Chapter 4

T’Loak Estate, Thessia

Aria watched Liselle step from the shuttle with mixed feelings.  Of course she wanted Liselle to recover as quickly as she could but Aria also knew the cost and the dangers that came with the quick fix her impatient daughter had opted for.

Liselle gave her mother a cheeky grin before being folded into an embrace by the Queen of Omega.

“Did you come alone,” Aria said as they walked.

“Of course,” Liselle leaned into the tall Asari’s shoulder, “I wanted to tell you something.”

“And you’re not sure how I’ll react.”

Liselle smiled and it sounded in her voice, “mmm something like that.”

They had reached the rear of the house and stepped out onto a shaded terrace where a table had been set.

One of the house workers was hovering but Aria sent her away and sounded irritated, “I’m capable of pouring tea.”

Turning to her daughter she tilted her head in question at the wide smile.

“It’s great to see you even if you are in a grumpy mood.”

Pouring the tea Aria hid the small smile that traced her lips, “really Liselle do you have to use human words when you own language has such a wealth of description.”

“I am young and impressionable as you like to keep reminding me,” Liselle accepted the cup offered but continued in a more serious tone, “Has there been any news?”

Aria just shook her head, “T’Arani believes she has tracked Galine to a small settlement in the K’Alrasta mountain range.”

Liselle sat forward, “on Thessia… she’s here?”

“We’ve been convinced for some time she came here from Illium.  There were some irregularities with incoming ship recognition around the time Galine would have made it back to Thessia,” Aria choose one of the pastries and indicated Liselle do the same, “you need to build your muscle back, eat.”

“So is that why you’re back on Thessia so soon?”

“Perhaps,” Aria sat back and her chair and fixed her daughter with a steady gaze, “and perhaps I wanted to see just how foolhardy my supposedly intelligent daughter had been taking a human cure instead of sticking with Asari treatments.”

Aria felt a rush of love and connection towards Liselle as she watched a very familiar trait. The young Asari was biting her bottom lip and frowning slightly.

“You would have done exactly the same thing… but I… I’m changing my name to T’Loak,” Liselle finished defiantly.

“Have you told Drax?” Aria was surprised but she schooled her reaction.

“Yes, and she is fine with it… I’ll be known as Liselle Lidanya T’Loak,” Liselle hesitated just slightly before continuing, “I don’t want to hide the fact that I am your daughter anymore.”

Aria studied the only daughter who had chosen to get to know her, who hadn’t maintained her safe life in Asari society, but said nothing as she struggled with a raft of conflicting emotion.

“Well say something mother.”

“You know what danger this will put you in and that you will be shunned in some social circles.”

Liselle sighed audibly, “like I give a fuck about Asari social circles… not like I’m a glowing example of Asari correctness anyway,” she leaned into the table, “and I’m not sure how much more of a target I can be given I nearly died on Omega and you haven’t been so discreet about your connection to me.”

Aria gave in to the laughter that came on a tide of love and pride, “well it seems you’ve made the choice for both of us.”

T’Loak estate, Thessia

Aria ended the call to Omega and leaned back in her chair.  She was away from her empire yet again and this time had left Ne’aira behind to keep an eye on how her three merc lieutenants were working together.

She held her space station and most of the Terminus system where it was located in an iron fist.  But such was the turbulent nature of the permanent undercurrents of power brokering between the gangs and vested interests on Omega it was important she was seen to be firmly in charge as well as pulling all the strings behind the scenes.

There had been plenty of chatter about her recent visits to Thessia and her relationship with Liselle.  Some had suggested she had finally fallen for one of her young mercs but they were in the minority.  No one who knew Aria T’Loak Pirate Queen of the Terminus systems thought for one moment it was affairs of the heart that was driving her actions in regards the attack on one of her closest merc lieutenants.

