The squad continued through the ruined facility. Jack's agitation steadily ramped upwards.
"It feels weird to be back here."
"What'cha mean?" Xander asked.
"I know I'm a dangerous bitch, but I feel like… like a scared little girl again."
Jack looked around and saw Xander obviously wanting to say something. God forbid he actually do something.
"Shit, it's complicated," she cut him off. "Fuck it, forget about it; let's just keep going."
It killed Xander to see her so visibly upset and so determined to endure that pain alone.
A door barred their way, sealed from the other side, no doubt by the Blood Pack. Jack placidly watched Xander wrestling with the door lock's internal subsystems, and cursing an impressive blue streak under his breath while he was at it.
A dozen voices in her head begged her to reach out to the boy whose quirky charms had bypassed her emotional defense as easily as he was cutting through the door.
But there was that other voice. "You're damaged goods," it hissed. "You know that, he knows that. You've seen his precious little Dawn. She's the gold fucking standard; you really think you measure up?"
She wanted to ignore that voice, but it'd kept her alive… made her strong.
"Hell, if not for me, you'd still be hiding in that cell in the middle of this shithole. Everything you are, everything you have, including Xander… is all because of me."
She shook her head, silencing her inner demons long enough to join the squad on the other side of the door Xander had finally opened. She stopped at a shattered walkway; the rain seeping in from the outside had created pools of stagnant water that made the already musty stench of the room even worse.
"What is this place?" The Justicar seemed visibly repulsed.
"I came here during the riot. First time I ever saw real sunlight." Jack was distant, recalling old memories. Her words were choppy, clipped; she was still traumatized. "The whole place was fucked. The riot was still going on. Nothing between me and freedom but a half-dead guard… he was begging for his life."
"Was this man part of the experiments? Did he harm you? Do anything to you?" Samara demanded.
"You mean, did I whack anybody who might not deserved it?" Jack snorted. "Grandma, I was a kid when I escaped. If you were in my way, I fucked you up… a lot of people got in my way that day…"
"You sound as if you take pleasure in what you did," Samara noted sharply.
Jack just pointed at a ruined patch of floor, where a damaged partition suggested to Xander that the area had once been cordoned off like some kind of arena. "See that? They used to put me in there with the other kids… stage fights… I think I remember hearing them take bets on how long any of the other kids would last against me."
"They made you fight the other children?" the Asari asked, incredulous.
"Only time they'd let me out of my cell to mix with the other kids." Jack answered shortly. "I was shocked if I hesitated, got narcotics flooding my system when I didn't hold back."
If anyone noticed her trying NOT to look at Xander, they were tactful enough not to mention it.
"Classic aversion therapy," Miranda muttered. "They taught you to equate mercy with pain and suffering."
"…and violence with pleasure?" Xander added dryly.
Jack just shrugged. "Hell, I still get warm feelings during a fight."
Samara shook her head. "What was done to you was monstrous, but that does not MAKE you a monster, child."
"You don't get it, grandma," Jack snarled. "I don't just KNOW how to fight or even like to fight, I get off on it, and those bastards did that to me."
"Train up a child in the way he should go…" Joan recited distantly, adding, "…even when he is old, he will not depart from it."
"You know The Bible?" Willow whispered.
Joan just shrugged. "When other kids misbehaved, they got smacked or sat in a corner or had to go without dessert. I had to read and recite paragraphs from books, including The Bible."
Samara looked around the room. "What kind of people would do such a thing?" she growled.
Xander poked and prodded at a console, running repair apps and bypasses. Suddenly the console sprang to life, and he quipped, "Think I might have an answer for that," catching everyone's attention.
The holographic image of a man with a three-day beard stood before them.
"-lusive Man called today for another status update. I think he's getting suspicious. I want to tell him, but - Doctor Keiran agrees with me that revealing our methods before delivering a perfected Subject Zero completely under his control is just insane. Our methods are extreme, but he can't argue with hard results. If we could achieve in decades what took the Asari centuries to accomplish - one day, humanity might supplant the Thessians as the biotic superpower of the galaxy."
"Doctor Keiran thinks The Illusive Man wouldn't care, but I'm not so certain. We've killed a lot of - to get what we have."
