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Zeppo Effect: Fight for the Lost

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Zeppo Effect". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: The Galaxy's Greatest Hero is back from the dead with a small army of the deadliest operatives in the galaxy to take on all comers. They say it's a suicide mission, that it’s certain death. THEY keep forgetting that Shepard has a Zeppo in her corner.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Games > Sci-Fi > Mass Effect Trilogy(Recent Donor)BHRamsayFR1864310,83929384130,87916 Jan 1226 Sep 13No

Interlude:‭ ‬Post-Mission Lull

,AN -- Thanks ever and always to Reikson and Drakpendragon for their support and encouragement. And thank you guys as well for the enthusiastic emails and reviews and such; you all make it worth while.

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Interlude:‭ ‬Post-Mission Lull

Xander and Willow sat in the med bay letting an uneasy silence fill the air between them.‭ ‬for sure it choked out the acrid medicinal smells that Doctor Chakwas had stopped noticing a long time ago.‭

Karin checked the redheaded Wicca over and declared that she was fine,‭ ‬albeit rather malnourished.‭ ‬Unsurprising,‭ ‬really‭; ‬she‭’‬d been imprisoned within a stasis pod for months.

She‭’‬d taken the liberty of hooking small adhesives to Willow‭’‬s major muscle groups and she was enduring mild electro-convulsive therapy.‭ ‬In time,‭ ‬the procedure would rebuild her muscles and strength.‭

She was also enjoying Gardner‭’‬s latest creation‭; ‬Varren broth,‭ ‬heavy on the veggies and rice.‭ ‬Chakwas was insistent that Willow pack a few pounds on her‭ ‬rail thin frame.‭

The silence between the two old friends was suffocating,‭ ‬broken only by Willow slurping greedily at her soup.

Karin eventually retreated to the mess hall,‭ ‬an accommodation that both of them eagerly welcomed.‭ ‬She could afford to be nice about it,‭ ‬but she‭’‬d already noticed the tell-tale monitoring light on one of her office computers.‭

Odds were,‭ ‬Joker was listening in as he often did.

‭“‬So‭…”‬ Xander began.‭ “…‬Shadow Broker.‭”

“So‭…”‬ Willow deadpanned.‭ “…‬BFF‭’‬s with the Illusive Man.‭”

“Hey,‭ ‬Harper was‭ ‬NOT a BFF,‭”‬ he snapped defensively,‭ ‬but his protests were weak.‭ “‬That was strictly a platonic bromance gone‭ ‬REALLY wrong.‭”

“Xander,‭ ‬the man‭’‬s a pet cat away from being a full-blown Bond villain.‭”

“Hey,‭ ‬he totally kept the crazy on the down-low back when we were tight thirty years ago.‭”

“How many times have me and Buffy done the whole‭ ‬‘let‭’‬s tell our friends the truth gig‭’‬ and then it came back to bite us in the ass‭?”

“Hey,‭ ‬I told Shepard and she‭’‬s been really cool about it.‭”

“You made her a Slayer,‭ ‬and her girlfriend‭’‬s totally moving in on my job.‭”

“After everything that‭’‬s happened,‭ ‬you‭ ‬STILL want to be the Shadow Broker‭?”

“Hey,‭ ‬you think that keeping you and Buffy a secret is easy‭?”‬ she retorted.‭ “‬For two people who‭ ‬don‭’‬t want to wind up as scientific experiments,‭ ‬you both attract a‭ ‬LOT of attention.‭ ‬Especially,‭ ‬since you began gallivanting around the galaxy as part of Team Shepard.‭”

“Hey,‭ ‬I was just doing my job when Boss-Lady got zapped by a Prothean Beacon.‭ ‬You know how the whole ancient lost artifact gig goes.‭”

She scoffed sympathetically.‭ “‬You know something‭? ‬I never figured out why people leave incredibly-powerful junk just laying around where anyone can trip over it.‭”

“So,‭ ‬honestly,‭ ‬Wills,‭ ‬how exactly did you end up as the Broker‭? ‬I mean,‭ ‬I thought that you were all navel-gazing and exploring the higher realms and stuff.‭”

“The Broker‭…‬ well,‭ ‬the one I replaced,‭ ‬anyway‭…‬ he tracked me down a while back and sorta press-ganged me into working for him,‭”‬ she sighed.‭ “‬The money was good‭; ‬he wanted data surveillance,‭ ‬and having access to all the information across the extranet was just too good an opportunity to pass up.‭”

“An opportunity to let Willow the hacker out to play after all these years‭…”‬ Xander mused aloud.‭ “‬Well,‭ ‬that explains how you got started.‭”

“Eventually,‭ ‬he wanted more power after seeing just how far my magic went.‭ ‬He also threatened to expose you and Buffy in order to get it,‭ ‬so I arranged for Yahg-boy to‭…‬ move up,‭ ‬in the organization.‭”

“Yahg-boy‭?”‬ he asked wryly,‭ ‬feeling nostalgic.

‭“‬It was great,‭”‬ she sighed,‭ ‬leaning back on the medical bed.‭ “‬He was totally intimidated by me,‭ ‬and whenever that stopped‭…‬ well,‭ ‬it‭’‬s been a while since I flayed anyone alive,‭ ‬but‭…‬ trust me,‭ ‬I‭’‬ve still got it.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬yeah,‭ ‬he was a‭ ‬good boy for a long time.‭”

“Until he decided that he didn‭’‬t want to play ball anymore,‭ ‬you mean.‭”‬ Xander snorted.‭

“What it didn‭’‬t help that I had to stay one step ahead of Little Miss Blue,‭”‬ the redhead sneered,‭ ‬her eyes bleeding black momentarily.‭

“I mean,‭ ‬for someone who spent most of the last fifty years diggin‭’‬ in dirt,‭ ‬she really came on strong as an information broker,‭”‬ she complained.‭ “‬She cut off some of my revenue streams,‭ ‬co-opted several of my best agents‭…‬ the only reason I didn‭’‬t mind was because she was also targeting Yahg-boy‭’‬s half of the business.‭ ‬He was the one who was really pissed with her.‭”

“So,‭ ‬finally,‭ ‬he made his move.‭”

“Liara had cut off a ton of local funding on Illium.‭ ‬Prime clients,‭ ‬good resources‭…”‬ she sighed,‭ ‬running a hand through her hair.‭ “‬I needed a way to deal with her.‭ ‬So I did something I regret‭; ‬I had him place an agent near her.‭”

At his quirked eyebrow,‭ ‬she added,‭ “‬Nxyeris was supposed to watch her and keep us in the loop when she got too close to something important.‭ ‬Then she goes and makes a move on T‭’‬Soni.‭”

After guzzling from the water canteen that Xander handed her,‭ ‬she added,‭ “‬Yahg-boy claimed she was acting on my orders and he used the Nyxeris screw-up in order to spur Vasir and the rest of the Goon Squad into allying with‭ ‬him.‭ ‬Tazzik was already his hired gun,‭ ‬one that I used only rarely,‭ ‬and he found me on New Canton in deep meditation.‭”

“So you weren‭’‬t hiring the assassins and thugs‭?”‬ Xander asked.‭ ‬The hope in his voice was pathetically obvious.‭

Willow glanced away,‭ ‬not wanting to look Xander in the eyes.‭ “‬Not‭…‬ directly‭?”‬ she whispered.‭

“Come on,‭ ‬Will,‭”‬ Xander sighed.‭ “‬It‭’‬s me.‭ ‬You can talk to me.‭ ‬This is a no-pointy-finger zone.‭”‬

Willow smiled weakly in gratitude as she grasped Xander‭’‬s hand.‭ “‬We divided the business in half.‭ ‬He ran the troops and dealt with meat-world stuff while I handled the more subtle side of things.‭ ‬Putting Kasumi Goto on retainer was my idea.‭ ‬She‭’‬d raided one of our front companies and stole valuable data.‭ ‬The Yahg wanted her dead‭; ‬I wanted her working for me.‭”

Xander grunted noncommittally.‭ “‬So he turned on you,‭”‬ he prompted.‭

“Are you sure you want to know about all this‭?”‬ Willow asked.‭

“Whatever the Hell‭’‬s going on with you,‭ ‬it‭’‬s better coming from me than from Liara,‭”‬ he shrugged,‭ ‬sounding slightly irritated.‭ “‬She‭’‬s all kinds bitter,‭ ‬I can tell you‭ ‬THAT for free.‭”‬

Willow just shrugged.‭ “‬When Tazzik brought me to Hagalaz,‭ ‬Yahg-boy wanted me under wraps so that he could try to tap my powers and maybe find out how I‭’‬d become so powerful.‭”‬

“Wasn‭’‬t he there at the beginning,‭ ‬didn‭’‬t he already know‭?”

