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The Precipice of Change

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Takes place immediately after Arrival.


 

The galaxy is changing and Morinth feels like she is losing him. He has come away from Hagalaz, but she doesn't know whether he has come from Liara's bed and the only consolidation she has is that Miranda is equally left in the dark. But this is not what bothers her, Morinth's claim on him is woven of different stuff, her bond goes deeper, rooted in the core of blackness in his soul, his power, his capability for violence, the sensual manifestation of his ruthlessness. Those things he never shows, never truly reveals to anyone else. Oh, they know, in their way, the galaxy knows what man its saviour is, but there is too much skill and strength and charisma for them to dismiss him, even as he is falling from grace.

No, Morinth is losing him to the coming war. Everything is moving faster now, and there is no time for her to set up an elaborate game, no time for long, sparkling nights on Omega or Illium, no respite for both of them, to recline on Noverian velvet in a frosty-beautiful snowstorm.

Shepard is preoccupied, distracted, his brilliant mind full of plans and plots, of fleet capabilities and numbers and what loyalties to trust and where to shoot before he does. Things have begun, Morinth feels it in her blood, fate has picked them up and has hurled them into the chaos of a war the like the galaxy has never seen.

The Alliance has reached out to him again, after months of silent condemnation, reached out and wrapped their poisonous tendrils firmly around his throat and heart — the very place where her hands should be. In the privacy of her mind, she finds it disgraceful how easily the wolf becomes the lapdog at a simple command.

And he dies again, almost, out there without her, the cold, endless void trying to claim him once more.

But even leashed, he fights like a god, she doesn't have to have seen it to know. The pictures come effortlessly, when she closes her eyes in the silence of a Normandy night, the compelling fantasy of a panorama of carnage.

The Normandy shakes and shivers in some imagined rapture as Joker rides her through the relay just ahead of destruction. Morinth likes to think she can taste the power, solid and charged, at the back of her throat as it laps at their feet, greedy for the escaping prey.

She feels nothing about the deaths and it bothers her that Shepard seems to. This isn't quite the man she has fallen so hard for, the man she went hunting with and the only one for whom she ever was willing to compromise who she is. Neither, in all truth, is it the man his own history paints him as.

She has asked him about Torfan, once, with his head resting on her breast, when the sweat had barely dried.

Mellow, lazy in the afterglow, he said, "I do what I have to. I thought you'd figured that out by now."

"But it marked you," she said, tracing delicate fingers over the muscles on his arm. "It named you."

He had not immediately reply, perhaps momentarily lost in contemplation.

"Everything marks us, Morinth," he said eventually, slowly, deliciously as if speaking to himself rather than her. "And named we are only by others. Who cares what they think?"

She knows how he kills, has seen him and knows he feels no remorse. Those new dead, however, they seem to eat at him and she doesn't understand until she realises that it's not the deaths that rankle, but the defeat they symbolise. Three-hundred thousand restless ghosts proclaiming his failure to all of the galaxy. Was this the moment where the pieces begin to fall into place? Has he been given a glimpse of the future, a vision of how their greatest war would be fought? Sacrifices and bitter defeats that mean nothing, until all glory has burned away.

She watches Hackett leave and he stirs passing desire in her, but once he is gone, her attention snaps back.

From her place, she sees Shepard talk with Chakwas and their body language is quite clear. Chakwas is worried and would prefer to keep him in medbay and he has brushed away her concern.

Shepard catches Morinth's gaze through the glass and takes his leave.

Walking towards her, she lets all the original admiration wash through her. Suddenly, it's difficult to believe she has harboured doubts mere moments before. Has she really likened him to a lapdog? The notion seems ridiculous, impossible to relate to the man in front of her.

He gives her a nod, but says, "EDI."

"Yes, Commander."

"Tell the team to assemble in half an hour."