The recording phased out.
"Still in the buffers." Xander shrugged at the questioning gazes sent his way.
Willow reached out and caressed the console while her eyes turned milky white. "Let's see what else is in those buffers," she mumbled.
"Sounds like they went rogue." Miranda sighed.
Jack snorted. "You would say that, wouldn't you, cheerleader? They didn't say how much they were hiding from him."
"Who's Keiran?" Joan asked.
"Dr. Ioan Algarth Keiran," Miranda explained. "A valuable resource worth maintaining."
Willow took up the explanation. "Expert in biotics effects in humans and… sympathetic to the pro-humanity cause. His name crossed my desk periodically." Then she frowned slightly. "I miss having a desk," she said randomly.
"Sounds like he was important here… Jack, you remember this man?" Joan asked.
"Doctor K? Sure, I remember him."
"They wouldn't tell me their real names so I made up names for 'em. I saw what's-his-face sign a form once, and the only thing I recognized in his name was that big-ass K, so..."
"Doctor K?" Xander offered dryly,
"I was a kid in a lab, not a fucking poet," she snapped. "That other guy, from the message? I used to call him Doctor Glasses. I remember killing him when I escaped."
"I got something." Willow's eyes shimmered as she gestured. Blackened and burnt out screens flared to life, data bits flashing and surging across them before resolving on an image of the very doctor they'd seen before.
"Teltin Facility to Cerberus Command. Doctor G-, reporting. -mission goals, the facility is onlin-"
"-deal test subject on Eden Prime."
"- scores higher potentiality for biotics than any other candidate we tested."
"The Illusive Man was correct. His clue about family bloodlines really paid off. But I have no idea what's so special about the Kalderash family or any of the others that he wanted us to investigate. Using back channels to look into it."
"-notable about the Madisons or any of the others is-lived in or spent time near the now defunct town of Sunnydale shortly before that town was -"
The image fizzled out.
Xander grimaced. He had thought that he could trust Harper, and instead the man had taken their private conversations and used them to form the basis of this madness. In a very real sense, everything that had happened to Jack was his fault.
Sensing his turmoil, Willow laid a hand on her old friend's shoulder.
"It's not your fault, Xander." he heard her whispered thoughts echo in his mind. "You couldn't have known what he'd do with what you told him."
Suddenly the monitor cleared and the doctor was back wearing different clothes and sporting a growing beard, obviously some time had passed.
"-our Little Miss Kalderash is perfect- lab boys are uncomfortable with the… range of tests planned on Human Biotic Testing Subject Ze- Jesus, saying that's a mouthful. Maybe something simple-"
"-have to depersonalize her so the lab techs don't get attach-"
"-had the idea of calling a girl a boy's name- Bill or Jack… yeah, Jack's perfect. I'll send regular project updates."
"Bill?" Xander teased gently.
"Don't start, Harris." Jack snapped.
"Bill the badass biotic doesn't have quite the ring to it."
"Xander, I will hit you so hard that you'll forget your own fucking name."
"…aaand that's my cue." Xander shot back smoothly, tapping away at his omnitool.
Everyone pretended to be looking at the monitors closely enough not to notice Jack shifting to stand closer to Xander. No holding hands, or any of that dumbass shit, but she'd occasionally lean against him.
He didn't mind. He could take the added weight.
More static and the doctor was back again...
"-undreds of potential candidates. Between the batarians, the pirates and general criminal scum, there's no shortage. It's a good thing, too; the latest round of chemical trials wiped out three quarters of our volunteer pool. The good news is that Jack's now completely resistant to all but the most powerful of biotic suppressors. We'll soon be ready for combat trials."
"You are immune to biotic suppressors?" Samara asked, curious.
"Yeah, they wanted to make it so all the garden-variety suppressors don't do squat to me." Jack boasted. "Nothing more fun than when some asshole looking for a good time with a blissed-out biotic thinks he's about to have a little happy fun time with me then surprise!"
"I'm gonna go ahead and assume I don't want to know what happens after surprise." Xander deadpanned from where he was still working.
"If you wanna keep your lunch down?" she shrugged. "Yeah, that's a good call."
"Presumably, the difficulty in suppressing your biotics is why other alternatives for when you were incarcerated had to be found." Samara said.
