Thanks to Reikson for the support and help and generally putting up with my flights of fancy
Shepard forced open the reluctant door. the soft gasp of its hydraulics yielding to the woman's determined strength.
Xander slid aside, with the door hacked open, the hard-light construct of his omnitool winked out of sight.
Wrex racked the slide on his shotgun, exposing its heatsink and causing a plume of steam to escape. All for the sake of drama, really; he could've just let the heat sink itself naturally. "Dead and done, just the way I like 'em." He sneered.
Bodies littered the room behind them. Mercenary scum too stupid to notice how outmatched they were against the Normandy squad.
Wrex's desire to be included on this, and Shepard's acceptance of his aid, was an unspoken relaxing of the tense atmosphere that had erupted after Shepard's decision to let the Rachni Queen live. The Krogan had been furious and spewed a lot of verbal venom before dropping the subject and refusing to discuss it further. Urdnot Wrex was a proud Krogan and he had every intention to go on being proud, but that didn't mean that he didn't know who was the Battlemaster aboard the Normandy.
A tense scene unfolded before them; a man pointing a gun to another man's head. The scientist wore the rumpled and stained uniform of his profession, his thinning hair scrambled to cover a brow slick with sweat; a nervous reaction no doubt due to the large gun, the muzzle of which rested on the ridge of the scientist's brow.Still, it was the other man who grabbed Xander's attention. His build was thin and pale with ghost-like skin stretched over taut muscles. His hardsuit had seen better days, a low-end model that mercenary thugs favored for the flimsy aura of badass that you gained by owning something with the laughable name of Assassin in the title.But it wasn't the bargain-basement hardsuit that caught Xander's attention, but rather the man himself.
A dead man; or at least, he was supposed to be dead.
Dead, along with the fifty other marines whose lives ended on that night of screaming and fear on Akuze.
"Stay back!" he screamed. "All I want is this bastard!"
Shepard's gun came up to cover both of them. "Drop the weapon and step away from the doctor, soldier!" she said with cold finality. "Or I will fire!"
"You fire and I might end up shooting him anyway!" The man snarled, his nervous stance and the tensed muscles of his body giving away the truth about his pretended confidence.
"Toombs?" Xander squawked as he stepped out from behind Shepard. She turned her gaze just enough to notice the absolute shock on the immortal man's face.
Toombs looked up. That voice... it couldn't be. "Harris? I saw you die! The Thresher Maw's claw... it went right through you!"
"The claw went straight through! I almost bled out, but I survived!" Xander lied effortlessly as he looked at Toombs, agape. "But I saw you dragged under by the Thresher Maw right after that."
took me, Harris. The scientists... guys like this asshole."
"You can't believe this man!" The doctor cried out. "He's delusional!"
"They were studying the Thresher Maws!" Toombs ranted. "They LET them hit our unit, just to see what would happen! I woke up in a holding cell. They were delighted that I'd survived. Now they had someone that they could run tests on."
"What did they do to you, soldier?" Shepard asked, ever the picture of calm.
"There's no proof of any of this! I demand a fair trial!" the scientist shouted.
"Sergeant Harris was on Akuze." Shepard snapped, "And, up until now, everyone assumed that he was the only survivor."
Toombs continued his tale. "He's part of some secret organization," he snarled. "They call themselves Cerberus."
They all started at that revelation. Cerberus again? It was starting to seem like every dark and depraved sight they'd witnessed on this trip had involved Cerberus in some way.
"They've been treating me like a lab animal. I'd probably still be locked up, but someone attacked a bunch of their bases and in all the confusion, I got free. He deserves to die, Harris! For you... for me... for everyone in the unit... are you with me?" Toombs was almost frantic in his fanaticism.
Xander shook his head. "No, Toombs. I... we have to take him in. We have to... Toombs, you're not a murderer. You're better then this."
"Don't tell me who I am!" Toombs snapped, spittle flying from his lips. "Have you ever had Thresher Maw acid in YOUR veins? You got out with a few scratches and a scary reputation! I was tortured for years! You can't judge me! You don't have the right!"
Xander suddenly rushed Toombs, who panicked and swung his gun around. But Xander's hand locked around the wrist of his gun hand, cranking the arm backwards till it groaned in protest and the gun dropped to the ground. His foot kicked hard and Toombs crashed to the floor, Xander's weight on top of him.
