Lair of the Shadow Broker: Hagalaz
AN -- Thanks to Reikson and Drakependragon for their beta support and assistance
Lair of the Shadow Broker: Hagalaz
Shepard sat on her bed, motionless in the shadows of the Loft.
The only light that she allowed in the room was coming from the eerie glow generated by the room’s most-notable decoration; its ever-bubbling fish tank.
She’d stocked the thing with a small assortment of fish that she’d bought during their brief stops at the Citadel and Illium.
Right now, the tank was crammed with numerous varieties of fish in various schools that were swimming quietly amidst the noise of its integrated air pump and filter systems.
Staring up at the ceiling window, the Spectre-Slayer focused on the stars beyond the blue-shift light of the Normandy in FTL.
Then the door signal sounded.
“Who is it, EDI?” Shepard asked quietly.
“Doctor T’Soni is at the door,” the AI reported tonelessly. “I can tell her that you are currently unavailable, if you wish.”
“That’s surprisingly accommodating of you,” she observed.
“I have been charged with maintaining surveillance on the crew in order to assist ship counselor Chambers in her psych-profile compilations.” EDI replied. “Part of my regular duties is to be aware of the crew’s mental state, especially its Commanding Officer.”
“Noted,” she nodded. “For future reference, Liara doesn’t have to knock. Just let me know when she’s coming up.”
EDI’s avatar retreated into its pedestal. “I will adjust room security privileges appropriately.”
The door slid open and Liara hesitantly entered the wide space, looking around the room apprehensively. Shepard sat up on her bed, her eyes gleaming with a faint reflection of the fishtank’s light against the near-total darkness of the room.
There was an uncomfortable silence between them for a long few moments as they just stared at each other.
“Sorry I’ve been so busy,” Joan finally broke the awkward silence. “Getting Tali settled in and gearing up for this op against the Broker… Xander and Jacob take care of you?”
She watched her lover glide across the room, taking in its design.
Smaller by far than Liara’s apartment back on Illium, the Loft was still quite beautiful in spite of her minimalistic sense of style. But between its fishtank, the glass case filling slowly with an assortment of miniature ship models, and the other knick-knacks dotting the room, the room design wasn’t exactly spartan.
“Yes,” Liara said finally. “Mister Taylor was very helpful. But when this is over, I should put you in contact with Thax. He’s an associate of mine from Illium who can facilitate your acquisition of certain… gray-market models.”
“Between you and Cerberus, I’m going to really hate going back to the Alliance. Elkoss Combine’s crap and ERCS equipment really doesn’t cut it for me anymore.” Shepard chuckled wryly, grimacing as her affectation of Xander’s humor surged to the forefront.
Here she was, trying to maintain some professional distance and then she goes and tries to lighten the mood.
Liara didn’t need empathy right now. If she was going to pass through this… phase, of an obsessive desire for revenge, then she needed Shepard’s strength; her ruthless commitment to the bottom line.
“So what brings you up here? Can I help you with something, or is this just a friendly visit?”
“We haven’t had a chance to really speak since leaving Illium. I thought I’d see how you were.” Liara shrugged.
Shepard sighed. Liara was soft-selling it, of course, but they’d barely exchanged five words since she’d came aboard and Joker had set course for Haestrom.
“I’m headed into a battle against an unknown hostile force, with a squad at my back that isn’t ready by a long shot for an engagement of this nature. We’ve barely fought together, we still aren’t ready.”
“…because this engagement with the Broker might be the thing that gets their heads in the game.” Shepard sighed, pulling a bottle of wine from a nearby cabinet.
Pouring a healthy amount into two glasses, she added, “Jack and Zaeed are still doing this for the money.”
“Jacob and Miranda are still company men, loyal to the Illusive Man,” Liara added, taking an appreciate sip of red Thessian wine, circa (human year) 2147.
“Mordin sees this whole thing as a puzzle to be solved, and I haven’t a clue as to what Kasumi or Morinth are thinking.” Shepard complained, slumping down on the couch.
“…and the Krogan?”
“Grunt wants to fight, that’s all he ever wants.” Shepard grumped. “On a certain level, I can appreciate that and even make use of it.”
Sighing in irritation, she added, “But lately… I don’t know what, exactly, but somethings off with him. I miss Wrex.”
“That’s why you have Garrus and Tali now, and you know you can count on me and Xander.”
“He used his access to the Torchwood Protocols and to give me a look at the files on these Wolfram and Hart guys.” Shaking her head ruefully, she sighed.