Willow shook her head.‭ “‬No,‭ ‬it‭’‬s like T‭’‬Soni said.‭ ‬He made a power play and it crashed and burned.‭ ‬The old Broker was a lot more careful after that,‭ ‬especially about sharing details about me and my powers.‭ ‬Turned out to be a good thing for me by the end.‭”

“Meaning‭?”‬

“What he didn‭’‬t know was that I‭’‬d prepared for this exact type of situation a long time ago.‭”

Xander quirked an eyebrow,‭ ‬his question left unsaid.‭

Willow rolled her eyes.‭ “‬I went behind the old Broker‭’‬s back in order to install a supplemental hardline connection that runs though the detention blocks.‭ ‬When he put me in stasis,‭ ‬my mind was still free to access the mainframe and network.‭”

“So that‭’‬s‭ ‬how you hit Project Lazarus‭’‬ computers and freed Shepard,‭”‬ Xander realized.

‭“‬Bingo‭!”‬ she nodded.‭ “‬Wilson was my spy within Cerberus.‭ ‬He had gambling debts up the ass and I saw to it I owned all of his markers.‭”‬

“Plus he was already pissed TIM wasn‭’‬t lining his pockets from his bottomless well-o-creds.‭”‬

Willow nodded.‭ “‬He let me into the systems like he was supposed to,‭ ‬but then he tried to kill Shepard.‭”‬

“Why‭?”

“All he knew was that he was working for the Shadow Broker,‭”‬ she shrugged.‭ “‬But by that point,‭ ‬there was more than one Shadow Broker.‭ ‬Yahg-Boy went and ordered Wilson to neutralize Shepard.‭”

“Why‭’‬d he want Shepard dead‭?”‬

Willow grimaced.‭ “‬He was working for the Collectors.‭ ‬They‭’‬ve got a real thing for getting Shepard‭’‬s body and they‭’‬re willing to pay big for it.‭ ‬That stasis tube you found me in was derived from Collector tech.‭”‬

Xander exhaled noisily,‭ ‬the weight of Willow‭’‬s story left him feeling overwhelmed.‭ ‬What she hadn‭’‬t said aloud had unpleasant implications‭; ‬that the Collectors,‭ ‬and the Reapers by extent,‭ ‬had enough technological ability to counter magic on a relatively-limited scale.

‭“‬Okay,‭ ‬fine,‭ ‬we can work with this,‭”‬ he said finally.‭ “‬Liara was thinking full-on Sith Lord,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s looking more and more like you just ended up in a bad situation.‭”‬

“I kinda figured out what T‭’‬Soni thinks of me,‭”‬ she chuckled ruefully,‭ ‬making him smile in spite of himself.‭ “‬But what about you‭? ‬What did you think‭?”

“Honestly‭? ‬That I screwed up again and left you in a bad spot.‭”‬

“Xander,‭ ‬you‭’‬re the guy who stood his ground and got me to stop trying to destroy the world in a fit of rage.‭”‬ She wanted to smack him for his‭ ‬self-deprecation.

‭“…‬and I‭’‬m also the guy whose head was so far‭ ‬up his ass that he let it get that far,‭”‬ he grunted bitterly.‭ “‬Buffy was dealing with the whole not-being dead thing,‭ ‬Tara was in love with you,‭ ‬so‭ ‬what‭ ‬excuse did I have‭? ‬ I mean,‭ ‬you‭’‬re freebasing dark power and I didn‭’‬t even notice.‭”‬

Her eyes flared white.‭ ‬ “Xander,‭ ‬you don‭’‬t get to be‭ ‬THAT stupid.‭ ‬ My choices are my choices,‭ ‬period.‭ ‬Abusing magic,‭ ‬Rack,‭ ‬screwing things up with Tara,‭ ‬that was my responsibility and so is the Shadow Broker stuff.‭”‬

Xander looked at her with sad eyes, “I guess you did what you thought you had to so you could‭ ‬survive.‭”

Changing the subject,‭ ‬Willow asked,‭ “‬So what‭’‬s this I hear about you and Aria T‭’‬Loak‭?”

He turned to affix her with a questioning gaze.‭ “‬You‭’‬ve heard about that‭?”

“Xander,‭ ‬people in places that don‭’‬t have extranet access have heard about it,‭”‬ the witch rolled her eyes.‭ “‬Plus,‭ ‬she wasn‭’‬t exactly subtle with the displays of power.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬claiming that she could hear everyone on Omega‭?”

“She wasn‭’‬t joking,‭”‬ he grunted,‭ ‬making her turn back to him.‭ “‬She really could hear everyone‭’‬s thoughts.‭ ‬It made her a little crazy,‭ ‬but she also became super-scary powerful with the biotics and she was already pretty deadly before that,‭ ‬anyway.‭ ‬Why‭?”‬

“What‭’‬s her damage‭?”

“You don‭’‬t know‭?”‬ he asked,‭ ‬surprised.‭ ‬When she shook her head,‭ ‬he said,‭ “‬While joining with me,‭ ‬she got a power-up that let her‭…‬ well,‭ ‬I guess you already know about that.‭”‬

She smirked at him and he had the good grace to flush with embarrassment.‭

“We had a falling-out after Liara first showed up on Omega,‭ ‬and she decided to take a look inside my head without asking,‭”‬ he shrugged.‭ “‬She saw something in there,‭ ‬something that scared her bad.‭ ‬We‭’‬re okay now,‭ ‬more or less,‭ ‬but whatever she saw set her back some and it can‭’‬t just be my memories of the‭ ‬‘Dale.‭”‬

Willow paled.‭ “‬So when you say she ran into something,‭ ‬what you really mean is‭ ‬someone.‭”

Xander nodded.‭ “‬Near as I can tell,‭ ‬she ran into you‭…‬ or something that looks like you,‭ ‬at the very least.‭ ‬Whatever it was,‭ ‬it scared the crap out of her.‭”

“Sorry,‭ ‬Xander,‭ ‬but I didn‭’‬t do it,‭”‬ she began,‭ ‬apologetic,‭ ‬but then remembered something and twitched.‭ “‬Unless‭…”‬ she began,‭ ‬quickly trailing off into silence upon realizing that she‭’‬d just given herself away.

‭“‬Wait,‭ ‬did you do something to me without telling me‭ ‬again‭?!?”‬ he exploded.

‭“‬Xander,‭ ‬do you have any idea how powerful you are now‭?”‬ she snapped.‭ “‬Do you know how much havoc could erupt if the wrong person figured out how to tap into that power‭?”

“So you installed a little insurance by putting Darth Willow in my head‭?‬!?”

“Just a‭ ‬little piece‭!”‬ the redhead squeaked defensively,‭ ‬quickly finding the courage to shoot back with her own arguments.‭ “‬Besides she was already there‭! ‬Apparently,‭ ‬SOMEONE thinks that I looked hot in the corset bustier number that slutty-vampire Willow wore.‭”

“Hey,‭ ‬don‭’‬t blame me for that‭!”‬ he snapped.‭ “‬When I‭ ‬got one of those things for you as a gag gift‭ ‬to celebrate you‭ ‬and‭ ‬Kennedy together for five years,‭ ‬both of you thanked me‭! ‬My point is,‭ ‬you empowered my dirty sex fantasy to guard my mind and you‭ ‬STILL don‭’‬t see‭ ‬the problem in not asking for my permission first‭!”

“Xander,‭ ‬you have dirty sex fantasies about me,‭ ‬Buffy,‭ ‬virtually every hot woman you know,‭ ‬and we‭’‬re all evil and wearing cliché clothing‭!”‬ the redhead shot back.‭

“Yeah,‭ ‬but I‭’‬m a guy,‭ ‬most of‭ ‬my brain power still gets spent trying to get laid,‭”‬ he sneered,‭ ‬rolling his eyes.‭ “‬Besides,‭ ‬I know for a fact that you keep a mental‭ ‬picture of Buffy‭’‬s little‭ ‬one-night stand with Satsu.‭”‬

Willow blushed under his sarcasm.‭ “‬Okay,‭ ‬yeah,‭ ‬I admit it.‭ ‬Hell,‭ ‬sometimes I even think about vampire Xander.‭”

As he turned to her,‭ ‬an eyebrow raised,‭ ‬her blush deepened.‭ “‬Those piercing eyes and cut abs and that killer leather jacket that made him look so‭…”‬ she trailed off when she noticed that he was barely keeping himself from sniggering.‭ “‬Okay,‭ ‬bad mental place,‭”‬ she sighed.

