Apartment 1470, Tiberius Towers | Citadel | September 28th 2174

Shepard's next invitation to drink with the Eclipse sisters, the one she'd feared she wouldn't be able to turn down, came a lot sooner than Liara had been hoping. Shepard's squad leader had sent a message early that morning, which contained a mission brief about a hunt-and-capture job and a not-so-subtle hint that team bonding was going to be mandatory afterwards. In Vera's own words, "Tonight's important. We're heading straight for the bar after the job. You're riding with me." The location of said meeting hadn't been included in the message, which wasn't a surprise, so Shepard had called Garrus over to discuss their plan of action.

The two of them were speaking now, heads ducked together as they surveyed a map of the Zakera Wards. Liara sat a short distance away in a plush armchair, resting in a pile of blankets and pillows that Shepard had arranged for her. She cradled a mug of tea in her hands, another gift from Shepard's protective side. They'd melded a few more times in the past couple of days, but it was still incredibly difficult for Liara to access the deeper reaches of Shepard's mind without exhausting herself. Shepard had become something of a doting nurse in that time, claiming that she felt guilty for being the cause of Liara's exhaustion. She tended to follow Liara around the apartment now, bringing her snacks and drinks and constantly asking if she needed anything. It was a sharp contrast from the anti-social, skittish animal that had once stayed hidden in her room.

Liara enjoyed the attention immensely. Her only quibble would have been that Shepard didn't quite seem to hear her when she said that she wasn't hungry.

"What makes you so sure that you'll be heading back to Pandora's Box for this little get-together?" Garrus asked Shepard. He had a team of C-Sec engineers assigned to run encrypted surveillance programs on security feeds throughout a few key districts in the Jonu wards tonight, but Shepard kept insisting that it wasn't necessary. She seemed certain that they'd be going to Pandora's Box, and if that was the case he'd already made her memorize the security feed coverage maps and installed a hacking program into her omni-tool. It wasn't C-Sec branded, it was actually one he'd asked to borrow from an undercover agent they had operating in Chora's Den. The agent had designed the hack herself, so in a worst-case scenario where Shepard would have to use it none of Eclipse's information brokers would find it suspicious. The Citadel security feeds were hacked a lot more often than the average citizen might think, so it was all a matter of who did the hacking that raised questions.

"My squad captain said something to me on my first job: 'We save Pandora's Box for the real nasties.' I just get the feeling that this important 'thing' she's talking about might be along those lines."

"You think there'll be trouble?" Garrus asked, leaning forward and growing even more serious. His voice was low, the reverberating hum of it made it sound like he was itching for a fight. At least Shepard thought that was what it sounded like. Shepard was slowly getting better at reading turian expressions and moods. Garrus was a good turian to practice with; the two of them were on remarkably similar wavelengths and got along very well. They could both be sarcastic assholes, but they also each had a fierce protective streak a mile wide. Having similar senses of humor greatly helped Shepard see Garrus as an individual, and identifying individuals was the first step on the road of being able to distinguish turian faces from one another.

Shepard shrugged, puffing out a huff of anxious air. "Possibly. The last 'nasty,' they dealt with was a turian that ended up dead and stuffed in the walk-in fridge."

"Lovely. So, and I'm sure this goes without saying, you're gonna want to eat before you head out. I'll see if I can get an inconspicuous team in there to look for evidence under the guise of a health inspection. Depending on who that turian was, we might be able to get the Box temporarily shut down. Don't want anybody catching food poisoning."

Shepard nodded, rising and heading into the kitchen. "Good point, I can whip something up. You hungry? I actually stopped by a dextro market and picked you up some stuff the other day."

Garrus looked up from the datapad he was reviewing. He blinked once before his mandibles twitched and, in a small voice, asked, "Really?"

"You're here all the time, and I've never seen you eat. But then the other day I remembered that you can't eat the same food we do, so I asked around and found a turian grocer that'd actually sell to me. Now, you have no excuse," Shepard said with a grin. "Come on! You'll have to tell me if I got ripped off, because I had no idea what the fuck I was buying."

Garrus jumped up like an excited schoolboy and followed Shepard into the kitchen. Liara, from her armchair nest, heard clanging and shuffling and happy banter. She sipped at her tea with a serene smile on her face, eyes closed as she basked in their unlikely trio's easy camaraderie. And when she heard Garrus cry out, "Chocolate!" with unbridled excitement, she giggled.

Pandora's Box | Citadel | September 28th 2174

The job had been easy. The only setback had been the turian merc lying in wait behind the shipping crates Shepard had careened past after taking out a pair of grunts with a biotic charge. She'd barely set her feet back on solid ground before she was staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Taking the hit at near point-blank range had fried her shields, which had hurt. Vera was right, she really needed to work on her barrier. Maybe Liara would be able to help.