At Liara’s inquisitive look, she clarified, “They’re a nasty bunch. They were responsible for turning Winifred Burkle into Illyria. Poor girl was a scientist in one of their labs. She was doing good work. Might’ve done even more, if not for the firm’s Senior Partners.”
“…and they’re more dangerous than the Shadow Broker?” Liara asked quietly.
Shepard shrugged. “At the very least, this Warren character should be considered a clear and present threat. If he finds Willow before we do, there’s no telling what might happen.”
“Tali was in danger,” Liara sighed as her lover ran her fingers down her face. “Everything that you’re doing, everything that you’re enduring right now, including your deal with Cerberus, is all meaningless if we lose those we care about. As much as I want to find the Broker and this Willow character, even I can see that.”
“For all the good it does,” Shepard sneered bitterly. Noticing the hurt on her lover’s face, she scrambled for an apology. “Sorry, I’m indulging my head too much. Was there something I could help you with?”
Liara looked at her, her fingers twitching. “Actually, I was hoping that I could help you with your hair… if you don’t mind.”
“What?” was Shepard’s intelligent response.
Liara looked away, almost terrified of her lover’s response. “Your hair; it’s been two years since we’ve met. For some reason, you seem to have forgotten how to create a decent braid during that time.”
Shepard blinked before she reached up to tug at the thickly knotted dreads on her head. “I haven’t forgotten, I just lack the grace and fine motor skills of an Asari,” she grumbled, pulling at her hair awkwardly.
Liara let go of the breath that she’d been holding, relief flooding her system. Reaching out, she batted Shepard’s hands out of the way and began pulling and twisting the dreadlocks into thin tight braids.
“Why not ask Morinth? I’ve noticed that she’d certainly like to help you.” Liara gently teased.
“Morinth isn’t interested in me,” Shepard growled. “She wants the Butcher of Torfan. You should see her come to life when I’m… in my zone, as Xander like to say. Morrie loves it.”
The former archaeologist frowned. “Morrie, is it? Should I be concerned?”
“Xander called her that at first, and it’s kinda crept up on me,” the Spectre-Slayer sighed, rolling her eyes. “…and before you ask, no; I think we may have found the one dangerous woman in the galaxy that I won’t need to rescue him from. Ironically, she’s so hot for me that she’s barely spared a glance for Xander.”
“Considering what tends to happen to those who meld with Ardat-Yakshi, that’s probably for the best. In truth, Shepard, I’m surprised that you let her serve on the crew.”
“Morinth’s… useful,” Shepard groped for an explanation. “I mean, say what you want about her but she’s become very, very good at killing and isn’t shy about showing off. More importantly, she doesn’t owe any loyalty to the Illusive Man.”
Liara yanked one of Joan’s dreads harder than she strictly needed to, causing the Spectre-Slayer to flinch slightly.
“A renegade Ardat-Yakshi owes her loyalty to nothing save their appetites,” the former archaeologist hissed into her lover’s ear. “Mark my words, Shepard, that one’s loyalty is only to herself.”
Shepard snorted. “Well, you don’t hold back any.”
Liara’s distress was obvious. Her delicate fingers were tense as they found and unraveled several more stubborn knots, pleating the lengthy dreads on Shepard’s head.
“She is dangerous, and I’m not talking about her obvious infatuation with you,” she insisted darkly. “I’m saying that she and all her kind are all dangerous. Ardat-Yakshi who kill, leave behind astronomical body counts. That is why Justicars prioritize locating and isolating them, if not killing them outright.”
“So I’ve heard,” Shepard sighed. “Still, she did mention something. You’ve had trouble with the Matriarchs.”
Liara looked away. “Joan, it’s… this isn’t something with which you need to concern yourself; I’ll handle it in enough time.”
“Liara, I can’t help you, much less protect you, if you won’t let me. Never mind all the rest of it. Let me help you. Please.”
The information broker turned to look at her lover intently. Then she remembered the long list of people that Shepard would willingly declare war on for her.
Not with so much at stake, not when she was still so uncertain of her own ability to stand beside Joan against whatever was coming.
“Joan, I promise you that I’m in no danger. You don’t have to worry about me,” she lied.
Almost immediately, however, Liara flinched as Shepard stiffened under her fingers.
Shepard cursed her enhanced senses in that moment. She could feel the lie; smell it, taste it… she shook her head as best she could, considering the grip that Liara still had on her hair.
“Fine, if you say so.” Shepard grumbled.
Liara closed her eyes in resignation. Shepard knew that she had lied to her and was hurt, which was the very last thing she’d intended.
“Shepard… do you remember Therum?” she started, trying to explain. “I cowered on the ground while you stood your ground against a Krogan battlemaster.”
