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Like It's Hallelujah

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This is what the afterlife looks like:

Grass beneath bare feet. A setting sun tearing open a weak autumn sky, pouring itself out over the treetops. An old, open door. Creaky floorboards. Wobbly chairs. An empty bar. A full bottle of plum-red wine with a crisp, creased label.

You know the sort of place; just worn enough to be cozy, just slick enough to be classy, the image of it so slim and familiar you could catch it in your palm and carry it around in your pocket like a charm. It’s a scratchy beer-bottle tune strumming out on an old record, a patent-leather smile that fits around you like a shawl in a seaside breeze, and when Commander Shepard walks into this quiet hole-in-the-wall just south of Nowhere At All, road-weary and alone, she knows, knows, that she has been here before.

And the first thing she thinks—God, but doesn’t that just sound like the start to a bad joke.

Well. It is and it isn’t.

Thirty seconds ago, she thinks—it was thirty seconds ago, it was—she was still hearing the tin-can echoes of a child-god’s voice reverberating in her bones, staring down the red red red of oblivion in the tangled tumble-down crash of the infinite unknown, and here she is, barefoot, no gun, not even a holster, hair loose around her shoulders and wearing that old blue sundress she bought on Nos Astra half a lifetime ago, and all she can think is how she left her purse on her nightstand.

And. Maybe that’s part of the joke. The world—worlds, clusters, the galaxy, their tiny corner of the increasingly china-doll-fragile universe—may have been blown to bright glass bits, may have been spared the indignity of a dragged-out bludgeoning until it finally bleeds out; worse, it may be stuck in some sort of limbo balanced on a hairpin, and Commander Shepard isn’t even there to see it through properly after her spectacularly unpleasant date with Fate and Time, and now she’s skipped straight to The End without a single credit to her name. That's it. That's the joke, that's the one-liner of the millennium, I (Might Have) Saved the Galaxy and All I Got Was This Dusty Old Bar and A Few Empty Pockets. If Liara was here, she would laugh, pay for her drink. She would say, The galaxy owes you one. I’m keeping a tab.

Yes. It’s a bad joke, and she laughs because why not, because she’s always liked bad jokes anyway and she can breathe without something hurting, bleeding, aching, without gravity wrapping its shackles around her ankles and crushing her shoulders beneath the deafening demand of a thousand planets. No hammering in her bones, no fear crusted under her fingernails.

Shepard can breathe, so she does. She can sit down, take her time, reminisce like she’s supposed to, young woman with a heart two times too old. Her chest swells, deflates. Shepard breathes.

And that’s when the punchline walks right through the door, dressed in yellow and smiling with those bright blue eyes only for her, only ever for her after a whole lifetime or maybe two, sauntering toward her with all the consummate grace of a figment.

“And I suppose you think your drink is going on my tab,” Liara says, one hand on her hip and her mouth cocked to match, and isn’t this just something like one of those old black-and-whites, the ones where the lover is never forsaken, where there is no salvation but for what you can take. “Four years, and I don’t think you’ve bought me a drink once. Aren’t humans supposed to buy everyone drinks? Isn’t that how it goes?”

And, well. Yes.

Shepard doesn’t ask her where they are, why they’re here, what this is, doesn’t say, You aren’t supposed to be here, am I dreaming, you shouldn’t be here, not you, not yet, not now. She just pulls out the other chair and uncorks the bottle of cabernet that’s been waiting for them like she’s done it a thousand times before (and she has, she has), knits her lips into her favorite sideways smirk, says, “I was wondering where you were.”

“I’m sure. Who else is going to help you finish that?”

“Don’t think I need any help,” she laughs, pushes a glass to Liara and watches her tip it back, long fingers playing around the crystal stem. “I could finish a whole bottle on my own, back in the glory days.”

“Your glory days.” Liara rolls her eyes, all mock-scorn and laughter-laced exasperation, and Shepard loves her like this, feigning irritation, pretending to the long-suffering wife she never got a chance to be, could not be. She swallows another drink, can’t tell whether it’s the wine or the might-have-been that burns more going down. “It was one time. It was a bottle of bubbly pink zinfandel in coffee mugs. I hardly think it counts.”

“Can’t just roll with it, hey.”

“Not when you’re wrong.”

“Just to spite me, yeah?”