With EDI's confirmation, Shepard focuses on Morinth and the blood freezes in her veins. She knows, in that moment, what he will do. She fears few things in this galaxy, but the idea of exposure disquiets her on a level far above of what she can control. It's an odd, unfamiliar sense of helplessness. The last time she has felt anything like this was on that shuttle taking her to the isolated home, where she was to spend the rest of her life. It was desolate, radical, the point of no return, when the balance has tipped.

She trails him to the elevator. She has thought she is ready, almost close enough to want these people to know her for what she is. They have earned her respect and they have trusted her with their lives. It should not be difficult, after the fires they walked together. And yet, and yet… here she is, trying to shake the feeling in her gut that is ugly and far too close to fear to contemplate.

"Shepard…" she says in the beginning of an objection.

He slips his hand down her back, a gesture strangely reassuring in its uncharacteristic gentleness, especially when she reminds herself that he has enough strength to break her spine.

The door closes and she leans back into him, closing her eyes in enjoyment.

"I love you," she says.

"I know."

She turns and he is so beautifully, tantalisingly close. "Promise me something," she says and knows he never will.

"If this goes bad," she continues, voice pitched to a lover's croon, despite and because of what she says. "If the Reapers come and conquer, promise me you will come to me before they take you."

He laughs, just a little. "That's not on the agenda."

"So what is?" she asks.

The elevator stops, a tiny shake travelling up her body.

"Shower," he answers with a shrug as he starts walking to his cabin. "Then," he looks back over his shoulder, "we come clean about you and we plot our next step."

"You have already decided," she challenges. She crosses the empty space of his apartment, brushes her fingers over the prothean artefact on the table — it reacts ever so faintly to her touch. She drapes herself across the bed.

"Do you really think it's wise?" she asks, avoids his gaze for a moment to focus on his hands as he slides open the cabinet against the wall, picks up a bundle of clothes.

"They'll learn the truth sooner or later," he replies. "Many suspect something's off already. I don't want anyone feeling betrayed, not when it can come and screw us over later. I won't have such liabilities in my crew."

"You do understand that not everyone's morals will be as flexible as yours?"

Again, he shrugs. "They are free to walk if my decisions aren't to their liking."

Of course he says that and he might even believe it, but Morinth knows that is one of the ways he keeps them. None of them are free to walk away from him, in the same way a planet is incapable of choosing to leave the orbit of its sun. Yet, he will give them the choice, ask and let them deal with the consequences. He will not force them, but they will know they are wrong in deserting him.

He stops by the table, seems to consider for a moment, then places his hand on the artefact. It pulses hard under his hand, seems to change and expand and yet stay the same.

Morinth shifts forward on the bed, giving him a slow, sensual look. "I heard shower," she croons, smiles playfully.

"Yes, as in clean and as in quickly, but feel free to imagine what you will," he answers and adds with a hard little sneer, "But I like the idea of being found dead in my bath one day. The great Commander Shepard bashes his head in on the toilet."

He tilts his head, strides past his desk. "And lets his death mean nothing."

For someone so skilled, so legendary in surviving he contemplates his own dying far too often. It must be an echo, she decides, something shaken deep within him two years ago and never properly laid to rest. It leaves an unpleasant taste in her mouth and she pulls her lips into a bitter grimace.

They have grown closer these past few weeks, close enough that Shepard seems to have forgotten what she is, willing to expose himself to her, tell her his weaknesses, trust to leave her alone in his quarters. She has never known anyone for so long and perhaps it is inevitable, perhaps it is a blessing that she kills them before she learns too much of what she has no desire to know.

There is no doubting Shepard's power, nothing will change that, but there was something else and she hates the scent of it, ugly sense of vulnerability soiling the perfection that compels her so.

The pattering of water slides into the cabin, hypnotically rhythmic and distant through the thin wall separating her from Shepard and she sits up to watch the door.

Perhaps she should leave. Perhaps she has stayed too long and her curse sours everything, where it isn't allowed to kill. She could take the memory she has of him and preserve the idea of the man before the reality slips as surely from her grasp as he does himself. He has her leashed, pulling her close and forcing her away as he wishes, letting her flail and starve until he choses differently. Oh, there is no doubting Shepard's desire, either, he is genuine and it frustrates him as much as her, to be unable to act on it, nothing at all beyond the substitutes they have been seducing and they don't count.

