Interlude: Stepping on Toes (3)
AN - thanks as always to Drake and Reikson for the help inspiration and to you guys for your enthusiasm
Interlude: Stepping on Toes (3)
Xander was sitting in the mess with Garrus, who was idly poking at something in front of him that had the distinct look of soup but seemed a little too watery looking to Xander.
“Send it back,” he suggested.
“I’m afraid of what it’ll do to my rep if I do,” Garrus groaned, idly letting a spoonful of the stuff spill back into the bowl.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Gardner’s trying out a dextro-friendly recipe,” the Turian’s flanged voice had a distinctly depressed tone to it. “This thing’s like sucking on a thermal clip.”
“So… what, it’s too spicy?” the immortal Scooby asked, not getting it.
“This particular recipe is called soggar; closest translation’s something like ‘Sunfire’ because of how it goes down.” Garrus sighed. “All of Cipritine Academy’s newest recruits are all expected to suck down this dish as part of their first dinner there. Eating soggar is something of a rite of passage; the hotter it is…”
“Ahh, I get it,” Xander nodded sagely. “Your man pride won’t let you send it back, but your stomach’s warning you that finishing this stuff off will make you regret it.” Pausing, he then had a brain wave. “Hey, maybe I should get Tali up here and get her to try it.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” the rogue Turian grunted. “She’s already going to be terrible about the whole ‘Last Stand on Haestrom’ thing.”
The two of them looked up from the still-steaming bowl of Turian soup, just in time to see Morinth working her way through the mess hall. She ordered something from Gardner, who was quick to set out something on a tray and then hand it over to her, before she set her meal out on the table and sat next to Hawthorne of all people. Soon, they were deep in conversation.
“Ohh, this is gonna be bad,” Garrus sighed.
“Hawthorne’s been seeing that girl from tactical.” At Xander’s mystified expression, the Turian sniper added, “You know? The one with the darkish fringe?”
“What is it with you Turians and fringe- I mean, hair?”
“What is it with you human males and mammary glands? It’s like the first place you look on a species that’s both humanoid and female.”
“Point taken,” Xander grunted. “Well, at least we can agree on the hips.”
“Hips and gluteal muscles,” Garrus nodded.
They both paused a moment, staring into space wistfully.
“Tali?” Garrus asked knowingly.
“Definitely,” Xander snorted. “On Earth, they write songs about hips like hers.”
“Never mind poems, I want to see art,” Garrus chuckled.
“Anyway, what’s the deal with Morrie?”
Morinth was talking with Hawthorne all right, but now she was whispering in his ear.
Xander noticed the way her hands would occasionally vanish under the table, followed shortly thereafter by Hawthorne jumping or twitching in a fashion that Xander found all too familiar.
“…and here comes the fireworks,” Garrus snickered, catching Xander’s attention.
A mousy-looking woman with dirty blonde hair, who Xander only vaguely recognized from the CIC pits, stalked over to the table. Her vitriolic glare preceded a ranting diatribe that quickly exploded into a full-blown argument right there in the mess hall.
Xander watched as Morinth casually escaped from the table as the couple began shouting at each other.
Then he blinked as he realized that he’d seen Cordelia Chase or one of her minions do exactly the same thing back in the bad old days of Sunnyhell High.
Having left the arguing couple to their fight, Morinth drifted over to a seat next to Xander and on the other side from Garrus.
“Ahh, young love,” she mused, smirking like the cat that had snatched up the canary. “To see it crash and burn…”
“Okay, seriously, Morrie? That was evil, and I mean high school evil, which is like a million times more evil then regular old ordinary kind of evil.”
“High school?” she asked Garrus.
“Humans apparently place a great deal of emphasis on secondary education,” Garrus explained. “To hear Xander talk, that’s when all the really interesting stuff happens.”
Morinth looked at Garrus with predatory eyes. “So… you’ve been with Shepard since the beginning?”
The renegade Turian nodded. “I was on the original Normandy.”