Groaning,‭ ‬he pinched the bridge of his nose.‭ “‬Honestly,‭ ‬I‭’‬m feeling a little violated.‭”

“You know the odd thing‭? ‬There‭’‬s no Dawn in there.‭ ‬There‭’‬s no place in your mind that you see Dawn as anything other than always perfect and good.‭”

“Look,‭ ‬can you put mini-you on a leash‭?”

“She‭’‬s already on a leash,‭”‬ the redhead shrugged,‭ ‬finishing off the bowl.‭ “‬She‭’‬s basically a junkyard dog with little mojo and a whole lot of bad attitude.‭”‬

“…and you left her in there to keep anyone from screwing around inside my head.‭”‬

“She‭’‬s just supposed to keep anyone from figuring out how the primal energy keeps you alive.‭”‬

“I don‭’‬t‭ ‬KNOW how the primal energy keeps me alive,‭ ‬and you always used that whole super-complicated girl-power Wicca jargon whenever I asked.‭”‬

“It wasn‭’‬t supposed to keep you alive forever‭; ‬it was just supposed to heal you,‭”‬ she whined.‭ “‬You were dying,‭ ‬and I mean capital-D dying.‭ ‬Dying as in‭ ‬‘go directly to jail,‭ ‬do not pass GO and do not collect two-hundred dollars‭’‬ dying.‭”

“Yeah,‭ ‬I got that far on my own,‭ ‬thank you very much,‭”‬ he grunted dismissively.‭ “‬What I want to know is‭…‬ what happened afterward‭?”‬

“That,‭ ‬I‭’‬m not sure about,‭”‬ she shrugged.‭ “‬Sometimes it seems less like a blessing or a healing than like a curse or a geas.‭”

When he only quirked an eyebrow at her,‭ ‬she groaned.‭ “‬A geas is a powerful magical compulsion to do whatever the caster desires.‭ ‬You know,‭ ‬like in the original Snow White story where the‭ ‬evil queen got the magical shoes that made her keep dancing until she died‭?”

“So‭…‬ because you and Buffy wanted me to live,‭ ‬the power that brought me back will keep on bringing me back,‭”‬ he summarized as he poured her another bowl of piping hot soup.

‭“‬Assuming that‭’‬s what happened,‭ ‬then‭…‬ yeah.‭”‬ she nodded sheepishly.

‭“‬Okay‭…”‬ he sighed.‭ “‬So what‭’‬s the deal about all the other stuff,‭ ‬like understanding alien languages‭?”‬

“Side-effects,‭”‬ she said around a mouthful of soup.‭ “‬A mundane mortal shell was never meant to contain the kind of power that I used to restore you.‭ ‬A charge builds up‭ ‬in you periodically,‭ ‬like static electricity,‭ ‬and then small amounts seep out.‭”‬

“To do what,‭ ‬exactly‭?”‬

“Xander,‭ ‬every living being is connected‭ ‬to each other‭ ‬in so many ways‭ ‬that‭ ‬it‭’‬s not funny at all,‭”‬ she lectured,‭ ‬making him feel like a heel.‭ ‬ “Language is just a mundane,‭ ‬corporeal manifestation of that connection.‭ ‬ This connection‭ ‬also keeps you alive.‭ ‬ Logic dictates that‭ ‬such a‭ ‬connection would manifest itself in the ability to understand and communicate.‭”‬

“That sounds kinda cool,‭ ‬actually,‭”‬ he murmured speculatively.

‭“‬That connection‭’‬s probably how you also made Shepard a Slayer.‭”‬

“…and immortal,‭ ‬too,‭”‬ he added as she took a sip of water.

A spittake later,‭ ‬a coughing Willow gasped,‭ “‬What‭?”

“Boss found out the hard way that she didn‭’‬t just get Slayer powers,‭ ‬she got the Slayer-plus package,‭”‬ he sighed,‭ ‬noticing‭ ‬just how he‭’‬d managed to take‭ ‬his oldest and best friend‭ ‬rather‭ ‬off-guard.‭ “‬That included regeneration from pretty much anything and everything,‭ ‬like me.‭”

“So‭ ‬that‭’‬s how she survived getting spaced two years ago.‭ ‬Does anyone else know‭?”‬

“Your partner found out from Tazzik,‭ ‬and Harper figured it out pretty easily.‭ ‬I don‭’‬t know if Tazzik ever told anyone,‭ ‬Vasir didn‭’‬t seem to know anything at all about it.‭”‬

“How is she now‭?”‬

“Liara and I bled off most of the power with her bridging our minds in a three-way Asari mind-meld,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬She still heals pretty fast even for a Slayer but for the most part all the boss has now is the standard Slayer package.‭”‬

“Thank the Goddess,‭”‬ she sighed.‭

“Just to warn you,‭ ‬Shepard made some noise about wanting the super-strength and flight upgrade that Buffy got.‭”

At‭ ‬her surprise,‭ ‬he added,‭ “‬Buffy tried to give her the heads-up,‭ ‬but I don‭’‬t think she‭’‬s quite figured out yet what‭ ‬HAVING that particular upgrade would mean.‭”‬

“Better she not figure it out.‭ ‬If she was really immortal and died,‭ ‬then technically any time she died-‭”

“Trust me,‭”‬ he interrupted her.‭ “‬I‭’‬ve thought about it,‭ ‬and I hate the idea more and more every time I‭ ‬do think about it.‭”‬

“Nothing we can do about it now I guess.‭”‬ Willow sighed.‭ “‬On the other hand,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬this‭ ‬DOES confirm my theory about Sineya effectively‭ ‬‘divorcing‭’‬ Buffy from the line of succession.‭”‬

Xander shuddered,‭ ‬his memories of the groups occasional encounters with the being they called the First Slayer were not always pleasant.‭

“So it‭’‬s true,‭ ‬then,‭”‬ Xander groaned.‭ “‬Boss really is the first of the new line.‭”

“…and just in time for this crap with the seals breaking down,‭ ‬too,‭”‬ she mused,‭ ‬sharing in his misery.‭ “‬Time to punch in‭;‬ looks like we‭’‬re back on the clock.‭”

“Yeah," Xander sighed.‭ "I'll try and contain my boundless joy and excitement.”

The door hissed open and the cheerful Kelly Chambers entered the room.‭

“Willow Rosenberg‭?”‬ she asked,‭ ‬all perky.‭ “‬I understand that you were rescued from the Shadow Broker‭’‬s ship,‭ ‬and I was hoping that we might be able to talk.‭ ‬Just to make sure you‭’‬re adjusting to your new circumstances.‭”

Willow looked the woman up and down briefly before turning back to Xander.

‭“‬You‭’‬ve got to be kidding me,‭”‬ she deadpanned.‭

“I couldn‭’‬t possibly‭ ‬MAKE a joke this good,‭ ‬and I‭’‬ve tried,‭”‬ he shook his head.

Willow‭’‬s eyes shimmered cloudy-white and Kelly watched as they moved back and forth before they snapped back to their normal appearance.‭

“She‭’‬s like Harmony with a doctorate.‭”‬ Willow whined.‭

“No,‭ ‬she‭’‬s not‭!”‬ he sputtered indignantly.‭ “‬Kelly here is Shepard‭’‬s yeoman.‭ ‬She‭’‬s also technically keeping an eye on the crew to make sure we don‭’‬t crack under the pressure of being on a suicide mission.‭”

“What did she just do‭?”‬ Kelly asked.‭

“Looked up your school records and work history,‭ ‬both before and after joining Cerberus,‭”‬ the super-witch shrugged.‭

“My assignments with Cerberus are classified.‭”‬ Kelly pointed out.‭ “‬Those records would be sealed,‭ ‬and isolated from the extranet.‭”

“Yeah‭…”‬ Willow drawled,‭ ‬unimpressed.‭ “‬Your security protocols are kind of a joke.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve had first dates that put up more of a fight then your firewalls.‭”

“Check you out,‭ ‬Casanova,‭”‬ Xander chuckled.‭ “‬Anyone I know‭? ‬Are there pictures‭? ‬Or‭ ‬tape‭?‬”

Willow gave him a withering glare.‭ “‬Miss Chambers,‭ ‬could you hit him please‭?”