The sound of water is beating at her mind and she remembers the measureless black oceans of Shepard's soul, so briefly glimpsed, so tantalising and unique. She uncoils from the neatly made bed, crosses the room like the advancing demon she is.

The bathroom door's sensors pick her up, flare a tiny hellish red in denial. So instead she leans against the door, hands braced against the frame and her forehead resting on the unfeeling metal, as if she might will herself right through it, if only her need were great enough.

"Shepard," she calls. The door will not budge, but if it carries the sound of water outside, it will let her voice travel within. She listens to the pattering, imagines the water trace the shape of his body, sees him move in her mind's eye, guided by the water. The small distortions vanish and the whispering becomes perfectly smooth when he steps free of the spray.

She knows she cannot feel it, knows the impact is too faint, but she will swear to those coming ends of her days she that a slight vibration shivers through the metal when Shepard leans against it from the other side.

She hears him, impossibly close, less than an inch between them.

"Yes," he says.

She smiles to herself, imagines this movement, too, crossing the infinite borderland and touching his cheek.

"Do you touch yourself?"

There is a pause, only the mutter of water in the background building another sort of wall all around them, separating them from all other realities which would claim and use and discard both of them in the dark days ahead of them.

"Yes," he says then.

She regrets that he's left the water behind and its illusionary, aural paintbrush to help flesh out the fantasies in her thoughts. To make it all more real, when she can barely even hear him.

"Imagine me," she says, lifts her voice and lets her lips graze the unfeeling metal in front of her. She lets her eyes fall closed.

"Are you?" she asks. "My hands on you, my nails digging into your flesh?"

Her fingers curl against the doorway, feeling nothing but air and dead matter under her fingertips.

This time, his voice is lower, barely able to penetrate the door, closer to the vibration Morinth willed into existence before. It's carried on the hiss of the water, picked up by the thin sliver of biotic blue that has began to drop from her mind.

"Yes."

It is so hard sometimes to hold back, to keep her power leashed and pulled close to her, where she might still retain control instead of subconsciously entangling him in its tendrils.

She laughs, she can't help herself. It's a croon and a purr, it sounds like a promise — the one he denied her and she remembers that. Condensations fogs the door, where her breathing has hitched, cool and damp, coming off the surface like a touch, the kiss of death she delivers.

She keeps talking, voice pitched just loud enough to penetrate the barrier between them, closes her eyes as she describes what she will do to him — with him — when the door opens. It is a game, of course, like everything between them. She no longer pretends — at least in the privacy of her own mind — that she wants to consume him. He is more, is above, such trifles. She never tells him so, it would ruin everything, take away the sting and thrill of their tightrope dance.

She loses herself in the symphonies of her own words, pictures them as the finest of strings by which to pull his limbs. Tells him when to stroke and tighten his grip and to tease and with just the tip of a finger, Shepard…

It would be easy to reach him even so, physical restrains can keep biotics at bay only so far, only within limits and she sees the blue glare through her closed eyes, where it has began to gather around her fingertips to crawl along the metal, nibbling at every tiny fracture it can find. Easy to reach him, touch him with her mind. She senses him on the other side of the door, the solidity of his body and the jagged edge of his mind.

She cannot hear him, the pattering of the water is too loud, the fantasy she spins too vivid inside her own head. Everything merges, her words and the images she creates, the pure, unfiltered intention and the wavering blue she has to keep leashed. Her powers do begin to stretch despite her best attempts, reach for him behind the door and a tiny, involuntary moan leaves her lips. It hits her like electricity, stings all the way down through her body, the depth of darkness there, stirred now by nothing but her words. It is — almost — exhilarating enough. A mere physical orgasm is nothing to an asari, more an adaption to other species' mating habits than anything. They do not need it, do not crave it, when it is a faint, empty taste compared to the fusion of all sensation, of soul and being and history.

