that. Try something different with them, something new. You might learn a thing or two about yourself that way."

Smiling, she accepted my advice, "That does sound doable. Thank you, Shepard. I will try my best."

Were we seriously having a normal conversation?

Liara had to know how strange and out-of-place this was.

Earlier in the mall with Tali, she was acting so weird.

Earlier in the car with Tali, the look in her eyes through the rear-view mirror had spoken volumes.

It was almost as if we hadn't talked this morning at all; or, we had, but something had changed between then and now, and Liara wasn't willing to broach the subject. She chose to…run away from it instead.

"Before you go do that," I diverted, "Are you gonna tell me what's happening with you?"

Dimming back down to the real emotional level I'd expected, Liara avoided my eyes.

She breathed out, "No…"

"Why not…? We just had a nice morning together. You have to know that I care, don't you?"

"Shepard, now is not the time for this," said Liara, firmer in her torture. "We are out for your birthday. We are supposed to be enjoying ourselves! I don't wish to discuss my feelings here, of all places."

I pointed out, "That's fair, but how did you not know this was on my mind? Shouldn't you know this?"

On the verge of tears, Liara was about to snap at me. Seriously snap at me. She held it back, somehow, swallowing her breaths back down, those breaths billowing with the echoes of the hurtful words she'd barely stopped herself from hurling at me. Not wanting to lose herself in this short-term, in this moment right here, right now, she restricted herself so hard, enough to make her head pulse with her biotics.

I clenched down on my teeth, swallowing this new stinging in my throat that tasted of our white wine.

White to black, Liara had split in a hot second, reminding me too much of someone I used to know.

"Liara… What's going on with you? Why…are you doing this? Why are you looking at me that way?"

With my words, she hovered somewhere in the middle of her splitting now, between the black and white, existing in that gray space for a time as she looked up at me.

She had no words.

She didn't know how to answer me.

But somewhere through her eyes, Liara at least acknowledged that I was worried about her, and that I had damn good reason to be worried.

So, instead of finding her words to reassure me—to reassure herself—she found another solution:

Hidden behind this crowd with me, blanketed by the bass and loudness of the music, Liara settled her hands over my face. So sweet, so gentle, she pulled me down a bit, shielding me more, and keeping us out of view from our team at the bar. She pressed her forehead to mine, her will pushing through bursting walls of fire deep in my mind. And in this soothing gesture, she calmed me from my worries.

She calmed me from…so much more, taking me so much higher with her touch alone, her presence.

Setting me adrift, more, Liara found her words: "Shepard…please forgive me for making you this offer at such an inappropriate place. At an inappropriate time… The others could discover us at any moment. I am not one for dancing, so this will unfortunately be the closest we will come to that as we stand here together… More importantly, I have one last gift for you, for your birthday. It is yours—if you want it."

Relieved that she seemed to be okay now, I whispered to her, "What is it?"

"Close your eyes."

As I did, the weaving blue of Liara's biotics activated through her hands, lighting the last of my sight.

That blue stayed with me even in this darkness, pulsing with the music all around us.

On instinct, I held Liara around her waist, needing to feel her like this.

Liara breathed against me with her pain, finding her own solace as she stayed here with me, giving me this otherworldly affection. Somewhere through the black of my sight, I felt her intentions… I saw the purity of her spirit, of what her mother had tried to foster in her, flailing and failing against the onslaught of our current situation. But that piece of her, now that she was here with me, began falling into the ocean of her limitless expanse, and of her heart and soul, mending itself, expanding anew.

And I felt the same in myself somehow.

After everything, I knew I would always have her here with me.

Even though somewhere, I still worried for her, worrying if I was on the right path, Liara had found this way to reassure me that everything would be just fine.

She spoke to me through that healing, "This gesture is part of asari culture. It is elevated from the one we usually share: melding as a way to share memories, to show affection…or to say goodbye. I wanted you to see how I feel, since you asked… Though I suppose you won't be able to see everything."

I absolutely felt her affection, mending me, and with mine mending her. And this trance she gave me…

Staying as aware as I could, I still needed to know, "So…what's the rest?"

"Shepard, part of this is goodbye," admitted Liara. I held her tighter, my hands shaking. "Not physically… Not in a literal sense. I know how special Ashley is to you. As long as I do not see her at her worst, I will approve of your union together. Whatever you are stopping yourself from, unconsciously, I see now that it will not remain in stasis for much longer. I want you to be prepared for anything."

"If you're really fine with this, then why were you about to snap at me…? What's the matter?"

"Because…our bond had been interrupted again. I thought that it was your doing. I thought that you meant to hurt me on purpose, knowing that I need you so. It was not your fault, and things seem to be fine now. But I still don't have any solid answers as to why this happened again in the first place."

Frustration, so much frustration—"Then why is this a fucking goodbye, even if it isn't literal?"