Reaching for the Arcadian brandy on her desk Aria let her mind wander to earlier in the day and her time spent with Liselle.  It had been a good idea to do some training with her daughter.  Joining her mind and nervous system with Liselle, Aria had helped to connect the final few pathways in her daughter’s brain and put her on the fast track to regaining full control and command over her biotics.

When Liselle had arrived she still needed to lean on a stick and her biotics were ragged around the edges.  On her departure Liselle strode energetically without any need for support and her final demonstration of her biotic power was almost back to normal.

Aria wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling, she couldn’t describe it even to herself.  After all the years of hardening her heart and her mind to others, sharing that experience with her daughter had been powerful.   She knew she would miss Liselle and there was a small voice that urged her to keep her daughter with her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a ping indicating an incoming call on her omnitool.  It was her private channel.   As she hit accept Aethyta’s face swirled into view on the hololight screen projection that sat above Aria’s forearm.

“She was definitely here,” Aethyta gruff and drawling as ever got straight to the point, “at least a week ago she was.  And it wasn’t the first time she’d passed through for supplies.”

Aria would never tell her lifelong rival but she knew how good a huntress Aethyta was and the only reason they were this close was because of both T’Arani’s skill and connections.

“How clever of you to know where she was in the past but it doesn’t get us any closer to where she is now does it,” Aria responded and hearing the cold aloof and dismissive tone was pleased it drowned out any possible shadow of admiration for what Aethyta had achieved.

“Yeah… must really bite that I’m the one finding her,” Aethyta said with a slight shake of the head.

Aria narrowed her eyes at the other Matriarch but before she could give vent to her ever present rage Aethyta carried on.

“We started a search pattern with recon drones a few hours ago, and put together a list of any locations she could be using.  But I’ve just had a call from a research team who had to make a detour over the A’Natare mountain range to avoid a pretty heavy storm and they picked up a signal.”

The rage dissipated and Aria’s full attention now was on what the other Asari was telling her.

Aethyta looked a little distracted and turned her head to speak to someone standing in front of her, “no not a drone send a search team but long range if they tip Galine off that we’re close I’ll reave them out myself,” she turned back to Aria, “it’s just static but a repeating pattern with equal time gaps… it’s one I taught to Liara when she was kid… secret emergency call kinda thing.  You need to get here fast, I think we found her, and I’m not waiting for you to make one of your regal fucking appearances.”

The comm link closed before Aria could respond; before Aria could fully process the barb intended to remind her that Aethyta had been there for Liara when she was growing up.  But it hit home and Aria was surprised by the pain that came with the knowledge that even for a short time Aethyta was the parent Aria was never allowed to be.  But she’d be damned if she was excluded now.

Central peaks, K’Alrasta mountain range, Southern continent, Thessia

Aria took the coat that was being handed to her as she moved to the shuttle door without any real thought.   She had walked out of her office after the call from Aethyta and straight to her shuttle with only her two personal body guards who were waiting outside her office.

The orbital flight had taken a little under two hours and Aria had brooded all the way.  She wanted to know what was going on but wouldn’t allow herself to try to contact T’Arani expecting to either be ignored or worse still would have to listen to the smugness and condescension in the other Matriarch’s tone.

She jumped from the shuttle and started striding towards the cluster of Thrassican Republic shuttles she saw on the edge of the landing area.  The long coat lifted by the breeze and Aria’s pace rippling out behind her like a cloak was doing nothing to stop the icy wind slicing through her leather’s.

The two commandos’ in her wake occasionally needed to break into a jog to keep up with the Pirate Queen.

The settlement was large given it was located in the depths of one of the biggest pristine habitat reserves on Thessia.  The five hundred or so locals were supplemented by between two and three thousand most of whom were environmental scientists, researchers or on retreat of some description.

Aria had no time for the kind of Asari who needed to come to remote and savage environments to complete themselves.  A week on Omega would tell them all the needed to know about who they really were and whether they had to much shit in their lives.

Drawing closer to the T’Soni shuttles Aria spotted Aethyta giving what looked like final orders to some of her team.