“I’m sure that you have many tales to tell.”
Xander found her carnivorous smile unnerving. “What was the point in screwing with Hawthorne?”
“The point is that it’s fun.” Amidst the shared expressions on both Xander and Garrus’ faces, she smirked. “It amuses me, and I find amusement to be a great… distraction.”
“A distraction from what?”
“Amongst other things? My hunger,” she shrugged. “That last mission required a great deal of biotics and Gardner has some difficulty keeping up with my appetite.”
“Please tell me we’re still talking about food.” Xander deadpanned.
“Oh, my desire for other distractions has abated with that Spectre,” she purred. “For now, at least. But I’m sure that Shepard will find other opportunities to allow me to indulge my… desires.”
Now Garrus shuddered. “Does this have to do with what happened on Illium?”
“Indeed,” she purred. “Our esteemed Commander seemed to find the act fascinating. She seems to be a bit of a voyeur. Proof, if any is needed, that our partnership is meant to be.”
“What’s that mean?” Garrus asked.
“She likes to watch, and I love it when I have a partner’s… undivided attentions.”
“Boss and Liara are pretty tight,” Xander reminded her.
“Ah, yes, the good doctor marked her territory quite clearly,” the rogue Ardat-Yakshi murmured as she stretched in place, calling attention to the Asari commando outfit that she liked wearing. “But the fact remains; she’s not joining your mission, which means she’ll eventually stay at the Shadow Broker’s base while Shepard will be here on this ship.”
“I think the boss might be a little too busy for fun and games, Morinth,” Xander grumbled.
“Well, if she is…” the Ardat-Yakshi shrugged, “…I’m sure that I can find other distractions.”
Morinth looked at him meaningfully, and Xander once again found himself thinking about how much she reminded him more of Darla than Drusilla. He honestly didn’t know which of the two comparisons were worse in the scary-thought department.
“This ship has so very many secrets, Alexander…” Morinth leered at the immortal Scooby, enjoying the way her very soul seemed to throb in time to the drumming rhythm that only she could seem to hear. “I would know them all.”
“…and on that note, I think it’s time that I took off and found the boss,” Xander said quickly, getting up from his chair and picking up his now-empty tray.
“Do tell her to come ‘round and visit me again,” the Ardat-Yakshi purred, her pale-blue eyes glimmering with greed and lust. “Tell her that I find our chats so very… stimulating.”
He stared at her for a moment and saw that dangerous mix of obsession and intelligence that had made Deadboy, Captain Peroxide, and so many others so very dangerous. But for all their menace, each of them had eventually aided the Scooby Gang’s cause in their own time. Now here he was again, making nice with someone that his every instinct was telling him to stake first and ask question never.
She caught his indecision, and her slight smile widened fractionally in amusement as she watched as he headed for the ship’s cook Rupert Gardner.
“Hey, Harris, think you can do me a favor?” his rough voice boomed.
“You know that bald biotic Jack? Don’t like comin’ up for meals, usually drops by when the place empties out a little or a lot? I just wanted to know if she needs anything.”
“Why ask me?”
“Well, ship scuttlebutt says you’re the only thing in a Cerberus uniform that she doesn’t hate on general principle,” the former eezo-rig man shrugged. “Figured you’d be the one to ask. Was I wrong?”
“Yeah… just so we’re clear, I’m really starting to hate ship scuttlebutt.”
“Look, Chakwas has been bitching about Jack’s diet. She’s kinda thin, you know, but there’s not much I can do if she don’t let me feed her up.”
The immortal Scooby sighed, picking up the two trays between the two of them. “I’ll talk to Shepard and Chakwas. In the meantime, I’ll take this down to her.”
“Could you make sure she actually eats it?” Gardner called after him. “I ain’t making this stuff for my health, you know.”
“Fine. Hook me up with some more soup and give me some more high-energy protein bars.”
As he came away from the counter, loaded with his treasures, he turned his eyes heavenward and hissed, “This is so not funny, Dawn.”