"I haven't given up on you," insisted Liara. "And I won't. I never will. But after our discussion this morning, I am not nearly as confident about our circumstances as I was before. When I thought I had lost you again, I…nearly lost myself. Having you here stabilizes me." I saw the same, in the way this breezy air of me seemed to sew together this ocean of hers; and the reverse, in the way this ocean of hers kept my winds on-track, steadfast. "I worry about how close we are, Shepard. Not because you will soon be in a relationship with another woman. Not because you are falling in love with her. Not that."

"Is this about what you mentioned in the park?" I wondered. "That mirror you're afraid to look into without me… You say Ashley won't be a problem for you—but how do you know that for sure?"

Liara soothed me more with her biotics, her touch along my face, pressing her lips to mine.

This time, she gave me her scars. She gave me the darkness that stirred in her, still held together by the light she saw and loved in me. Consciousness itself revealed through her, opening me so much more:

"This isn't about me," promised Liara, speaking in attractiveness through my mouth. "So long as you are happy and satisfied, and so long as we have our bond together, I will be fine. This is how I can keep you at my side. I will be happy that way. I am only upset when I feel our connection dimming somehow."

I wasn't entirely convinced, but I didn't want to doubt her convictions. I couldn't doubt her, because—

I felt her clinging to me, completely, just in the way I needed on this level, so unfathomable.

I felt the way she needed me to bolster her, to keep her safe, simply by feeling my trust in her.

I felt Liara existing through me, as if we were the same person almost.

I felt her gripping me even through her own solitude, finding her home here…as I needed.

Liara sensed my sense: "And I would still love to visit your home, to see how you are there, and where you grew up. I am only concerned that we will…fall back into something once we do. Falling back into bed; falling back into sex with one another, but intertwined in love this time… Don't you think?"

"Yes… I feel like we should, though. I still…need you to need me, as selfish as it is. I miss you. I need you."

"Then you will have me—at that time," she said, smiling against me. "Getting into trouble while we still can…unless you change your mind. I believe you just might. Regardless of what you decide, Shepard, I will be here. Though I do feel myself changing. Changing in ways that terrify me. This was what I avoided in choosing not to be in a relationship with you. Running from my own feelings…from who I truly am. I have accepted this, as I told you this morning. And I am glad I did. Still, it is difficult to live with…"

Feeling helpless for her, I needed to know, "What can I do to help, Liara? Tell me…"

"You don't need to do anything. No matter how afraid I am, I will persevere. Do not stop to hold my hand and baby me. I must grow past this. Our bond should be enough to sustain me through the rest."

"But…" I looked deeper into this sea, finding the truth: "Liara, you're not safe. You're under way too much stress. Yeah, you're strong, and I can see the way we hold each other together, but… I hate that I can't fix this. And I'm sorry… Sorry that I thought I could get rid of you so easily before. I'm sorry about everything—I really am. I can never deny how important you are to me. So what if I want to baby you?"

"Shepard…"

I held her tighter, as protective as I could—"You're incredibly precious to me. If I had stayed with you, I would've lost my mind, trying to fix you… I get that. I get that I can't! But, please…don't push me away."

Pulling away instead, Liara dissolved this moment, this vision.

She still stayed in my arms.

I could perceive the rest of her world as normal again, seeing that no one had spotted us here.

None of that mattered right now, though.

Liara held me just as tightly. "I won't do that," she vowed. "I am not pushing you away… I am only trying to tell you…that I accept all that has happened, and will happen in the future. You will be with her. It is inevitable. I don't want you to hold back with Ashley for my sake. She will know, and it will cause much stress for you. You and I are intrinsically linked. This is inescapable. I must put your heart before mine."

Up until then, I hadn't realized how much I needed Liara's selflessness more than her selfishness.

Her willingness to sacrifice for me: it brought up so many reminders of what I had already fallen into with her, completely unconscious, and beyond my notice, my view…until now.

But, this look in her eyes—she didn't want me to say it. Not yet. Because there was way more to come.

Liara continued: "I will protect your mind, always and forever. Please trust in me to do this—that is what I need from you above all. I need your trust. I need you with me in this abstract sense while I continue navigating these troubles of mine. I have taken the critical step of welcoming them into my heart as my friends above all. I feel you here beside them, beside me. Trust me to care for you as I care for myself."

"I trust you, Liara," I said. "What we have is important, like you mentioned earlier. In that sense, I'm not going anywhere…" Liara nodded in a deep acceptance, calming, just as she calmed me, kept me at peace. "Will you be okay, then? Because unless you are, and unless I know that, then I won't be okay. I can't move forward with anything unless I know you're going to be all right somehow. Will you?"

"Yes," breathed Liara, stirring me so. "Yes, I will be… For as long as we have our bond, and it is not interrupted anymore, I will be fine. You needn't worry. I will do my best to…continue with my self-care."

Mostly satisfied with that, I let Liara step out from my hold around her, before anyone saw us.

Making sure: "That's all you need from me? For me to trust you, even while I'm with someone else?"

"I always feel your presence by my side. You are here with me as my one true love and companion, no matter what, even when I am alone. It brings me much joy. That is more than enough."

I smiled at her with my full trust, glad that she would be okay, and that she had me like this.

