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First Impressions, Snapshots, and Other Such Instances

Chapter Text

"Of all the people that had to be dragged into the Nexus, it had to be a paladin!" Sylvanas said, her words muffled from the hands clasped over her nose. "A paladin!" She glanced at the newest Hero seated at the bar chatting it up with old man Deckard Cain, her massive, damnable shield propped up on the stool beside her. Johanna, was it? Yes, well, Sylvanas gave the back of Johanna's head the iciest glare she could muster, even though her eyes brimmed with unholy hellfire.

"It could've been worse," said Nova, tossing the bloodied rag into the incinerator and grabbing a fresh one from the box. "You could've been reduced to a pile of ash." She went over to the sink, turned the faucet, and soaked the cloth.

"It's bad enough I have to put up with Uther and Arthas! I do not want to contend with another Light-loving zealot!"

"But this is the Nexus; you get to kill them over and over again. Isn't that what you want?"

"It's not good enough!" Sylvanas hissed, and winced as pain throbbed from the epicenter and echoed in the topography beneath her face. She glared at Nova, who hunkered down in front of her with the damp rag. "I want these versions of them gone! Permanently!"

"At least you're still here," said Nova, gesturing with the rag for Sylvanas to remove her hands from her face. "I hear Arthas still can't find Anub'arak."

"Good! I hope he gets lost and the Nexus swallows him whole, body and soul! Including the hole where he cut out his own heart!" She inched away from Nova—as much as she could, being that she was seated on a wooden crate in a dark corner of the tavern. Her back bumped into the wall, causing her long ears to flatten against the sides of her skull.

Nova sighed tiredly. "Come on. It's not that bad."

"This is my face," Sylvanas growled. "No one touches my face, lest they be on the receiving end of a biblical ass kicking! Including you, human!"

"While I find your abundance in edge endearing, I really need to finish cleaning this." Nova shook the cloth between the two of them for emphasis. "Come on," she repeated. "Open Sesame~"

Sylvanas shook her head and grumbled under her breath—Nova surmised it had something to do with "being treated like a child" and "the nerve of this girl"—but she relented, and slowly set her hands on her lap. A comet's tail streaked across the bridge of a swollen nose flecked with dried green blood. Her glare was petulant, simmering, and quite pouty.

It was very adorable.

Nova shook out the rag with a good snap of the wrist and applied it, gently, to the wound. "There, there," she giggled. "Everything will be alright."

"Don't start with me…." But Sylvanas shut her eyes and endured, and that, in itself, was a miracle.

Chapter Text

"I don't know about you," said Nova, taking a sip of the ginger ale, "but either this is all a coincidence, you have incredibly bad luck…or the Nexus, and the universe as a whole, hates you and is trying to make your undead life as miserable as possible."

That made Sylvanas glower even more, hellfire eyes smoldering balefully at the gothic graveyard; Raynor and Tychus just so happened to be taking a pleasant, bromantic stroll through it, talking about whatever brothers from another mother were wont to. "This is not fair," she said. "This is not…fair…at all."

"The odds are certainly stacked against you. Me? All I have are those guys and Kerrigan. Not such a bad deal, if I do say so myself."

Sylvanas's lip curled up, revealing a wicked set of elven incisors still sharp and pointy in undeath as they were in actual living, breathing twenty-four-seven life. "Oh happy days! You never fell in battle. You were never raised against your will and forced to fight your kith and kin. You never had to wait for your captor to wane in power and steal your body hanging off the back of a meat wagon."

"And you never got to kill him," added Nova. Then, nearly falling off the fence at the murderous glare sent her way, "I'm just saying, I'm just saying! You were never there. Those adventurers and—uh, what's his name? Oh, right, Tirion! Him and the others got to him first while you were busy clearing out that citadel. But you wish you could have, right?"

"Yessss," said Sylvanas, turning back to the graveyard, glare intensifying, fingers pressing deeper into the folds of her cheeks. "How I wish I could have. It would have been the best day of my life."

"The best day of your life so far."

Sylvanas sat up and made to stand, reaching for an arrow in her quiver.

Nova blanched and scooted away, drawing up her knees defensively and hugging the mug of ale closer to her. "Alright, alright, I'll stop," she mumbled. "But man, talk about timing! Why, just a couple weeks back you were complaining about Johanna and the beatdown you received. How's your nose, by the way?"

"It's fine, and I don't want to hear that woman's name! To me she's just another zealot. Another bible-thumping, Light-loving, people-hugging zealot who probably wears all that armor because DEEP DOWN she's very insecure about herself both physically and mentally!"

"This coming from someone who constantly claims she's not a music box but a heartless banshee…yet she goes with Valla to play with the quilen and the horses in the pens…."

"I didn't ask to get imprinted by those…dog-cat things! I've told that ranger wannabe plenty of times to keep them away from me! It was bad enough back on Azeroth; I don't need it following me here like Nazeebo's ravenous spirit!"

"That doesn't explain the horses."

"That's only because the Nexus affects them, too! I can't raise them into undeath without them respawning seconds later, so I'm stuck riding a living one and they're stuck putting up with me, the cowards!"

Nova shrugged. "Well, there are always those mechanical spiders that showed up out of the blue a while back. Or those cyber wolves. It's better than hoofing it back and forth across the battlefield."

"Oh, you mean like you?" Sylvanas sniped. She relished at the affronted look Nova wore, the flush on her face alternating between various shades of red and purple.

The girl squirmed uncomfortably on the fence. "I…I have my reasons…."

"Whatever you say, Miss I'm-too-good-for-a-mount."

Her eyes followed Raynor and Tychus. They were drawing close to a particularly large tombstone bearing a weathered, stony cross. So engrossed were they in their conversation that they never noticed the skeletal hands popping out of the ground until they were wrapped around their ankles. Then the bodies emerged, shaking off soil, strips of ragged clothing, and chinks of rusted armor, some with notched weapons strapped on their backs or sheathed at their sides, and they pulled and tugged at their legs.

Cold laughter rang forth, drowning out the cries of the startled soldiers and the reports of their guns (they had left their assault rifle and minigun behind at the dormitory and carried pistols). The earth around the grave exploded outward, and from the confines of cold darkness the corpse of a man in ornate plate, crown, and flowing red cape pulled himself out and level with the rest of his minions. A massive mace rippling with blades was gripped tightly in one black gloved, armored hand.

The bones of King Leoric's skull shifted into a gleeful, feral grin. "Surpriiiiise!" he bellowed, and sauntered after them. Not walk, saunter, like he was just taking a pleasant stroll through a park that had seen better days and didn't give a damn.

Especially when he started swinging that thing in slow, lazy swings, as though it weighed nothing, but those swings must hit like a wrecking ball at full momentum because his skeletons were flying everywhere—a ribcage here, a femur over there, a cracked skull where the tip of an arrowhead surely met between the eyes sent sky high and in their direction—

"Ahhhh!" Nova shrieked as it landed directly on top of her mug, its mouth staring up at her with its mouth set in a startled O shape. She toppled over the fence, spilling the skull and the mug over her head.

Sylvanas glanced disinterestedly at her, scoffed, and watched as Leoric smash Tychus upside the head; the man dropped his gun and fell without so much as a grunt. Raynor just stood his ground, sweating profusely, looking down the sights and popping round after round at the Skeleton King. The bullets ricocheted off his breastplate in tinny little pings! One even grazed the side of his crown and knocked it askew, right over one of those dark caverns where his eyes used to be.