But after they'd taken care of the remaining mercs, a group hired to protect a rogue agent Eclipse had been tasked with tracking down and hauling back to their benefactor, Vizeet and his brother had actually fretted over her. It had been rather surprising. The tall salarian brothers had immediately hurried over to where she'd slumped down against the shipping crates, slapping medi-gel on her burns and checking her shield processor for any signs of permanent damage. Vizeet and his brother were the squad medics on top of being engineers, experienced with all manner of burns and cryo-bites. They'd both seemed relieved when they learned that the only damage Shepard had suffered had been from the shield's energy discharge when it went offline, reassuring her that once the tingling sensations went away she would be perfectly fine. The second they were gone, off to check on the rest of the squad, she'd lowly muttered a quick update to Garrus through her communicator. "Mission's done. I'll know where we're going soon."

Vera had quite literally grabbed her by the scruff of her jacket, hauling her up and shoving her into the nearest skycar before she could think about refusing. The ride to Pandora's Box had been short and quiet, the only interruption coming from Illia in the backseat. She also suggested that Shepard work on her barrier if she wanted to avoid winding up dead one day.

And when they finally did show up to the packed club, heading inside and going straight for the stairway leading to the VIP section, Shepard paused and cast a glance towards the downstairs bar. Looking back towards Vera and Illia, neither of whom had noticed that Shepard was no longer following them, she called out, "Hey!"

Both asari turned, but it was Vera that snapped back an impatient "What?"

"I'll meet you upstairs. The drink menu down here is different than the one in VIP and I want a dark and stormy." Vera looked at her incredulously, but Shepard was being one hundred percent honest so she stared right back. It was hard to find good ginger beer on the Citadel; the last time she'd been here Matt the Bartender That Annoyed Barbra had mixed a fantastic cocktail and she wasn't about to risk missing out. It would also give Shepard to tell Garrus I told you so without being overheard. "I'll even grab you one if you want it, Grumpy."

Just as Vera was about to protest Illia raised her hand. "I'll take you up on that, actually." She smiled rather softly for a cold, analytical information broker, and Shepard found herself smiling back. When Vera turned to glare at Illia for her unfair insubordination, Illia's smile turned into a teasing grin.

With a groan, Vera threw her hands up in theatrical dismay. "Of all the humans I could have gotten stuck with, I got the reckless biotic who's picky about her booze. Yeah, whatever. Sign me up for one of your fancy drinks. Just be snappy about it." Shepard nodded with bright eyes and a grin and dashed off, pushing her way through the crowd to get to the bar. Vera and Illia watched her go, and Illia's hand fell to rest on Vera's waist. "I'm surprised that you of all people seem to trust her," Vera said, her voice low. She bumped her hip against the information broker's, guiding them towards the VIP area with an arm tossed carelessly across Illia's shoulders. "Normally, you're suspicious to the point of paranoid."

"It was sad, reading through all the arrest reports and the info that our contacts in the Sol system sent me. Human orphans are practically currency. Send a dozen here to serve as mercs, get paid in weapons systems upgrades over there. Get one killed on a job, find three more to replace them before the day is done." Illia didn't have much experience with humans, not as a species. She knew plenty about meathead Neanderthals that thought being tough on Earth meant they could be tough out in space. Those were the humans Jona had been talking about when she'd called them fodder. It wasn't an incorrect term to use. Each and every one of them got themselves killed way before earning their Eclipse armor.

But Shepard was shaping up to be different; she was resilient and adaptable, and she was one of the few humans that Illia had met that actually seemed like a real person, personality and all.

It was a shame that she wouldn't be with them for very long. Not with the hungry Ardat Yakshi prowling around upstairs.

Shepard finally made it to the bar and slapped her credit chit down on the counter. She called out her order and soon her chit was swiped, the ding of the credit transfer lost in the din of the crowded downstairs lounge. Bodies pushed against her on both sides, which she was used to, but it wasn't until she felt a sharp exhale breeze against the back of her neck that she stiffened.

"Oh my god, you're alive!" Barbra the Exhausted Server from Shepard's last visit to the Box appeared at her shoulder, resting a shaky hand on Shepard's bare forearm. She looked even more exhausted than the last time Shepard had seen her, and judging by the state of the woman's makeup Shepard guessed that she might have been working a double shift. She didn't envy her for that. But what was this about still being alive?

"Uh... yeah, still kicking. Is that surprising?" Shepard asked, half-joking.

Barbra searched her face, confused, shocked. The last time she'd seen this young woman, the polite one with the gang tattoo and smell of Earth still wafting from her hair, she'd been with the asari. The scary one. The one that invited people upstairs who never came back. Barbra had seen it happen three times already, each one disappearing quicker than the last. The first victim had lasted four weeks: four visits to the Box, four visits that ended with blue hands and dark smiles guiding them upstairs. There had been no fifth visit, and that had been months ago.