Kelly reached out and punched Xander in the arm,‭ ‬prompting an indignant squawk from him.‭

“I was hoping you‭’‬ll be a little more cooperative than Xander,‭”‬ the ship‭’‬s psychologist added.‭ “‬He spent the first fifteen minutes of our interview hitting on me,‭ ‬and the rest of it giving me standard formulaic answers.‭”

“Guess all those psych classes finally paid off,‭ ‬didn‭’‬t they‭?”‬ Willow snorted.‭ “‬Anyway,‭ ‬you don‭’‬t have to worry about Xander,‭ ‬Miss Chambers.‭ ‬I doubt that you‭’‬re really Xander‭’‬s type,‭ ‬anyway,‭ ‬he prefers dangerous women.‭”‬

“Dangerous‭?”‬ Kelly mused.‭ “‬As in high-risk behavior,‭ ‬questionable life choices,‭ ‬that sort of thing‭?”

“No,‭ ‬I mean dangerous as in body-count,‭”‬ Willow joked.

‭“‬Well,‭ ‬that would explain Jack,‭”‬ Kelly shrugged.

Xander cleared his throat noisily while trying to wave Kelly‭ ‬into silence‭ ‬as‭ ‬she‭ ‬glanced at him with amusement.‭ “‬Ship scuttlebutt is that he spends all his time down in the engineering‭ ‬sub-deck with her.‭”‬ she supplied.‭

“Chambers,‭ ‬I‭ ‬WORK in engineering,‭”‬ he rolled his eyes.‭ ‬ “Spending time near the sub-deck is part of my job.‭”‬

“It‭’‬s so cute when they‭’‬re at the denial stage,‭”‬ she gushed,‭ ‬seemingly ignoring‭ ‬Xander‭’‬s‭ ‬grimace‭ ‬as Willow fixed him with a full-on resolve face.‭

“Subject Zero‭?‬ You‭’‬re making time with Subject Zero,‭ ‬the deranged‭ ‬serial killer‭?‬”

“She‭’‬s‭ ‬a lot more sociable these days,‭ ‬and she‭’‬s not as deranged as you think,‭”‬ he‭ ‬shrugged.

‭“‬What,‭ ‬was the hyper-lethal terrorist-super spy not enough‭ ‬of a challenge for you‭?”‬ the super-witch‭ ‬snorted.‭ ‬ “I knew that‭ ‬the‭ ‬space-vampire was off the table,‭ ‬only‭ ‬because‭ ‬I figured‭ ‬you were done with crazy blue women‭ ‬after Aria.‭”

“Ahh,‭ ‬Willow,‭ ‬so nice to have you back in my life,‭”‬ the immortal Scooby said brightly,‭ ‬his lips spread in a too-broad rictus of a smile.‭ “‬Say,‭ ‬Kelly,‭ ‬you should get Willow to tell you about the time she fell in love with a guy over the extranet and he turned out to be a serial killer.‭ ‬You do remember Malcolm,‭ ‬don‭’‬t you,‭ ‬Willow‭?”‬

“Yeah‭…”‬ the super-witch flushed.‭ “‬After that,‭ ‬I‭’‬ll tell her about Miss French.‭ ‬You know,‭ ‬the school teacher that you totally thought wanted to go full-on Mrs.‭ ‬Robinson with you but ended up trying to kill and eat you‭?”‬

Kelly gaped at both of them.‭ “‬Extranet-trolling serial killers and cannibal teachers‭? ‬When did all of this happen‭?”

“High school,‭”‬ Xander shrugged.‭ “‬Things got kinda weird in high school.‭”

“Really weird‭…”‬ Willow nodded.‭

8
9
8

She was running,‭ ‬making her way across a field.‭

Men and women she‭’‬d known her whole life,‭ ‬running with her.‭

Screaming‭…‬ crying‭…‬

Was this Mindoir‭?

No‭…‬ the dreams had gone away.‭

It‭’‬s been years since she‭’‬s dreamed of Mindoir. ...this is some place new.‭

There was buzzing in the air behind her‭…‬ insects flying‭ ‬though the sky.‭

“Get to the shelters‭!‬ Hurry,‭ ‬run‭!‬”

Ashley Williams standing fast while‭ ‬Hell breaks loose,‭ ‬why is she not surprised‭?

She‭’‬s firing her weapon,‭ ‬blazing away at the things in the sky.‭

Her shots tag a few of the insects,‭ ‬allowing‭ ‬colonists to escape.

The ones she can‭’‬t save‭ ‬just‭ ‬fall,‭ ‬one by‭ ‬one,‭ ‬or freeze in place with‭ ‬looks of fear and terror locked on their faces.‭

It looms overhead,‭ ‬hanging impossibly in the air.

A great ship‭…‬ it seems so alien and yet so familiar.‭

How could something so large hang so serenely‭?

A sudden stinging sensation and her body goes numb.‭

She falls to the ground and her eyes roll up at the sky,‭ ‬her body unable to move or even speak.‭

Joan saw the weird creatures moving toward her‭…

Wait‭…

Collectors‭!

She was seeing the Collectors‭!

One of them gazed down at her,‭ ‬its four eyes flashing brightly and burning with dark power.‭

“Prepare the others for ascension,‭”‬ the glowing insectoid thundered darkly.‭ ‬“This one is like Shepard.‭ ‬We must study her and learn what we can before disposing of her.‭”

She saw a form standing stock still like a statue.‭

Operations Chief Ashley Williams,‭ ‬frozen in place as her eyes darted back and forth.‭

“Wow‭…‬ kind of a bitch,‭ ‬huh‭?”‬

Joan looked up and saw another somewhat-familiar face.‭ ‬Her head was shaved,‭ ‬like Jack‭’‬s,‭ ‬except for a pink mohawk.‭

“Look at you,‭”‬ Pinkhair said,‭ ‬condescending.‭ ‬“Bet you wish there was something I could do to help,‭ ‬don‭’‬t ya‭?”‬

She reached down and stroked Joan‭’‬s face.‭ ‬“Well‭…‬ truth is,‭ ‬there‭’‬s not much I can do to help you.‭ ‬Helping myself,‭ ‬on the other hand‭…‬ well,‭ ‬I got loads of options there.‭”

She looked down into Shepard‭’‬s eyes.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬I know,‭ ‬cousin.‭ ‬I know ... and you‭’‬ve trained‭ ‬so very hard.‭”‬ The false pity was there,‭ ‬condescending.‭ ‬She was obviously very pleased with herself.

‭“‬But,‭ ‬see,‭ ‬I needed you to train hard,‭”‬ the pink-haired young woman murmured.‭ ‬“After all,‭ ‬shoes fit much better after they‭’‬ve been broken in a little,‭ ‬and bodies‭? ‬Well‭…‬ they work the same damn way.‭”

She leaned down,‭ ‬closing in on Shepard,‭ ‬and Joan suddenly felt a dark surge of fear.‭ ‬She wanted to push her away,‭ ‬to make her get back.

"Don't think of it as stealing cousin," PinkHair whispers, "We're family. What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine -- just like it always should have been."

Shepard actually willed herself to scream,‭ ‬willed her arms and legs to move.‭

She wanted to be free.‭

She-

‭…‬and she started,‭ ‬sitting up in her bed and looking around her cabin frantically.

Exhausted by the fight,‭ ‬and maybe a little saddened at Liara‭’‬s insistence on staying aboard the Shadow Broker‭’‬s ship,‭ ‬she‭’‬d returned to the loft aboard the‭ ‬Normandy and stripped off her armor before falling into bed and closing her eyes for a brief nap.

Sliding off her bed and dressing herself,‭ ‬she went down to the crew deck.‭

There,‭ ‬she saw Garrus holding court in the mess hall as Cerberus crewmen listened intently to his tales of the first‭ ‬Normandy‭’‬s missions.‭

Joan almost wanted to stop and listen.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬hearing Garrus talk about Virmire and Noveria and other ports of call meant that she could forgive people for thinking that those six months had been fun,‭ ‬exciting and an epic adventure in general.