A fell, ghastly pinprick illuminated the depths of the uncovered socket. "Oh you foolish mortal," he giggled. "THAT DOESN'T HURT AT ALL! Let me show you…how it's done…." His free hand shot forward, and from where Sylvanas could see some sort of tomb sprang up behind Raynor and a pair of iron-wrought gates penned him on both sides. No room to jump over them, no place to run except straight ahead.

Sylvanas yawned loudly, squinting, with the tip of her tongue curling. Raynor was reciting a prayer, or a litany of words strung together to sound like a prayer (although it was a very rushed and nonsensical one), between the meaty smacks of the mace pummeling his flesh, his girlish cries, and Leoric's manic cackling.

Nova picked herself up off the ground and draped her body over the fencing. "That…was way past not cool," she huffed, blowing the hair out of her eyes.

"Hrm," Sylvanas grunted, chin propped up on the heel of a hand.

"I hope we get another Hero a lot less…bloodthirsty…next time." She winced as Leoric kicked Raynor square in the crotch, causing him to bounce off the tombstone and onto his face, his rear end sticking up in the air.

"As long as it's not a former prince or king made corrupted by eldritch powers beyond mortal imagining or a follower of the Light." Sylvanas sneered. "Darkness help me if they turn out to be a draenei or King Wrynn's kid. Then I will never truly hear the end of their preaching…."

Chapter Text

"What…What is this?" Kael'thas mixed the contents of the dip with the spoon, leaned forward and peered into it. "Are those…?" His eyes shot open. "No…no! It can't be!"

Sylvanas sighed and studied the dish disinterestedly. "Yes, Kael'thas, they're exactly what you don't want them to be."

"It's absurd! Insane! No person in their right mind would ruin such a marvelous dish!"

"Well apparently our resident 'chef' had a little creative spark go off in that dumb brain of his."

"You don't put peas in guacamole! You just can't!" The elf slammed a fist against the table, making the cutlery rattle and bounce. "That's like eating cucumbers with the seeds still in them!"

"You have a problem with canned peas…but not the diced tomatoes? Or the chopped onions?" She glanced at the red cubes of tomatoes—which took on the appearance of mashed paste at this point—and white bits of onions.

"That's different! Those are staples! You cannot make the quintessential dip if you don't have one or the other or both! But this? This is abhorrent! This…slop"—He lifted the spoon of the green stuff—and the green balls that were peas—up to his face for Sylvanas to have a better look—"taints the very purity that is fresh Nexus guacamole!"

"Kael'thas, they're peas."

"They are completely unnecessary!" Now he slammed both hands flat on the table, rising so quickly he knocked the chair he was sitting in backward. He jabbed a finger at the innocent granite bowl containing the guac. "This, right here, is the textbook definition of character defamation!"

Sylvanas scoffed. "What's the matter? I thought you reveled in setbacks. Why, I thought you were a man's man!"

"I am indeed a manly man! A paragon among hardworking elves tried and true!"

"Then suck it up and eat the damn things. Or give it to Tyrande." She scowled nastily. "Darkness knows that…bounciness…has to come from somewhere…."

He sputtered indignantly. "Absolutely not! I will not denigrate myself to such…peasantry!" To the doors leading into the kitchens, he cried, "Stitches! STITCHES! Stitches, come out here this instant!"

The abomination did, pushing his massive girth through the tight space with a spot of difficulty. The chef's hat and apron were dirty and singed beyond any recognition as to what its original color was, but thankfully the latter covered up the grotesque mouth in place of his gut. A pair of raw sausage links wrapped around his neck like a shawl, bouncing with each lumbering step he took. In one hand he carried a meat cleaver and in the other a great big leg of…Sylvanas hoped it came from a buck. Or the fabled Cow King Old Man Deckard always prattled on about. From the third arm protruding from his back was a steaming skillet holding two eggs sunny side up; if he tipped the pan any further, they would fall to the floor and splatter.

The…facsimile of a mustache on his face twitched as he spoke. "What blood elf want?" he asked.

"Listen well and listen good!" said Kael'thas. "There are peas in my guacamole! I want to exchange this dish for one without!"

Stitches blinked owlishly at the little bowl. Then he blinked back at Kael'thas. "You no like Stitches's food?"

"Food? This is prison grub! This is torture! I have never heard of someone putting peas in a dip! It's unfathomable! Unconscionable!"

"Oh give me a break," Sylvanas muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes.

"I deserve cuisine befitting my station as the Prince of Quel'Thalas! The finest food on this side of this gods-forsaken Nexus! And if I cannot receive a dish to sate my palate, then I want my money back. Every gold, silver, and copper piece galore! I will not take 'no' for an answer!"

Stitches blinked again. "Have to," he said.

Now it was Kael'thas's turn to blink. "Wh-What?" he sputtered. Then, indignantly, "What do you mean I 'have to?!' I'm a paid customer! The customer is always right, you brute!"

"Monies go to funding." He shook the leg of unidentifiable meat once. "Half."

"Towards what?!"

Realization dawned on Sylvanas. She groaned and slapped the heel of one hand to her forehead. "Goddammit, Valla!" she grumbled under her breath.

"Petting zoo!" Stitches exclaimed happily, yellow, rotten teeth spreading in a cheek-tugging grin. "Horsey corral! Munchies and juices for the animals! Brushes an' shampoo for da baths an' toys ta play with! And best of all—"

"Best of all…?" Kael'thas ventured. Sylvanas had never seen his ears—any elf's ears, actually—droop so low.

"SWIMMING POOL! Bwahahahahaharrrr!" Apparently the ties on the apron weren't secured properly, so when his great belly shook with that growling, deep-throated laughter it fell away, exposing coils of purple-green intestines and the bleached birdcage that was his ribs.

Kael'thas's face took on a sickly shade of green, the same color as the peas. He averted his gaze. "Wh-What…What about the peas then?" he asked thickly. "I don't want to eat them…but I'd rather not see them go to waste. Even I know better than that."

"That simple!" Stitches dropped the meat on the table—right in front of Sylvanas, who jumped—and snatched the bowl of guacamole. He brought it up to his face. "Bon appeti…Bon appa…Bon appy-teet…Bon…Bah, fuhgeddit! LET'S EAT!" He opened his mouth all the way and tossed the guac, bowl and all, inside. Sylvanas turned away, disgusted. He didn't even chew; he swallowed the whole thing! And being an undead creation, whatever he ate wouldn't digest. So, in a couple hours, that meant it wouldn't come out through the…backdoor…but….

Kael'thas knew, too. He managed to force out a very weak "M-Merely a setback" before he clapped a hand over his own mouth and fled the room.

Stitches stared at the door he tackled through swing shut with a not so gentle slam. After a moment of idleness, perhaps with thoughts going through that walnut called a brain, he asked Sylvanas, "What Stitches do?"

"Nothing. You did the right thing." As gross and utterly wrong as it was; Kael'thas was an obnoxious little drama queen. Am I ever so glad you never took the throne.

Stitches grinned. "Thanks, elf lady! Eh, you no want that?" He gestured with the cleaver the unfinished, and untouched, plates of food.

"I don't eat." Eating was for the living, and living was for suckers. "Give it to Butch or something. You know, waste not, want not."