Shepard watched as that hard light blade Xander had slid into view. Its point indenting the skin at the man's throat.
Shepard quickly grabbed the scientist and twisted an arm behind the man's back before shoving him into Wrex's arms.
The Krogan obliged her by latching onto the wriggling doctor, shoving the muzzle of his shotgun up against the base of the man's skull. Leaning down, he rumbled menacingly, "Don't move. My trigger finger gets itchy easily and we Krogan do NOT like doctors and scientists."
Shepard nodded and turned back toward Xander, and found herself staring at a stranger wearing the face of a man that she thought she had known. Rage curled his boyish features into a vicious snarl, his body was tense and trembling. Hell Shepard could've sworn that his eyes were even glowing.
"Don't have the right?" Xander snarled at Toombs. "I have every right! I have a right to know what happened to my comrades! I have a right to know if it really was my fault that our friends died!"
Images of The Initiative flashed before his mind's eye.
"I have a right to know if I serve a government that would feed its own soldiers to animals just for sake of project data!"
Harris ranted, remembering a group of high-ranking Generals and US Senators who'd done just that.
"I have a right to know who profited from the deaths of our brothers and sisters ... our unit! And if this SOB knows anything at all, then I swear he's going to see the inside of a courtroom even if I have to drag his lying carcass there personally! He's going to tell what he knows, he's going to tell what he did to you, and what he did to the rest of them!"
Toombs wriggled futilely against Xander's restraining weight before snapping,
"Are you kidding me, Harris? Weren't you listening? It was a secret project! I don't know who or what Cerberus is, but they'll never let their Ops go public! If he knew anything that could hurt them, you think they'd have let me get this close? If we don't avenge the unit now, they might never get justice!"
"...And if you kill him, then whoever was behind HIM stays protected in the shadows! If you kill him, then they get away with what they did! Maybe one day, they arrange for you to commit suicide in some out-of-the-way place that would never be traced back to them!"
Toombs froze up. "Huh. Never thought of it like that..." he mumbled. "Okay... I'm no killer. They couldn't make me one. I'm a soldier. I'll...I'll do my duty. I'll tell them what I know."
Nodding, Xander rose from the floor, the blade from his omni-tool sliding back into hiding. Xander reached out to pull Toombs off the ground before pulling him into a tight embrace.
"Those bastards can't hurt you anymore, Toombs." Xander whispered.
Toombs started weeping, sobs shaking his tortured body.
Wayne breathed a sigh of relief until Shepard's cold eyes locked onto him. At a nod from her, Wrex's shotgun dug into his skull.
"Feeling lucky to be alive, huh, Doc?" she hissed. "Enjoy it while it lasts, 'cuz if you really were working for Cerberus, then you and I both know that your only hope in Hell of living long enough to testify is to give the Alliance enough intel to justify keeping you safe from the people that Cerberus can send after you."
Dr. Wayne turned his head enough to look at her, and Shepard felt a strange surge of pleasure and satisfaction at the look of raw fear in his face. But as he turned to watch Xander, she noticed something else... was that recognition she saw in Wayne's eyes?
Was the good doctor finally remembering?
Finally putting a face to the name?
Finally seeing not the solder standing before him, but a corpse that he'd checked and dismissed five years ago, leaving Xander for dead?
An hour later, Ashley found Xander perched on top of the Mako. He was headfirst inside the machine's internal systems.
She pulled him out of the tank, "I thought the Skipper took you off-duty until we reached Virmire?" She grumbled while still managing a smile.
"She did. This is just a little preventative maintenance, Ash." Xander replied. His quiet voice and nervous twitching was so out of character for him.
Ashley found herself at a loss. She wondered again why Shepard had insisted on her delivering the datapad clutched in her hand.
"Hackett's people just took charge of Toombs and the good doctor," Ashley reported. "Wayne's already screaming that he wants all kinds of immunity and, of course, protection. You'd think that the Devil himself was waiting in the wings for him."
Xander sighed. "Nah, the Devil doesn't sweat small details like him. The Father Of Lies has badder fish to fry."
"If it matters, I think you did the right thing; Toombs doesn't know it now, but you saved him." Williams commented.
"I screwed the pooch, Ash. I risked the hostages' life and... I'm tired, Ash. I'm really... really tired."