She saw Willow and Xander in conversation with Kelly,‭ ‬and thought about rescuing‭ ‬the witch‭ ‬from Chambers the Red Menace and her perky and inquisitive nature.‭ ‬ Ultimately,‭ ‬Shepard had a feeling that however‭ ‬much‭ ‬Willow might find Kelly Chambers and her questions annoying,‭ ‬talking to the Cerberus doctor might be good for her.‭

Heading over to the Port Observation Lounge,‭ ‬she found that Kasumi was nowhere to be seen.‭ ‬Joan idly called out for her anyway,‭ ‬because you never knew with Kasumi.‭ ‬But the cyber-thief either wasn‭’‬t there or wasn‭’‬t answering.‭

Joan looked around the room and saw several discarded datapads filled with extranet reports concerning the comings and goings of one Donovan Hock.‭

Kasumi had been talked into joining Archangel‭’‬s team of mercs on the promise that they‭’‬d help her with some job that she hadn‭’‬t gotten around to talking about,‭ ‬yet.‭

She‭’‬d wanted to help Kasumi,‭ ‬but time and circumstances had been running her ragged these last few weeks,‭ ‬so she really had to talk to Kasumi and deal with this unidentified job.‭

Heading across the deck to the Starboard Lounge,‭ ‬she drew in a breath in mild annoyance that dealing with Morinth had become a study in persistence and will.‭

Morinth‭’‬s fascination with Shepard was obvious,‭ ‬as much as was the Ardat-Yakshi‭’‬s determination to regard the Spectre‭’‬s relationship with Liara as little more than a minor inconvenience then an insurmountable obstacle.‭

She triggered the door release and walked in on Morinth and Jack talking about something,‭ ‬even as their conversation died.‭ ‬The bald biotic tensed,‭ ‬as though she was embarrassed,‭ ‬but instead fled the room mumbling,‭ “‬Catch you later.‭” as she left.

“What was that about‭?”

“Jack and I were‭…‬ communing,‭”‬ Morinth chose her words carefully.‭ “‬She‭’‬s delightfully violent,‭ ‬and passionate about her desire for destruction.‭ ‬If only‭…”‬ she trailed off,‭ ‬a look of longing‭…‬ or hunger,‭ ‬in her eyes.‭

“Garrus said that you did well on the Broker mission.‭”

“I live to serve,‭”‬ she sidled up to Shepard.‭ “…‬and how‭ ‬is the good Doctor T‭’‬Soni‭?”

“Aboard the Broker‭’‬s ship‭; ‬she‭’‬d like to study it some more.‭”‬ Shepard stepped away from the Asari.‭

Morinth didn‭’‬t even bother to disguise the insincerity in her voice.‭ “‬Such a fascinating opportunity‭…‬ it‭’‬d be a real shame if she had to stay behind.‭”

Intentionally or not,‭ ‬Shepard‭’‬s new position had her up‭ ‬against the plasteel surface of the Observation Lounge windows,‭ ‬leaving her boxed in.‭

Like any good predator,‭ ‬the Ardat-Yakshi maneuvered quickly to exploit her opportunity.‭

Sidling up to Shepard,‭ ‬she mused casually,‭ “‬I know how close the two of you are.‭ ‬You really shouldn‭’‬t be alone at a time like this.‭”

“Why do you keep trying‭?”‬ Shepard asked,‭ ‬not tearing her gaze away from the window.

‭“‬I‭’‬m not‭ ‬TRYING anything.‭”‬ Morinth whispered in Joan‭’‬s ear.‭

Her hands rose up on either side of Joan‭’‬s body,‭ ‬almost but not quite touching her,‭ ‬to rest finally on the railing that ran the length of the window.‭

“I thrust and you parry,‭ ‬I attack and you riposte,‭ ‬I feint and you counter-‭”‬

“You‭’‬re a duelist now‭?”‬ Joan replied.‭

“For several centuries,‭ ‬though lack of a worthy opponent has left me‭…‬ hungry.‭”

“Are we still talking about dueling or sex‭?”

“As long as we are both enjoying ourselves‭…‬ is there a difference‭?”

“I have someone in my life.‭”

“…and so has she,‭”‬ she purred.‭ “‬Tell me‭; ‬has giving her the vengeance that she‭’‬s so lusted after for these last few years brought her back to your side‭?”

“She needs time to process.‭ ‬She thought she‭’‬d lost-‭”

“Ah,‭ ‬the little lies we tell ourselves for love‭’‬s sake.‭ ‬Aren‭’‬t you tired of excuses‭?”‬

“I‭’‬m not making excuses‭ ‬for Liara,‭”‬ the Spectre-Slayer snapped,‭ ‬finally turning her head to glare at the unrepentant killer out the corner of her left eye.

‭“‬Not the child,‭ ‬you,‭”‬ Morinth sighed,‭ ‬as if disappointed in her newest target.‭ “‬You waste so much time trying to be like them,‭ ‬when you aren‭’‬t like them and you never will be.‭”

Now Shepard was confused.‭ “‬What are you talking about‭?”

“That human woman,‭ ‬Phillips.‭ ‬I saw the way she looked at you.‭ ‬I see her,‭ ‬I see T‭’‬Soni,‭ ‬and I see why you left her behind.‭”

“For your information,‭ ‬Marianna dumped me.‭”‬ Shepard grunted,‭ ‬having paved over an old hurt.‭ “‬She left me for the man that you saw her with.‭”

“She left‭ ‬you‭? ‬I think not,‭”‬ Morinth sneered.‭ “‬Her kind doesn‭’‬t have the strength of will to take a breath unless given permission.‭”

Morinth bit her lip hard. Joan's aura sang with the emotions boiling and bubbling deep inside. The Ardat-Yakshi's passions soared.

“Be honest,‭ ‬Shepard.‭”‬ The knife of doubt had dug itself in deep,‭ ‬and Morinth was now twisting the blade ever so slowly.‭ “‬You were already growing bored of her when things ended.‭”

Now Joan was on the defensive,‭ ‬never a wise place with Morinth.‭ “‬I think that there‭’‬s a few dozen Batarians who learned about how much I cared about her the hard way.‭” Shepard growled.

“No,‭ ‬Shepard,‭ ‬they found out how much you care about things that belong to you.‭”‬ That hit home further than she liked.‭ “‬Those Batarians took her from you,‭ ‬and so you wanted to punish them for doing it.‭ ‬It‭’‬s quite attractive,‭ ‬really.‭”

Morinth leaned in close,‭ ‬glorying in the scent and the unconscious aura of power saturating the object of her lust.‭ “‬As long as I belong to Commander Shepard,‭ ‬as long as I kill for her‭…‬ then there‭’‬s no safer place in the entire galaxy for me to be.‭”‬

The air between them suddenly felt like static electricity as the true Shepard,‭ ‬the one that she longed for,‭ ‬was awakening.‭

Joan turned to regard her with cold,‭ ‬dead eyes.‭

There it was,‭ ‬Morinth realized as her body thrummed with anticipation.‭ ‬There were so many interesting personages aboard the‭ ‬Normandy,‭ ‬even in the Cerberus flunkies that were part of her squad,‭ ‬that she could just sit back and gorge herself on ship drama.

But what she really wanted was to see when Joan finally gave into the dark passion that she could feel just beneath the surface.‭

As if to answer her,‭ ‬Shepard‭’‬s hand blurred,‭ ‬lashing out and seizing the lapel of Morinth‭’‬s leather hardsuit in a pincer-hard grip.‭ ‬Impossible strength pulled her close,‭ ‬almost to the point where she might have kissed the Spectre-Slayer if she was feeling any more daring.

But she was happy where she was at that moment,‭ ‬as Shepard‭’‬s hot breath danced across her mouth and seemed to set her skin aflame as fire ran through her veins and her lust swelled to new heights.

A vicious pull left Morinth where Joan‭’‬s lips and mouth were inches away from her auditory fibers,‭ ‬leaving only disappointment in the wake of her desire suddenly fading.

‭“‬You helped out today,‭ ‬Morrie,‭ ‬and I thank you for your efforts.‭”‬ Shepard said quietly,‭ ‬a hint of menace in her voice.‭ “‬But do us both a favor already and quit screwing around,‭ ‬or one of us will end up getting seriously hurt.‭”

In response,‭ ‬Morinth‭’‬s biotics flared as she pulled away from the Spectre‭…‬ or tried to.‭

Shepard‭’‬s power was so much greater than any human she‭’‬d encountered,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Morinth was easily forced about and slammed face-first against the window.‭

So many‭ ‬unique‭ ‬sensations‭;‬ the cold of space,‭ ‬the shock of impacting with the‭ ‬window‭’‬s plasteel‭ ‬surface,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the heat of Shepard‭’‬s rampant emotions‭…‬ she‭’‬d never thought to use temperature like this before.