Liara smiled back at me in her full relief, glad that we had this promise now, making her even stronger.

Completely ruining the moment, Tali came out of nowhere, wobbling over to us.

"Liara," said Tali, grave; pointing at her like she'd done something wrong. "Did I ever tell you…? Did I…?"

Finding reality again, and finding her concern over how drunk Tali was, Liara asked, wary, "Did you ever tell me what…?"

Tali pinched Liara's cheeks. "How adorable your freckles are!" she cried out in joy. "They're like little blueberries…spread out over the buttery muffin of your pretty, smiley face…" She gasped. "Why do I want to eat them?! I would die! Yourrrr DNA isn't the same as mine, you know… Mine is for me only. That's right, only me… And cannot lie about that! It is the cold, undeniable…truth…"

It looked like my theory about her and Ashley was right.

Liara frowned in a sort of helpless understanding, knowing the same. Probably knowing way more than I did, considering the two of them were best friends.

But then, Tali shuffled over to me, reaching up; pinching my cheeks instead…

Tali lowered her pitch, teasing me, "And you, grumpyface! Would it kill you to smile more? You have such a lovely smile, Shepard… Your laugh is absolutely beautiful, too. The moment I heard you laughing at Ashley today, I knew… I knew. Oh, yes, I knew… She may have been angry with you then, but your charming laughter sent Ashley hiiiiiighh above the house, above the Normandy, up to the stars above…"

Not wanting to give away my own understanding, I told her, "You're one of those sweet and innocent drunks, aren't you? The kind that wouldn't hurt a fly, but ends up saying the most random shit."

Tali let out a dramatic gasp. "I'll have you know there is nothing random about what I am saying!" she asserted, letting go of my face. "I am not sweet and innocent, either! I am a grown woman, and despite what people think, I do not need anyone to coddle and babysit me! Not you, not anyone!"

"Coddle, babysit?" I asked, feeling like she was accusing me of something. Something personal. "Who's babysitting you?"

Pointing behind me, she said, "Him, there! He's been following me this whole time! Tell him to stop!"

Following the direction of her accusation, I spotted Kaidan skulking around back there, trying to blend in with the crowd on the dance floor. It turned out, standing stone-still like a statue in the middle of a bunch of people grinding on each other wasn't the best form of disguise for him. Not one bit.

But by the time I looked back to Liara and Tali, they were gone, already on their way to the bar to join Ashley, Garrus, and Wrex over there.

Liara did look like she was okay again, smiling a bit as she guided Tali along.

And I loved her…for making these sacrifices, for letting me have these double-standards this time.

And I knew, this had come up so quietly—as quiet as Liara's strength—so she didn't need me to say it.

She already knew, too. So that was one problem solved. Sort of…

Tali was seriously wasted. We needed to get her back home soon before she blew up at Ashley over this.

Home…

But first, I went over to Kaidan, asking him, "Were you really following her that entire time?"

Kaidan rubbed the back of his head, guilty as he replied, "Err, yeah…I was. Tali wasn't too happy with me when I went up to her directly. She kept insisting she didn't need my help. Then she wandered off. Figured I'd keep an eye on her, at least until she found her way back to the others. I made sure no one went up to her or tried to take advantage."

I wasn't surprised at all that he'd done this. "Thanks for keeping her safe, Kaidan. I appreciate it."

"Of course, Commander," he said, smiling. "You would've done the same for me. In fact, you already did. Aside from my whole…situation…Ash told me you encouraged her to head to the grill with me. We sure had a lot of fun. She's a great friend. Really helped me out."

"That's good to hear. I still want you to get checked out first. Just in case."

Kaidan nodded in agreement. "Definitely. I'm not so anxious about it anymore," he shared. "I'll be open and honest with the counselor about what's bothering me—you have my word." We both glanced over at the bar, finding that Liara had decided to have a drink with everyone after all. "Hey, Shepard… Do you think I should tell Ash about my, um, issues? This all started back when she was mad at me over something, and… And I feel bad for not coming clean with her. Would it help if I told her the truth?"

Leaning on the railing now, I asked, "You think I'm the best person to answer this?"

Joining me here, Kaidan justified, "Well, you'd know Ash pretty well by now. Better than the rest of us."

I really didn't know enough about this situation… "She wouldn't judge you, if that's what you mean."

"No, no, not that," he insisted. "I get that she's open-minded about things… It's just, way back, I could tell she was hurting about something. Hurting over you, I think. I already knew she liked you a lot, but Ash did her best to try and throw me off her trail. Kinda hurt that she didn't trust me… I ended up making things worse. Now it's a miracle we're even talking again. I'm worried about opening up old wounds for her. But maybe you'd know if those wounds are still there or not. Does she resent me…?"

Something told me that this might've become part of Kaidan's recovery process later on.

He had seemed upset and distracted back on Feros, aside from his splitting headache at the time.

So I gave him my honest answer: "I don't feel that Ashley's holding a grudge, or that she's being fake with you. I get the sense now that there's a lot you two are sweeping under the rug. It'll probably help if you smooth things over at some point. I can't tell you when or how. This is your choice, not mine."