“Just in time T’Loak,” Aethyta said in her usual gruff tone.

Aria didn’t trust herself to speak and so just gave a terse nod.

They both boarded the lead shuttle and Aria sat without a word finally pulling the coat around her but only dimly aware of the heat being provided thanks to the embedded tech.  Her eyes were fixed on the view.  Snow and ice capped mountain ranges as far as the eye could see.  And somewhere out there, if Aethyta was right, was her daughter and a second chance.

En route Asari research station, K’Alrasta mountain range, Southern continent, Thessia

The plan was to approach the research station, the source of the signal, with just the lead shuttle as quickly and quietly as possible.

Aria and Aethyta managed to agree, with as little talking as possible, that they would jointly lead the small team of commandos into the station and deal with Galine personally.  The rest of the journey they sat at opposite ends of the shuttle in silence.

On the final approach to their destination the shuttle was being buffeted hard by the storm and the snow was a thick almost impenetrable sheet being driven hard into the shuttle through the open doors.  Aria and Aethyta stood on either side of the opening holding on tight and peering through the white out for the first glimpse of the structure.

It was only when the shuttle finally tucked itself into the wide rock protected and cavernous entrance that the landing platform came into view.  But the position of the single shuttle sitting on the pad was such that it denied access to the larger attack shuttle forcing it to hover a little way off.

Without a word, Aria launched herself from the open doorway towards the landing pad using her biotics to both extend her range and cushion her jump.  She was closely followed by Aethyta and two other commandos.

Once on the landing pad Aria strode towards the entrance to the main facility her body alight with a rippling blue aura, her biotics ready for anything she might meet.

Aethyta only paused to give instructions to have the small shuttle moved making room for the estate shuttle to land before following Aria through the doors and along the main corridor.  Moving quickly and expertly the two old hunters checked the rooms and areas to the left and right off the corridor intuitively knowing what the other was doing.

They reached the end of the central corridor at the same time and the wide glass doors that gave entrance to the main living area only slowly began to move apart.  Aethyta and Aria took one door each and pulled them open and continued quickly into the large open space.

The air seemed colder here and Aria noticed her breath turning to vapour as her eyes scanned the room.

On one of the long soft benches there was slight movement and Aria knew they had found Liara.  Moving to kneel next to the prone body she pulled away the covers to expose a pale blue face.

Aria heard Aethyta bark orders and sensed more Asari entering the space, “search the rest of the facility and find Galine.”

“Liara are you hurt,” Aria said quietly stroking the soft but very cold blue cheek with her fingers.  Somewhere in the back of her mind Aria was annoyed that she was exposing her feelings for her daughter in front of her hated rival but that feeling faded as quickly as it arose.

Liara’s eyelids flickered and then opened taking in the two Matriarchs, “you found me… Asan said you would come for me… is she still here.”

The Matriarchs exchanged a glance and in one movement Aria lifted Liara into her arms and once standing moved almost at a run back the way they had come to the landing pad Aethyta at her heels.

Aria jumped into the shuttle, now settled on the landing platform, without a word and laid Liara down on the medbed they had brought stepping back only to give the medics access.

“No sign of her anywhere, but there looks as if there was a fight of some kind in one of the bunk rooms,” Aethyta said when she joined Aria on the shuttle a few minutes later, “and this was in the room as well.”

She handed Aria a silver collar, “fucking control collar,” Aria spat out as she looked at something so morally reprehensible to Asari that to use one would mean forfeiting citizenship.

Aria studied it closely.  She had seen plenty of them in the Terminus systems as they were often used by slavers to capture and control their Asari merchandise.  They not only effectively cut off access to biotics but also the ability the join minds and they had plenty of side effects.  Aria had seen first-hand young Asari’s who had, in the truest sense of the word, lost their minds from long term exposure to the collars.

“This is human made,” Aria said and noticed Aethyta nod agreement, “so she did work with Cerberus.”