"You mean, stickin' me in the freezer?" Jack sneered, rolling her eyes. "That wasn't just about my biotics. The Blue Suns were afraid of me."
"Fortunate, then, that they didn't simply kill you," the Justicar replied.
"'With what Cerberus was shelling out to keep me locked up?" Jack snorted. "That wasn't luck, grandma; that was creds."
"Quite a few creds, actually," Miranda snorted.
More static filled the screen and then...
" -can't afford Jack making friends. Doctor Keiran came up with an idea. An old technique used on POW's captured during bushwar conflicts on Earth's Asian subcontinent. If we do it right, we'll be able to manipulate Jack's environment and create feelings of animosity and isolation from the others. Then we'll see how she does during the next round of combat trials."
"What's he talking about?" Joan asked.
"Beats me," Jack shrugged. "The other kids hated me. Sometimes I'd sit at my window and scream and pound at it, and they just ignored me."
"What window?" Shepard asked.
Jack pointed. Xander barely had to look at it before he said, "That's a reflective wall, Jack."
"Wait, that's not right," Jack protested. "My cell was on the other side of this wall. There weren't no fucking mirror here."
Now walking over to it, Xander tapped the wall panel a few times, and then punched it twice.
"There's a space behind it," the ex-carpenter reported. "I think this was a two-way mirror of some kind; bet you it's completely soundproofed and designed to counteract physical impacts, biotic-assisted or not."
"You were meant to see the other children, but not interact with them," Joan mused.
"…and the only time they saw you was during combat trials," Samara replied.
Miranda looked around the room. "I'd be impressed at the simplicity of its effectiveness if all of this wasn't being done to a child," she mumbled.
Jack shot a dirty look at her, but held her tongue. The monitor screen fuzzing out then resolving itself, a handy timestamp above Dr. Keiran's head having showed that more time had passed...
"-still holding back. Even taking her possessions doesn't work, not consistently. I think we need to go old-school with Jack. A little round of Pavlovian Behavioral Modification and I'll turn our little biotic doggie from a yapping puppy into a snarling pitbull."
"The son of a bitch..." Xander whispered.
The video monitor fuzzed again before resolving showing the doctor looking harried,
"...understand why the Illusive Man - so suspicious-realize discovery happens at a pace. We're so close-"
"- new guard we brought in is perfect. Jack's combat performance has increased dramatically since we-"
"-ught the new guard monitoring Jack after hours, Jack is maturing. I suppose she could be considered attractive, but still… the way he looks at -"
"-ack hates him. Keiran thinks she's using that hate as a focus."
"-ombat numbers are- improves fighting… still best he isn't left alone with her too often… if at all."
Xander looked back at Jack. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked flatly.
Jack chuckled harshly. "What? That sort of thing didn't happen back in Scary Monster Ville?"
"Well, my teacher tried to eat me and Willow's mom tried to burn her at the stake for witchcraft, but that's about as hands-on as our authority figures ever got with us," Xander replying sharply.
.Willow started coughing in a fashion that could only be called meaningful.
Xander sighed, "Those were love spells, they don't count." He replied.
"Is this something that I want to hear more about?" Jack asked.
"No you don't" Xander replied quickly
"Yes she does." Shepard and Willow chorused together.
"That's just mean," Xander whined.
"Just between us girls,"Willow said, "if he ever gives you clothing or jewelry - let me check it out first."
Xander looked cross but took out his frustration on the console bullying the thing into giving up its secrets.
The screen fuzzed and resolved.
"-all fallen to pieces the other test subjects are rioting and Zero is loose. What a disaster! Keiran says he can get us hooked up with the Ascension Program, we'll be able to… What? No, no, Zero wait, I -"
The message cut off.
"It would seem that you dealt harshly with him during your escape." Samara observed placidly.
Jack returned the Justicar's gaze. "So what's your precious code have to say about a kid killing her way to freedom? I gotta start watching my back around you now?" the biotic asked.
"My oath to serve Shepard implies working with those she serves with, regardless of their criminality."
"Good to know there won't be a problem." Miranda snorted.
