Takes place on Earth during the Reaper invasion.
Morinth sits in the gaping frame of a broken window and looks out over the smouldering, smoking city. In weeks and months to come, she is sure she will learn to fear such exposed places, but the Reaper threat has been real for her for a long time, seeing their devastation first hand seems too much like a vindication to flee the sight just yet.
She has been on Earth for weeks before this, hovering around the cafés and plazas of Vancouver, listening to news vids. At night, she had stalked the city, finding clubs and company and styles of music she had never heard before. She has always found that there was something different about a species' homeworld, their air had a different texture, their soil a different history. On a homeworld, the very essence of what a people are is seeped into the ground, the fabric of existence. This was where they had dragged themselves from some primordial mud so they would claim the stars.
Moreover, this is Shepard's homeworld. He has been born here, learned to fight in streets not much different than these.
She cannot blame the Reapers for coming here, for hunting him this far. How terrifying it must be for a species so superior, who have gone undefeated for tens of thousands of years? To come to a place with the force of that power and then find yourself thwarted?
A can pushes itself into her field of vision, dangling dangerously from three long fingers. Janis.
Morinth follows the hand up the athletic, long arm and edged shoulders. She musters a smile, half-fake only. Something sad there that she cannot quite name yet. Something had ended when the Reapers came to Earth, irrevocably and the power the thought holds has her in its grasp. Her soul is too close to art and savagery not to appreciate it.
Pockets of resistance have sprung up everywhere on Earth. Although the Reapers came swiftly and devastatingly, even they cannot conquer a planet in mere moments. So there is a kind of hope still lingering about these people. Morinth has had no time to pick a group, to try and find even Shepard in the chaos. For all she knows, he might be dead already, buried under the tons of rubble Alliance HQ has been reduced to. It is barely an academic thought. Shepard would appreciate the irony of dying like that, but neither of them truly ever believed the possibility.
"Thank you," Morinth says as she reaches for the can. Supplies will be a problem soon, but there are signs of organisation by now, hints that the resistance groups are finding each other in the dark ruins of their homes.
Morinth loves Janis the moment she sees her. Tall and slim, Janis carries herself with utter confidence and a laid-back sort of calm that diffuses panic wherever she goes. No one knows where she has come from. She is no military and no police. Morinth has her tagged as the muscle of some criminal organisation or other, but these labels matter little anymore.
"What's your story, then?" Janis asks and settles herself into the open window next to Morinth. Morning light crawls sluggishly through the smoke in cool silver and white, casting soft shadows over the jagged and gutted corpses of skyscrapers.
Morinth hesitates. "There is little to tell."
"Yeah right," Janis snorts, pushes a strand of bright red hair from her face. She gestures with her own can, back the way she's come from, to the cellar below them that currently houses their ragtag group of survivors. "Everyone has a story," Janis points out. "Most of us have stories we don't like to share. But it's save to say, we are in this shit together and, boy, shit doesn't seem to begin to cover it." She looks out over the city. "Makes me wonder, you know? About what this Shepard guy said all those years ago? Should have listened to him, eh?"
"It seems so," Morinth says, noncommittally.
She feels Janis' gaze as it returns to her, to what would be visible of Morinth's profile past the crumbling wall. "What I'm saying is this, I really wanna know who's gonna stand next to me with a gun. If you are gonna bolt or not, for one thing. There is no shame in that, just saying, these buggers are mighty scary. But I wanna know beforehand."
"I'm not bolting," Morinth says.
"I think so, too," Janis points out. "You look like you've seen your share of fighting. You commando or something? Merc? Assassin?"
Despite herself, Morinth has to laugh. "A little bit of all," she finally admits.
She can tell she doesn't convince Janis, but the woman understands the value of secrets and is willing to let her keep hers. It doesn't matter who she was before the Reapers, not beyond the skills that life might have left her with. There was no other truth left, only survival.
"Don't stay up here too long, they don't need the target practice," Janis says as she regains her feet. There is something careless and casual about how she does it, the natural grace of someone who, in her own way, has always been meant to be exactly where she is. People who seem to be brought into the world for just this fight.