The latest victim had barely lasted a week.

And this one! The moment Barbra had seen this girl with the asari, she'd known it was happening again. The look in the asari's eyes had been hungry, dark intent practically dripping from her grasping fingers. And the young woman had followed her upstairs, unaware, like a lamb following a wolf into its den. Barbra was no fool; she and every other downstairs staff member knew that the bar's owner had mysteriously disappeared under the guise of a surprise vacation right after the first Eclipse sisters had shown up. She knew that asking questions would lose her a lot more than her shitty job, so even though her heart broke for the poor souls that got mixed up with that asari there was nothing she could do about it. At least, there hadn't been up until now.

"Listen to me, sugar. You need to go. You need to get far away from here, before you end up like the others!" She hissed into the young woman's ear, her voice harried and pleading. Shepard stiffened, eyes narrowing at the older blonde with apprehension clear in her hazel eyes.

"What others?"

Barbra cast a furtive glance around the bar, praying that there weren't eyes on them. She squeezed Shepard's arm, and tried again to make her point clear. "The asari that you were with last time I saw you, she's dangerous."

"She's with Eclipse, of course she's dangerous." Shepard replied, and here was Matt with her drinks. She nodded her thanks at the scruffy, portly gentleman behind the bar as he set down three glasses and missed the knowing look he shot to Barbra.

"No!" Barbra said, "Listen. The Eclipse mercs might be rowdy, but they're just mercs. They're harmless unless you make them mad. But the one you were with? The one that wears all black? She's different. Please hun, just trust me on this, and leave. Don't come back, stay far away!"

Shepard met Barbra's panicky gaze with an even, unreadable stare. A million questions ran through her mind, but most of them were drowned out by the overwhelming reminder that Vera and Illia, possibly even Morinth herself, would come downstairs looking for her if she was delayed much longer. For Barbra's sake, and her own, those questions would have to remain unasked. All Shepard could offer instead was one of her fake grins, an expression she'd cultivated over the years for the explicit purpose of assuaging other people's concerns. "I can't do that; I'd miss you too much. Who else is gonna call me cute human pet names while expressing such genuine concern for my well-being?" Before Barbra could respond Shepard had gathered up her drinks and adopted a more serious tone. "I appreciate the warning, and I promise to be careful. But running away isn't an option. Part of me wishes it was." Sure, she'd muttered that last part under her breath, but Barbra must have heard it because the server looked at her funny before her eyes glassed over, lower lip quivering, and she hurried away.

"Hey, Garrus?" Shepard said, subtly activating her communicator with a flex of her wrist. Her omni-tool blinked once, quickly, and then the turian's voice was humming in her ear.

"What is it, kid? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, but I just got the weirdest warning. There's an asari with Eclipse, the one that first bought me up to the VIP lounge. One of the servers just hinted that I wasn't the first she'd brought up there, and I'm getting weird vibes. Vera also said something suspicious on my first job, now that I think about it..."

"Want me to do some snooping?"

"Definitely. Her name is Morinth. Mean anything to you?"

There was a pause before Shepard heard anything in response. "It doesn't ring any bells but that's an odd name by asari standards. I'll do some digging. You alright otherwise?"

Shepard reassured him that she was fine. Part of her wanted to gloat that she'd been right about tonight's meetup taking place at Pandora's Box, but after her interaction with Barbra she wasn't in a gloating mood. Instead she kept herself busy trying to keep her three drinks from being jostled by the crowd. As she headed towards the VIP area a rowdy grunt of a man slurred at her, asking where she was going alone with all those drinks and she rolled her eyes. When he didn't leave her alone, turning to follow her, she promptly stomped the heel of her boot into his closest foot and as he doubled over with a pained shout she grinned and slipped away.

The krogan standing guard at the door to the VIP section was the same one that had been there last time, and he was chuckling. Shepard, tilting her head, asked, "What, you saw that?"

The krogan nodded, rows of teeth glimmering in the low light as he smiled. "You've got a quad, human. Must be why you're not dead yet."

Shepard frowned. "Do all aliens really see us humans as that fragile?"

"I could rip your legs off with one hand."

"And then I'd use one of mine to beat you to death with my freshly severed legs, so what? " She shot back, her tone lighthearted and joking. "Then I'd use that same hand to stitch 'em back on."

The krogan laughed then, a great rumble beginning deep in his gut. "You pyjaks are resilient, I'll give you that." He nodded towards the door, opening it with a press of his great paw against the security panel. "The Eclipse sisters told me to let you through when you came up. They're at the bar waiting for you. Who knows, maybe I'll get used to seeing you around, human."