And always, always she mourns it, in moments like this. Her curse, setting her apart and leaving her with this one burden to bear, to prove her worth. It is a test, she things, thrown at her by fate or destiny or chance, to see if her will is strong to rise above the demon inside.

"Shepard," she says again, breaks herself from the waves.

"Yes."

"Say my name," she adds. She lets it hang there, like an order, for him to take or refuse as he pleases. She hears a growl, verging into laughter somewhere in the cadences that are lost in their separation. She has to laugh herself, shudders as she does, feels a different connection that has nothing to do with the nature of her being. She dares reach for him again, just for the trace of his lust and dreaming of the searing stars being denied to them both.

"Morinth," he says in a low growl, just loud enough to hear the tethering of his control as it begins to unravel."Morinth."

In the end, it is his voice that drags her down with him, just the whisperings of the tremor there. She feels boneless, lets herself fall against the door and the cold metal seems to catch her like a lover does, holds her on her feet when she wants to fall to pieces.

She chuckles quietly to herself, not quite as dissatisfied as she has expected to be.

The rhythm of the water breaks again, distorted and rewritten by Shepard's presence.

She releases her grip on the door reluctantly, unwilling to sever whatever fragile link it offers her.

It doesn't take long until the door finally slides back and Shepard leans in the doorway, half-dressed only, shirt in one hand, his bare skin still glistening damply. He returns her scrutiny languidly and says, "You never told me your real name."

She laughs again. "You make Morinth sound like it must be mine," she says. "I'm partial to that."

"Fair enough," he nods, steps free of the doorway and past her, hints of stream curl from the bathroom, tendrils dispersing quickly in the cooler air. Shepard pulls the shirt over his head.

Morinth says, "I have a few ideas of what to do with my mouth. For next time."

Shepard chuckles, looks back over his shoulder and gives her a fleeting grin. "That would require a bit more practice on my part."

She laughs, too. She has never quite understood the appreciation of humour, it seems a weapon for the weak, a defensive mechanism for those who have nothing else. Shepard's wry amusement is something else, however, something that links back into the core of his darkness. Sometimes she thinks he might have lied, that he has seen the face of eternity when he was dead, when he had transcended the frontiers of the living.

Shepard looks away from her, stands for a moment with his face raised towards the window above his bed, to the rushing stars and the great empty void they inhabit.

"I'm going to disband the squad and the crew," he says, calm again, the commander again and their little interlude, however pleasant, still meant and changed nothing. "The others don't need to know about you, if it bothers you so much."

He looks at her. "I'd still prefer to get it out in the open, but it's your call."

"Shepard, no," she says firmly. She cannot quite hide the fear seeping through into her voice. She swallows dry, has to look away from him. "It's not good. I'll take care of myself."

She doesn't notice him approach, lost for a moment as she is in her own, swirling history and the memories of running and hiding and playing for so long. Revealing herself, even to this crew is utterly beyond her, and the realisation shocks her more than it does him. He picks up her chin between two fingers, pulls her face towards him and she is surprised to see him smiling. "You can't promise me that," he observes. "We are headed for bad weather. You'll be safer with friends."

"Shepard, there will be no safe places left very soon," she replies, watching his lips. "What will going to Earth accomplish? Can't you just stay here?" She makes a gesture with one hand, knows neither of them sees it. "Like this?"

He shakes his head. "I'm a pariah with a ship full of misfits. It's a romantic enough fairy tale, but I'm a soldier and we are heading for a war. I'll need the Alliance to back me and if they want a show trial beforehand, I won't disappoint."

"You think it'll just be for show?"

A shrug. He pulls her closer, trails a hand down her side and around, fingers playing along her spine briefly. He almost kisses her, but snaps his head away before they can touch, a smile on his lips so she knows the teasing was deliberate.

"It's out of my hands," he says, turns away, strides towards the door. "If the Alliance wants my blood, let them have a taste. But if they are still looking for a leader, I'm their man."

He stops one last time to look back at her. "I'll let you off on Omega. You know how to handle yourself there, do you?"