Morinth watches Janis as she leaves, trailing cigarette smoke after her like an invitation.
It takes days — not weeks, not months, not years — for the Reapers to reduce the great metropolises of Earth into fields of rubble. Sending its inhabitants scampering into the countryside like vermin. Those who don't make it out in time are killed by the Reapers or, what is worse, cooped into concentration camps where they are slowly indoctrinated to feed the endless stream of husks that spills from the cities after the survivors in an unstoppable avalanche.
Morinth has been in fights before, some of them heartbreaking in the beauty of their deadliness and some of them so brutal they shatter the soul, but nothing she has seen has prepared her for this. There is no respite, no pause in the fighting. The hordes of husks simply keep coming and behind them the ever changing monstrosities the Reapers have brought with them.
Their allies, horrendously twisted, flesh reshaped into murderous nightmares that stalk all of them far off the battlefields.
It is not the worst.
She dreams of them for many nights before she sees them the first time. The soldiers call them Banshees, some Earth myth given substance and a voice, earning the name. The others are afraid of them, more so even than of any of the others. Banshees are fast and nigh unstoppable and their scream cuts deeper still. They are more for Morinth, for she knows what they are, what they have been in a life now lost and forgotten. They are her sisters, all of them, carved from the same material as she is.
They haunt her sleep, for in the same way she recognises them, they know of her, too. They feel her and they hunger for her.
She has played with fear before. A little spice in her life, fear has been sometimes. There is no thrill without the threat of failure, after all, no pleasure without the hints of pain. This fear is different. It rends her apart from the inside out, it petrifies her, makes her weak like the little girl she has never been. It becomes so hard to do her part. To leave the shelter and face the fights when she knows one of them might be there and she would be seeking out Morinth among all the other fighters.
Morinth tries not to contemplate what will happen when she misses a step — and she knows the time will come — when she makes a mistake, a tiny, crucial error. Everyone is dying. Morinth knows she is no exception. They sustain themselves on false hope and wilful blindness. In the end, there is a death waiting for each of them and only the shape it takes might be different.
The Banshee's thoughts wrap around her mind when she sleeps. They call her in seductive whispers she an scarcely remember with waking, but they follow her through the day. There is always something there, just outside of hearing, just beyond where she can see them coming.
Looking deep inside herself, she finds a part of her that wants to go to them. It will be the ultimate test, the last and final proof of whether she is truly who she has always meant to be. She needs to stand up to them, face them, because they are not her equal at all. They will exalt her, a queen and a goddess, not this insignificant insect.
When she concentrates, she knows not to trust that voice. She cannot tell if it's indoctrination or if it's just a special bond she has with the Banshees, who are her sisters and who are so immensely more powerful than any asari has ever been.
A heavy thud forces her from her thoughts and she turns her head to find Janis slumped at her side. Time and the war have taken their toll on her. The skin on her face is dry and flaky, the rings are deep and dark under her eyes. Her hair hasn't been washed recently and she wears it pulled back in a skewed ponytail. None of them look much better. Supplies are a problem, but time and leisure are the real issue. They barely sit still long enough to sleep. They eat while walking or running or fighting.
"Something's been eating you," Janis observes.
"Something," Morinth replies dryly. She cannot muster the strength to put much irony in her voice.
Janis doesn't seem impressed. "If that's how you wanna to play it. I'm just going to paint you a little picture. When you joined us, you were amazing. Tossing husks around with your biotics, hitting any target right between the eyes. Always on the frontline and I get it, you don't give much of a shit about us, but you are good and somehow you think you need to do your part. Good on us, I thought then."
"What changed?" Morinth asks, but she knows the answers. The Banshees have found them. She wonders if Janis knows that there is a group of them, following them for weeks. Contact with other cells of the Resistance is difficult, but not impossible. Some coordination happens, some exchange. Enough for Janis to figure out that things are different for them.
"That's what I'm asking," Janis points out. "For a while now you've been cringing at every sound, barely sticking your head out of cover, all that."