“Something like that,” she says, sipping from her glass, reaching out to let the tangled ends of Shepard’s hair slip through her fingers. She looks so young. They are both of them, truly, so young. “Something like that.”

The wine tastes like blackcurrants and spice, something peppery and smooth and familiar like home, like the scent of perfume on a warm scarf, and she watches Liara beside her while she drinks, while she doesn’t drink, while she speaks and doesn’t speak, while they touch, while they let the safe blanket of silence wrap around them and hum through their ears. Shepard laughs just for the love of it, feels her pulse thrum to Liara’s cadence when she turns her wrist over in her hand, easy as it’s ever been, her hair shifting back and forth down her shoulderblades with each shift of her body, a pendulum powering a clock with no time to keep but their own.

Because—it’s just them in all this creaky little barstool world, maybe in all their own universe, sitting, sharing a bottle of wine. Anything could have happened—could still be happening—but here is Liara’s hand around her wrist, here is Shepard, topping off their glasses, leaning into her, thinking absently of a hundred different overused lines she should be saying, A woman walks into a bar, between two evils she always picks the one she’s not yet tried, a cliché older than its name, but nothing will come forth through the calm, hazy quiet. No bad joke. No careless diction. Just even breathing and the poetry of a heartbeat. Just this.

Liara twines their fingers together, rests her head on her shoulder. She smells like apples, like lavender; spring has always bloomed around Liara, that sentimental, blank white page waiting for the broad brushstrokes of red and violet and sun-soaked ochre like passion, like want and love and dreams and memory. “Do you remember,” she starts, tugging Shepard’s hand, “the day we met?”

“Like a wound,” she says at once, lets the blush of the memory play out like it has a thousand times before. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget it’s only been a few years. It feels like forever. It feels like waiting and waiting and thinking that the time will come when they can slow the breakneck pace, slip themselves into a routine with an ocean view and a picket fence. “Trapped a few hundred meters underground in an energy field on a baking-hot planet. Only you, Liara.”

“In retrospect, it was pretty impressive.” She tilts her head and lets her lips brush Shepard’s neck; she can almost hear them pulling up into that honey-slow smile. “I am pretty impressive, you know.”

“Don’t I just.”

“Need I remind you,” she continues, grinning now, Shepard knows, always knows, “that I didn’t even know how to shoot straight? A week later, and I was dropping mercenaries like flies.”

“Two years later, and you’re threatening to skin grown men alive. Eviscerate them. Boil their bones. Over calls, even.”

“Mmm. I never did like making calls. I like my threats to feel personal.”

“That’s my girl.” She takes another drink, rests her head on Liara’s. There is a candle burning on the bar, its infrequent flame splashing long, lonesome shadows along the wall; Shepard passes her hand over it, feels the tapering heat settle between her fingers and thinks of Illium, thinks of an abandoned space port bar. “Do you remember,” she begins, picking up the same thread in a different place, heart beating in reverse, “the second time we met?”

Liara kisses her shoulder. She says, “Like the first day of my life.”

Nos Astra, neon blue and red and cut from broken glass and iron bars and a million twisted teeth, and there had been Liara. There, somehow, had been home. “We really stepped in it over there, didn’t we.”

“‘We?’ We didn’t step in anything. The only reason you were ever allowed within fifty light years again is because an information broker’s pockets run deep and heavy. And her threats take precedence over the posturing of politicians.”

“My savior. My sweet, pistol-toting knight,” she laughs, presses a kiss to her cheek. Her eyelashes brush against Liara’s skin. “What would I do without you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Liara says, no hesitation, no recourse at all, and they both drink to the concrete truth of it until their cheeks are pink and their limbs are light, until Shepard thinks again that it’s just so cinematic, the light playing on the walls, the way Liara fits into her side like they were made for it, the angles, the exhales, thinks she could just curl up here in this womb forever.

“Hey,” she says, eyes half-shut, wine-drunk and warm, “hey. Any regrets?”

“Who would I be without them?” Shepard traces the veins under the thin skin of Liara’s wrist, rubs her thumb over the lines of her palm, topography she has long since memorized. “Some bruises never heal,” she says, and then, a little quieter, “What about you?”