Did that odd sound from the vents being the environmental systems needing to be tweaked?
Or was it soft laughter?
Jack heard him coming before she actually saw him, cursing under her breath as she struggled up from the cot she used for a bed and reached for the painkillers that Chakwas had given her.
Decent stuff, but her overcharged amp was giving her a fuckin’ migraine.
“What do you want, Harris?” she grumbled.
“Wow, you just turn the world on with a smile, don’t you?” he shot back dryly, balancing two trays piled high with food.
Jack grimaced. “You want hugs and kisses, go find the cheerleader.”
“Doc’s still pokin’ and proddin’, last I saw of her.”
He saw her downing pain meds like they were M&M’s. “FYI, the Doc sent along some more of the good stuff,” he said, placing both trays on the work bench near her cot and digging into his pockets. Pulling out a pill bottle, he tossed it to her and watched as she eagerly snatched them up and downed several in one go.
“You might find that those things go down better with some tupari.”
“Isn’t that the shitty sports drink?” Jack asked.
“Nine out of ten douchebags can’t be lying,” he shrugged, tossing her a bottle. Unscrewing the cap, she took a long pull of the fruity concoction and felt her headache begin to fade.
“What’s in this shit?” she wondered, staring at the half-empty bottle.
“Lots of yummy electrolytes and proteins and a bunch of other crap that should get you back up to speed,” he grunted, setting the trays up and setting out a spoon, a fork, and a knife. The bald biotic shrugged and drained the bottle before looking back up at him.
“Food, easily identifiable by its foody look and taste.”
“Why you bringin’ me food?”
“Doc thinks you’re not eating enough.”
“…and I should care why, exactly?” she sneered, pushing a tray away.
Xander slid the tray back to her, unmoved by her petulance. “She’s the ship’s CMO. If she complains to Shepard, boss-lady will pull you from the roster. You won’t be going on missions, which means no creds, until Doc says otherwise. I can tell you, right now, she won’t let go until she thinks you’re better. Doc takes her job seriously and she’s one of the very few whose opinion that Shepard actually gives a crap about.”
“Fine, I’ll eat the damn food.” Jack grumbled, tearing into the large meal he’d brought her as he poked around the cubby space.
“Hey, don’t fuck with my shit,” she snarled.
“Have you been using the chemical showers for regular bathing?” he demanded, not looking up from he’d noticed a large discoloration on the cot.
“Yeah, why not?” Jack snapped. “It does the job and I don’t have to go upstairs.”
“You know the crew showers are much more comfortable for a reason, right? The ones in the women’s bathroom even have multiple settings and everything.”
“I don’t like hanging out up there, okay?” Jack growled. “Less chance of running into the cheerleader or Chambers that way. Besides, it’s too open and everyone’s always lookin’ at me.”
“You’re bald, covered in tats from head to toe, and you swear like a longshoreman. Don’t even try to tell me that you’re not used to people looking at you.”
Jack glared at him sourly but said nothing.
“Still, you might have a point,” he sighed. “I’ll bring some tools and materials down here and build you a proper shower, with curtains and everything. Shouldn’t take me more than a day or so.”
“Why? I thought this was for if you tech-guys get fucked up and have to wash shit off before it kills you.”
“Chakwas has a chemical shower in the med-bay. Besides, all I’m doing is making it more comfortable for YOU to use it, since you’re obviously going to keep on using it.”
“All right, no bullshit here, Harris. What do you want? I mean, I’m already on the team. You don’t have to kiss my ass just to get me to fight for Shepard.”
Xander looked at her from where he’d been examining the roof of Jack’s hidey-hole. “Well, there is something you can help me with,” he sighed.
Jack relaxed, suddenly back on familiar grounds.
“I want you to help me train Shepard how to fight biotics.”
And just like that, she was back on unfamiliar territory. “Shepard’s killed tons of biotics.”
“I want you to teach her how to resist biotic attacks.”