"True," accepted Kaidan. "I owe her that much. I'll do my best to find the right time… The right words. The right…timing, for certain things. Those things are just—too heavy to share with her this soon." Not wanting to bring the mood down any more, he suggested, "Say, why don't we head over to the bar? Check on Tali, see if we need to get her back to Liara's house. Wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on her."

"Agreed," I said, walking with him around the dance floor, over to the bar. "I'm thinking we should go ahead and take Tali back sooner rather than later. I have a feeling she didn't eat dinner tonight."

Kaidan made a sound of concern. "Drinking like that on an empty stomach? No wonder…" He sighed over her recklessness. "I know Tali's on the younger side, but still. She should know better! Something could've seriously gone wr—" Spotting something—or someone—on the dance floor, Kaidan suddenly darted off in a random direction, blurting out in a flushed embarrassment as he went—"Oh, God!"

Following where Kaidan's line of sight had been before he bolted off, I completely understood.

I completely understood…

Rooted to the spot, I gaped at this sight of Ashley and Liara together in the center of the crowd. Deep in the center of the music, the center of that obscurity, they blended there. Only by chance had Kaidan noticed. Only by complete chance did I notice them, too: Liara standing there in place, her lidded eyes hazy from the influence of whatever she'd had to drink; Ashley draping her arms over Liara's shoulders, dancing in a steady rhythm against her, steady enough to whisper in that darkened mischief of hers.

Whispering, whispering right over Liara's lips, or next to Liara's crests, so high—Ashley had also had one drink too many, having thrown away most pretenses of whatever hostility brimmed between them.

Swallowing this thick knot in my throat, my face and neck steaming, I couldn't let this chance pass by.

I shuffled through the crowd as best as I could, nearing them. I didn't bother cloaking—there was no point, not in this cluster of people rocking and gyrating against each other, just as Ashley did to Liara in playful sensuality.

I stopped as soon as I was close enough to overhear, hidden behind a couple tall enough to conceal me.

Arms still draped over Liara's shoulders, one wrist over the other, Ashley spoke in such a relaxed lust, deep in the lower register of her voice, so sultry, so unintentional, flowing freely in her intoxication:

"I don't think so," she claimed, continuing their conversation on. "I'm not seeing things at all…"

"I believe you are," insisted Liara, without insisting at all—soft, yet clear, she tolerated this, at best.

Ashley laughed softly. "Everywhere I go, you're there," she murmured. "You've been following me all night long—plain and simple. You're not fooling me… Don't even bother. Just—don't. There's no way I'm falling for it…" Licking her lips, she angled her face just so, as if about to kiss: "So…what do you want?"

Liara did her best to stay firm, despite her haze—"You really shouldn't presume things about me…"

"Presume," echoed Ashley in wickedness. "That means it's possible… Interesting choice of words."

"No, it means that you have dared to do this," corrected Liara, stronger. "What if Shepard finds us?"

"Stop changing the subject. Tell me why you've been following me. I wanna know."

Caged in this situation, Liara could only say, "I was…trying to figure out where this came from."

Caressing the blue of her face, and those freckles, Ashley smirked and asked, "What's this? What do you mean? Be honest with me now… I'll know if you're lying."

"There was a firewall in my way. I nearly lost my mind over it today."

"A…firewall?"

"Yes," said Liara, removing Ashley's hands from her face. "If you don't know what it is I mean, then it's of no concern to you. As it should be."

When it seemed as if Liara was about to leave, Ashley held her hand instead.

"Not so fast," she warned. "You're not getting off that easy… Since you won't be straight-up with me, that just means I have to take the initiative. I have no problem doing that. Now get over here."

Liara tried to stay in one place; physically stronger than her, Ashley dragged her along anyway.

Avoiding detection, I followed them through this crowd, keeping my eyes locked to the specific pattern of light blue over Liara's crests, over her crown, to distinguish her from all the other asari around. More helpful, I made sure that the bare skin of Ashley's arms stayed in my periphery, since there were hardly any other humans around us, ensuring that she stood out from that blue and violet, from everyone else.

That petulant swing of their interlaced hands swung as such a maddened metronome between them.

Ashley led Liara out to one of the wide balconies overlooking the view of the city late at night.

No one else was around up here, giving them enough freedom to speak freely.

Cloaking this time, I kept a closer eye on them, watching and listening as carefully as I could:

Ashley pressed Liara's back against a wall, facing her toward the sky. She stared through to the reflection of the metropolis in the width of Liara's eyes, so very wide over this change of events.

"You owe me some answers, Liara," whispered Ashley, in-time with the faint breeze. "And not just about tonight. That dream…the one that changed everything—I know you were there. I felt you. You were there in Shepard's head, watching me through her eyes, feeling me through her touch. Waiting to see if she would really take me… Is that what you wanted? Did you want her to fuck me up, humiliate me?"