Their attention was drawn back to the medbed as both Matriarchs heard Liara’s voice cry out in anguish, “no I must get up… I must find my son.”

The senior medic was careful to address her remarks to both Aria and Aethyta, “she is dehydrated and suffering from mild exposure, she is emotionally exhausted and has a fever.  I would suggest sedating her on the trip back to the estate so she can rest and we can treat her without upsetting her any further.”

“You’ve gotta do what’s best for her,” Aethyta answered but glanced at Aria who nodded her assent.

Aria moved to the side of the bed and took hold of one of Liara’s hands and leaning in she spoke softly but firmly, “we will find him little wing but you must rest now, we are taking you home.”

Liara’s eyes were half closed but she stared intently at Aria and grabbed at her jacket, “Shepard, is she alive… I need to be with her Rasam…”

“Quiet now Liara,” Aria pushed her daughter gently back down onto the bed and nodded to the medic to administer the sedation, “you’ll see her when you get home, rest now.”

Once the sedative entered the young Asari’s system she fell back quietly and seemed to relax.

“Gonna hit the kid hard when she sees how beat up Shepard is,” Aethyta said from behind Aria the sadness clear in her gruff voice, “and now I guess we know the worst about who has the baby.”

Aria looked down at her daughter for a moment before moving to take a seat feeling the shuttle lift off the landing pad once again letting her eyes settle on the storm through the window.   But her mind was very much elsewhere.  Now Liara was safe Aria could focus her mind fully on the forces who had almost killed both her daughters and of course there was still Galine to think about.

Alliance shuttle, En route Arcturus station

Shepard reached into her jacket pocket for the hypospray and pressed it against her neck.  She felt the whoosh of drugs enter her system and an almost immediate lessening of the pain which, if she was being honest, was now almost more than even she could bear.

She would never have allowed the increase in strength of the pain medication if she was still in command of the Normandy and her crew.  But Shepard was effectively suspended from duty and as soon as they got to Arcturus would be surrendering herself to the surgery long overdue that was needed to heal her considerable injuries after the explosion on Illium.

Shepard leaned back in the seat and let her eyes drift out of the window to the mass effect fields dancing across the hull, and allowing the familiar sight soothe her.  There was little else she could set in motion before her operation.  She’d spent the journey to and from Thessia reading reports, asking for analysis or directing further intelligence gathering in readiness for the next round of search and destroy missions against Cerberus on her return to duty.

Anderson was going to take temporary command of the Normandy in a few days time at the end of the crews leave and would conduct the field trials of the new hull upgrades and carry on until she was deemed fit for duty.

‘Fit for duty,’ the words echoed in her head, ‘pretty sure I wouldn’t pass any kind of serious psych exam… not for some time… when… when was the last time I was truly… whole.’

Shepard squeezed her eyes together for a moment then sat up a little and looking for distraction decided to check the several messages that had pinged to her omnitool while she’d been working.

One stood out and she hit the haptic interface floating above her forearm to accept the message which appeared on the holo screen in front of her.

From: Aethyta T’Arani –  We’ve got her.  On way back to estate.  Come now.

Shepard touched the implant just below her right ear to switch on her local comms, “turn the ship around and had back to Thessia now…”

Then she sent a message to Doctor Chakwas to let her know of the change of plan before settling back in her seat.

The storm of emotions that were raging through her mind and causing her breathing to become difficult were impossible to unpick.  She reached for the hypospray and sent another surge of strong painkillers into her body.

The drugs helped a little calm her breathing but only dulled her mind.  All the conflicting emotions were still battling each other but one thought rang out like a bullet in an empty ship hanger.  They had found Liara on Thessia.

Shepard had been wrong.  Cerberus didn’t have Liara she must have been taken by Shiala Galine, had been with Galine this whole time.

 T’Soni family residence, T’Soni Estate, Thrassica, Thessia

Shepard waited until the shuttle settled on the grass before standing.  She felt weak and feverish and the pain was hardly responding to a single dose of the medication now.