A man with his back against the shuddering blast of death itself; a blood-red sunset eclipsing the promise of tomorrow, choked and shriveled as a broken heart. A beautiful woman, drowning, drowning, drowning in blue. Failure like a bullet to the temple. “Fewer than I should. More than I’d like.”

Liara hums against her ear, turns her glass in her hand, the strap of her dress falling off her shoulder. Somewhere, a robin is singing, sweet familiar lull of early evening, sunlight and sorrow woven into psalms for the long forgotten, for the deep black before the sunbursts and supernovas of dawn. “What do you suppose they’re doing out there?”

“Pushing all the rubble into a bigger pile of rubble, maybe. Or maybe nothing at all.” She can see it, almost, the staggering, jelly-legged peace that will fall like a whisper over the galaxy while they shuffle the pieces back into place together, burn the memory of what once was into their bones and carry it over their hearts like ritual, like scars. And, she wanted to be there. She wanted to let it all settle back into place and laugh about it the way old soldiers are supposed to do, Hey, remember when the galaxy exploded? Remember when you stared down the horde and won? Remember, remember? “I don’t suppose we’re meant to know.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Liara sighs. “You are, sometimes.”

“Most times.”

“Boastful,” she laughs, squeezes her hand. “About three-quarters of the time, give or take.”

“Not a bad ratio.”

“No,” Liara agrees, finishing off the last dregs of her wine, “it’s not. But you’re no information broker.”

She pushes her face into the crook of Liara’s shoulder, breathes her in again. “I don't know. Some people find me pretty impressive too, you know.”

“Oh?” There’s a rumble of laughter, bright as a bell on a clear winter morning. “You’ll have to introduce us sometime.”

“I would, but. You know. I’m humble. The concept is lost on some.”

“Of course. No witnesses to sing of your glory.” She reaches up and traces the gentle slope of Shepard’s jaw, the tip of her chin. Leans in, presses their foreheads together like coming home. “Good thing we’re a matched set.”

“What would you do without me,” Shepard says.

“I wouldn’t,” Liara finishes.

They’ve finished the bottle between the two of them, sitting at the bar, talking and talking; the smell of rain is in the air, sudden and heavy, and Shepard wraps an arm around Liara’s waist, pulls her close to keep her there. “What do you love,” Liara is asking, staring up at her with those wide ocean eyes. “What do you love?”

It’s a cocked-and-loaded question she’s asked her a few times before, quiet, messy, sheets tangled around their legs in Shepard’s room. What do you love, love-love, what is your blood made of? The answer was always a thousand things:  the Normandy, the crew, the ground beneath her feet, a good fight, a better drink, a bloodless victory.

“What do I love,” she repeats, sliding her fingers over Liara’s elbow. The stars fixed in the sky, their constellations all finally, blessedly mapped and aligned. “You, you, you. Only you.”

“Good,” she whispers. “Good.”

In the end, she can’t decide what this is or what it means and she doubts it matters much no matter which way she dissects it. Maybe it’s something. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s a hallucination, a happily-ever-after sort of limbo in the nanosecond before the coal-black numbness of annihilation, the one you don’t get to come home from, and maybe there’s some tidy scalpel-sharp scientific explanation for that, maybe there isn’t. Maybe every woman dreams her own heaven. Maybe this is all she gets; maybe she never really got it at all. It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t.

This is what the afterlife looks like:

A woman nursing a wineglass long empty, twirling it between her fingers. Laughter like light, like blinding-bright absolution. Two people reaching for each other, no other universe but theirs, no other time but here and now and us. No deliverance. No white gates. No final judgment. No blessing but their arms around each other, their bodies slotted together like a puzzle, no other redemption but the warmth of skin, just the singular will to grab each other and hold on for as long as they can, stand their ground for a frozen, paper-thin eternity if that’s what they’ve got coming to them. Nothing but this. Nothing but a sigh, nothing but the musical chant of their breathing, Shepard closing her eyes, whispering, “We did all right, you and me.”

This is what the afterlife looks like.

Liara’s hand in her hair, fingers threaded loose and warm. An empty bottle of wine. The smell of honeysuckle and rain, Shepard’s lips pressed to the bridge of her nose. A flock of songbirds taking flight. The flickering knifepoint flash-and-swell of a million, million stars. The curve of a smile, sun on skin, arms wound tight and safe and whole. A burned-out candle. An open door.