Samara rounded on the Cerberus operative. "Normally, I take no pleasure in carrying out the harsh judgments of The Code," she said coldly. "But if I had the means, know that I would hunt down every last person responsible for Jack's imprisonment and feel no small amount of satisfaction in seeing each and every one of them dead."
"Amen to that," Xander shrugged. "If he weren't already taking a dirt nap, I'd say let's get some payback."
"Touching but ultimately unnecessary," Miranda snarled. "It's clear this whole operation went rogue. As soon as the Illusive Man learned the full extent of what had happened here, he shut this place down and tied off all the loose ends."
"And by tying loose ends, you mean…" Shepard ventured
"Wetwork, of course," Miranda looked at her meaningfully. "You aren't the only Ops specialist that The Illusive Man has at his disposal."
"Kinda gives a new meaning to termination-with-cause." Xander laughed bitterly.
"Should I be feeling jealous, Miss Lawson?" Joan asked.
"His name is Kai Leng." Miranda replied, "He handles problems that requires… acertain kind of discretion." .
"He's been part of Cerberus since 2176 and also a stone-cold psycho," Willow snorted. "He'd have made Yahg-boy's shortlist of potential hires if he wasn't a rabid xenophobic whack-job."
Xander looked at Jack and quirked an eyebrow. "You ok? You look more pissed off than usual."
Jack shook her head, "You heard 'em, Xander," she insisted. "They set up somewhere else they got someone inside the Ascension Project."
"They're talking about Grissom Academy," Willow explained. "It's a school for biotics and specialized geniuses, they don't torture kids there."
While the others nodded in understanding, Xander still looked mystified. But Willow knew how Xander's mind worked… or didn't work, as the case may be.
"Xander, think Hogwarts in space," she offered.
"Cool," he chuckled.
"That's ridiculous," Lawson shook her head. "The Ascension Project's run by Kahlee Sanders. I think she hates Cerberus even more then Jack does."
"I like her already." Jack chuckled
"Any reason in particular Miss Sanders would have an issue with Cerberus, Lawson?" Joan asked.
"You mean other than trying to kill her once or twice?" Willow observed with a wry smile.
"That was other people, not me or any project I was in charge of," Miranda rolled her eyes.
"Anything else you can find in there, Rosenberg?" Joan asked.
Willow nodded and her eyes turned milky white again.
The monitor fuzzed and the static filled picture resolved on a harried looking man in a outfit that screamed rent-a-thug, staring out from the monitor. The squad could hear sounds of battle in the background.
"What's going on, Officer Zemkl? What's the disturbance?"
"Doctor Keiran, sir, the subjects are out of the cells and they're rioting. I think Subject Zero might be loose, too. I'm requesting permission to terminate… repeat, requesting permission to terminate."
The doctor's response sounded distorted as If two people spoke at once.
"Absolutely not, you'll do nothing of the sort. Subject Zero is to be recaptured UNHARMED, am I clear? Not one scratch. The rest of the subjects are expendable. You can do whatever you want with them, but keep. Jack. Alive. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir. Keep Jack alive… whatever the cost."
"Even if it means sacrificing your men, Zemkl. SHE is valuable; you're not."
"Very well, Doctor. Should I inform the Administrator?"
"I'll handle the Administrator. You take care of our little insurrection."
The console faded. "The rest is just confused images. Probably from the security monitors as the base became inoperational." Willow whispered.
"What happened to Zemkl?" Xander wondered idly.
"Funny you should ask," Jack replied, jerking a thumb to her left.
Following the gesture, Xander noticed a man-shaped dent in the wall. While jungle scavengers and the voracious foliage itself had consumed most of the evidence, Xander's inexpert eyes could see this spot having been someone's final resting place after hitting the wall with great force. As he ran his fingers over the damaged section, his old contractor's eye told him what his heart wanted to deny.
"Xander?" Willow asked gently.
"Remember when we were kids and laughed at how funny it was when Wile E. Coyote used to slam into things hard enough to make a dent just like this?"
"I'm not finding it so funny anymore."
"No… no, this isn't right," Jack said suddenly, getting their attention. "I started the riot! The other guards, the other kids, even the automated systems, they all attacked me! I had to kill my way to freedom!"