"Oh. Okay. Have nice day." He waddled off, the grounding quaking slightly with each step.

"Hey!" Sylvanas called after him. "Take this thing with you!" She indicated the leg on the table.

"Ah. Sorry." He came trundling back and retrieved it. "Have nice day again." He gave her an awkward, shuffling bow that made it look like he didn't move at all, and once more he went on his merry way. The apron woefully remained on the floor.

Sylvanas grimaced at the bloody, greasy stain left behind on what was once clean linen. "I'm never coming here again."

Chapter Text

Sylvanas stopped, her hand turning the doorknob. She did not open the door. Instead she stood up, leaned back, into the hallway.

She looked to the left. No one was there.

She looked to the right. No one was there.

She knocked on the door. When there wasn't a response, she knocked again. Louder this time. Still nothing.

She opened the door a crack and peeked inside. No one was inside. It was a room you could kick back and relax in, complete with a very puffy sofa chair, dusty bookshelves, a quilen throw rug (Valla would have a heart attack if she ever discovered this place), and an unused fireplace complete with ashes, soot, and an old cauldron. There were also stacks upon stacks of boxes marked in permanent marker, labeled in big, blocky letters: KITCHEN SHIT, LIVING ROOM SHIT, and CLEANING SHIT—yep, definitely Tychus's handwriting. On the table was an antique rotary fan. It was plugged in.

She leaned out and looked to the left again. No one was there.

She looked to the right again. No one was here.

She quickly slipped her arm through the crack and felt for a light switch. There was, so she flipped it up. The overhead lamps clicked on with a fluorescent buzz. Good. Sylvanas flipped it off.

One last time, she leaned out and looked to the left. Then she looked to the right.

No one was there.

Perfect.

She fled into the room and shut the door behind her. She went up to the fan, studied it. It had four buttons on the top panel—low, medium, and high; the last was to turn it on or off. On the side was a dial, to keep the fan still or make it oscillate. She knocked it to oscillate, jabbed the high button and then the one for power.

The fan sputtered to life and rotated its paint-flecked head left and right, right and left. Sylvanas pulled her hood back (she would have to take names if anyone saw her without it on) and left the artificial air toss her pale hair around. It should have felt cold, but for her it was what the living would call normal room temperature. If anything felt cold to her skin, it was sunlight. And Light—Darkness-damned, cursed Light. What was so great about it, anyway?

Ah, but she was letting her mind wander. She looked behind her, but no one was there. Content with that, she turned back to the fan, put her face close to it, and spoke:

"Whaaaat aaaaaare weeeeee ifffff nooooooot slaaaaaveeeees toooooo thiiiiiiiis tooooooormeeeeeent~?" The churning air made her words vibrate and bounce against her like invisible hummingbird wings. Hummingbirds were annoying, flitting about their damn flowers and not staying in one place.

But…she did like how that sounded.

"Weeeeee aaaaaareeeee theeeeee Fooooooorsaaaaakeeeeeen~"

It reminded her…of her old voice. Not the living one. That one was so…nasally. It reminded her of the few times Alleria found it cute to pinch her little sister's nose (and boy, just the thought of it made the scar twinge) and make her say elvish phrases because she thought it so sounded cute on top of flipping hilarious. She'd laugh even harder when Sylvanas would flail against the weight of her hand in an attempt to pry it off, but Alleria had a grip like steel…and that incessant giggling would make her blood pressure spike and boil and overflow like Mount Kajaro to Kezan. At least until she finally managed to knock that foolish woman to the ground, straddle her, grip her by the ears, and demand she play the role of her faithful hawkstrider—

Wait a minute, why the hell was she thinking that? Alleria was deader than Deathwing, no matter how many times Falstad assured Sylvanas that she and that guy—what was his name again? Oh right, Turalyon—that they'd make a great comeback. Sure they were missing, but hey, people thought he died during the Cataclysm! And look at him now!

Yes, just like Illidan: unforgettable and unprepared. A parasite that doesn't know when to stay dead.

The foulness of her mood brooded in her veins, darkened the shroud of darkness she always exuded. It was a very bad kind of darkness, and she would not have it! She needed to concentrate!

"Theeeeereeeee iiiiiiis nooooooo reeeeeeeest leeeeeeeeft fooooooor meeeeeee~" Ah, that was much better. So edgy! So gothic! And so very true; she never needed to sleep, and when she wanted to everyone decided to go full ham and make as much noise as possible. Like throwing parties, getting drunk, having snowball fights and splashing in rain puddles, and…ugh…getting all affectionate with the riding mounts and the puppies. Always the damn puppies!

More…more! She needed more edge!

"Staaaaaand wiiiiiith meeeee, or faaaaaaaaaaaa~ll befooooooooore meeeeeee~" Oh, how delicious! She could just giggle…if she were anything but a heartless, undead monster!

"Bash'aaaaa noooo faloooooooor talaaaaaaaaaaa~h~" Oh yes! That was more like it! Why couldn't she have kept that old voice? Why did that subterranean echo have to fade away over time? She could give Kerrigan a run for her money with this! Perhaps she could shake Nova hard enough to make her a voice modulator. There was no way in Darkness's darkness she was going to Gazlowe; that bastard would sooner blow himself up than get a working contraption going without it self-combusting a few seconds later.

"Liiiiiisteeeeeeeen aaaaaaaand obeeeeeeeeee~yyyyyy!" Oooh, that could definitely send shivers down one's spine! She grinned darkly, and then she cleared her throat. "BEHOOOOOOOLD! THE QUEEEEEEEN OOOOOF THEEE DAAAAAAAAAMNEEEEEED!"

Lost in her own little world, Sylvanas never heard the door open.

"…and when she was about to ask what changed him, the parrot said 'May I ask what the chicken did—' Sylvanas?"

She jumped, ears snapping straight up and going rigid.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she looked over her shoulder.

Oh Darkness….

There were five of them in all: Li Li, with her hand on the doorknob, staring slackjawed and wide-eyed at what she was seeing; Valla, who looked past her toward the quilen throw rug with mounting horror; Jaina, who was at a loss between breaking out in a fit of obnoxious giggles and the mental gymnastics of 'am I seeing what I'm seeing' and 'I need to stop reading the funny pages'; frigging Kerrigan of all people, standing behind the rest with a hand over her mouth to hide that stupid smirk on her lips (but bold she was to have that twinkle in her eyes!); and the fifth—

"NO WAY! You like speaking into fans, too?!" Nova slid between Kerrigan and a near catatonic Valla and bustled into the room. She plopped herself right next to Sylvanas. "Wow, look at this thing! It's a dinosaur!"

Inch by inch, her eyes dipped and folded against the sides of her head. "…What are you doing here?"

"The rotary in the girls' dormitory broke down," Jaina said numbly. She picked at a fold on her pants. "We, um, went to go see if there was one we could, um, use from the storeroom."

"But thanks to you, we can see it's still in working condition!" Kerrigan piped up.

Sylvanas's ears pressed harder and fell lower.

"So you do like having fun!" said Nova, and socked her in the shoulder. "You sly dog! You should've said something!"

Sylvanas stared at her, expression blank.