Morinth sits forward, hands dangling from her knees and examines the cracked floor beneath her feet. It's too easy to confide in Janis and the impeccable, rough-and-ready leadership. In this world, where every stranger can be a brain-washed traitor it would be so easy to fall prey to paranoia, doing the Reapers works for them, but Janis keeps her head cool and her gun close. No one wants to cross her without having a good reason or solid proof.
"I haven't been sleeping well," Morinth finally says. It's true enough, she supposes.
She feels Janis' gaze on her, utterly steady and capable to peel away all the layers of deception Morinth has assembled over the years. And there, then, is the difference. Shepard does not care for her lies, does not question her. He simply takes and accepts, even as a leader. You lived up to his expectation or you did not, but he has no need to pry.
Then again, Janis simply might no longer have the luxury of such tact.
"Fair enough," Janis says finally, letting her go. "If you've lost stomach, that's understandable. It'd be a pity, but not a whole anyone can do about that. I'll find you something else to do. Maybe training the civilians, you think you can do that?"
Morinth narrows her eyes. Janis is right, probably. It will keep her out of sight of the Banshees, as safe as anyone can be on this planet. At the same time, it tastes defeat.
Morinth takes a deep breath and sits up to face Janis. "These Banshees used to be asari like me. I hear them in my head. They are coming for me."
She can tell Janis has not expected to hear that, or to be offered such honesty. She isn't the only one, but perhaps things have to change if they mean to survive. Or, because Morinth no longer believes in survival, if they mean to make it to the very end. She needs to do that, she remembers, she needs to see the end.
"So you're trying to hide?" Janis asks, pulling an eyebrow up.
For a moment there is no answer, only emptiness.
"So it seems," Morinth observes.
Janis keeps looking at her. "Seems to me you can either keep trying to hide — good luck with that in a full-blown invasion — or you go out there and kick some ass." She makes a dismissive gesture with one hand. "They brainwash you, or whatever, I'll have a bullet reserved for you. That a deal?"
"Yes," Morinth says and feels more like herself than she has in a long while.
When she sees Shepard again it's in a badly damaged recording brought to them by a messenger from another group. Messengers are the solution to the Reapers' jamming technology. People skilled enough and bold or mad enough to brave the wide world on their own, sneaking through enemy lines. They are already regarded as something more than mortal, the true heroes of the war on Earth, the only connection between each tiny, struggling Resistance cell.
One of the most coveted news are the recordings from the Normandy.
They have stopped for a few days in an old bunker. It seems to have been about to be converted into a museum, but the building was never finished and none of the workers were still there. Despite the work already done, the bunker was solid, deep enough underground to be hidden from casual scans. With any luck, the Reapers will not find them here for a little while, giving them all a moment to breathe.
Tonight, everyone is cramped into one of the rooms in front of a screen, passing energy drinks and bars around. Someone has found cigarettes in a lost locker and Janis understands smoking well enough to allow it, if only this once, for the celebration that each new episode of Battlespace brings.
The quality of the image is bad and sound lags behind a split second. That is all there is, all she needs. Or any of them.
She remembers Shepard, the way he seemed to have been carved from diamond or ice, flawless and perfect, a force of nature. Undefeated. Immortal. This is the man the Reapers have gone to war against. This was who they must beat if they meant to see tomorrow. Shepard was the challenge, not the other way around at all.
Except this Shepard is changed. He has never been soft, but he has became sharper in the months of the war, his cheeks seem hollower and the shadows paint the bones of his face in uncompromising contrast. Even in the distorted image, Morinth can see the lines as they dig deeper around his eyes and mouth. He keeps his deep voice emotionless as he speaks, professional. Meaningless.
There is something ragged about him now, like the edges of shattered bones breaking through skin. In another life she would have called it weakness and she would have felt nothing but contempt. But this is not another life. What she sees, there on that screen, is Shepard as he burns. As he takes all his unmitigated brilliance and sets it to blaze across the galaxy.