"Our relationship has not yet reached the point where I can look forward to that, Fraig. But thanks." Shepard stepped past him, and the bizarre sound of asari club music pounding throughout the VIP area immediately made her cringe. Ugh, what I wouldn't give for some normal house music. It was harder to spot Vera and Illia than Shepard would have liked. The black lights made all the asari in the room glow with an unearthly blue light, and most of them were wearing some version of the yellow Eclipse armor. The krogan doorman had told her to head for the bar, so after a deep breath off she went.

A hungry pair of blue eyes followed her every move.

"Shepard, over here!" A sharp voice called out, and Shepard breathed a sigh of relief when she finally caught sight of Vera's familiar facial markings. She was standing with Illia, who had turned to look at Shepard as well. Both leaned against the bar, though neither had drinks yet. They were clearly waiting on the ones in Shepard's hands. Shepard hurried to join them, doing her best to ignore the varying degrees of glances and glares aimed at her by the other bar patrons. Most of the mercs on the squad Shepard had been working with, Vera's squad, were friendly towards her. Maybe not friendly, but they were at least polite. For the most part, they ignored her. Being in Pandora's Box was different though. The asari here were meaner, more entitled. They walked with a swagger that was probably backed up by the natural biotic prowess their species possessed, and Shepard's survival instincts gently asked her to stick close to Vera. Ignoring the looks wasn't too difficult. So long as no one made an ass of themselves and got all up in her space looking for trouble, there probably wouldn't be another bar fight. Probably. Hopefully?

"Hey guys, sorry I took so long. They're slammed down there. Here," Shepard put the glasses down on the counter and slid two together into the waiting hands of the asari. Illia took an appreciative sip immediately but Vera gave hers a cautious sniff before she sampled it.

With a considering hum, Vera said, "Not bad."

Shepard snorted before taking a long sip of her own cocktail, the rum and ginger sweet on her tongue. "So, why was I so desperately needed at the bar tonight? Do you take your team bonding that seriously?" She joked, glancing between the two asari.

"Jona needed you to be seen tonight. That's one reason."


Vera fixed Shepard with a steady look, then tossed her head in the direction of the plush leather booths and circular tables that lined the far wall. Jona was there, looking again like a self-satisfied alpha lion surrounded by deadly, loyal lionesses. A human man sat across from her, and just then did Shepard notice that there seemed to be two crews in the Box's VIP lounge tonight. Her heart stopped when she glanced to her left and saw two human men staring at her, both wearing matching red and black ensembles.

Both had chillingly familiar tattoos on their right forearms.

"What the fuck are the Reds doing here?" Shepard murmured, mostly to herself. Was this about to get bad? Why were they here? Who even were they, some sort of organized Citadel chapter? Shepard hadn't thought they had numbers enough yet for a formal crew to be running around, and practically in uniform at that. And why were they all glaring at her? Did they know she was a rat? How? Had Pallin screwed up, let her name slip? Were they here to warn Jona? Was she about to get herself killed? Maybe she should've listened to Barbra...

"Easy, Shepard," Vera surprised her by clapping a comforting hand down on Shepard's shoulder, though there was enough force behind the display for precious liquid to come sloshing over the sides of Shepard's glass. Shepard cursed and readjusted her grip, shaking the excess liquid off her now-wet hand. Vera looked like she might have wanted to apologize for a moment, but then that moment passed and she was all business. "Your old buddies found out we had a biotic joining our ranks. Or rather, Jona started advertising it because she knew it'd piss people off. She's... unpredictable that way. Illia knows how selective your old biotic initiative program was, how few of you there are. When this asshole showed up here yesterday demanding to talk to Jona, we figured out what he was after pretty quick."

Shepard had been off yesterday. She'd spent half the day at the cover apartment lying low, napping and training. The other half she'd spent with Liara learning more about the Protheans. Or, more honestly, she'd watched Liara talk about the Protheans like they were the most fascinating creatures in the galaxy, like their disappearance was a puzzle only she could solve. It had... stirred squishy parts of her heart that she was content for now to ignore.

She looked at the man sitting across from Jona, only to find that he was staring at her with murder in his eyes. Despite herself, she shivered. "Me."

Illia disagreed. "Not you specifically," she said between sips of her drink. "All he knew was that a Reds biotic had 'turned tail,' and he didn't agree with their decision. After all the money spent making you what you are, he says, you belong to the Reds. Jona's taking care of it, but she wanted you to be here so she could prove she meant it when she said you were one of us now."

"Which you aren't yet, by the way, not officially." Vera quipped with a grin. "But he doesn't need to know that." Honestly, she doubted that Shepard would ever be considered a real member of the crew. With Morinth hovering in the background, any investment into Shepard's growth was essentially a waste of resources. Vera was sure that this whole affair was more to make a point to the human mercs that had been building influence on the Citadel. Jona had already given Vera her orders: squeeze whatever usefulness she could out of Shepard while the girl was still around, then tie up any loose ends once Morinth had her way. She didn't like it, didn't like having an Ardat Yakshi in their midst, but she couldn't help that her boss was a fucking psycho.