Burned by this surprise, Liara had no real response prepared. "Ashley…"

Smirking over that unpreparedness, Ashley mocked her, "You're sick, you know. More to you than meets the eye… Yeah, no shit." Still, she stroked Liara's neck and shoulders in such a coquettish way, those wiles of hers shifting as wisps through her touch. "I almost wanna blackmail you over this. Hold it over your head. Demand some payback. You know—tit-for-tat. An eye for an eye." Managing to kindle Liara enough, she earned a reaction from her: those sounds, curled with provocation and stimulation both. "Mmm, this is a surprise… I thought you hated me. What's this all about…?"

When Liara refused to respond, instead breathing harder by the second, Ashley laughed, so seductive.

"Of course you won't answer me," she went on. "It's nice to know I'm living in your head like this, though. You must be dying to know…what the big deal is about me… Aren't you? Tell me the truth…"

Again, Liara could say nothing, her chest raising higher, concaving lower.

And, again, Ashley hovered her lips just over Liara's, not quite touching, not quite meeting her there.

Breathing over her, smelling of alcohol, Ashley whispered, "Tell me no if you want to. Tell me to stop…if that's what you really want me to do. If you don't wanna face this, then say so. I'll wait for you, Liara…"

Liara fractured the subject, if not outright changing it this time: "Ashley…I refuse to have sex with you. We are not having a threesome with Shepard. If you are asking me for either of those things…"

That cockiness of Ashley's smirk shaped her voice: "No, that's not what I'm asking for… This is about you. What you see in me. What you're trying to figure out about me. You wanna know why she wants me—I get it. So, instead of asking, you sneak around… You put your nose where it doesn't belong. You treat me like some lab rat for your research. The thing is, there's only so much you can learn that way…"

Easing herself closer, closer, firmness of her lips pressed against Liara's without pressing—Ashley waited here, breathing in this contamination of anticipation and antipathy both.

She pulled Liara's hands around her shoulders, hooking her there. She settled her own hands around Liara's waist, waiting there.

Waiting—staring straight-edged into Liara's eyes with a harsher mix of hostility and heat.

Waiting…for Liara to tell her no, to tell her to stop.

Caught up in her curiosities as Liara was: Ashley knew she had the upper-hand.

And then, when Liara wouldn't push her away, Ashley pulled away, stepped away, emotionless in her abject denial. A few paces back now, she watched as Liara tried and failed to catch her breath.

"You're pathetic, Liara," scorned Ashley, so very cold. "You're just so fucking curious about mearen't you? It's that same stupid curiosity that got you here in the first place. You wanted to hold something over my head so damn bad that you sent Shepard to my room, hoping she'd fuck me and leave me like I was some trashy whore, even if it was only a dream. Right? Isn't that what you thought she'd do?"

When all Liara could do was stand there, trembling and avoiding eye contact, Ashley scoffed.

Uncanny precision Ashley gave in her continued mocking: "And there you go again, holding back and waiting, when you already know it won't get you anywhere. You wanna be the better person? Bide your time? Play the long game? That only works when you know you can entrench the enemy, tire them out; get them to keep making mistakes until they lose—or better yet, forfeit. You might know my biggest weaknesses…but guess what? My fuck-ups are nothing compared to what you're trying to do here."

Forcing herself to speak, steeled so hard, Liara asked, "Just what do you think I am trying to do?"

"You're trying to act like a saint when you're not. You want to be perfect in her eyes, flawless. You're not a god, Liara. You're a person, just like me, just like her. You know she can't resist when a woman's real with her—so why bother holding back? Why bide your time and wait for her to go back to you?"

"Ashley, this is who I am," emphasized Liara. "I am not like you. I am not reckless in the way you are…"

"Then you're not playing to win."

"This is not a game!"

"If that's what you think, then you don't know Shepard," argued Ashley, still so cold. "Lone wolves don't stay alone for fun. They do it because they're scared. She did it because she was afraid of getting hurt by you, by me. When a wolf is alone like that and you wanna protect it, you have to go up to it directly. You have to risk getting hurt, getting bitten or outright killed, over and over, while it's trying to protect itself. Stay away and it'll forget about you. So, yeah, this is a fucking game, Liara. Wake up!"

Liara let out a dangerous exhale. "…she came up to me. It was not the other way around."

"Yeah, since you were fresh meat. And then your trail led her right to me instead. Thanks for that."

"Why are you doing this?" questioned Liara, again about to snap. "Why are you so…hateful?"

Devoid of all feeling, Ashley said, "Because…you made her break my heart before I could get anywhere near her. She didn't consider my feelings. You made sure I knew. And you terrified me when you did it… Then, you made a fatal mistake. You stepped aside, thinking you could give her time, and she'd come running back to you after getting sick of my shit. You didn't count on any of this happening, did you?"

Liara hadn't expected such a sincere answer, yet her blood continued to boil—"What is this?"

"You know exactly what this is," claimed Ashley. She pointed to the view, the railing behind her. "You see that? You see that drop, that fall? Her heart is right there, right now, about to fall for me—but here you are, reminding me all over again of how much she hurt me through you, like some kind of puppet master. After the day I've had with her, everything is so fresh and raw for me all over again…and I'm about to make a mistake. I feel myself about to walk away…but I love her too much to ever do that."