"So what were you saying? Something random? Something silly? Oh I know! I bet you were trying to be cool like Zeratul! Sucks to be him, he has no mouth. Here, let me show my impersonations of Mecha Tassadar!" Nova coughed into a fist, cleared her throat, and centered her face toward the blades. "FROM ooooooordeeeeeer COMES juuuuuuuuuuustice! DOMO aaaaaariiiiiigaaaaatoooooouuuuuuuu…MEEEEEEEE! BAAAAAAAH WEEEEEEEEEP GRANAAAAAAAH WEEP NINNY BOOOOOOOONG!" Nova fell back on her haunches, laughing heartily. "Oh, I kill myself sometimes! See, even an emo edgelord like you can indulge yourself every once in a while! Be one of the girls! So don't be ashamed of yourself! Give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done…like that! Yeah! But, uh, hey, don't take it personally—you're going a little too high for my liking."

"Uhhh, Nova…." Li Li ventured warily, reaching for the mistwalker staff strapped to her back. Jaina took a step back and put a hand on Valla's shoulder, trying to draw her toward her. Kerrigan scoffed and rolled her eyes, shaking her head.

"We had this discussion before: for all your edge and obsession with vengeance, I like you…but not in that way! I've had my fair share of loves and they were all men! Nothing against you, of course, if you're like that. How' does that saying go again? You can look but you can't touch—"

SNAP!

Nova collapsed on her side, her neck twisted. Her face was a frozen rictus of surprise.

Calmly, quietly, Sylvanas stood. She dropped her hands to her sides.

Through the bleached strands of hair, a single crimson eye glared at them.

The temperature in the surrounding area plummeted, and not because that fan was still going.

Sylvanas turned on her heel, and that was when time resumed at its normal pace and chaos broke out.

"CHEESE IT!" Li Li blared. She tore past Jaina and Kerrigan and into the hall.

Kerrigan sniffed. "You never learn, do you?" she directed at Nova's corpse, which was disintegrating into fine particles. She flapped her large, bony wings and, nonchalantly, glided in the opposite direction.

Jaina yanked Valla by the collar of her hood. This seemed to snap her out of her catatonia. "Wh-Wha—?"

"RUN!" Jaina shouted.

Valla caught the briefest of glances at Sylvanas, the storeroom, and the object of her terror and managed to squeak out, "But the quilen—!"

The shadowy dagger slamming into the wall just a hairsbreadth from her head was all the answer she needed before Jaina's ironfisted tug on her scarf choked her and bodily dragged her away from wrath incarnate roaring and charging swiftly, frighteningly closer.

-

A minute later, Nova respawned at the Hall of Storms.

Outside, on her back spread-eagled, in the rain, and far from the Manor; its silhouette loomed in the mist and fog.

Somewhere hidden, or perhaps unseen, a bird called. Cicadas trilled all around her, high and persistent.

She raised a hand, touched a spot on her neck, and winced at the phantom pain weaving a pulsing electric circuit. "How rude!" she grumbled, glaring at the overcast sky.

Chapter Text

The rock bounced up and down in her hand.

Up and down.

Up…and down.

Sylvanas sized up the cute little bird tweeting on the branch, never taking her eyes off it even as the rock obscured her vision leap after leap.

It sounded so happy, with its high, squeaky voice. So happy, flapping its colorful wings. So happy it was alive and free.

Happy to be in this world.

Sylvanas tossed the rock up in the air. It hung there for a split second, and then it conceded to gravity and fell once more. Just as it was about to fall past her, her hand snapped out, snatched it, and flung it across the pond. It cut through the silence with a sharp whistle.

The bird's body jumped with a shocked "WARK!", bounced off the branch, and plopped into the water. Sylvanas watched the surface ripple and shatter, and then settle. She drew her gaze back to the tree it was in and waited.

A minute passed.

Suddenly the space where the bird had occupied folded in on itself, an act of self-cannibalization. The bird popped out of the hole, bright and unbroken and not a speck of blood on it. It continued where it left off on its song, as if it had never died at all.

Sylvanas punched a fist against the boulder she was seated on. "What is wrong with this world?! Why does everyone and everything have to be immortal?! I would've appreciated it all the more if the likes of ARTHAS and UTHER weren't around! Why them? Why were they handpicked by the Powers That Be? They're not Heroes! They should've stayed dead! Dead! And now I have to put up with that Proudmoore nerd, that idiot Thrall or Go'el or whatever the hell he calls himself now, and the whole cavalcade of time-lost troglodytes I've had the misfortune to ever meet! And stop singing, you twat! You're making my cold, black heart beat!" She shouted this last bit at the bird, which didn't so much as spare a single glance at her. Her glare intensified. That bold, ballsy bastard! How dare it ignore her!

Her anger boiling, Sylvanas searched the base of the boulder for another rock, deciding on one that was flatter and pointier than the previous. She scooped it up, gave it a couple practice tosses, and reared her arm back.

"HI THERE!" screeched a voice that was even higher than the bird's. Something loomed up right in front of her face, green and blue and…reptilian? It flapped on wings patterned in moons and stars and glittery showers of pixie dust.

Sylvanas yelped and threw her arm back, flinging the rock behind her high over her shoulder. She caught herself before she could fall off the boulder and breathed for the first time in a month, taking in a lot more AIR and NATURE and ALL THE LOVELY SCENTS PERTAINING TO LIFE and they tasted so disgusting! Then she got a good look at the creature and stopped breathing altogether, thank Darkness, because she recognized what it was. However, that didn't really concern; rather it was the fact that, "You can talk." She wasn't awed. No, no—she was disturbed. When the hell could these things talk?

"Of course I can!" said the faerie dragon, doing a little loop-de-loop in front of her. "I am Brightwing! Do you know about faerie dragons?"

"How can I not? Your kind is friends with those tree-hugging night elves, especially to Birdman and Miss My-Boobs-Hang-Low!" Ugh, the way Malfurion and Tyrande were so lovey-dovey made her skin crawl…as if it already didn't! "Also, your name is Brightwing."

"Yes! It makes Brightwing happy that you know!"

"Well it doesn't make me happy! It rhymes with 'light'—any kind of light, really. Especially the Light, the Light that makes people smile and laugh and spread happiness to all the good little boys and girls the world over like that…weird goblin from the Crown Chemical Company cosplaying as a winged angel during Love is in the Air!"

"Do you want to know what makes me happy?" Brightwing asked.

"No," Sylvanas said bluntly.

But Brightwing carried on. "Smiling makes me happy!" Sylvanas groaned. "Do you like to smile?"

"I don't do smiles."

"Smiling is happy making! I really like to smile when I kill baddies!"

"The only baddies you kill are herbivores, like rabbits and birds. There is no way you can take on a fully grown human, or anyone for that matter."

"But that is the best part of snack time! Nothing tastes better than a scared baddie running for their life! Doesn't that just sound fun?"

"It would be more fun if this blasted place didn't bring the dead back to life!" Like Arthas; at first she had been so thrilled when Uther put her through a crash course at the Cursed Hollow and she had put an arrow right between that man-child's eyes, into the slit of that abominable helmet. He was down, down for the count and not getting back up, and she had actually laughed and danced and cheered that he was gone, gone, gone! He was finally GONE!

…Until he respawned a moment later in the Hall of Storms, looking smug and no worse for wear. Then he proceeded to faceroll her, Uther, and their blue-clad soldiers—but that was a different story for a different time.

"That is a good thing!" said Brightwing. "Dead baddies that make comebacks always means time for snack time!"