Speaking of Morinth, where was that monster? Every time Vera's team had come back from a mission without Shepard, the dark asari had voiced her displeasure. Vera, who refused to admit that Morinth terrified her the way an Ardat Yakshi terrified any sane asari, had always stood her ground and repeated herself: "We invited her. She said no. Take it up with her next time you see her." And now was that time, but Morinth had yet to appear. Vera was sure she was lurking in the shadows somewhere, observing. Waiting for the right moment to strike.

"But why are they here?" Shepard asked, squaring her shoulders and staring down the two men that had steadily begun moving closer towards the bar. Neither one of them was familiar, but Shepard didn't need to know them to know that they meant trouble. And Shepard had never been known to back down from a fight. "What do they expect to get out of it?"

"I imagine they want to take you back," Illia said, rather calmly for someone that had also noticed the two aggressive men approaching their little trio.

Shepard finally decided their eavesdropping friends had gotten too close for comfort when she saw one of the two men casually rest his hand on the sidearm strapped to his hip out of the corner of her eye. She turned with a sudden growl, bristling like a scrapyard guard dog. "Can I help you two idiots?"

The taller of the two men, a pale young man with a buzzcut and cold blue eyes seemed surprised by the ferocity leveled at him. He clearly hadn't planned on taking her seriously. He had in fact, looked rather bored up until that moment. He looked to his partner for his reaction. The shorter man (the one that had a hand resting on his gun) was also pale, with had a mop of messy, sandy blond hair that was in desperate need of a wash. Both men wore their Reds tattoos proudly on their forearms, their tight black shirts only coming down to their elbows.

The shorter man spoke first, and when he did his voice was a greasy as his hair. "Easy, sweetheart. The boss just wants you to come back to work for us. We know about what happened with Finch and Adams, we don't blame you for what you did."

"If you want me to take anything you say seriously, never call me sweetheart again."

The taller man actually laughed out loud at that, and finally seemed to find his voice. "Damn! Girls like you make me wish I was still back home; no one on this chunk of platinum has a sense of humor anymore." He grinned, his teeth discolored in that oh-so-telling way that told Shepard this particular Red had been sand-blasting his way through missions. Now that she was really looking at him, she noticed that his eyes bore a similar reddish discoloration. Poor guy. Shepard knew how hard it was to get off once you finally started doping up on red sand. That's why she'd never been enough of an idiot to try it.

That's not fair, you know it's never that easy, she gently chided herself.

"If we're talking senses of humor here, I find it hilarious that you morons actually think you have permission to speak to us," Vera growled from behind Shepard, her blue eyes narrowed in the direction of the two men. Both instantly seemed to clam up, seemingly unwilling to confront the asari squad captain. Not that Shepard could blame them; she knew firsthand how dangerous Vera could be when she meant business.

The blond-haired man tried to ignore the thinly-veiled threat Vera had sent their way and directed all of his attention to Shepard. "Look, the boss knows you followed protocol. The only reason he's pissed is because of Grim."

Vera and Illia both shot Shepard looks that very clearly asked 'what are they talking about?' and Shepard inwardly cursed. Maybe she was about to get busted. "What about Grim?"

This time the taller man answered. "The double dealing! We had no idea that Grim was still pulling in earnings from your chapter. When he came to us looking for work, we were told he was a free bird. No one knew he was ripping us both off until you got him bopped! The boss tore our informants a new one, let me tell you, it was awesome."

Safe. Shepard was safe. No one was any the wiser about her involvement with C-Sec. Shepard breathed a sigh of relief, masking it as a disgruntled sigh as she turned to Vera and Illia. "Grim was the fucker that messed with your commando's bondmate, the one I helped put away. The Reds have a contingency plan in place for when their members get caught, alright?" And then she explained said contingency plan to the two asari, all the while thanking the powers that be that she wasn't about to get her cover blown and her head subsequently blown off.

"So, you idiots get yourselves caught that often?" Vera eventually asked, chuckling.

"Hey, how were we supposed to know turians could smell red sand?" Shepard defended. The two Reds had actually left Shepard alone once Vera and Illia made it clear that they weren't going to let the human be spirited away.

Before Vera could continue teasing her Illia laid a hand on the squad captain's arm. Illia looked nervous, her hand gripping her glass with clear tension. Vera and Shepard turned to follow her gaze, and Shepard's heart sank. The chapter boss was stalking towards her, and Jona was frowning. The asari scattered around her were humming with nervous energy, sensing their alpha's displeasure.

"You! Shepard! I wanna talk to you." The chapter head's voice was stern and angry, the voice of an alcoholic businessman rolled together with a veteran drill sergeant. Even Shepard, with her utter disregard for authority, cowered a bit under the volume being thrown her way. He was the only human in the room more heavily armed than she, with a pistol on each hip and an assault rifle strapped to his back. Shepard also caught the sight of sticky grenades strapped to his utility belt, and what could have been a pair of recon mines? He was packing, that was for certain. He also had a wicked burn scar creeping up along his neck beneath the collar of his black shirt that Shepard couldn't keep her eyes off of.