Calming with that reveal, however unintentional, Liara lowered her head. She already knew that information about me, about my heart.

But, Ashley…

Liara needed to know, "Why…would you admit this to me?"

"Because…I can't tell her. She's sick of me arguing about you. I can't tell anyone. I had to tell you; I felt like I was about to explode if I didn't get this out somehow. You can keep that as your token from me."

Such a lack of compassion from Liara as she retorted, "If you won't allow yourself to be truly honest, then how can you claim to love her? You would let Shepard stumble around in the dark to figure out what the problem is? And if she does not find the answers, your heart will only break more, leading to more problems, more issues between the two of you. How is that fair to her in the slightest?"

Ashley snapped at her, "I don't expect you to understand! Don't bother thinking you can figure me out. I don't need you to fucking do it! Just like I don't need you thinking you can share her with me! It's not gonna happen—period!" Scowling over Liara's shock, more, she got the last word in: "There's your damn firewall, you stuck-up bitch! Try and break it down—see what happens. I swear to God, I will make you pay if you even think about stepping anywhere near Shepard after this. I'm so done with you…"

Nearly storming into me on her way out and away, Ashley left the balcony, left Liara standing there in sheer denial.

Because of course, Liara knew that I would never tell Ashley about that one thing, those exact words…

Liara knew that I had overheard: in her frustrations, I heard the way she breathed. I couldn't read her mind, not like before when she had melded with me, given me that gift. All I could fall back on was my intuition again. And my intuition told me that Liara wanted to be alone, otherwise we would end up in an argument next.

Worse than that, I couldn't follow after Ashley at all.

I couldn't suddenly go up to her, asking her about this—because then she would know I'd overheard. That would've shattered her trust in me, no matter how much she loved me.

Even though I had every undeniable urge to go find her right now—immediately—I had to stay away.

Ambling off to a safe distance, I uncloaked, exposing myself to everyone's perceptions of me.

Maneuvering myself through this crowd, I held everything in, needing to isolate myself, needing to get away from this music, this enjoyment, this reminder of what I couldn't indulge in right now, not now. Holding it all in, I felt myself about to break, about to let it out: this gathering, building, brimming. I forced a fracture in my own mind to keep this in, getting to the hall that led to the restrooms.

Packed women's restroom, empty men's restroom. I rushed into the men's one. I sealed the door behind me, the red light an ironic comfort right now.

Shutting myself in the only stall, I locked myself here, realizing all at once:

The one person in my life close enough to hurt me, who could have done it by now, multiple times, yet she could not, chose not to, would not, and refused to—even if it meant shattering herself, and breaking her own heart over and over again: Ashley made the constant, conscious decision to put me first on this realistic pedestal, this optimistic throne of her heart and her mind. Not out of any lesser impulse to be less real with me. Not out of fear of pushing me away necessarily, for her own self-preservation, as her self-sabotaging habits had proven, working against her anyway, even at the worst of times.

Ashley made the choice to love me with every drop of her devotion, bleeding herself to death for me.

Still trying to straighten myself, I clamped my arms around my head, unable to run away anymore.

She was the one, the only one, and I had dismissed her, I had ignored her, I had judged her, I had made up reasons to hate her, I had gone to someone else to distract myself from her, I had lied to her, I had lied to her, I had lied to her; I had broken her heart all before she could truly express herself to me once.

And even after all that…still she chose to love me anyway. She chose not to give up on me anyway.

Ashley chose to keep her promises to me; and I couldn't apologize properly without breaking her trust.

Shut away, locked away, alone and isolated in this reality, I didn't jump, I didn't fall, and I didn't land in grace and with control, augmented in a halo and in complete confidence over my guaranteed survival.

I spiraled down and down and down in love her, all the way down, without Ashley in my arms this time.

Endless black of this abyss with no end in sight, I heaved for breath without breathing. I couldn't make up for any of this; I couldn't hold her and make this right again…not directly. It was all my fault. I'd fucked up. I should've stayed away for my own sake. And now…it was too late.

Now that I needed Ashley the most, I couldn't go to her. Not literally, not figuratively; somewhere in the depths of my intuition, her own intoxication kept up a barrier of her own, unintentional, since she needed her space, and so of course she didn't want to be bothered. She needed her space. Right when I needed to take care of her in the ways she had shared, she needed to be alone, separate from me.

So separate from me—right when this free-fall began in me, uncontrollable.

So separate from me—right when I needed to be completely unprotected, in heaven deep inside of her.

I learned from her, seeing the obvious—that it was my turn to follow in her footsteps, and to learn how to love her instead of only feeling it or saying it. Holding her close, and making the conscious choice to do it; putting her first, and making the conscious choice to do it; staying faithful to her, and making the conscious choice to do it; falling into her, so much deeper, and breathing through her, and making the conscious and unconscious choice to do it, to risk absolutely everything for her no matter how badly she might've hurt me—and even if she chose to walk away, leaving me broken, and abandoning me with this love for her and with no way to give it to her anymore, just like I was afraid of, just like I was afraid of—

And I had no place left to run. I had nothing left to protect myself with. Nothing.