"Nothing would make me happier than seeing my enemies get slaughtered," Sylvanas growled. "But I can't! This world, this…Nexus…won't allow it, and it is a hell worse than the hell I was shown when I attempted suicide back on Azeroth! Ohhhh, if only I could wrap my hands around his neck and—!" Her words dissolved into angry, hateful gibberish, clutching the air in front of her and strangling it as though Arthas (or Uther or Thrall, anyone would do) was right there with her. Just the thought of having him right next to her, still alive and undead and oh so proud, drove her to an even greater fury, her eyes blazing a scorching crimson.

"Brightwing is sorry you feel that way! Here, have a hug! Hugs make Brightwing feel much better!" Then Brightwing squeezed and molded herself into Sylvanas's shaking hands.

Sylvanas stopped. She stared at the faerie dragon that she was now holding instead of Arthas's imaginary, unprotected slab of a neck.

Brightwing fluttered her eyelashes and gave the Banshee Queen the faerie dragon equivalent of a grin. "See? Isn't this happy making?"

Sylvanas whined low in her throat, sounding like a kettle ready to blow its lid. Her eyes were wide and feverish, her mouth pulled down in a severe frown.

"Let's be friends!" said Brightwing.

"I'm not your friend," said Sylvanas.

"What about buddies?"

"No."

"What about guys?"

"No! I don't want to be your anything!" Sylvanas roughly shook the faerie dragon back and forth.

"Why not? We can kill bad guys together! It makes us both happy, yes?"

She…had a point. Darkness, she had a very good point, and Sylvanas didn't want this…thing…to be right. But Uther said the Nexus was the hunting grounds for team fights and free-for-alls, upheld by the Powers That Be because the nobility and peasants couldn't get enough of their Heroes (she ground her teeth at that word) kicking each other's asses over whatever objective they were focusing on.

Sylvanas didn't want friends.

She didn't do friends.

This was the Nexus, a living hell she had once thought of as paradise, and anyone on her team was an arrow in her quiver. Including Brightwing.

So Sylvanas nodded. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes it does…but let's get one thing straight!" She brought the faerie dragon close so that their noses were touching. "I'm not your friend. I'm not your buddy. I'm not even your guy. I am Sylvanas Windrunner, the Banshee Queen! The only thing we have in common is seeing our foes vanquished until we're called upon to do battle as enemies on opposing teams. Do I make myself clear?"

"Brightwing understands perfectly!" said the faerie dragon, nodding with a healthy cocktail of vigor and enthusiasm. She giggled and snuggled closer to Sylvanas, her claws digging into her breastplate. "Hurray! Brightwing has new friend! Best friends forever!"

"What did I just say?!"

Chapter Text

"You're an even bigger fool than I thought."

Leoric looked up from the laptop. It seemed he was still adjusting to getting used to it (and the technology in general), judging by how slowly he was typing on the keyboard. His eye sockets simmered dangerously. "What did you just say?"

"You heard me," said Sylvanas. "You don't even know the kind of people you had on your team."

"Oh? You watched my match?"

"I did. You absolutely slaughtered them." And it was a very interesting match, getting to study this new Hero firsthand from the comfort of the tavern. He walked like he owned the damn Hollows, smashing people left and right and sucking the life from their souls. Poor Jaina, her brains kept flying out of her ears because of that massive mace. It was glorious; so was the green look Nova was sporting as they watched the match (although Sylvanas could've really done without Brightwing curled up and shaking away on her lap).

Leoric laughed. "So I did. These…Heroes…didn't stand much of a chance. Especially that long-eared fellow. He is an elf like you, yes? So much bark but so little bite. He fell so easily. Hmmm…but that doesn't answer my question. How does my team make me a fool? We were unstoppable! We had those poor sods running witless, as though they had soiled themselves! When the League truly begins, I should like to have them by my side when we ride through the Nexus. There is nothing more reassuring than a Hero who can never truly die."

Sylvanas scoffed. "Your so-called 'allies' are some of the biggest betrayers the Nexus has come to know. Believe me, Your Majesty, I happen to be well acquainted with their personal histories! One of them firsthand!" One undead king was nightmare-inducing. Why did the Powers That Be have to go full retard and pull another from the fabric of space and time?

"How so?"

"Let me give it to you straight from a longtime Hero." Sylvanas put both hands on the table and leaned down low so only he could hear. One by one she pointed out each specific person in turn. "Illidan there betrayed his people for power and got locked away for ten thousand years. Kerrigan betrayed some old man who used her for his own gains before he too betrayed her, and Zagara over there tried to betray Kerrigan but she got her hide handed to her in a battle. Then you have ARTHAS"—who sat brooding in a dark corner, gauntlets off on the table, fingers flying across the keys on the little cell phone in his cold, pale hands (texting Darkness, no doubt)—"betrayed all of mankind, killed his father, brought the mother of all zombie apocalypses to his kingdom, and marched on my homeland so he could bring back some dead man who was just as crazy as he was! He made me into this!" She thumped a fist to her still heart.

Leoric gazed at them all with a slow, mechanical turn of his neck, face ever unchanging. "Huh."

"Indeed," said Sylvanas, nodding gravely. "You may be called the Undying, but you must always be aware of your surroundings. Those people could decide to take advantage of you when you least expect it, and when your back is turned—BAM!" She slammed that same fist on the table, making the laptop jump and rattle. "You have to spend a good minute or so swinging that big thing around, trying to regain your health as fast as you can so you can turn the tide around. Your, ahem, 'death', could mean a loss and a great, big mark against your record, and that just won't do when the draft picks start. The cleaner the better, you understand."

Leoric said nothing.

"And really, you're the Skeleton King! Arthas? He may call himself the Lich King, but he can't stay on the field—not like you can. He needs help from a horde of zombies to keep him afloat. He even uses an undead dragon to shut down forts and freeze people in place. You? You can just trap someone in a literal dead end and beat them senseless. You can even strut your stuff like a true king and show them what for!"

Leoric hummed thoughtfully. "So you're right! There can only be one king of the undead, and that person…shall be me!"

"That's right! And you don't even have to wait to prove your mettle! In this world, nothing stays dead for long—Heroes, wildlife, and the undead. But you, you are more than that!"

"I am!" agreed Leoric.

"You are something else!"

"I am!"

"You are the Skeleton King of…! I'm sorry, what were you king of again?"

"That would be Khanduras, my dear."

Sylvanas quashed the urge to slap him. "Right. The…Skeleton King. Of Khanduras!" Oh yeah, picking up that stride like it was the Fall of Quel'Thalas all over again.

"I AM!" roared Leoric, rising from his seat. Because the TVs were showing a match and blasting at full volume, no one paid attention to his triumphant outburst. "Ohhhhhh, I can't wait until we're called upon again! I am going to go up to that excuse of a king and put him in his place!"

"That's the spirit! Don't hold back!" It was also against the rules to fight outside of sanctioned fights, but Sylvanas could give less of a damn about the rules. The rules didn't matter when it involved Arthas! Or anyone, for that matter!

"I shall not! The Lich King shall know the taste of suffering, as I have!" Leoric cracked his knuckles, breaking off chips of bone and dust as he did so. "It would appear I was wrong about you, my lady. You are an ally I can trust to have at my back. In you, I see an ally who will never betray me!"

Sylvanas gave him a smile oozing with honey. "Of course, Your Majesty. You can count on me. Now go." She shooed him away. "Go kick his ass!"