“As I recall, I had Wrex, Ashley, and Xander backing me up on that mission,” the Spectre-Slayer said wryly. “I wasn’t on my own, you know.”
“They were there, but I remember it well. The Geth attacked and flanked us. Wrex, Ashley, and Xander were separated from us and you stood over me against the battlemaster and didn’t flinch.”
Liara was quite sure that moment was when she’d first fallen in love with this woman; this insanely-determined woman willing to unleash Hell on anything that stood in her path but had a streak of kindness that she’d hidden from just about everyone else.
Everyone, that is, save her.
She had to do whatever she had to do in order to preserve that part of Shepard, to protect her…
She owed Shepard that much, if not more.
For her part, Shepard sighed with equal parts exasperation and nostalgia. “…and less than a month later, you stood your ground against a room full of Asari Commandos.”
Slumping down upon the couch, the Spectre-Slayer added, “You even stared down your own mother, in order to save my life and the lives of the entire ground team. You have nothing to prove to anyone, Liara.”
“No one, perhaps… save myself.”
“You went into the Terminus Systems alone to find my body, babe. That’s no easy feat.”
“A parlor trick,” Liara said dismissively. “I had dreams in which I saw you, and I simply followed them.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Shepard scolded. “You’re an amazing woman and strong in ways that I could never hope to be. Don’t lose yourself to the same darkness that I’ve been wallowing in for most of my life. I couldn’t stand thinking that I dragged you down into the abyss with me.”
“Joan Lisbon Shepard, I’m not some sarketh lily that withers at the slightest bother.”
“Yeah, I got a good look at how you roll, back at the trade center.”
“That was necessary.”
“You went after Vasir after Xander went out a four-story drop and you didn’t even glance back to see if he’d survived.” Shepard snapped.
“I…” the former archaeologist sputtered. “Xander has survived a thermonuclear detonation and being electrocuted with enough voltage to light a research lab’s gigawatt power grid. A four-story drop was hardly going to stop him. If I hadn’t gone after Vasir when I did, she’d have killed him.”
Shepard snorted at her response.
Liara rolled her eyes. “…or tried to kill him, yes, I know. But had she escaped, she might’ve carried his secret back to the Matriarchs, and that’s assuming they don’t already know about him.”
“Is that really such a big deal?”
“My people have effectively dominated this galaxy for thousands of years, Shepard, and they’ve never been challenged in all that time. What do you think that kind of power does to a species? What do you think it’d do if The Matriarchs suddenly discovered that there’s a way to extend their lives and power even further?”
Conceding that argument, Shepard switched tacks. “Fine. What about Sekat?”
“Vasir killed him.”
“Yeah, and I get the impression that I should be thanking her for doing that, keeping you from doing it.”
Crackles of biotic energy swirled around Liara as her temper began to flare.
“I’ve been in the information game for two long years, Shepard,” the former archaeologist said severely. “Men like Sekat eventually betray you; simple as that. The fact that I allowed our so-called relationship to go as far as it did… I should’ve dealt with him months ago.”
The Spectre-Slayer rubbed the back of her neck as Liara continued talking. “I knew that I should’ve done so before, but I… I also knew that if I went down that road, something inside me, something important, would be lost.”
Sometimes, Shepard imagined that she could spend the rest of her life listening to Liara’s soft alto voice. “Perhaps… if I hadn’t hesitated back then, Vasir might not have harmed your friend. That woman, Phillips. As for the Broker…”
“That’s revenge, pure and simple.” Shepard snapped curtly. “You want to indulge yourself so bad? Fine, but don’t call it anything other then what it is; revenge.”
“Fine, it is revenge,” her lover snarled, her fingers still at work. “He tried to take you from me. He tried to kill Xander after he saved your life and gave you back to me. After everything you’ve endured for me, for all of us… and that little telpish tried to take you from me.”
Shepard turned in place, just enough to see Liara with the corner of her eye and noticed that she was actually scowling. “So, yes,” the information broker snapped. “I want revenge and I don’t care how powerful this Willow character may be.”
She was actually angry enough to let her biotics flare involuntarily. Damn, but Liara got all adorable when she was pissed off. “If she played any part in the Broker’s schemes or if she is the Broker, then I won’t hesitate. This time, I won’t be cowering like a child on the ground. I’ll get revenge for Feron and for what you had to go through.”
“Willow rescued me.”
“Yes, but for her own purposes. I, for one, want to know about her intentions. If she needed an ally, why not approach you openly?”
“Maybe she wanted to, but couldn’t,” Shepard shrugged. “Maybe Tazzik already had her by then.”