Shepard brings an end to the Genophage and a thresher maw devours a Reaper. The vid alone, Morinth thinks, fuelled the Resistance for weeks in every battle. Shepard resolves a three-hundred year old war and at the end of it, he has the greatest fleet in the galaxy and the geth at his beck and call.
Her heart tears, just seeing it all. Not his triumphs, because she knows the texture of them already. It is his defeats that fascinate her more. The way he handles it, the way it makes him seem even more majestic.
The journalists face flares into the image and the recordings briefly loses its image completely before she returns. A woman with a pretty face and hungry eyes, Morinth likes to think of her as someone she would toy with, if this were another life. Even now, it is easy to imagine events as they unfold, when the camera and its lights have gone out.
She knows Shepard in the bedroom, his preferences and tastes, how he likes to see people's faces, how he never — never truly — relinquishes control. He is confident enough to be sensual, but too strong to be anything but dominating.
This Shepard she does not know. He is a harsher creature, honed in this greatest of wars. Both impatient and intense.
Shepard pushes her back into the fish-tank, caught between the unrelenting glass and his hard body. He slides a hand down her body and pushes aside the leathery fabric of her dress. She writhes on his long fingers in what little space remains her, lets her head fall back and into the glass, exposing her vulnerable throat to his teeth and …
"It's Shepard, isn't it?" Janis asks and sits down by her side. The vid is over and the other soldiers have already began filing out of the room, back to their duties and their waiting deaths.
Janis shrugs and gestures with her arm. She holds a burning cigarette and her movement trails a thin line of smoke. "Can't blame you. It's probably Shepard for most of these guys, too. Whatever gets them through the day. Or the night or whatever alone time they can manage. I ain't no judge."
Morinth tilts her head and watches Janis, smiles. "You always come to talk to me. I like it."
Janis waves her off. "I talk to everyone. Keeps morale from rock-bottoming more than it already does." She points with the glowing tip of the cigarette towards the screen. "I remember when they made him Spectre. Saw the vids, of course, who didn't? You know what I thought? I thought he got the job because the Alliance wanted to slap his pretty face on a recruitment poster."
Morinth makes no answer, only watches Janis' face as she talks and the limp, casual way she gestures with the cigarette. She takes a long drag and leans forward, rests her arms on the chair in front of her and finally returns Morinth's silent scrutiny.
"Makes you wonder, doesn't it? What he's doing out there. Saving us and all that."
Another drag. "You know what I think now?" she asks.
"If he were even half as good as they say," Janis says. "The Reapers would be dust by now. But they aren't. Not last time I checked. So what's that mean? Where is it gonna end?"
Morinth thinks of her sisters, roaming the night, just outside their hideout, searching for an opening, a tiny fissure to squeeze through. Into the bunker or into her mind, it makes no difference.
And she thinks of Shepard and the myth he has created and the legend he has become. For a moment it is incomprehensible it imagine Shepard as anything less, to think that anyone can disregard him as easily as Janis' has done. But this is not the battle Morinth will have to fight. Shepard stands alone and his worth is only his enemies' to judge.
In her mind Shepard pins Diana's wrists above her head with one hand, leaving a smudge of her own juices on the cool glass.
"It means there won't be a saviour," Morinth answers. Only the war and those who fight it, those who die every day on every world in the galaxy. Because Shepard will tear them all down, if that is what it takes.
Janis nods slowly. She puts her head down on her hands and smiles. "Exactly. Just us. The foot soldiers in the dirt, fighting the good fight. It's good to see you back on your feet. You had me worried for a bit."
In her mind Diana wraps her legs around Shepard's waist, heels digging into the backs of his thigh and the undulating muscles of his ass and Janis gives her a slow smile.
"I'm always fine," Morinth says. Her skin tingles with Janis' proximity. There is an empty chair between them, but the space shrinks as Janis' smile spreads to reach her eyes and leave a mischievous glitter there.
"You know," Janis begins. "You never did tell me your story."
Morinth puts her head to the side and the room tilts with the changed perspective. Biotics crackle across her body for no more than an instant, a show of power and the whisper of a connection. Janis lifts an inquisitive eyebrow at the display.