Leoric tossed his head back and cackling. He hauled the mace off the floor and stomped toward Arthas, whose focus was entirely on the cell phone. Sylvanas watched with equal pride and amusement as the Skeleton King got the Lich King's attention by tapping a finger on the table. Arthas looked up, and from this far away Sylvanas couldn't hear what was transpiring between them.

There was no need. Leoric snatched the cell phone from Arthas's hand, crushed it in one powerful squeeze, and allowed the pieces to clatter from his grasp.

Arthas grabbed one of his gauntlets and smacked Leoric across the face with the back of it. Then he shoved his hands in them, picked up Frostmourne, and shoved the table aside against the wall, shattering it into splinters and kindle. He lunged at him.

Soon the tavern was embroiled in anarchy. Beer bottles, shot glasses, and magical spells flew across the room and ricocheted off the walls into furniture, television sets, and each other. Muradin bellowed from atop the bar, hammer and axe in hand, and bodily threw himself into a sea of patron and Heroes. Johanna flung her shield at Leoric and instead knocked the Lost Vikings down like nine pins. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Anub'arak screamed "RAAAAAAIIIIIIIIDDDDDDS!" and unleashed swarms of locusts and flying beetles upon the whole lot.

Sylvanas smirked, turned around, and walked away.

Nova and Brightwing were loitering around the threshold to the exit, observing the scene with disinterested expectancy and hyperactive excitement.

"Wow! You sure are good at being a manipulative bastard!" said Brightwing.

"I know," Sylvanas said smugly.

"You sure know how to get away with it, too," said Nova. She winced as Chen's barrel of booze more or less slammed into the back of an unsuspecting Reh'gar's head.

"And that is how I like to play the game," Sylvanas concluded. She raised a hand and slapped Brightwing's paw high, low, around the side and back again before she went out the door.

Chapter Text

Nova knew this atmosphere all too well, she concluded, as she glanced between the two elves. She had encountered it many a time back in her own dimension, raking in the big bucks for whoever hired her and her gun. You could taste the venom in the air, how thick and suffocating it felt to be trapped in between two people whose next action could not be so easily predicted. Both women were ready to spring at one another, or snipe each other with words. Maybe the fact that them being here in the form of a paradox would cause the room to implode, and Nova didn't like the idea of disintegrating into countless pieces of possibility. Or erased from existence because someone had to be the scapegoat in all of this; when it came to Sylvanas Windrunner, she always was.

So she wondered which one would snap first:

The Sylvanas Windrunner who was some unique variant of undead, an eternal cynic, and took a perverse, morbid joy in making everyone suffer or just as fed up as she was with each other…

Or the Sylvanas Windrunner who was alive and breathing and didn't reek of spoiled meat. (Not that the Banshee Queen took much notice; that air freshener Hammer gave her that she was wearing around her neck was really doing wonders for everybody.)

"What the hell is this?" Banshee Queen Sylvanas asked.

"What the hell is that?" Ranger General Sylvanas asked, pointing at her. "It smells like scorched earth!"

The Banshee Queen's ears snapped up indignantly. "I am not an 'it'! And for your information, I asked for lemons and instead I got gnomish napalm!" She shook the tree-shaped necklace at her younger counterpart. "It's a much better alternative than what I'm told I actually smell like!" The Ranger General grimaced. Nova noted the drooped ears and sharp incisors gave her the appearance of an irate cat. All that was missing was the fluffed up tail. It was a cute image she tried hard not to laugh at.

"So…what are you supposed to be then?" The Ranger General studied the Banshee Queen closely. "Are…are you trying to pass off as a night elf?"

Banshee Queen Sylvanas rolled her eyes. "Of course I am! I love to hug trees, bury jars of kimchi in dirt, and praise the moon as that idiot Kael'thas claims the sun lights his path! I pray to my lord and savior, Malfurion Stormrage!"

"You don't strike me as the religious type—"

"Here, feel how my heart beats for him!" She snatched the Ranger General's hand and placed it over her breast.

It lingered for all of two seconds before Ranger General Sylvanas yanked it back. "By the Light! You're cold as a Winter Veil snowstorm! Wait, are those…flies?!"

"No, they're itty-bitty wisps that keep my hopes up, my mind clear, and the wind at my back. YES THEY'RE FLIES! I'm an undead high elf, and you have PRINCE ARTHAS to thank for that!"

"Prince Arthas? He…did this to you?"

Banshee Queen Sylvanas tossed her arms up in the air. "Who else but Arthas?! Surely not his missing sister!" Who she knew for certain (call it a gut instinct) was dead, just like Alleria. Gone for twenty-something years and not a letter to write home to, saying what was taking so long!

"I didn't even know he had a sister…."

"You and every other noble in the Nexus!"

Ranger General Sylvanas shifted from one foot to the other, looking her undead self up and down with keen interest. "I don't understand. You make it sound like he went mad out of the blue."

"We'd be here all day if we told you," said Nova. She clammed up when both Sylvanases looked her way—the undead annoyed, the living reserved.

"And who is this?" asked the Ranger General.

The Banshee Queen sniffed disdainfully. "That's Nova. She thinks she's a ghost."

"I am!" said Nova, a little petulantly. Why couldn't she get that through her head? She didn't have to be a reanimated corpse to blend into her surroundings!

"Oh really?" The Ranger General took Nova by the arm, under the elbow. Nova stared curiously at her grip before her vision went sideways and the pain in her arm as it was twisted damn near out of its socket. Nova gasped, mouth wide open and eyes screwed shut in white agony. "Strange. I've never known a ghost to be corporeal and able to feel anything. What a curious enigma."

I'm feeling something, alright! Nova thought, cradling the arm close to her chest. Little wet pinpricks formed at the corners of her vision.

"Well get used to it, if you know what's good for you," the Banshee Queen huffed. "There may be demons, murlocs, and aliens who're here to prove their mettle, but don't think I'll go easy on you just because you're my past self."

The Ranger General scoffed. "Yes, I'm sure I'll be running for my life from a shuffling zombie. I'm surprised you can even speak. What did you have to do to get that intelligent, eh? Eat some brains?"

The Banshee Queen glared at her. "Were you even paying attention? I was murdered, raised into an actual ghost," she glanced scathingly toward Nova, "and it was by dint and good fortune I managed to reclaim my body! So no, I didn't eat anything. I am still Sylvanas Windrunner, in death as I was in life!"

"There's no way you can be me."

"And there's no way you're actually going to participate in the Nexus Hero League."

"Look right here." Ranger General Sylvanas took the sheaf of papers off the desk—the Banshee Queen's desk (Nova wondered if the undead would still liable to show facial tics, but the way the latter's face hardened most likely meant it didn't matter)—and handed them to her.

The Banshee Queen scrutinized them, as did Nova who was peering over her shoulder. Below the heading of the first page, a condensed list of her other half read as such:

Name: Sylvanas Windrunner (living variant of SYLVANAS WINDRUNNER, BANSHEE QUEEN).

Title: Ranger-General of Quel'Thalas.