‭“‬I don‭’‬t mind a little pain,‭”‬ Morinth moaned.‭ “‬I‭’‬m‭ ‬also‭ ‬not weak like that human girl,‭ ‬or afraid of your dark side like she was.‭”‬

Shepard scowled as the Ardat-Yakshi‭’‬s words continued to needle her.‭ “‬You‭’‬re more like me then you‭’‬ll ever be like T‭’‬Soni.‭”‬

“You‭’‬re a sadistic,‭ ‬hedonistic death fetishist.‭”‬ Joan growled.‭ ‬

“…who serves at your pleasure,‭”‬ Morinth shot back,‭ ‬smirking at the effect her words were having with her target.‭ “‬You had any one of a thousand ways to get what you wanted from Vasir,‭ ‬but you chose to let‭ ‬ME have her and you watched while I did it.‭”

“I needed information that you could get‭ ‬for me,‭”‬ the Spectre snarled.‭ ‬ “Letting you indulge yourself on missions‭ ‬keeps you from trying to eat someone on the‭ ‬Normandy‭; ‬it‭’‬s simple pragmatism.‭”

“That explains‭ ‬your indulgence,‭”‬ the Ardat-Yakshi agreed.‭ ‬ “…but why watch me‭?‬”

“Because I‭’‬m not weak‭ ‬or afraid of the consequences,‭”‬ Shepard hissed.‭ ‬ “I know what dealing with you means,‭ ‬and if letting you‭ ‬satisfy‭ ‬your bloodlust‭ ‬on a mission‭ ‬brings me‭ ‬that much‭ ‬closer to destroying the Collectors,‭ ‬then‭ ‬I can live with that just fine.‭”‬

“I liked it when you watched me.‭” Morinth moaned.

“I‭’‬d say that you enjoy your work a little too much.‭”

“Would you like to watch me do another one for you‭?” ‬Morinth added‭ ‬as Shepard‭’‬s eyes narrowed.‭ “‬I would,‭ ‬you know, There was a mercenary aboard the Broker‭’‬s vessel‭…‬ so strong and full of life and fire‭…‬ so proud.‭”

As the Spectre‭’‬s lips curled into a grimace of distaste,‭ ‬Morinth added,‭ “‬He thought I was just another pole dancer with delusions of being a commando.‭ ‬I made him‭ ‬BEG for it at the end.‭”

“I hope it took the edge off,‭”‬ Joan grumbled.‭

“He tasted divine,‭ ‬Shepard,‭”‬ the Ardat-Yakshi murmured.‭ “‬I wish you could‭’‬ve been there.‭ ‬Killing for you has become one of the singular pleasures in my very long life.‭”

“I don‭’‬t kill for fun,‭ ‬Morinth.‭”

“You kill to keep‭ ‬what you own,‭”‬ the serial killer grinned‭ ‬with‭ ‬savage delight at Shepard‭’‬s‭ ‬growing‭ ‬anger.‭ ‬“The Batarians took your family from you,‭ ‬so you‭’‬ve made sure that any Batarian who‭’‬s ever dared oppose you pays for their deaths a hundredfold.‭”‬

Joan scowled at Morinth‭’‬s levity.

‭“‬Then,‭ ‬years later,‭ ‬they take‭ ‬Mariana after you‭’‬d claimed her.‭ ‬ You certainly couldn‭’‬t have that.‭ ‬So you did‭ ‬whatever it took‭ ‬to find her and get her back.‭”‬

Shepard grimaced,‭ ‬another cunning and entirely-unwanted insight into her psych-profile.

‭“‬Vasir tried to kill T‭’‬Soni,‭ ‬so you gave her to me.‭ ‬Since she was working for the Shadow Broker,‭ ‬he had to die as well.‭”‬

“I look out for my friends,‭ ‬Morinth,‭ ‬no matter what.‭”

Morinth chuckled darkly.‭ “‬Face it,‭ ‬Shepard.‭ ‬If anyone tries to take something that you call yours,‭ ‬then you become nothing less than a monster.‭”‬

“I‭’‬m not a monster.‭”

“Oh,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬you are,‭”‬ the Ardat-Yakshi purred.‭ “‬You‭’‬ll only ever be happy‭ ‬WITH a monster.‭”

Morinth could feel the spark of anger that‭ ‬had been fanning itself in the back of Shepard‭’‬s mind.‭ ‬The rage and passion filled Shepard‭’‬s aura with a warm glow that Morinth wanted to luxuriate in,‭ ‬like hot pulsating water streaming over her excited flesh.‭

“A more respected monster than myself,‭ ‬to be sure,‭ ‬given that you‭’‬re the Council‭’‬s dirty little secret,‭”‬ she shrugged,‭ ‬letting the doubt worm into her mark‭’‬s head.‭ ‬“Because they‭’‬ll always need you,‭ ‬they give you enough targets to satiate your bloodlust.‭”

Sighing happily,‭ ‬she‭ ‬added,‭ “‬If only I‭’‬d met you four hundred years ago‭…‬ but the past is the past.‭”

“I have Liara and she-‭”

“But‭ ‬you saw it today,‭ ‬didn‭’‬t you‭?”‬ Morinth cut Shepard off,‭ ‬her ice-blue eyes glittering with obsession.‭ “‬Today‭…‬ she was more like us,‭ ‬the real monsters,‭ ‬than she‭’‬s ever been before in her life.‭ ‬You hate how much you wanted her then and how she excites you‭ ‬now.‭”‬

The grimace on Shepard‭’‬s face told Morinth everything,‭ ‬and her biotics flared in echo of her triumph.‭ ‬Nothing as powerful as what she was capable of,‭ ‬but enough to pull Shepard‭’‬s clenched hand on her leathers close enough so that her lips could brush the skin of the tightly-clenched fist.‭

Games of control and submission were things that Morinth understood.‭

“Am I interrupting something‭?”‬ Xander‭’‬s voice rudely cut across the tension between them.

They‭’‬d been so caught up in each other that neither of them had heard the door hiss open.‭

Shepard regarded Morinth with an odd mix of emotions running across her face.‭

Anger was there,‭ ‬of course.‭

Disgust,‭ ‬too‭…‬ but hunger‭? ‬Oh,‭ ‬hunger was there‭; ‬Morinth knew lust when she saw it.

‭“‬I‭’‬ll leave you alone.‭”‬ Shepard said finally.

‭“‬Not for long,‭ ‬I hope‭? ‬I do‭ ‬so love your visits,‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei.‭”‬ Morinth purred.‭ “‬Perhaps‭…‬ when the good doctor takes her leave,‭ ‬I‭’‬ll see you more often‭?”

Xander blinked at Morinth‭’‬s words before casting a wary gaze at Shepard.

Joan grabbed the bemused Scooby,‭ ‬pulling him after her as she left without a reply.‭

An answer unto itself,‭ ‬Morinth knew,‭ ‬as the door hissed shut behind her.‭

Morinth felt her pulse drumming relentlessly,‭ ‬ racing as though her heart had suddenly taken‭ ‬refuge under her azure.‭

She closed her eyes.

There‭…‬ there was that faint melody again.‭

But it seemed almost louder now.

The Boy‭’‬s drumming that pounded in her skull,‭ ‬Shepard‭’‬s aura singing with its own sweet music,‭ ‬and now the Girl from the Shadow Broker‭’‬s ship‭…‬ they were all part of a tune.‭

She could hear it.‭ ‬The tune was seductive,‭ ‬even sweet.‭

Her hunger began to gnaw at her.‭

She really hoped that the‭ ‬Normandy‭’‬s human crew would have the good sense to stay away from the lounge for the next little while.‭

The way she was right now,‭ ‬she‭’‬d consume the next idiot who walked through that door.

8
9
8

They walked to the elevator without a word.

As the door closed,‭ ‬Xander decided to proceed diplomatically.‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬as diplomatic as he ever got anyway.

‭“‬So‭…‬ you and Morinth,‭ ‬huh‭?”‬ Shepard couldn‭’‬t quite read disapproval in his voice.‭ It was more like ... ‬irritation flavored with a great deal of resignation,‭ ‬but she wasn‭’‬t in the mood.

‭“‬Don‭’‬t,‭ ‬just‭…Don't,”‬ she began,‭ ‬really confused.‭ “‬I‭’‬m feeling a lot of things right now,‭ ‬and I‭’‬m really having trouble processing it all.‭”‬

He snorted.‭ “‬You didn‭’‬t seem that conflicted when I walked in on you guys.‭”‬

“Oh,‭ ‬really‭?”‬ Joan turned around and grabbed Xander,‭ ‬pinning him against the wall.‭

“Never,‭ ‬in‭ ‬all the time I‭’‬ve known you,‭ ‬have I ever wanted to seriously hurt you,‭”‬ she hissed at him.‭ ‬“But,‭ ‬right now,‭ ‬I can remember the night Faith tried to kill you as‭ ‬though it were my hands wrapped around your throat.‭”

Then she leaned in,‭ ‬kissing him hard.‭

Xander froze up in shock and remained that way even after she let him off the wall.‭

Just as he shook off his surprise,‭ ‬she stared at him.‭ “‬You remember Renée‭?”‬ she asked quietly.‭ “‬Her last wish was getting one last kiss from you.‭”

That name brought old memories that he‭’‬d only rarely thought about.‭ ‬He sighed,‭ ‬leaning his head against the elevator wall behind him.‭

Strong and beautiful Renée,‭ ‬younger than him,‭ ‬someone he could‭’‬ve loved after Anya‭…‬ and,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬a Slayer.‭

He remembered that telling her about his feelings for her had been a Herculean task.‭ ‬He needed that same strength to survive after she‭’‬d died‭ ‬so soon,‭ ‬just‭ ‬as so many Slayers had done before her.