Samara just shook her head. "Apparently, your captors valued your survival above even their own self-preservation."
"The other kids? Not so much." Xander added, grimacing.
The team ventured on, with Willow casting suspicious glares at the broken monitors as they passed.
Xander saw Willow tense up, and frowned. "You okay, Will?"
"Something about that Doctor… his voice sounded familiar."
"Someone who's supposed to be dead."
Xander snorted. "Since when has death ever stopped trouble from biting us in the ass?"
Fearful eyes watched the squad's progress through the facility. "Beware the Jabberwock, my son." Fingers traced the images of Jack as she moved with the ground team. "The jaws that bite, the claws that catch."
A cold hand landed on a shuddering shoulder. "Now, now, Aresh, what have I told you about working yourself up? You'll burn out before I'm finished with you."
Aresh turned pleading eyes upward to look in the cold depths of his master's face. "She's here… she came home," he sobbed. "You have to let me save my Jack."
"Patience, Aresh, no need to fear. This is a good day; Subject Zero's come home… and she even brought my little Strawberry with her."
The Squad walked further into the facility, with Xander experiencing that disturbing feeling of being watched that he used to get during nightly patrols through Sunnydale's graveyards.
"This is… wrong. This isn't how I remember things," Jack complained.
Joan shrugged. "You were a kid, Jack," she mused. "You think I remember every detail of Mindior exactly as it happened?"
"What's clear is that this facility's personnel were doing something egregious," Samara noted.
Miranda shook her head. "I'm telling you people, this was an operation gone wrong. A rogue faction, like the facilities the Normandy crew destroyed two years ago. When it happens, we deal with it, but they do happen."
Shepard gave an annoyed sound and rushed ahead, pounding on a door release and stepping through. The others followed to find themselves in a huge room with long metal tables. At the far end was an empty, mechanical-looking thing with a huge broken maw, rusting in disuse.
A child stood in the middle of the room, a little girl who looked up at the sudden intrusion with frightened eyes before she ran and cowered under one of the tables.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Joan asked, kneeling down to meet the little girl's eyes.
But the little girl just whimpered.
"Something's wrong. She's there, but she's not there," Willow whispered. "It's like she's fading in and out of existence."
"Child, we mean you no harm. Who are you and why are you here?" Samara said softly.
The little girl looked at them, then her eyes widened as she saw Jack. "It's you. You came back. The scary man said you would come back."
"I don't know you, kid. I… I ain't never seen you before." Jack said quietly.
The child shook her head. "The scary man said that the testing wouldn't be finished until you came home… until you came back."
"Were you one of the test subjects, kid?" Willow asked.
"Doctor Scary said that I'm important. He said that I'm the question but she's the answer," the little girl pointed at Jack.
"Who are you?" Jack replied.
"Biotic Testing Subject Zero, but everyone else calls me Jack."
"That's my name, kid." Jack snapped irritably. "Who the Hell are you?"
The little girl just ran and hid behind Miranda, who reached down and hugged the girl in a soothing move that surprised her as much as it did everyone else.
"My name's Jack. Everybody calls me Jack… everybody." The little girl whined.
"What the hell is she?!" Jack yelled.
"Remember when you said that you felt like a dangerous bitch and a scared little girl?" Willow offered. "Well, scared little girl…" she pointed at the girl in Miranda's arms.
"…meet dangerous bitch," Xander finished, suddenly realizing something.
"Is what you proposing even possible?" Miranda stared agape.
"With how much psychokinetic juice is in this place? Definitely," Willow nodded. "A strong power source and an even stronger will can work miracles."
"You mean, strong enough to keep a class five healthy and happy." Xander mused.
Willow knelt and touched the little girl. "Where'd you come from, sweetness?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "One day, there was just me and then there was me and her and then she left."
"I know where she's from," Joan suddenly said, making everyone look at her. "All that testing… all those experiments… you must have cried so much. Then, one day, you saw a chance to run, but you had to be strong, stronger than you'd ever been."
Walking through the squad, she knelt down to look at the child's eyes before turning back to Jack. "You reached down inside and grabbed that weak, crying little girl and RIPPED her out; you left her here, while you ran."
Jack's haunted look of surprise said Shepard was right.