Universal Sector: Azeroth #A12690x

Temporal Sector: Post-Second War (probability of Third War inconclusive)

She shuffled through the papers, skimming over the legalese and mechanically written questions. Does the variant display combat abilities that differ from the default variant? Yes, that was to be determined. Was the variant registered into the Nexus database to engage in the Hero League and blood feuds declared either by two or more rival Heroes and the noblesse? Yes, she was. Did the variant go through the motions to obtain and carry a license to ride any of the mounts (except for those assigned to specific Heroes, like Tyrael's Light-abiding charger and the armored horse Illidan affectionately called Nightmare)? Yes, she did. Has the variant been selected by a sponsored family or corporation? Too soon to tell; she had just arrived in the Nexus a couple days back and only managed to find the Sturmhause on her own earlier today with little difficulty).

Does the variant have any rivals and/or enemies s/he may be able to claim as a prerequisite for supervised blood feuds?

The answer typewritten here was a single word in bold, capitalized word: NONE.

The Banshee Queen looked at the Ranger General over the top of the papers. The younger elf stared back, arms crossed over fair skin (that reminded her of the Light), an eyebrow quirked questioningly. "Well?"

Sylvanas harrumphed and shoved them back to her. "Fine. I can accept this, but don't get ahead of yourself. In this place, there can only be one Sylvanas Windrunner."

"And that would be me." The Ranger General turned her nose up at her. "You may share my name and you may look like me, but you are not a true Windrunner. For all I know, you're probably some wannabe who has heard of my exploits and tries to recreate them. I should know. My sisters do it all the time."

The Banshee Queen nodded solemnly. "Indeed. It would explain why Alleria has a statue in Stormwind and you don't."

Nova turned away and covered her gaping mouth with a fist, effectively blocking the juvenile "OHHHHHH!" that wanted to come out. She stole a quick glance the variant; whatever tics the undead Sylvanas didn't have, this one had in spades: a tic throbbing just below her eye, what looked like a vein pulsing beneath the papery surface of her forehead.

Ranger General Sylvanas's cheeks exploded in color, her ears snapping up in outrage. "I-I'm just as renowned as she is! I-I don't need a statue or awards or anything of the sort! My title alone is enough to warrant recognition!"

"And that's all you'll ever have, unless you can prove you're the better Windrunner on the battlefield."

"I will!"

"I highly doubt it," said the Banshee Queen, who beckoned Nova to follow with a crisp snap of her fingers. Then, when they were far enough from the room and out of earshot, "Who does she think she is? She talks as though she's Azeroth's gift to elfkind! Can she possess the minds of enemy minions and mercenaries? No! Can she teleport and cover distances at the sound of a scream? No! She stands no chance against one such as I!"

"I find it pretty telling that, deep down, you don't even like yourself."

"Of course I don't! She's alive, I'm not. I hate everyone with equal fervor."

Nova considered this. "So by that logic, does that mean you love everyone? As in, given that your condition's pretty much dampened any positive emotion you could possibly experience for all eternity, you express this love in the only way you know how? Because, well," she rubbed the back of her neck, laughing sheepishly, "I always found people who played tough to be pretty endearing—OOF!"

Sylvanas smacked her on the back hard enough to send her sprawling face-first to the floor. "No, I just hate you all. Don't put words in my mouth." She turned up her nose and stepped over Nova, taking extra care to grind her heel into the crook of the woman's still smarting arm.

Nova grunted. She raised her head and pointed at Sylvanas's retreating back, grinning. "Th-That's what all the tsundere say…."

Chapter Text

They spawned in the Hall of Storms on the High Heavens side of the eternal battlefield in five crackles of thunder, one for each person.

Sergeant Hammer rolled out in her big, fancy tank bristling with caches of napalm missiles, crawler mines, and tertiary cannon. The treads made a low, trundling noise, like crunched gravel, as she made for the bottommost lane.

Rehgar tagged behind Illidan toward the top in his ghost wolf form, the light from the healing fountains and the azure bushes comprising the gardens passing through his translucent blue fur.

Sylvanas and Tyrael, the Lord of Pride, took one look at their surroundings and were dismayed. Tyrael hummed unpleasantly from the shadows of his hood, his grip on the reins tightening.

Sylvanas sighed. "Just our luck," she said. Her thighs squeezed harder around the large, round, bumpy mass wriggling beneath her. "I swear Ilarian is doing this on purpose. Well, if it hasn't worked the first few times it definitely won't work now. He can keep his Light all to himself."

"Agreed," Tyrael hissed, and he stood tall and proud upon his horse. "I am the master of my own destiny. The only 'light' I'll need is from the destruction I will sow upon this infernal place with El'druin."

"I suppose that's why you always ride Phantom?" Sylvanas nodded at the jet black steed. It belonged to Malthael the Angel of Death, or so the doctors and the vet technicians at the Horizon Farms in central King's Crest claimed. Malthael may or may not be drawn into the Nexus any time soon, but that didn't stop Tyrael's demonic variant from fawning over it and treating the horse as if it were his own. A boon from Diabolos Himself, he said, to achieve victory in this wretched hive of goodness, although the default Diablo swore up and down on his own name he had nothing to do with summoning the beast here, he didn't know what this Tyrael was going on about.

Phantom snorted softly and stamped his hooves, rustling the armored plates on his body, his tail swishing at the sound of his name. He might be alive, but having a name like that and being associated with death Sylvanas quite liked him. He smelled like dust and coffins that haven't been opened in centuries; other than missing the lingering scent of ozone and failed alchemical potions, it reminded her of home, down in the deep, dark, stinking Undercity.

Tyrael grunted agreeably and patted the horse's flank. "Indeed. I ride Phantom so that if I should ever be summoned here, and on the side of the High Heavens, it will remind Ilarian where my allegiance truly belongs. I need not his sympathy."

"Good. Make you sure stand by that," said Sylvanas. Overhead and unseen, the announcer declared that the match would begin in less than one minute. The flames in the core intensified as the energy shields roared to life, flickering at first and then stabilizing with each strengthening layer. The portcullis to the forts groaned open, the first wave of minions awaiting the command to sally forth and assist their Heroes.

Phantom whickered and scuffed a hoof against the floor, impatient to go. Tyrael stroked his mane roughly, easing the horse just a little longer. "And what of you? What reason do you have for riding...?" he coughed and looked askance at her mount.

Sylvanas understood completely. "You mean this thing?"

"Yes…That. Would you not rather ride on something a little more…what is the word…regal?"

"Tell me you haven't entertained the thought of having your own personal slave at least once in your life," she said.

Tyrael hummed thoughtfully. "Well, yes, I have. I am the Lord of Pride. Why wouldn't I?"

"Then you'd know that you can make a slave do anything, just as much as you can break a beast into doing your bidding."

"Except for Phantom. Phantom wants to do my bidding."

"And so will the treasure goblin. Isn't that right, slave?" Sylvanas looked at the creature from over the rim of its massive sack of loot. It cackled and tried unsuccessfully to do a little happy jig; it only made the gold jingle-jangle-jingle like a thousand little ringing bells. "Watch it!" she snapped, and clamped harder down on the straining 'saddle' (it was really a small treasure chest with the straps stretched all the way across the sack) to keep from falling off.

Tyrael stared oddly, head moving between the Banshee Queen and the antsy treasure goblin. "Are…Are you sure you can handle it?"

"I know what I'm doing! I run a nation back at home! My people made damn sure they listened to me whenever I spoke. This…thing…will be no different!"

"It looks like it is…how do kids like you put it…oh yes, 'raring to go.'"

"Yes, just like everyone in your debased realm. Talk about lack of control."

"It's a den of sin. I don't have to do anything."