“What’s wrong with asking Morinth or that Cerberus Boy Scout?”
“Jacob’s steady and got decent punch, but he doesn’t have your oomph. Morinth…”
“…has a case of the raging hornies for Shepard,” Jack interrupted, snickering.
“There’s that, but she just plain-old creeps me out. Sometimes she looks at me, and I don’t know if she’s going to jump my bones or try and eat me.”
“With that one, I don’t think she sees much of a difference between the two.”
“So… what, you want me to toss the boss around?” Jack snorted. “Sounds like fun. Hope she won’t start cryin’ and shit.”
Jack had obviously never fought a Slayer, so he could forgive her ignorance.
Still, this would be a learning experience for the both of them.
“Just to warn you, Jack? Shepard’s stronger then she looks. Faster, too.”
“Relax, X-man, I’ll make sure your little princess get a few shots in before I put her down.”
“I’m so glad that you’re confident in your skills. You’ll want to hold on to that.”
Xander left the subbasement, only to find Tali leaning against the glass. She was looking down on the shuttle bay where Legion was staying, hate seeping through her body language.
The synthetic was crouched up in what Xander had come to think of as the Geth’s closed up and resting state.
The Marines guarding the Geth trooper were still pointing their M-8 Avengers at it, very nervous. Their fear would be almost comical, at least to anyone who wasn’t aware of how quickly a Geth could move.
“Hey, Tali, how’s it going? You and Shepard have a chance to chat yet?”
“She’s dealing with Liara,” the petite Quarian said. “Apparently, she found something while you were down on Haestrom that she just had to deal with.”
“Well, I’m gonna go ahead and say it even if she doesn’t,” the immortal Scooby shrugged, unfazed by her apparent hostility. “It’s great having you around. These Cerberus guys, they’re… well, Jacob’s all right. Most of the time.”
“…when he isn’t taunting me about the ship’s AI, you mean,” she quipped pointedly.
“Look, my read on Jacob’s that he got tired of the Alliance and the Council looking the other way while the galaxy went to Hell in a handbasket.”
“…and that other one, the bitchy one?” He didn’t even need to ask to know who she was talking about.
“Miranda can be a little hard to take in sometimes. But she means well, and she’s been solid on missions so far.”
“Does she know about…?” Tali trailed, staring at him meaningfully. Xander sighed as he nervously raked his fingers through his hair.
“She’s always been suspicious, especially lately, but she hasn’t tried to lock me away,” he said finally, trying to rationalize his instincts. “Guess her being a company girl has its advantages. The Illusive Man ordered her to help Shepard in any way needed and Shepard wants me around.”
He looked away, dark thoughts plaguing him. “Hell, considering how fast she was to wrap else everything up and come after you, I think she needs all her friends around her. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but we need help. Right now, they’re doing all the heavy lifting.”
“I love your allies, Xander,” the petite engineer sneered. “I’ve detected half a dozen monitoring devices on this deck alone. Ancestors alone knows how many more are in the rest of the ship.”
Xander poked at his omnitool, running a quick sweep before he snarled an incomprehensible invective in a guttural language that her translator couldn’t decipher. “Damn it, I thought that I’d caught all of them. I must’ve missed a few in my last scan.”
“You knew about them?”
“I’m the one who gave Joan the tech that she’s using to keep EDI and Miranda from watching her twenty-four-seven while she’s alone in her cabin.”
“Why would you, of all people, trust them? If what that man Toombs said was true-”
“I know, Tali,” he cut her off.
But she was undeterred. “…with Thresher Maws… honestly, Xander, that’s just-”
“I said… I know,” he snapped, managing to interrupt her. “I’m like you, Tali; I’m not working for Cerberus. I’m working for Shepard, doing whatever I have to in order help her get to the Collectors and stop the Reapers.”
“…and what happens when they find out that the only force that ever fought off the Reapers successfully had enslaved your people for thousands of years?”