Shepard chose not to speak, instead putting her drink down on the bar counter and stepping forward to meet him. She raised her chin and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket, instinctively awakening the slightest bit of her biotic power to hum beneath her skin in case she needed it. He towered over her, and that was when a lot of the asari in the room realized how short the human really was. For such a small package, barely meeting the man's chin, they knew she could hit like a battering ram. It was kind of cute, actually, giggle-worthy at least.

The chapter boss stared her down, and Shepard could see that unlike his lackeys this man was smart enough to have not sampled his wares. His green eyes were clear, free of that red stain that marked the others as addicts. "So, you're Jane Shepard. The turncoat."

"I'm no turncoat," Shepard shot back, calmly but clearly. "You know our policy. I did my job, followed protocol, so I don't know what you expect to get out of being here. And it's just Shepard, for the record." Please don't mention the fact that everything I know, Executor Pallin knows. Please don't. Please tell me that's still a secret.

"Well, Shepard," he spat. "That's all well and good for the dime a dozen grunts, but we both know you're a bit more expensive than that. Unless you've got enough credits on you to cover the cost of your implant, you're coming with me. Everything that you are, everything that you could be, you owe that to the Tenth Street Reds."

The relief she felt upon knowing that this man really hadn't come here to expose her for ratting them out was lost in a sudden burst of righteous anger. Shepard bristled, outrage growing deep within her because this man, this asshole, had just dared to suggest that Shepard had had it easy. How dare her try to say that Shepard hadn't had to bite and kick and claw her way to where she was today, that she hadn't earned her right to be here but had instead had it handed to her on a biotic platter. Her body's adjustment to the biotic implant had been hard enough, and that included all the headaches and adrenaline that came with the initial energy flux. But learning how to use it? That had all been her own doing. Her biotic style was as improvised and informal as it could be, a collective study of traditional forms and ideas taken from old human media. Star Wars of all things had been a big help for an adolescent Shepard. Use the Force, Jane.

"Shepard isn't going anywhere, human. Which I'm sure Jona already told you," Vera snarled, tendrils of biotic energy curling through the air around her.

"I don't care what your boss has to say, bitch."

Shepard stepped further into the chapter boss' space, shoving him backwards to every human in the room's surprise. "Mind your manners, dude."

"If you think I've got qualms about doing this the hard way, you're going to be disappointed, Shepard!" And the man pulled one of the pistols from his hip and turned off the safety, aiming it right at the spot between Shepard's eyes. Suddenly every merc in the room was on their feet and reaching for their guns or summoning their biotics. The Eclipse mercs, the dozens of asari Shepard had previously thought to be staring her down with daggers in their sapphire eyes, were now leaping to her defense. They blocked the paths of the human mercs trying to get to their boss, biotic threats keeping them back. Vera and Illia had both stepped forward to flank Shepard on either side, each with one hand raised. Shepard felt the energy of their combined barriers wash over her with an electric shiver.

"And if you think we won't kill you right here, right now, you're a fool," Illia hissed, low and threatening.

It was a standoff. Shepard was safe, the chapter boss clearly knew that. With two asari casting protective barriers over her and his men kept back, he didn't have many options. Shepard didn't want the man dead yet either, as much as he'd pissed her off, so she was content to wait for him to figure out that he'd lost. Unfortunately for him, he wouldn't get that chance.

A hungry pair of blue eyes had finally seen their opportunity to strike.

"My, my... what have we here?" A sultry voice broke the stiff silence. All heads turned to see a breathtaking asari in all black gliding forward with the grace of a deadly viper. Her crystalline eyes glittered in the light of the club, her smile coy and dangerous. Shepard felt the chapter boss loosen his grip on his gun, his shoulders losing their stiffness. She fought the urge to roll her eyes when she saw the stupefied look on his face. I swear, all men are the same. Shepard met Morinth's heated gaze and felt her own cheeks flush. She decided to cut the guy some slack. She couldn't deny the overwhelming nature of Morinth's sex appeal, couldn't ignore the presence of the gravitational pull she wielded.

Jona Sedaris had finally decided to put her two cents in, rising from her booth with a sick grin that immediately made Shepard's skin crawl. "Damien here thinks that Shepard belongs to the Reds. I tried to reason with him, but as you can see he wants to be difficult."

Morinth tutted, her path unobstructed as she made her way across the room. Humans and asari tripped in their hurry to remove themselves from her path. The humans looked star struck, the asari afraid. Her voice was chiding when she said, "Now, Damien darling, be reasonable. When a lady says no, she means no. I thought that was something real men respected?"