Only a mask to wear at night, until the sun eventually rose over the scent of her stuck in me.

Chapter Text

"The Town" by The Weeknd

XIII. Good Enough

(Ashley Madeline Williams)

Sinking lower, lower into this blue, the bottom so much deeper than I should've been able to tolerate; eyes shut to this pressure, I held my breath, pockets of air leaving me as natural; sinking to my lowest, on purpose, for the sport of it, I almost tasted the chlorine in my mouth, washing out that other, that curiosity; sinking to the absolute depths of this space, the pressure mounted right in my chest, agonizing as my entire body kept collapsing down here, on my knees at the end of this extreme, willing to do anything, absolutely anything for the sun clouded behind the skies graying way above, way overhead:

Opening my eyes to this waving sapphire, the gleaming light up above formed the illusion I wanted.

Passing through the open door that led out here to me, I could've sworn I saw her.

Walking over to me, finally choosing me after she'd already done it before—lesser, not as much—I thought I could see Shepard there, coming to me at last, coming to me with her full self, her whole heart, without running away from me anymore, willing to take me in after so long, after all this time.

Unrivaled in her height over all, undisputed in her rays of influence, I felt my chest fill with the promise of this mirage as my oxygen, undulating in the clouded light outside, from her sunlight, everywhere.

Leaving these depths, I pushed my entire body up, through this pressure to chase after her, through this blue that could've overcome me, up through these lows that should've gotten the best of me long ago.

I refused.

Too stubborn.

Stubborn enough to break back up to this surface of the swimming pool I was in, gasping for breath.

Slicking my hair out of the way from my face, I blinked the water from my eyes.

Like a sudden, unscheduled sunset, Shepard wasn't there anymore—as if she ever had been in the first place.

She hadn't walked through the door in my sights now: the one leading back into the hotel I stayed in with the others during this sudden, unscheduled trip to sunny San Diego back on Earth. We were back in her hometown of all places, and Shepard wasn't here. We were supposed to stay here for the rest of shore leave—however long it was going to last for—and yet she hadn't done anything with me here.

This luxury, five-star hotel, the US Grant, was massive, renovated and raised to match the rest of the city's architecture, even though it still had traces of those early twentieth century roots at the foundation. All the restaurants, spa treatments, and other amenities the place had reminded me of a golden version of the Presidium on the Citadel—but the interior looked just like the outside of this city.

Dark tint of the rain clouds shadowing the skies above, I faced that irony as I floated on my back over the water's surface. Staring up at this sunless forecast, I couldn't know what was true anymore.

Here I was, swimming in the rooftop pool of this amazing hotel so high above the ground, surrounded by even taller skyscrapers, all overlooking the nearby shores along this Coronado Island in the main city of San Diego itself. This place's sunny reputation persisted even on a day like this, spreading its tourism through the air and the architecture instead.

Pale golden colors, deep honey golds, and yellow lighting, everywhere: that golden halo from Shepard's augmentation was San Diego itself, no matter the time of day or night. Black and chrome buildings stood tall with those golds shining through the windows, shining as the street lamps, to offset how harsh everything seemed, softening the town, the entire city with this ultramodern, otherworldly feel to it.

And the people, their fashion: they dressed with that same black and chrome, like their clothes were the buildings themselves, harsh and intimidating, but still so mesmerizing—exactly like her, exactly like her.

This town was so beautiful, like a paradise of everlasting light in the middle of a metropolis.

So damn beautiful, and Shepard chose to leave me by myself in this hotel with the others.

She had set her omni-tool's status to unavailable as soon as we'd touched down here.

Any emails I sent her, she only sent me back short, abrupt responses, like she didn't know what to say.

Something was going on here. I needed to find out exactly what.

But first I had to burn off this energy. Otherwise, I might've blown up at her. Even I knew that now was the absolute wrong time for that.

Swimming wasn't going to cut it. Not while I kept seeing things like this, these mirages.

Hauling myself up and out of the pool, this loud falling of the water off from my body made me think back to Thessia, back to the mall Shepard had taken us to. Those waterfalls, so gorgeous, just like she was; that lighting, so perfect, just like she was, no matter how much she pissed me off when she ran back into her shell like this. I dried myself off, still soaked with the memory of how incredible she was, soaking more over the way no one could compare to her, ever, flaws and all.

That unbreakable scowl of hers was a crown for all I knew, glittering in the golden brown of her skin.

No one could take it from her, just like no one could take her from me.

Leaving back inside to the hotel with my towel wrapped around me, I knew that Shepard was at that point with me, too. I knew she had reached some kind of place where she couldn't leave. I knew she wouldn't let herself sit still with me, to enjoy this feeling with me, or bask in this pain and all with me.

Her throne from me was here in my heart—

Waiting for her to stop running away from me.

Waiting for her to sit there, for me to adore her, forever.

