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There are few things that can unnerve Isla Shepard – it's part of her military training where she got used to the most foul stenches and vilest sights: she's trained to be able to cope, and so far, two months post-resurrection, she's done an amazing job at exactly that. Nothing she's seen has been able to faze her, and she sleeps at night – with the help of heavy medication, one should note, because she's lost all ability to maintain a natural sleep cycle, completely deprived of any actual physical needs. It took a week to work it out, but she has a schedule (it makes her snort, programmed into her omni-tool, beeping to remind her to eat, to sleep, sometimes even to blink) and she follows it religiously. 

 

Small abnormalities aside, she's relatively normal. As normal as they come after having crawled out of the grave, anyway. Not a lot of precedents for that, and no handbooks available to guide her – though So You've Come Alive Again: How To Handle Life 2.0 probably wouldn't be something she'd dig into, since she's never been a voracious reader. 

 

All in all, she could be handling it worse: she copes, she goes on, it's just an ability among many. When shit inevitably falls apart, she shoulders on as the unstoppable force she's been since childhood, alone and resilient in the city slums. It's a survival instinct, one that even death hasn't been able to quench.

 

This, however... This makes her uncomfortable.

 

She pokes the ash pile of an ex-Collector, watching it spread in the faint breeze. What just a minute ago was a highly alive, albeit glowing, creature is now an incinerated remnant on the yellowing grass. There are smoldering specks of ember still within, but the moment they are revealed they quickly fizzle out. Just an ash pile.

 

”Did you hear what it said?” Shepard asks, turning to her team. 

 

Miranda looks at her like she's insane, and Garrus blinks slowly, then begins fumbling with the sighting of his sniper rifle.

 

Removing her foot, she wipes it off on a patch of grass that immediately blackens and withers. ”It was talking to me.”

 

”All I heard was insect-like chirping,” Miranda says, narrowing her eyes as she studies Shepard closely, probably making a mental note to talk with the Yeoman about the Commander hearing voices. From Collectors. Lovely.

 

”A word here and there maybe,” Garrus adds hesitantly, ”but it made no sense.”

 

”What did you hear?” Miranda asks pointedly.

 

”It said my name.” Shepard shrugs, flicking off a piece of dirt from the barrel of her shotgun. ”Just that.”

 

You cannot escape your destiny, Shepard. The unnatural voice echoes still within, a screech traveling down the back of her skull. She cracks her neck, suppressing the lingering feelings. 

 

In the sky above them, surrounded by churning clouds, the Collector cruiser whirs with an ungodly sound that makes her bones ache.

 

Flee while you can, Shepard.

 

----------------------

 

Pitiful.

 

This is not the time for a clip to jam. 

 

Under tense moments, she can perform miracles with minimal resources, like annihilating an entire batarian troop with a single bullet. This moment, however, is beyond tense. The stress makes her pulse race to the point where her trauma unit begins administering emergency dosages of sedatives – an invention of Mordin's due to Cerberus concerns of logs where she spiked high enough to endanger her nervous system of overloading. It doesn't put her out – just smoothens out the most prominent curves. 

 

For the same reason, she has a cool-down program installed in her bio-amp to hinder her from performing too many straining biotic attacks in a row. Shepard complained when it was revealed, saying that she was being punished for coming alive rather than allowed to savour it. ”No,” Miranda corrected, adjusting the programming via her omni-tool, ”we're just putting in measures to keep you alive, since you've lost certain... Boundaries.”

 

The word she was looking for was human. Human boundaries. As far as she knew, it wasn't a human standard to come back from the dead, so they could at least cut her some slack and give her props for trying.

 

I sense your weakness.

 

A biotic attack rips off a piece of her cover, and she can feel it shattering behind her. Curses fly from her mouth: the thermal clip is still stuck, and the glowing Collector is approaching her position, taunting her with that horrific voice. Miranda and Garrus are chatting over the comm, on the other side of the starport cargo square. They're pinned down but holding up – she can't say the same. 

 

This delay is pointless

 

Opting to fall further back, she flings a sputtering biotic attack at the Collector, who fires back with one of its own. A dark glowing orb hits her right in the chest, sending her staggering backwards, her kinetic shields knocked out in one punch. 

 

It doesn't even really hurt, and that worries her a bit, because despite all the things she seems to fail at as a human, she still feels pain. 

 

A three-fingered hand, lit up from underneath the cracks in the brown-grey carapace, reaches out as she tries to regain her footing and wrenches the weapon from her hands, warping the barrel and tossing it aside. One arm takes her around the waist, the hold on her too tight, too warm, and she struggles in the crushing embrace as it pulls them torso to torso.

 

You escaped us before Shepard, not again.

 

The ground is gone from underneath her, the buzz of wings sounding as it lifts her up into the air, and she twists her head around to see Horizon disappearing beneath her, and the Collector cruiser drawing closer.

 

Its other hand comes up to cup Shepard's chin, turning her head sharply to meet its eyes, lit up so brightly that they nearly blind her in their intensity. 