Williams shook her head, "Why not grab some rack time? There's no telling what we're walking into on Virmire. You might need the rest."
"No, I mean... I'm tired of being the guy who lived. The guy who got lucky. I'm tired of being the guy who didn't DIE and that's it." Xander took a long, deep breath. "All I ever wanted was to help people, and make a difference. How did everything get so screwed up?"
Ashley chuckled bleakly. "I'm tired, too. Tired of being afraid to be anything less then the best, tired of living in my grandfather's shadow, of feeling like nothing I do will ever wash away the stink of being related to the guy who lost Shanxi."
"Actually, your grandfather was a pretty cool dude," Xander froze, realizing what he'd said. "I - I mean, he seemed like a cool dude... from what I read... in the history books, 'cuz that's the only way I could know about a guy who's thirty years years older then me, and I'm going to stop talking now."
Ashley chuckled. "Either you're really bad at this or this Dawn was one hell of a woman."
"There is option C, you know. I'm really bad at this AND Dawn was one hell of a woman."
"This is why I like poetry. Other people say what I feel better then I ever could."
"I still like poetry. Got way into the beatnik for a while back when I was in school. I was going to leave school and travel the land. Experience life; I was going to be like Kerouac and Burroughs and Cassidy."
"Got into an old car which broke down near Oxnard, I've tried to purge the memory of the rest of that summer from my mind... especially the male stripping."
"You had an actual car? With an internal combustion engine? Wow, I thought those were decommissioned years ago?"
"It was my uncle's... he liked old things. He's gone now. Like everything else."
"Do you remember any of it? The poetry, I mean?"
Xander closed his eyes in thought. "I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up. Running from one falling star to another 'til I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion."
He opened his eyes to see Ashley gazing off into some unknown middle distance. He shrugged. "I guess Kerouac isn't for everyone."
Ashley punched him in the arm. "I like it, you dope. I'm just picturing it. Trying to see what he must've been like. What you must've been like, back then."
"Pretty much the same butt-monkey I am now, it seems." Xander sighed, bitterness in his voice.
"Xander, you aren't the product of some twist of fate. Who you are as a person got you the love of a good woman - this Dawn woman that I've heard so much about. Your drive and talents got you though school and training, your character and personality, that's how you survived on Akuze and that got you here ... serving on the most advanced warship in the fleet. Every step on the journey that got you here; you had to choose to be the best you could be. Own that, don't hide from it; 'cuz it's nothing to be ashamed of... It's why I like you."
"You like me?"
"You sound shocked."
"The kind of girls I end up with are usually demonic in nature, temperament, or both."
"Oh, I can be a demon, Xander Harris. " Ashley said, "Trust me on this."
She leaned on and claimed his lips in a fiery kiss. Xander's shock passed quickly and his hands slid down Ashley's back, hands curving around to hold and caress the muscles of her back and sides. He pulled her into his body, feeling her warmth molding and melding with his own heat. He suddenly had a rational moment and backed his head away from hers, but her hand came up curving through his hair and holding him in place.
As she had told him once, The women in her family; and Ashley especially, did things when they were ready; not before and definitely not after. Ashley was ready; end of story.
She looked up at him through hooded eyes; a predatory smile on her face.
"You aren't just a survivor, Xander. Anyone can survive; you beat the odds and you won."
Xander looked into her eyes and surrendered to her grip.
"I can get into winning. Winning's very cool," he mumbled as she guided his head back down for another incendiary kiss.
And he let himself go; let himself feel it again. That flush of passion at being with someone who wanted him just for being himself ... he'd almost forgotten what it was like. To be lost in that hot moment.
It felt good
Kaidan Alenko backed away, slipping into the shadows. Every instinct had told him not to follow Ashley, that what she was going to do down here wasn't his business, but he had totally failed to follow his own advice.
It wasn't like she hadn't warned him. She'd been honest and even compassionate; she hadn't lied about where her heart was beginning to lean. He found his way back to the service access shafts that some of the crew used to bypass the notoriously slow elevators.
She had made her choice and he could be cool with that.
Xander wasn't a bad guy; a little goofy, but he had a inner strength that even Kaidan could admire.
Coming in second to someone like that was as much a compliment as it was a disappointment.