Suddenly, she smirked. “Her organization has been under siege for a while now,” she teased. “Something about a crazy Asari based out of Illium, or so the stories go.”
There was quiet between them for a moment before they burst into unbridled laughter.
“I’ve heard all the stories, Shepard,” Liara sighed once they stopped laughing. “One of them even claims that the Broker is a former paramour, that our feud is nothing more than a lover’s quarrel. Beyond that, I don’t know.”
“Well, two years is a long time to wait for anybody, and you do seem entirely too comfortable with Morinth.”
“So you’re saying that there’s cause for me to be concerned.”
“So you’re saying that you wouldn’t come after me if I stepped out on you?”
“I have nothing to fear,” Liara said airily. “You’re too much in love with your hair to ever leave me. Nobody else has the patience to braid it. Certainly not that Ardat-Yakshi.”
Shepard suddenly caught Liara’s hand and pulled it close to her face, taking in the scent on her fingers. Something about way the soap and oils Shepard used mixed with the Asari’s natural scent, electrifying her senses.
“No… no, she isn’t like you,” Shepard sighed, kissing her lover’s fingers.
Liara bent down and rested her head atop of Shepard’s, and they sat like that for a while; just pulling in the scent of each other and learning how the other smelled again.
“Please come back to me.” Liara whispered.
“Always and forever, babe. Always and forever,” the Spectre-Slayer said quietly, letting both of them fall back upon the bed. “Hell, I died and that didn’t keep me from coming back to you. No way I’m letting these Collectors even come close to getting in our way.”
The briefing room was buzzing with a muted excitement.
Were they really about to go after the Shadow Broker?
Shepard looked around the room, her eyes searching for signs that Haestrom hadn’t been a fluke. She wanted to know that she could take this bunch into Hell if it came down to it…
But it still wasn’t there.
They weren’t ready.
Not for the Collectors, certainly not for the Reapers…
But the Shadow Broker?
There was Morinth and Jack, talking quietly about something.
She’d have to keep an eye on those two, especially if Xander really was interested in Jack.
Jacob and Kasumi were also talking, which was exceptional in and of itself since Kasumi’s normal MO was to randomly flit in and out of conversations by cloaking and decloaking herself at a whim.
To see her stick around to talk to Jacob was odd. Even more so, since Jacob seemed to be enjoying the thief’s company. Joan suspected that Chambers would have a field day trying to analyze that relationship.
Miranda, on the other hand, was casting frosty assessing looks at Xander periodically as he continued a conversation with Tali and Legion about some hacking program that she didn’t recognize.
Shepard resolved to find out what he’d done lately. Probably misfiled an un-dotted I or failed to collate and cross one of his T’s…
She appreciated Miranda’s exacting attention to detail, but expecting such exacting standards from people like Xander was a losing proposition.
Thane was silent, his hands clasped together in prayer, while Mordin mumbled to himself as he ran a diagnostic on his custom omni-tool. Consummate professionals with foibles; somehow, she found it comforting.
Grunt, Garrus and Zaeed were comparing ammo mods. Thanks to Xander, the standard assault rifle for the Normandy’s ground team was a Geth pulse-rifle.
She waited for a lull in the murmur of conversations and cross-talk, just as a mind-numbingly sharp whistle from Xander cut across all talk and killed the general mood.
Thank God for that immortal dumbass, he knew when and how to be serious.
“Okay, people, the reason why we’re orbiting this God-forsaken rock Hagalaz is because we’re hitting the Shadow Broker!” Shepard barked as the briefing table lit up with a hologram of said planet.
“There’s a small army between him and us, and our only advantage is he doesn’t exactly know that we’re coming for him.”
“Question; how exactly did we manage to keep the biggest information dealer in the galaxy in the dark about something like that?” Jacob asked.
“Doctor T’Soni here engaged in a little thing that we in the biz like to call lying.”
“That’s one Goddamn Hell of a lie, girlie.” Zaeed snorted inelegantly.
Liara had the good grace to be just a little embarrassed.
“Currently, the Broker’s agents think that we’re on Illium,” she explained. “I even managed to plant a rumor at a local refueling depot that we’re on our way to the last known location of the Migrant Fleet.”
“How did you manage to pull that off?” Tali asked. “The Migrant Fleet isn’t known for advertising its location unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I’m a very good information broker.” Liara shrugged, proud of herself as Shepard reached over and gave her lover’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“The point of all of this,” she continued, “…is that the Broker will need days to sort through all the leads to find out which ones are false and which are real.”
“Alright, what have we got?” Garrus asked.