Damien, as he was finally named, spluttered out a nonsensical string of denials and protests. "But she's too valuable an asset, I can't-"

"Hush, darling," Morinth said, her eyes clouding over with black. When had she gotten that close? Just a second ago she'd still been halfway across the bar. Shepard felt Vera and Illia stiffen behind her, heard Illia gasp. Morinth laid her hand on the man's chest, and the hand holding his pistol went limp. The gun clattered to the floor, powering off. All the fight went out of him in the next instant. The expression on Morinth's face was one of expectant yearning, colored by dark pleasure. "Shepard belongs to us now. So why don't you be a good boy... and embrace eternity."

Shepard didn't understand what happened next. One moment the man was fine, a slumped figure sporting a dopey schoolboy grin, and the next there was biotic energy and black sparks dancing all across his body as his jaw wrenched open in a silent scream. One of the barriers protecting Shepard ceased to exist as Illia turned away from the bizarre and disturbing display, shielding her eyes. Vera only strengthened her barrier, her jaw clenched and shoulders statue-stiff. The Reds chapter boss crumpled to the floor, and when he did not rise and no one went to aid him Shepard realized he was dead. Her eyes widened, dread pooling in the back of her throat like bile. Across the room Jona Sedaris was cackling wildly, ordering her stunned mercs to kindly escort the remaining Reds from the premises. The humans did not need the assistance. One look from Morinth, the black receding from her eyes as she breathed a sigh of satisfied relief was enough to make them flee the scene, scrambling to get away from this terrifyingly beautiful creature that had just killed one of their own with her mind. If only they'd known more about asari, they would have known that that was not normal. In any sense.

"Sorry you had to see that, Shepard," Morinth cooed, approaching the stunned girl with just the slightest bit of trepidation. She hadn't wanted to make a scene, but she'd been so hungry lately and Jona had asked her to help with their little Reds problem. If she wanted to stay on Jona's good side and utilize Eclipse's resources, she needed to play nice. "But I just couldn't stand to see him speak to you in such a manner... or risk having him take you from me." Shepard jumped when Morinth reached out cup the human's cheek, eyes frantic and mistrustful. Morinth inwardly cursed upon seeing such a negative reaction. Shit. She thought for a moment, but then an easy smile crept across her face and she withdrew a small bottle from a hidden pocket in her suit. She pushed past the human and took a seat at the bar, gently patting the bar stool beside her and flashing her best pair of sweet eyes. "Let me make it up to you? You seem exhausted."

"I-I am," Shepard stuttered, clearing her throat and looking to Vera for help, an explanation, anything.

But all Vera did was avoid her gaze, muttering "There's reason number two," before she abandoned Shepard at the bar and moved to assist the other Eclipse mercs with removing the shell of a man that now lay dead on the floor.

Shepard took a shaky breath and found her Saints medal with an even shakier hand, trying her best to steady her breathing. The threat of being exposed coupled with the almost-brawl and the shocking display of whatever that was had taken a lot out of her. Her joints also still ached from the shield discharge she'd suffered just an hour beforehand. She toyed with the small gold charm and let the familiarity of it reassure her as she took the seat offered to her. Morinth seemed pleased by her acceptance and waved over a server, one of the oblivious human servers that still worked upstairs and wasn't as justifiably afraid of her all the asari servers were. "Any requests, Shepard? More wine?"

"Something stronger would be great, actually. It's... been a day."

That suits me just fine, Morinth thought with a predator's grin as she ordered them both a double shot of ryncol. She loved the way ryncol burned going down, and she knew the fastest way to get Shepard to warm up to her again would be through chemical assistance. She placed the small bottle down on the counter between them, popping it open and withdrawing two small doses of her favorite recreational drug. She took the first and offered the other to Shepard, the small white pill a promise of pleasure in the palm of her hand. "If you're as worn out as you look, this might help. It's nothing dangerous, don't worry, I'll even take a second dose to prove it to you."

Shepard considered the pill. Morinth worried that she would refuse it but when the server returned with their drinks Shepard surprised her by snatching the dose, popping it into her mouth, and throwing back her shot. Morinth watched with a wanting gaze as Shepard ran a hand through her hair, her eyes closed as she took a calming, centering inhale. When her eyes opened again on the exhale she seemed a fair bit more like the fiesty creature that had first caught Morinth's eye. The dark asari smiled and turned to the server, reaching out to stroke the soft skin of the human female's hand. The server melted under the attention, pupils dilated in that telltale manner Morinth loved. "Be a dear and bring us the bottle."