Samara looked around. "What is this place?"
"A morgue." Willow said nonchalantly. "Looks like they even had their own crematorium."
Samara's inquiring glance spoke volumes. "You seem very sure of yourself," she noted.
"Yeah. me and Willow? We've seen plenty of dead people." Xander shrugged. "Trust me; it's a morgue."
Little Jack nodded. "The testing subjects are brought here after they die. Doctor Glasses or Doctor K performs an ah-top-see," she couldn't seem to get the word right, but nobody blamed her for it, "…before they put them all in that plasma furnace over there."
One thing that that had been quickly established about Little Jack versus Big Jack was that Little Jack was polite, a trait that served to quickly annoy her older self.
"…and where did the doctors store their findings afterwards?" Miranda asked gently.
"That console over there, ma'am."
The second big thing that separated Little Jack from Big Jack was that Little Jack liked Miranda.
"So… Jack," Xander started hesitantly. "I notice that you get along with my friend over there." Xander was making conversation as he worked to make the console function.
"Well she sounds pretty," Little Jack shrugged. "Like the White Queen from my story vids."
Big Jack interrupted. "They gave her- me, stuff to read. Stupid kid's stories. I'd get them as rewards for being quiet and nice during tests."
"What's your favorite book?" Xander asked.
"Alice in Wonderland, but I lost it." Little Jack shrugged. "Doctor K said I was bad so I had to give it away."
"What's she mean, you were bad?" Joan asked Jack.
"Hey, you think they gave me shit out of the milk of human kindness?" Jack sneered. "If I had something I loved, then I had something to lose."
"Gifts and toys for good behavior-" Miranda mused.
"-take them away when you didn't do what they wanted." Willow finished.
"I lost my book in one of the arena fights," Jack snarled. "Guess Doc Glasses got tired of me screwing around; because, after that, they fitted me with the shock collar."
Xander finished running bypass routines through his omni tool and the console sparked, bringing another hologram to life. The same bespectacled doctor from before was speaking into the camera.
"The latest Iteration of Perg-nim went… poorly. As a result, subjects four, seven and eight all died, for no recordable biotic changes. We lowered the core temperatures for the remaining test subjects, but all test subjects just died, so we'll not be trying that with Zero. I just hope our reserve of biotic test subject holds up… we're burning through them pretty fast."
Xander eventually broke the silence that followed. "Jesus…" he whispered. He'd long since discarded the notion of benevolence in higher powers, but the Teltin facility was something else.
Samara looked at Jack in wonder. "They were experimenting on the other children to learn which procedures they could use to improve your biotic potential."
"…thus the need for a morgue," Lawson mused. "Learning why the children died was a necessary step."
"What the Hell are you talking about, cheerleader?" Jack snarled.
"The procedures they were performing here must have been bleeding edge, dangerous and untested. You might be alive right now because of tests carried out in this very room."
"Shit, Lawson," Jack snarled. "Are you actually trying to justify what they did here?"
"Jack, look at the big picture. If your power is the factor that makes humanity strong against the Collectors, the Reapers, and beyond, then some good will have come from all of this."
Xander wasn't the only one that noticed the slight tinge of mania in Miranda's eyes.
"Uh, Lawson, you're kinda rocking the crazy eyes right now," the Scooby remarked pointedly.
"Fuck that," Jack snarled. "There's no reason good enough to do this to anyone! What happened here is just messed!"
"Damn it, stop being so selfish!" Miranda snapped, grabbing Jack's jacket. "Look at how strong you are. What we could become, because of you."
"Touch me again and I'll smear the walls with you, bitch!" she roared, shaking Miranda's hand off as blue-white biotic flames surrounded her, with powerful winds of dark energy already picking up small objects in the room and hurling them around with force.
Little Jack just hid behind Samara.
"Hey! Enough!" Shepard shouted. "Stand down, both of you!"
"Are you listening to this shit, Shepard?!" Jack demanded. "The cheerleader won't admit that what Cerberus did to me was wrong!"
"This clearly wasn't done to Cerberus standards," Miranda shot back. "Clearly, though, giving that kind of power to a child like you was a mistake."
"Fuck you!" Jack screeched. "I wonder if you'd give a shit if someone did this to that precious sister of yours."