Liara tapped a control and the wire-frame representation of the planet below swirled into being.
“Hagalaz has a charged ionic atmosphere,” she reported. “The oceans boil during the day, then snap-freeze just after sundown.”
Tapping a control, a graphic representation of the Normandy in high orbit above the planet appeared. “The thunderstorms all along the planet’s solar terminator make for great insertion coverage. You’ll barely need the IES systems. The downside is those same storm winds are gusting with enough KPH that landing a shuttle is next to impossible.”
“You’re sayin’ that the Broker, the real Shadow Broker, lives in this shit?” Jack snorted.
“I was able to track the Shadow Broker’s vessel with Tali’s assistance.”
“See, Shepard? I told you Tali could work with an AI,” Xander chuckled.
Tali took a breath, visibly shuddering. “The ship is obviously drawing power from the ionic discharge converters running down the length of the ship.”
“I think she means the lightning rods,” Xander whispered loudly.
The Quarian shot a look at Xander, who rolled his eyes and said, “Shutting up now.”
“It looks as if the shuttle bays are locked down, so we’re going to need to find a maintenance hatch of some kind.” Tali continued.
Liara took up the briefing again. “Once we have an entrance, we crack the door and get in deal with the internal security. We find Feron-”
“…and Willow, assuming that they’re both in there,” Shepard supplied.
“They’re both there,” Morinth assured the team. “The Broker wanted Rosenberg where he could control her. The Drell will be in the detention block, near central operations.”
Turning to Shepard, the Ardat-Yakshi added, “Do you want me to get the shuttlebay doors open?”
“Exactly,” the Spectre-Slayer nodded. “You’ll accompany Garrus and Jacob’s team. I’m
counting on you guys to keep his army near the launch bays, which should pull some of the heat off of us.”
Garrus chuckled dryly. “Nice. We knock on the front door while you guys climb in through the window.”
“It’s no cakewalk, Garrus,” Shepard grinned at his irreverence. “Once he knows where WE are, he’ll come down on us like God’s own wrath. Then I’m gonna need you to press the attack hard enough that he can’t afford to divert resources away to come after us.”
“We’ll take care of it,” the unconventional Turian nodded.
“So how we doin’ this?” Xander asked.
“The hard way,” Shepard gestured to a small section of the hull. “I’ll take a small squad and do a suborbital drop on to the hull. We’ll secure the hull, pacify any resistance then proceed inside. Team Two secures the docking area and our exit while Doctor T’Soni, Zaeed, Xander and myself will get inside, rescue Feron, and confront the Broker.”
Garrus held up his hand. “What about this Willow character that I’ve been hearing so much about, Xander’s friend? What are we doing about her?”
Both Xander and Liara grimaced. Their silence was a mutual agreement in order to stop forcing Shepard to choose between their respective points of view.
“Miss Rosenberg has been an ally in the past. Remember Noveria, and my escape from the assassins at the Lazarus Base facility? Both would’ve been impossible without her. But as far as we know, she IS a Shadow Broker associate. If you find her at liberty in the base, approach with caution.”
“She’s to be considered armed and dangerous?” Miranda asked.
Xander snorted in spite of himself. “Willow Rosenberg can be more dangerous than a whole
platoon. That’s why I’m telling all of you right now, with no hesitation; if you see her, back off and let me handle her. Hopefully, I’ll be the one to reach her and talk her down if necessary.”
“I think I can take her.” Jack snorted.
Xander shot the biotic anarchist a withering glare. “Jack, Willow once got pissed off at me and my friends. We were keeping her from killing two losers whose only real crime was fantastically bad judgment. She came after us with a transport vehicle that usually weighs in at about ten-thousand kilograms and threw it at us through sheer force of will. The largest thing I’ve ever seen an Asari Matriarch move was something maybe half that mass.”
He waited for that nasty revelation to settle in. “Don’t even think about playing around with her. Willow’s very powerful, and dangerous when she’s pissed off.”
Shepard nodded. “If Tazzik’s right, the Broker’s holding her in containment. If we can’t reach the Broker on our own, we’ll try and breach that containment and free her.”
“So… what, we’re hoping some magical girl who’s been the Broker’s prisoner is going unload enough whup-ass that we can take him down? What kind of a plan is that?” Zaeed snorted.
“The kind that works, old man,” Xander grunted. “How do you think I escaped Purgatory? I only opened up all the cells, including Jack’s cryo-cage. The damage that actually started the riot and tanked the station? Jack was ripping apart everyone and everything in her way.”
“Good times…” Jack snorted, nostalgic.
“Okay, people, we move in five.”