The oppressive heat hit her like a wall and the extra effort to take in air tore a sound akin to a groan from her throat.

She narrowed her eyes against the glaring, brilliant sunshine and almost stumbled stepping through the shuttle door onto the ground but a hand steadied her.

“Where is she…” was all Shepard could manage.

“In the medical wing but she’s ok,” Tash said staying close to Shepard’s left side, “taking you straight to her… if she doesn’t get to you first,” Tash finished a smile evident in her tone.

Shepard could only nod the effort of walking even the very short distance to the main doors draining her of strength and breath she no longer had.

Again, Shepard stumbled this time on the short flight of steps leading to the main door and this time both her companions deftly supported her.  Shepard felt the gentle support of a biotic field from Liselle even after the young Asari’s hands had let her go.

The medical facility was on the lower ground floor in the left wing of the large house and Shepard headed in that direction with no thoughts now except the next breath, the next step and reaching Liara’s side.

The sound of raised voices met Shepard as she turned into the corridor.

“I am perfectly capable of walking… do not try to get in my way…” it was unmistakably Liara’s voice but Shepard also heard the exhaustion and her bondmate was upset.

Then before she had gone more than a few more paces Liara came into view further along the corridor and Shepard ground to a halt.

She had enough time to take in her lover’s drawn and pale features.  The garish bruising around her throat, the now very pronounced swell of Liara’s belly and the look of absolute horror on her bondmate’s face.

Tears were streaming down soft blue cheeks that Shepard could remember only too well tracing with the tips of her fingers.

Something hit her hard in the knees and although Shepard tried hard to keep focus on Liara’s face, keep moving towards her, everything around her dimmed to a single point.

Voices, faces, movement.  Liara’s voice, a glimpse of those eyes, Shepard reached out a hand but she was drowning.

No more breath could be wrung through her broken body and she felt all the pain fade away as she faded away to nothing.

Medical wing, T’Soni private mansion, T’Soni Estate, Thrassican Republic, Thessia

Liara paced back and forth a little way from the bottom of the medibed as High Priestess El’Estrene herself directed the healers and medics who were trying to stabilise Shepard after her collapse in the corridor.

Occasionally she caught Lady Nara’s eye but the High Priestess gave no hint of progress or otherwise.  And so Liara had no counter to the fear that had wrapped itself around her after seeing her bondmate’s condition face to face.  Shepard’s devastated body and features.  The lack of muscle, the obvious pain etched on the gaunt hollow cheeked face and the new scar almost dissecting the left side of her lover’s face from forehead to lower cheek.  The black patch denoting a missing eye.

The very essence of her brave and strong human dissipating before her eyes as Shepard gasped for breath that would not come, on the floor in front of her.  Liara felt more impotent and trapped than at any time since her kidnap from Illium.

Liara was only dimly aware of waving away attempts to get her to leave, to sit down, to rest.  As if she could rest with Shepard’s life hanging in the balance.  And then the room seemed to quiet, movement stilled and almost everyone left.

Her eyes scoured the body in the bed as she moved closer, and lingered on the empty eye socket now exposed.  She noted the myriad of tubes and lines in and out of Shepard’s body and recognised that a hard stasis field now encased the medibed.

“Well…” she said quietly to Lady Nara who alone now remained with her in the room.

“Shepard is as close to death as it is possible to be and yet remain alive.  Everything will depend on the skill of the team coming from Arcturus to perform her operation,” the High Priestess paused a moment, “she is extraordinary of that there is no doubt but she is still mortal, Liara.”

Liara stood looking down at her bondmate wishing with all her soul she could hold her, touch her, talk to her… ask forgiveness.

“You need to rest Liara and I need to tell you what else has happened,” Lady Nara placed a hand on the young Asari’s shoulder and continued, “how helpful will it be to Shepard for you to not be fully rested and well when she needs you?  She is in full cryo stasis nothing will change until she is brought out for the operation.”