As Morinth charmed the server, Shepard discreetly pocketed the pill she would have never in a million years have been dumb enough to take. She knew now for a fact that Morinth was dangerous and that Barbra had been right. But she couldn't run, so she had to play this all very carefully. She had to act interested, but coy enough for Morinth to enjoy being kept at arm's distance until Shepard could figure out a way to make her lose interest organically. And she had to see if she could dig any information out of Vera or Illia. Most importantly, she had to stay alive. Luckily for Shepard, Morinth seemed content to be rather tame for the rest of the night, engaging Shepard in a surprisingly cultured conversation about music and art. She asked Shepard to tell her a few more Greek myths, and Shepard chose the ones she thought the asari would identify with the most. She talked about Aphrodite, about the Judgement of Paris, all the myths having to do with beautiful, dangerous women. Morinth approved, purring her way through words and finding every opportunity to touch Shepard's knee or play with the human's hair. Shepard thought about Liara. Eventually they got onto the subject of Shepard's altercation with Damien, and Morinth asked why she insisted on being called by her family name.

"I don't like my name," Shepard said, sharply. Morinth paused, her drink halfway to her mouth. Her bright blue eyes slowly fixed themselves on Shepard. The short, harsh manner in which Shepard responded had momentarily thrown her off guard.

"May I ask why?"

Shepard chuckled but it was not a bright or humorous sound. "You wouldn't get it." When Morinth continued to stare, eyes narrowing slightly in a challenge, Shepard 's expression darkened further and she tipped back her drink, downing it one go. Ryncol, whatever it was, burned and it coupled with her frayed nerves had put her in a bit of a sour mood. At this point, she really wanted to just go home and sleep. She slapped the glass down onto the counter top and roughly ran a hand through her errant bangs. "You might not know this, or care, but I'm an orphan. There's no one back on Earth that knows me well enough to remember me. And... part of me has always wondered-" she paused. She turned to Morinth then, adjusting herself on the bar stool to the point where she was seated side-saddle. She fixed Morinth with the deepest stare Morinth had so far seen on the young human's face. The human's black pupils seemed to stretch on, infinitely. "On Earth, when a body turns up and no one comes to claim it, the authorities give it a nickname. Jane Doe. Or, John Doe if it was a man. You wanna know why I hate my name? Because it's all too easy to picture some exhausted social worker that thinks he's funny naming an unclaimed orphan after a corpse."

Morinth wasn't sure how to process that, wasn't sure if she actually understood. "Is... is that why you prefer your family name?"

"I don't know that that's mine for sure either, so I wouldn't call it a family name... but it's better than being just another Jane Doe."

It was late when Shepard was finally allowed to leave, and she hailed a skycar to the Spartan District. The alcohol buzzing through her veins was hard to keep out of her voice as she called Liara to let the asari know that she was fine, that she would meet up with Garrus as soon as she thought it was safe and have him escort her home. She could tell that Liara was glad that she called, and that was the first thing to make her genuinely smile all night. When she got to her shitty cover apartment, she took a very drunk shower to get the scent of Pandora's Box and its patrons off of her skin. She was very careful to keep the little pill she'd pocketed safe.

Skycar | Citadel | September 28th 2174

Shepard took the little evidence bag Garrus held out to her, rubbing the exhaustion from her eyes. Her hair was still wet from her shower. She was too tired to properly process half of what had happened that night, and she'd promised to give Garrus a full rundown in the morning after some sleep. He hadn't taken much convincing after she'd told him about the 'gift' Morinth had tried to give her. It made him angry, a level of angry that surprised Shepard. She slipped said gift into the evidence bag and handed it back to her partner, happy to be rid of it.

"I still think Liara should know about this," he said for the third time. He sealed off the evidence bag and shot a request off to the forensics labs to get it tested as soon as he was able to drop it off. It could have been any number of things. His first guess would have been Hallex, but even that diagnosis was useless unless they could figure out where the Hallex was made and if it had been laced with anything dangerous.

"I don't want her to worry any more than she needs to," Shepard said. "It's not like the asari tried to slip it in my drink without me noticing or anything, she offered it and I played along to figure out what the hell kind of state she was trying to get me in." Shepard slumped down into the plush passenger seat of the unmarked skycar, trying to keep everything from spinning. She'd already told him about the ryncol, and he'd picked up water and food for her on his way to pick her up from the apartment. The auto-pilot was taking them towards the Tiberius Towers complex now, the night lights flashing by them as they took the long way there. They'd both agreed that it would be best to let Shepard sober up before they brought her back to Liara, though Garrus detested the idea of leaving the scientist in the dark about the nature of Shepard's not-so-subtle admirer. If he had his way the two would be bonded by the end of next month because they were adorable together and he didn't want secrets getting in the way of that.

Before any progress was to be made on that front though, he wanted to find out as much as he could about this 'Morinth' character. He'd heard of asari being able to do permanent damage through the meld, but he'd never seen it in action before, had certainly never seen anything like what Shepard had described.

'Morinth,' whoever she was, had made it to the top of his To-Do list.

I think this is the longest chapter I've ever written for anything ever.