"Touch one hair on Oriana's head, and you'll regret even breathing her name for the rest of your very short life." Miranda barked, biotic fire wrapping themselves around both her arms.
Jack grinned. "Then take your best shot, bitch; after I'm finished with you, I'm gonna hunt that little princess down."
"Are you to seriously doing this NOW?!" Shepard thundered, forcing them apart.
"She can't be trusted, Shepard. She's a threat to this mission… to Ori," Miranda insisted.
"You think I'm letting the Cerberus lapdog wire me up like they did before?! I'll tear her apart first!" Jack snarled.
The two women jumped back from Shepard's hands and started circling each other, clearly intending to unleash biotic hell on each other.
With a shared feral roar, they rushed each other, biotics flaring. Suddenly, Shepard was there, if not for the fury in her eyes, that cold animal cunning… Xander had only seen that look during his discourses with Sineya, the First Slayer.
Her fists clamped down on both Miranda's and Jack's shoulders and squeezed. Xander had been manhandled by enough Slayers in his lifetime to know how strong a grip Shepard was using. Both women gasped, their fury forgotten in the pain of a Slayer's full strength.
"The Reapers are coming. The lives of trillions of people are riding on this mission, and you two idiots want to fight about THIS?!" Shepard thundered. "You hate each other; I get that, I really do. TOO BAD! You can fight at my side or get crushed under my heel, but your little pissing match will NOT! GET! IN! MY! WAY!"
Xander was shocked. Joan looked, for all the world, like she had every intention of killing them both. This was… everything that Xander, Liara, and even Joan herself had ever been afraid of, ever since she'd discovered her abilities; the Butcher of Torfan, with all the powers of a Slayer, and nothing to keep her in check.
Wait a minute…
"Everything we're afraid of…" Xander whispered with dawning realization.
"What?" Joan snapped, looking up at him.
"Samara was scared that, deep down, she's just like Morrie," Xander explained.
"…and she pulled a Morrie special when we landed." Joan muttered.
"Jack pretty much thinks Lawson wants to hand her back to Cerberus for more torture-flavored medical experimentation, and Lawson will insta-kill anyone who so much as breathes in Oriana's direction." Xander mused out loud as pieces began falling into place. "Plus, and no offense, boss, but nobody in this entire galaxy's more scared of the Butcher of Torfan going on a rampage than you."
Willow blinked in realization. "It's feeding on our fears; making them real, and then feeding on them. Goddess! Why didn't I recognize it?"
"You've experienced this before?" Samara asked.
"Only a few times… why I didn't see it before, I'll never know. Probably because this was a subtle variation of this type of attack…" Willow muttered, closing her eyes. "You're out there, I can feel it. Come on, you bastard, let's see you."
Suddenly the intercom squealed to life.
"Oh, strawberry, I've known this day would come," a voice from Xander and Willow's collective past rang through the hall.
"It's the scary man…" Little Jack proclaimed, huddling against Samara's leg.
"I should have known…" Willow snarled as she began running into the facility. "I'm coming for you, you little bastard!"
"Willow, don't!" Xander shouted after her. "It's a trap~"
"Who is that?" Miranda asked.
"His name's Rack," Xander answered. "He's supposed to be dead."
Samara cleared her throat. "According to you, Life and Death are somewhat fluid concepts for those aboard the Normandy. It stands to reason that those who would oppose us would similarly benefit." the Justicar mused.
"Come on. We have to get to her before she gets to Rack." Joan snapped sounding more like her normal self. "It'll be payback time if she does."
"Payback for what? You weren't there," he pointed out.
"You forget, Xander, I remember what other Slayers remember. Including how many people Rack killed before you finally put him down," she said, running after Willow.
"If this asshole's been messing with my head, I'm gonna fuck his shit UP!" Jack snarled as they all ran after Shepard.
"Not before we've found out what he's doing here, you won't!" Lawson snapped, next to her.
Xander gaped at the two of them from where he was behind them. "Okay, that's kind of intimidating, and I've seen some scary crap in my day."
"Well, you did want them to work together," Samara smirked.
"Yeah, well, scorched-Earth tag-teaming isn't quite what I had in mind."