“That… is why we have to defeat the Collectors and the Reapers. We have to, because if the Illusive Man ever found a way to bring the Old Ones back at the height of their power, then there is no limit to how much Hell would break loose upon the galaxy.”
“But you said the Old Ones were sealed away, that it was impossible for them to come back.”
Xander shook his head. “No, Tali, I said that the door was closed. But doors have locks, and locks have keys. All you need to do is find the key, and you can always open up the door.”
“Then we keep him from finding the key, right?”
“The problem with that scenario is we’re about to end up on the doorstep of the keymaker herself.”
Tali looked at him, confusion shining through her body language.
“At the end of our war for control of Earth, Willow sealed the Old Ones and their minions away,” he explained very briefly. “If that door was ever opened, all of them would come back and would have their minions in tow. That’s a lot of pissed-off demon flesh looking for payback against the people THEY blame for being imprisoned in the first place.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “You wouldn’t be facing them alone, Xander. Any horror from beyond that wants to take you out has to get by me and Chik’tikka vas Paus first.”
“Thanks, Tali, I appreciate that. Really, I do,” he murmured, smiling weakly.
Tali took one last look at the Geth in the shuttle bay before she sighed heavily. “Come on. I want to see this engine core of yours and figure out how badly you’ve screwed it up.”
“Hey, that’s mean.”
“Xander, I’ve worked with you. You’re an amazing engineer, but you’re like a Krogan; headbutting your way through every damn technical issue.”
“Tali, I spent my formative years fixing stuff after demons screwed it up,” he whined, quickly catching up to her. “I’m kinda used to the direct approach.”
They were still arguing the point when they arrived in the engine room.
Tali looked up at the drive core, a low moan coming from her.
“She’s a beaut, alright.” Ken murmured.
Xander waved him into silence as Tali drifted forward, stroking her hands across several surfaces. She leaned in, cocking her head to one side.
“You poor thing,” she whispered. ”She’s been out of alignment for thirty-six hours.”
“Tali, we’ve been a little busy.”
“Thirty-six hours, Xander.”
Xander thought about fighting her. Really, he did.
But then he thought about all the times he’d won arguments with women in his life.
Then he decided to do what he learned worked best in such situations a long time ago.
“I’m sorry, Tali. If you want, I’ll help you fix her.”
Tali absently waved him away. “No, no, leave us alone. We just need time.”
“Gabby, if you could…” Xander began leadingly.
“Absolutely,” Gabby said, sounding totally sincere.
“I think I oughtta hang around, in case I’m needed for a consultation or something,” Ken muttered, his usual Scottish brogue a little thicker than usual.
“Actually, Ken, I think it’s time for some ship maintenance,” Xander interjected, his lopsided grin affecting a slightly sinister air. “So which will it be? The starboard observation lounge, or the subdeck?”
“Wh-” he sputtered indignantly. “I don’t mean-”
“Observation lounge or subdeck,” Xander sang tauntingly. “Don’t make me choose, ’cuz if I do then I’ll make you fix something that’ll take a long time to work on instead just a quick maintenance check.”
“Subdeck, then,” the engineer slumped. “She’ll have eaten, which means she’ll be in a better mood.”
“Good. While you’re down there, I want you to check the conduit leads. Y’see, I’m converting one of the chemical showers down there into a full set so Jack can use it.”
Amidst shared looks of concern, he rolled his eyes. “We’ll need to shield any open components. I’d rather not burn out the ship’s systems just because Jack decided to go full-blown take-me-away down there.”
“You’re putting in a shower?” Ken finally parroted, still in disbelief.
“Yup, might as well. She uses it all the time, anyway. In any case, I thought about basing the subddeck shower after the one in Shepard’s Loft.”
“That’s the best shower on the ship,” Gabby interjected. “Hell, it might be the best shower of any ship of the line.”
“Then I guess that we have our work cut out for us, now don’t we?” Xander mentioned off-handedly. “By the time I’m done, it’ll be second best.”