 

The glowing hand closes around her throat, but instead of choking her she feels something different. She feels... Odd. There's no way to describe the sensations stirring, her body responding to the contact in a way that's definitely not natural. She can feel the intricate circuits under her skin lightt up and practically hum, as if in communication on another level. 

 

It feels like a vital communion, beyond the skin and flesh, past anything she has ever experienced.

 

Well, there's the initial visceral reaction, as if the Collector – I am Harbinger it says to her, as if she spoke aloud, or even more worrying, that it hears what she is thinking – is peeling her apart, layer by layer, and penetrating past it all to tap into the essential core of who she is. 

 

It's not entirely unpleasant, however reluctant she is to admit that.

 

Their rapid ascent slows down, coming to a halt as they hoover thousand of meters up in the air. The air is thinner, her lungs unable to find enough oxygen, and she's vaguely faint but she feels a lot of other things as well.

 

Much to embarrassment, she feels a wetness seeping out from between her legs as a reaction to what is being done to her – things she cannot even describe, so far beyond her comprehension. 

 

If she has to word it in terms understable to a human, she'd say she's being mindfucked by this Harbinger and it feels fucking wonderful.

 

Embrace perfection.

 

A pang of something shivers through her nervous system, setting off a fire that makes her buck against it and what she thinks is a cry of pain comes out sounding more pleased than it should. The orgasm crashes through her, overwhelming and all too powerful, igniting an ache in her flesh that renders her unable to move. She spasms, flailing and thrashing in the vice-like hold Harbinger has on her, and it just won't stop.

 

I know you feel this.

 

She crests again, fingers clawing at the chitin and catching on the cracks where the sub-dermal glows seeps out, digging in with all her strength. At the same time, Harbinger is manipulating her nerves, and she objectively knows that her hard-suit is still on, that her underwear are still securely in place, and yet there's beads of sweat forming on her brow from the distinct tightening in her nipples. 

 

Shepard, you are close to your ultimate perfection.

 

”Stop it,” she croaks, voice hoarse. 

 

Never fear pain. It is an illusion.

 

A hurt at the end of her spine makes her let out a scream that burns her throat raw, and all of a sudden the pain of it all descends upon her without mercy. There's a feel of something invading her. She'd call it probing but that term brings up different connotations – this is almost gentle, and completely knowing in where to stimulate her. It knows her, reads her like an open map. What it performs on her is a gradual merger of two systems, a regular pulse of controlled overloading, keeping her incapacitated. 

 

Plucking at the right strings, she finds herself at the mercy of Harbinger, and she doesn't know what to think – can't even think straight as they begin to spiral, spinning out of control from how she fights against it, going so far as to tug at the delicate wings, ripping the delicate segments.

 

Why do you resist?

 

Then it withdraws as suddenly as it came in, and instinctively Shepard tries to follow, but the pain in her spine intensifies, and she realizes that the suit integrity has been breached, a warm trickle going down her skin. The trauma unit shorts out, overheated, her omni-tool beeping warnings. Yet, in the midst of the chaos of the two of them battling high in the air, it has retreated an inch, and a modicum of control returns to her, and she makes a snap decision.

 

The seams of her skin crack as her fingers sink through the carapace and tears it apart, the head bursting open with light that burns and then it is nothing, ash, spreading in the gusts. In the choice between following onboard the cruiser and plummeting to certain death and skull split open on the ground, she picks the free-fall. 

 

The ground approaches in a blur of green and gold rushing ever closer, and somewhere beneath the ear-deafening roar she hears it.

 

I will find you again.

 

A biotic field catches Shepard, cushioning her fall and putting her down on the ground with only mild bruises. 

 

Miranda is immediately at her side, scanning Shepard's body back and forth. All the Commander does is lie still, letting her heartbeat slow down, one shaky breath at a time. 

 

”The Collectors are pulling out,” Garrus comments. At that, Shepard sits up and watches the cruiser lift off, defense towers still working away at the grotesque shape of organic-like structure melding with sharp steel.

 

”Shepard!” Miranda gasps, ”what's happened to your face?”

 

In the reflective window of the Kodiak shuttle that lands beside them, her mirror image reveals one side of her cheek completely gone, the red glow of cybernetics glowing in the dull light. As she tries to touch it Miranda wrenches her hand back, telling her not to poke at it lest it get infected.

 

Garrus leans against the shuttle, observing. ”Looks like we're both equally ugly now, Commander.” It's an attempt at a joke, but the humor falls short in his voice.

 

Shepard watches the intricate latticework of cybernetics, able to recall exactly how the sensations brought forth by Harbinger travelled along individual routes there. They will meet again, and the thought that their peculiar exchange will happen again leaves her cold. How is one meant to cope with that prospect?

 

A familiar voice speaks her name – a voice from another time, a previous life. 

 

She turns around to greet Kaidan, and he takes a step back, not in fear, but close enough. 

 

”What happened to you?” 

 

There aren't enough human words to convey what passed. Just a metallic rasp and a cheek with a scorching wound.