Snapping out of his memories,‭ ‬he noticed Shepard waiting for an answer.‭ “‬Yeah,‭ ‬we-‭”‬

“I know,‭”‬ she nodded and sighed.‭ ‬

“You remember Renée and the other‭ ‬Slayers‭?”‬

“Sometimes I can remember a castle in Scotland‭…‬” she sighed.‭ ‬ “Standing under the stars,‭ ‬looking up at them with you‭…‬ you kept talking and all I-‭ ‬all she wanted,‭ ‬was for you to just shut up and kiss me-‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬her.‭ ‬ I‭’‬m not making any sense,‭ ‬am I‭?”‬

“You‭’‬re making more sense then you know,‭”‬ he shrugged,‭ ‬more subdued than she could ever remember him being.‭ “‬What about Morinth‭?”

“She‭’‬s dangerous,‭ ‬I know that in my head,‭ ‬but something about her‭…‬ it feels so familiar‭…‬ makes me want to‭…”‬

Xander grimaced.‭ “‬I get it,‭”‬ he sighed.‭ “‬For all the crap we used to give Buffy about her choices in romance,‭ ‬she‭’‬s‭ ‬not‭ ‬the first Slayer to get a little too close to‭ ‬the enemy.‭ ‬Let‭’‬s face it‭; ‬Morinth‭’‬s about as close to being a vamp as you‭’‬re likely to meet in the twenty-second century.‭”

“So‭…‬ is there like a super-secret Watcher-Slayer protocol for this‭? ‬I mean,‭ ‬this‭ ‬has happened before,‭ ‬right‭?”

“Oh,‭ ‬once or twice.‭”

“What did you do‭?”

Xander winced at the unpleasant memories of Buffy‭’‬s epic dalliances with Angel and the Hell that it‭’‬d almost unleashed on‭ ‬all of them.‭

“My advice‭?”‬ he finally suggested.‭ “‬Don‭’‬t sleep with Morinth.‭ ‬She might turn evil and try to destroy the world.‭ ‬Then you‭’‬ll have to send her to Hell to save everybody and that way has huge angst and drama.‭”

“Right,‭ ‬don‭’‬t sleep with Morinth or the world might end,‭”‬ she nodded.‭ “‬Not a cold shower,‭ ‬but it might do the trick.‭ ‬By the way,‭ ‬what‭’‬s a‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei‭?”

“Caught that,‭ ‬huh‭? ‬A‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei comes from the same part of ancient Asari history that gave us the Ardat-Yakshi,‭”‬ he nodded.‭ “‬Any translation from the original term in ancient High Thessian loses context and meaning,‭ ‬but the best would be‭…‬ Huntress of Darkness.‭”

“Kind of a coincidence,‭ ‬don‭’‬t you think‭?”‬ she mused aloud.‭ ‬He shrugged noncommittally,‭ ‬unwilling to admit that he‭’‬d spent many a‭ ‬sleepless night mulling over the implications of this story when he‭’‬d first heard about it.

‭“‬The Huntress of Darkness myth tells the story of a wandering warrior-woman who‭’‬d been cursed by Kralla,‭ ‬an Asari demon of bad luck,‭ ‬to have evil spirits and creatures of the night to constantly seek her out and try to kill her and thus leaving normal people alone.‭”

“You‭’‬ve read about this.‭”

“Reading and research pass the time,‭”‬ he shrugged.‭ “‬Anyway,‭ ‬I‭’‬m pretty sure that this ancient word‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei is part of the root for the modern Asari word‭ ‬kuri‭’‬tol.‭”

At Shepard‭’‬s mystified gaze,‭ ‬he clarified,‭ “‬The word‭ ‬kuri‭’‬tol describes the Asari huntress,‭ ‬meaning war-acolyte.‭ ‬ On the other hand,‭ ‬the Asari commando is called‭ ‬shar‭’‬nth‭; ‬loosely translated,‭ ‬darkened-hunt.‭ ‬Both of these names pay homage to Kurinth,‭ ‬the Asari goddess of war and the hunt,‭ ‬and both the huntress and the commando have a spiritual culture revolving around‭ ‬her.‭”

Now enlightened,‭ ‬she let him continue.‭ “‬The most well-known story about‭ ‬the‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei,‭ ‬basically the Asari version of a Slayer,‭ ‬is a tragedy.‭ ‬She rescues a‭ ‬maiden‭ ‬from an Ardat-Yakshi and falls in love with her,‭ ‬but her curse means that she has to keep moving or bring down all the creatures of the night upon the girl‭’‬s loved ones and the small village that she calls home.

‭“‬Since it‭’‬s a tragedy,‭ ‬I assume the story ends badly‭?”

He nods.‭ “‬The‭ ‬tolath‭’‬sharei tries to find a way to lift her curse.‭ ‬Finally,‭ ‬she‭’‬s told that if she slays the strongest of demons,‭ ‬the one they all fear,‭ ‬she‭’‬ll be freed.‭ ‬What she doesn‭’‬t find out until the end is that the village maiden‭ ‬has‭ ‬gone looking for the same thing‭; ‬a way for her and the tolath‭’‬sharei to be together.‭ ‬So she starts killing the‭ ‬strongest of demons by draining its life-force and power into herself.‭”

“…thus becoming the strongest demon‭…”

“I won‭’‬t spoil the ending for you,‭ ‬but the story gets worse from there,‭”‬ he sighed.‭ “‬I caught an opera performance once.‭ ‬Shades of‭ ‬Nibelungenlied and all,‭ ‬there are a lot of monologues and soliloquies in the second and third acts and everybody either kills each other or commits suicide at the end.‭ ‬I give it two thumbs up.‭”

“I can imagine‭…”‬ she grunted.‭ “‬So‭…‬ a twisted compliment,‭ ‬then‭?”

“It‭’‬s a Morinth-compliment.‭ ‬I‭’‬m guessing that she‭’‬s finally noticed that you aren‭’‬t exactly a garden-variety human.‭”

“Wonderful,‭”‬ she groused.‭ “‬At least we don‭’‬t have to worry about Morinth running to the Matriarchs with what she knows about us.‭ ‬They‭’‬d kill her as soon as look at her.‭”

“Or,‭ ‬as Giles would‭’‬ve said,‭ ‬‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.‭’‬ Well,‭ ‬except with more of a British accent and the polishing of glasses.‭”

“Much polishing of glasses‭…”‬ she sighed,‭ ‬moving to the elevator that had long since stopped at the CIC.

Just as the doors opened,‭ ‬and she was about to walk up to the command podium,‭ ‬Joker‭’‬s voice could be heard on her comlink.

‭“‬Uh,‭ ‬Commander,‭ ‬you‭’‬ve got a call from the Illusive Man.‭ ‬You‭’‬d better get to the QEC.‭”

“I‭’‬m‭ ‬on the bridge,‭ ‬as it so happens,‭”‬ she nodded.‭ ‬“Get Miranda on the horn and get her up here.‭ ‬If this call‭’‬s what I think it is,‭ ‬then we‭’‬re going to want all hands on deck for this one as well.‭”

As she made for the briefing room through the armory where Jacob was working,‭ ‬Xander asked from behind her,‭ “‬What‭ ‬do you think this is about‭?”‬

Joan ignored him for a moment as they entered the room.‭ ‬She only had to give him a look before he hung back.‭

8
9
8

The Illusive Man looked the same as ever,‭ ‬cigarette in hand as he stood in front of a bay window looking out at a red sun.‭

“Shepard,‭ ‬good work on Hagalaz,‭”‬ he began,‭ ‬no nonsense in his voice.

‭“‬That was fast,‭”‬ Joan snorted.‭ “‬We wrapped that op only a few hours ago and you already have a report‭?”