If waited for her without moving, we wouldn't get anywhere. I knew that, and I liked it. I liked that Shepard needed someone to admire her before she would move from her vantage point. I liked that she wouldn't admit it. I liked that she wanted and needed all of these things that were so obvious to me. Just because I couldn't look away. Just because I couldn't quit her. Just because she was human, even if I did see her in this light, immortal in how mortal she was, how she never wanted anyone to see her fall.

I couldn't feel my own feet on the ground anymore, thinking about her like this again.

I needed to keep myself together.

I had to keep it together.

I couldn't get lost in my own head while Shepard was still acting like I didn't mean this much to her.

Passing through this hallway that looked like the rest of the city, indoors, I made it back to my room here at the topmost floor. I unstuck these soaking wet clothes from off of me, changing into my running gear. I used my omni-tool to track a course through the island we were on, across the beach, and back again. Should've taken me about half an hour without stopping.

That wasn't enough time, really. I had enough pent-up energy to keep running all day and night.

But today was the last day of this monthly cockblocking, and I didn't want to overdo it. Even though I somehow didn't have any cramps—and I hadn'thad any in months, not since Shepard started seriously talking to me—I still had a headache instead, on top of Shepard confusing the hell out of me. For once, I couldn't just ram my head against this problem with her and find a solution. She kept resisting me.

I thought against emailing her again.

She probably wouldn't have responded. Or at least not with anything I wanted to hear.

Heading back out again, I passed by the open door to Tali's room. She was rooming with my favorite person, who wasn't here in the hotel at all. I actually hadn't seen her since we got here, not once. Now that I thought about it, I hadn't seen Kaidan in a while, too. He mentioned he had some kind of business to take care of over on the main Alliance Navy base here on this island. That must've been why Shepard had us come here, aside from her probably feeling homesick. But why didn't they just say so earlier?

Here, Tali was in her room, talking to Garrus. I ignored her, too, and kept on walking. Tali had some kind of problem with me, but she wouldn't tell me anything about it. So she leaned on Garrus and her other friend instead of being straight-up with me, like she just expected me to beg for her forgiveness.

Some best friend she was.

I wasn't going to kiss her ass over this. I'd already tried asking her five times what the problem was!

She couldn't respect me enough to have a real conversation? Then she could get over it on her own.

In the common room, Joker and Wrex sat together, watching TV, drinking. For some reason, they had it on the news: about Cerberus, those damned terrorists who used to be Alliance black ops. Their priorities and their methods were way fucked up! The advancement and preservation of humanity… Yeah, right.

I walked faster to the elevator nearby, hoping Wrex and Joker wouldn't notice me.

I started to slow down, though, once I got this weird feeling.

Like I was being watched. Like the walls had eyes somehow, tracking every single thing I did.

Like someone was around here somewhere, watching all of us, the whole team, and not just me.

"Hey, Chief!" called Wrex, slurring a bit. "Where are you going, huh? Get over here…and have a drink!"

Joker stumbled over here first with his beer, asking, "Ash, seriously…where's the fire? Or…are you the fire? Oh-ho-ho, I got you there, huh…?" He gestured in victory to the common room—bowing to no one and nothing here except for the few hotel workers walking by. "I'll be here all night, folks. All night!"

I mashed the down button on the elevator.

Wrex staggered this way, holding yet another bottle of Ryncol. "Hey, hey, what's…this? What's goin' on?" he asked, swerving around, his tail bobbing up and down. "Chief…you all right? Are you…okay?"

"Yeah, you don't look so hot," added Joker. "Wait…that came out wrong… I mean, you look hot—goddamn, Ashley, you're always hot. You're a real babe…ten out of ten. Don't tell Shepard I said that; she'll kill me… But, like… You're not…doing so hot. Is that—is that it? What do we win, what do we win?"

"You know what wanna win?" said Wrex, drinking again. "Credits. Money! How's Shepard paying for our rooms and all our food…out of her own pocket? This hotel is great! She sure is loaded…"

Joker cackled, saying, "Dude, the commander's PACKING! Didn't we tell you how she made all those creds? 'Cause there's no way it's from her officer's salary… No, no way, it's like, way more than that… You don't remember? We told you…" He ribbed me. "C'mon, Ash, you know what I'm talking about!"

Why'd they have to pick now to start harassing me like this?!

Once the elevator doors opened, I hurried inside.

Wrex and Joker somehow fit themselves through with me right before the doors could close again.

On the way down to the lobby, though, they couldn't handle the downward motion. Joker clung for dear life against the thin railing wrapped around the elevator. Wrex hunkered down and sat in place, groaning over the whole thing. They couldn't move; they couldn't get up. They expected me to help.

I knew if I said anything to them, anything at all, I'd explode.

I just let them babble about whatever until we finally got to the lobby.

After what happened on Noveria, I almost hated elevators, too.

Almost.

As soon as the doors opened, I hurried out, leaving Joker and Wrex to yell and complain after me, pretty much abandoned back there.

Well, they shouldn't have followed me.

But it was nice th