"I don't know yours either," Morinth replies.
In her mind Diana arches her back off the glass, shuddering. Her mouth opens in a scream made hoarse by moans.
Janis carelessly flicks ashes from her cigarette to the floor and the butt flares up brightly for a moment. She shrugs. "Well," she observes. "Do you mind?"
Morinth has been watching herself for so long, since before coming to Earth. Each tiny movement choreographed, each word weighed, each expression calculated. She has been wearing her mother's face on the Normandy and she has been hiding even in the war zones. Only her sisters, abominations prowling just outside even now, only they know her for what she is.
Shepard is unique — a low groan past lips slashed in a rare, secret, naked, hungry smile — but he is far away, gone from her grasp as surely as anything lost has ever been. Perhaps it is the only truth she shall ever know. Shepard is lost to her.
It is Janis who makes to last move, the only damning one she could make. The surrender she doesn't know she offers. She knows nothing of what she covets, has no understanding of the danger or the bliss. She curls a hand around Morinth's neck and leans in for a kiss.
The rickety chairs scrape on the rough concrete of the floor with the movement, their perfect line breaking.
Janis takes, her tongue invasive and mobile, the grip on her neck turns to steel and Morinth allows herself to melt into the touch. She luxuriates in the feel of soft lips and the texture of an alien tongue filling her mouth, the pressure of lips and the hard edges of teeth just a fraction from clashing, before Janis draws back a fraction only to sink them into Morinth's lower lip. She pulls her head back, flesh between her teeth, just far enough so she can catch Morinth's blackening gaze.
Janis purrs and Morinth tastes smoke and blood when the biotics come alive and all of Morinth's senses turn to the woman, whose grip is still strong, Morinth can feel every finger as it presses into her skin. She feel Janis' mind, all her history coming alive in a sensation. Everything she is, everything she has ever been laid bare like a disembowelled victim of the war. Ripe to be plucked and devoured in a moment of perfect bliss.
At the back of her head, Morinth hears her sisters scream with longing. They understand nothing of the hunt, they have no interest in their prey. They do not love and lose. They have never been in her shoes, have never seen with her eyes or tasted with her tongue. They are beneath her, worthless. They are fearsome, but they are also pathetic.
Morinth has seen the face of their destruction. They are incapable of frightening her.
The grip on her neck tightens and Janis whimpers, jaw unclenching with a click to release heavy, panting breath. Her thoughts are confused and lost, spread everywhere like shattered glass.
Morinth remembers the war and who she is fighting it for. Janis is a force, not strong enough to survive, but tempting enough to lure her nevertheless, make her stray from the path she has picked. With effort, she tears her hooks from Janis' mind and moans at the loss, feels the memories of another life trickle away from her grasp to waste away on their own.
Janis slumps against her, dazed. Her head comes to rest on Morinth's shoulder with weight and warmth, it almost makes her reach for her again.
Carefully, Morinth extracts herself from Janis' grip, arranges her on the chair by her side and takes a deep breath to steady herself. Even she, she thinks, will have to make sacrifices. This small part of the Resistance will not survive without Janis' leadership, without her bite and her streetwise cunning.
"I should have tried asari sooner," is the first thing Janis says as her senses return to her. She shifts downward in her chair and lets her head loll back. "What the hell was that?" she asks.
Morinth has no good answer to that, there is only a revelation, but she cannot share that. She leans close, draws in the woman's scent like a keepsake, if it is all she shall have from her.
"I have a favour to ask," Morinth says lowly.
Janis crinkles her brow. "Sure."
"Use me as a messenger," Morinth says. "Send me away."
The frown deepens and after another minute, Janis finally blinks the haze from her vision and as she focuses on Morinth, she seems clear enough.
"Because I'll survive it."
Janis shakes her head slowly. "What about the Banshees?" she asks, because she doesn't know just how close to death she has just been and that Morinth is trying to save them both.
"Yes," Morinth agrees. "I'll survive them, too."