“Nothing official,‭ ‬I‭’‬m assuming that you‭’‬re keeping Miranda very busy because she hasn‭’‬t sent along a status update yet,‭”‬ the steely-eyed man shrugged.‭ “‬EDI keeps me abreast of your situation.‭ ‬ But that‭’‬s not why I called.‭”

At her quirked eyebrow,‭ ‬he said,‭ “‬The Collectors jumped out of the Omega-Four relay several hours ago.‭”

“They‭’‬re hitting another colony.‭”‬ Joan guessed.

‭“‬They‭’‬ve hit Horizon,‭ ‬one of our Terminus Systems colonies.‭ ‬Communications have gone dark in that region,‭ ‬so if they aren‭’‬t under attack now then they soon will be.‭”

“So what‭’‬s Ashley Williams doing in the Terminus Systems‭?”

The Illusive Man blinked briefly.‭ “‬How did you know‭?”

“I had a‭…‬ vision.‭ ‬Don‭’‬t worry if you don‭’‬t believe me,‭ ‬I‭’‬m used to it by now.‭”

“Actually,‭ ‬Shepard,‭ ‬you forget that I‭’‬m in a rather unique position to know that you‭’‬re telling the truth.‭ ‬I trust that Xander‭’‬s attending to your training and education in the ways of the Slayer‭?”

“You‭’‬re well-informed,‭”‬ she observed dryly.

‭“‬You‭’‬re a unique resource,‭ ‬Shepard.‭ ‬The first new Vampire Slayer since the‭ ‬2015‭’‬s,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s no coincidence that you becoming the Slayer coincides with the return of the Reapers.‭”

“Well,‭ ‬we‭’‬ll see if that counts for anything,‭”‬ she shrugged.‭ ‬ “Do we know‭ ‬WHY she‭’‬s out there‭?”

“Officially,‭ ‬it‭’‬s an outreach program,‭”‬ he gestured vaguely,‭ ‬cigarette in hand.‭ ‬ “…a way to show colonists that Alliance High Command is‭ ‬actively looking out for them.‭”

“That‭’‬s‭ ‬the official story.‭”‬ Shepard snorted.‭ ‬ “Only idiots believe the official story.‭ ‬So what‭’‬s she really doing out there‭?”

“Hard to say,‭”‬ he mused.‭ ‬ “…but seeing as‭ ‬how‭ ‬she‭’‬s currently the‭ ‬Alliance‭’‬s‭ ‬poster‭ ‬girl and chief candidate to replace you as Humanity‭’‬s Spectre representative‭…‬”

Joan‭’‬s eyes narrowed‭ ‬as she‭ ‬regarded‭ ‬the steely-eyed man suspiciously.‭ ‬ “There‭’‬s something‭ ‬that‭ ‬you‭’‬re‭ ‬not telling me.‭ ‬ Why‭?”

“The Alliance have teams on several colonies throughout the Terminus Systems and the Skyllian Verge,‭ b‬ut‭ ‬I‭’‬m‭ ‬more interested‭ ‬by‭ ‬the Collectors‭ ‬choosing to concentrate their efforts on a colony world‭ ‬where someone‭ ‬important to you just happens to be.‭ ‬ They may have targeted the colony specifically because she was there.‭”

“Yeah,‭ ‬but how would they know‭ ‬that‭ ‬she was on Horizon‭?‬” Shepard asked.‭

“A good question,‭ ‬one‭ ‬that‭ ‬you‭’‬ll hopefully get to ask the Collectors themselves,‭”‬ he nodded sagely.‭ ‬“In the meantime,‭ ‬has Mordin delivered the countermeasure for the seeker swarms‭?”

“Not to my‭ ‬knowledge.‭”

“Then let‭’‬s hope he works well under pressure,‭”‬ he said,‭ ‬tapping at a keypad control near his chair.‭ “‬I‭’‬m forwarding the coordinates now.‭”

“We really should alert the Alliance.‭ ‬If they have patrols in the area,‭ ‬they can provide backup.‭”

“Shepard,‭ ‬you‭’‬ll reach Horizon faster than anyone else.‭ ‬There are Alliance assets nearby,‭ ‬but I‭’‬d rather you secure the area first.‭”

“What‭?!? ‬Every second counts,‭ ‬we can‭’‬t afford to waste time-‭”

“Exactly,‭”‬ he said calmly,‭ ‬unfazed by her anger.‭ “‬Whatever Alliance vessels were to be in the area would be more likely to get in your way than give you any kind of meaningful support or assistance.‭”‬

Sputtering in the face of his logic,‭ ‬she finally scowled darkly.‭ “‬I‭’‬ll get on it.‭”

“Shepard,‭ ‬this is the most‭ ‬warning we‭’‬ve ever had.‭ ‬I hope your crew‭’‬s ready.‭”

“My crew and I are professionals,‭ ‬we‭’‬ll get it done,‭”‬ she growled.

He nodded at her confidence.‭ “‬Good hunting,‭ ‬Commander.‭”‬

Xander waited until the QEC had risen back to its normal position before he‭ wise-‬cracked,‭ “‬I hope your crew‭’‬s ready for the opportunity.‭”‬ He mimicked Harper‭’‬s distinctive voice.‭

Joan‭ ‬rolled her eyes at him before pushing past him and towards Mordin‭’‬s Lab.‭

“Wait,‭ ‬you can‭’‬t seriously be worried about this,‭”‬ he insisted,‭ ‬barring her path.‭ “‬We‭’‬re fine,‭ ‬boss.‭ ‬So we‭’‬re running a last-minute rescue against overwhelming odds,‭ ‬big deal.‭ ‬You‭’‬re a Slayer‭; ‬we do that kind of thing to relax from the big stuff.‭”

“I hope you‭’‬re right,‭”‬ she sighed.‭ “‬In the mean time,‭ ‬let‭’‬s go see Mordin.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve been meaning to chat with him about what happened on the Shadow Broker‭’‬s ship.‭”

As they entered the science lab,‭ ‬the aging Salarian barely‭ ‬acknowledged his‭ ‬guests.

‭“‬Give me good news,‭ ‬Mordin,‭”‬ Shepard said impatiently.‭ ‬“We‭’‬re about to go into action against the Collectors and you might be our only hope of getting back out again.‭”

The old Doctor smiled.‭ “‬Yes,‭ ‬have completed initial tests.‭ ‬New type of shield upgrade‭; ‬will be interesting to test effectiveness in field.‭”

“Live-fire field trials,‭ ‬Doc‭? ‬Are you serious‭?”‬ Xander sputtered.

‭“‬Only way to be certain.‭”

“Mordin,‭ ‬about what happened with the Shadow Broker-‭”

Mordin waved at her dismissively.‭ “‬Not an issue now.‭ ‬Will admit‭; ‬some surprise and shock initially,‭ ‬but have dealt with most issues by now.‭”

“That was quick,‭”‬ Xander observed.

‭“‬Salarian emotional mental processing quick by human standards‭; ‬short lived species,‭ ‬no benefit on dwelling on past,‭”‬ the old scientist shrugged.‭ “Girl was Shadow Broker and incredibly powerful ... B‬oy is immortal.‭ ‬ Considering most-likely response of galaxy at large,‭ ‬Salarian Union in particular,‭ ‬should either secret come to light‭…‬ secrecy makes sense.‭”

“That was easier than I thought it would.‭”

“In spirit of full disclosure,‭ ‬Salarian Union and Asari Matriarchate may already be aware of humanity hiding existence of paranormal abilities.‭”

“How do you know that‭?”

“Whistleblower found in STG few years back,‭”‬ Mordin shrugged.‭ “‬Selling secrets to highest bidder‭…‬ more often than not,‭ ‬highest bidder was Shadow Broker.‭ ‬One piece of data sold to Broker was copy of STG report on Charon Relay incident.‭”

“What‭’‬s so important about a STG report on the Charon Relay‭?”

“Report supposed to supply reason for political pressure brought to bear‭ ‬that ended Relay‭ ‬314‭ ‬incident.‭ ‬Never seen report myself,‭ ‬but told that contents lead Dalatrasses and Asari Matriarchs to intercede and end First Contact War.‭”‬

“…and this report ended up in the hands of the Shadow Broker‭?”‬ Xander deduced.

‭“…‬who‭’‬s currently recovering in our medbay as we speak,‭”‬ Joan finished the thought.‭

“Boss,‭ ‬I know what you‭’‬re thinking,‭ ‬but‭ ‬we can‭’‬t get distracted right now.‭ ‬First,‭ ‬we deal with Horizon.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬I‭’‬ll talk to Willow myself and we can find out what‭’‬s the what.‭”

Joan‭ ‬glared at him balefully.‭ ‬ “We will talk to Willow.‭ ‬ I,‭ ‬for one,‭ ‬have questions and she seems to be the only one with answers.‭”
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