Liara reluctantly allowed herself to be held by the Priestess and guided gently from the room and towards her own.  As they walked slowly along the corridor Liara leaned her head against the Matriarchs shoulder and asked, “is my Mother truly gone, Lady Nara.”

To anyone listening it would have seemed a strange and incongruous question but the Matriarch understood better than anyone the reason why it was being asked.

“She has passed from this life yes, but some journeys need to be completed even after our physical severance.  Our light, Liara, our consciousness can certainly remain but we will be separated by much more than just death at those times.”

Liara’s office, T’Soni private mansion, T’Soni estate, Thrassican Republic, Thessia

“No,” Liara shouted and threw the data pad she was holding in the general direction of the wall in front of her where it shattered, “I will not have that woman on my estate or in my home.”

“You want Shepard to die then?” Doctor Chakwas’s voice came loud and clear from the console on Liara’s desk, “I cannot begin to understand your feelings towards Doctor Lawson but you should know she was the one who saved the Commander’s life initially and any meaningful chance of success now rest in her hands alone.”

Liara placed one of her hands instinctively on her swollen belly resting the other on the desk.  Bending her head almost in defeat as she answered, “of course if that is… who is needed then I will see you in a few hours.”  She cut the connection without waiting for the reply and closed her eyes trying to fight back the tears.

“Sometimes I forget just how young you still are little wing,” Aethyta closed the door behind her and waited to see what her reception would be.

“Oh Teeta,” Liara looked up and felt all her strength and reserve melt away.

Aethyta moved quickly to enfold Liara in her arms and let the young Asari, who she had always felt was her daughter, sob into her shoulder, “hey kiddo it’s ok… Shepard’s strong she’ll pull through.”

“But… it’s all wrong…” Liara said trying to steady her breathing, “and I let Shiala,” Liara pulled back a little to look at Aethyta, “Shepard believed Cerberus had me… Aria said…”

Aethyta cut across Liara’s train of thought and pulled her back into a hug, “Yeah… well never you mind what Aria said or thinks… or what they said to each other.  All that matters is that you’re both going to be ok.”

Aria had wasted no time letting Liara know about her profound disagreement with Shepard’s actions and decisions to hunt Cerberus rather than help track Galine and the subsequent violent argument that had resulted.  Aria’s position was that Shepard’s first action and instinct had been to rush to Arcturus to secure the Alliance Navy and Human government rather than look for Liara and as such made her unworthy of Liara’s affections or loyalty.

Aethyta had walked in on the end of the conversation in time to watch Aria say all the wrong things to Liara about Shepard, and Goddess forgive her if she hadn’t enjoyed watching the argument that ensued and Liara telling Aria to leave.

“So that Lawson woman on her way, is she?” Aethyta said softly noticing Liara’s breathing was now steadier.

“Mmm,” the sound was accompanied by deep breath and Liara broke away moving back to the desk and started riffling through some data pads.

“Any point me telling you to take it easy and rest up?”

“No.”

Aethyta chuckled and moved to the door, “always stubborn.  So quiet and shy as a kid, but nothing would stop you once your mind was set.”

Liara looked up, “I do not feel young anymore Teeta… but I do not feel old enough for all of this either.”

Aethyta had never heard Liara sound so forlorn before, or so lost, “you are Benezia T’Soni’s daughter, head of the first family of the Thrassican Republic and I swear Liara you’re stronger than all of us.  And you don’t have to do any of this on your own… Shepard’ll pull through, you have family, me… Athames tits though it kills me to say it you have Aria,” Aethyta held up her hands to forestall Liara’s comments, “yeah she’s everything I’ve ever called her… but… she loves you.”

“She will never replace you,” Liara said quietly holding Aethyta’s eyes.

“I know,” Aethyta felt emotion choke her and after a short pause said, “well enough of this mushy shit… I have work to do,” closing the door behind her she focused on making arrangements for the incoming Alliance medical team.

Chapter 4