"Then you have a lot to learn. And I am most certainly not a kid! I have a good couple thousand years under this rotting belt of mine! Not like you, old man!" Sylvanas sniffed and slapped her heels against the sack. "Let's go, slave!"

The treasure goblin jumped with a start. It bounced on its feet and clapped its overly large hands, cackling, making the contents it carried shake and bounce with its movements. Then, just before Sylvanas could get a firm hold on the saddle, it leaped over the steps, hit the floor, and pelted toward the gate at the middle lane.

The suddenness of its leap bucked Sylvanas off with a squawk, flinging her head over kettle at the foot of the Hall of Storms. The meaty smack of her back kissing the ground rang across the High Heavens like a gunshot.

Tyrael winced. Everyone else turned around and saw her, spreadeagled and staring dazedly up at the fluffy white clouds and pretty shining lights that either had to be magical globes, miniature suns, or lightbulbs that blinked. The Aspect of Sin had Phantom canter down the stairs and stand next to the Banshee Queen, to which he offered a hand. "It would appear I am not the only one in need of learning," he said with the slightest trace of arrogance.

"Sylvanas!" said Sergeant Hammer, her tinny voice amplified through the speakers in the tank. She rolled up before the pair, artillery cannon idle but primed for combat. "Hey, you alright? Man, girl, you shoulda seen yourself! I ain't ever seen anyone do a somersault as flawlessly as you!"

"Sh-Shut up, Hammer," Sylvanas groaned, ignoring Tyrael's outstretched hand in favor of pushing herself up into a sitting position.

"You need something that's more at your beck and call! How's 'bout investing in a siege tank? You can paint it all kinds o' pretty colors and give it a real boss name, too, like Banshee Rider or Hell's Belle…ooh, I know! THE SCREAM QUEEN! It totally suits you!"

"N-Not now, Hammer!" Tyrael hissed hurriedly from what had to be out of the corner of his unseen mouth.

Sylvanas tuned them out, scanning the area for the treasure goblin. The dismount had put her in a foul mood, not to mention that the landing had forced her to take a breath—the coolest, cleanest breath of air she had ever taken in undeath—at least three or so weeks before she was supposed to. It had to be the worst taste in all the Nexus.

Finally, her eyes stopped on the treasure goblin. It was hiding right next to Rehgar in plain sight; maybe, Sylvanas thought, if it wasn't wearing that obnoxious sack, it would've fared better seeking shelter between him and Illidan, or between the ghost wolf's legs.

"YOU!" Sylvanas roared, causing the treasure goblin to squeal in fright. "You are going to carry me and YOU ARE GOING TO LIKE IT! COME HERE!" She got to her feet, drew out her bow, and charged.

The treasure goblin screamed. It ran back and forth across the field, zigzagging madly as arrow after arrow slammed into the floor, whizzed by its ears in haunting wails, and left scorching marks in the stones of the cannon towers and forts. Some shots were absorbed by the core's shield, which reacted and fired lightning bolts at wherever they were aimed from. Sylvanas dodged those, ducking and weaving, eyes never tearing away from the little beast.

Hammer opened the tank's hatch and popped up to watch the spectacle. "Yeah, you go, girl! Give it to 'im!" she whooped. "Show 'im how mama wants it!"

The announcer called for a delay of game. Tyrael put a hand to his forehead and sighed, shaking his head. Phantom snorted and observed the chaos with as bored an expression a horse such as he could muster.

Illidan scoffed. "Foolish woman. She should've gotten herself a real mount. Something that is slow and dumb and can be easily broken."

Rehgar turned away, not needing to see that Sylvanas was more than likely giving the opposing team an advantage given how close the treasure goblin was to the core. "Is that why you're riding the billie goat?"

The night elf made a choked sound, as if someone had sneaked up behind him and abruptly squeezed his neck. He looked down at the bright pink goat with its cotton candy-colored hair, to which his large hands were buried in. Its tail whipped around, bringing to life a streamer of hearts and sparkles. "…All the other mounts were taken."

"You lost a bet playing Hearthstone to Valla again, didn't you?"

"I had everything lined up the way I wanted!" he raged. "Victory was at hand! I was so very prepared, and still I…!"

Rehgar couldn't quite hide the chuckle in his voice. "Heh, at least you'll impress Tyrande. She likes cute things, doesn't she?"

Purple roses bloomed in his cheeks. "I…I dunno," he grumbled lamely. "I…I guess she would like seeing me on this…thing? Bah, but it's all 'Malfurion-this' and 'Malfurion-that'! What does nature have that I don't? I can make horns sprout on my head, too, you know! And these warglaives! Women dig warglaives, don't they?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

Illidan went quiet after that, mumbling under his breath while massaging the billie goat's fine hair.

Chapter Text

Today was July the fourth. For Sylvanas, it was just another day. Even back on Azeroth, when all the goblins got together every hour to set off as many explosives and fireworks as they could until they set buildings on fire, it was simply that. The only day that mattered was Hallow's End, the time when the Forsaken broke free from the Lich King's control and claimed Lordaeron as their own city. A plebian's holiday was nowhere near as important as that.

For the Terrans in the Nexus, however, it was Independence Day. It was some holiday from their planet where these colonies in a country called the United States of America signed this paper called the Declaration of Independence which stated they were no longer part of this other country across the sea called the British Empire. It happened almost a thousand years ago, if Sylvanas got the galactic date right.

When Nova described it to her, it sounded no different than how people back home celebrated: they ate copious amounts of food; they got drunk off their asses; they pissed in bushes because why not; they vomited from the highest points of a building and watched to see if the stuff would land on somebody; they shot themselves up with drugs or pixie dust and acted like the complete morons that they were. That the living were; the undead had much better standards, and Sylvanas made sure her people didn't get too out of line.

So everyone in the Sturmhause and people from all over the Nexus got together and held one big party that started on June the twenty-first, the first day of summer, and tonight was the last day for it.

It was the worst two weeks of Sylvanas's undead life. Everyone was so happy and sugary. They had a freestyle dance competition where at one point they were nearly falling over each other trying to outdo one another (Zeratul had just about put someone's eye out with his legs kicking in all directions—he said the Terrans called it "breakdancing"). They gave out gifts and showed them off, like tossing around pigskins and foot balls ("They're actually called soccer balls," Nova said, "but only in America do we call the sport 'soccer'. Everywhere else it's called 'football'…or, as I like to call it by its Hispanic name, 'futbol.'") or messing around with those dumb Crashin' Thrashin' Racer cars (Hammer couldn't get enough of driving it all over the damn place, including off the Manor's roof).

It was absolute chaos. The air was so rife with sulfur, food, and positive harmonic energies that it would've made Sylvanas diabetic.

Now on this night they were setting off fireworks. Jaina and Kael'thas had to be ushered out of the grounds because the former kept botching up her spells trying to light up the big red rockets and the latter was too busy being an idiot preening like a sex-starved peacock to care he was blowing his share up in their faces. Which wasn't any better, because the nobles had decided to put Gazlowe in charge of getting everything prepared. Take two steps forward and take three steps back, Sylvanas thought. Oh, pitiful mortals, you never cease to amaze me.

She sat away from everyone as they awed and marveled at the fireworks making colorful, intricate explosions in the sky. At least one Hero had the honor of lighting the fuse of a rocket and see it go off into the blue and black yonder. Everyone except her. They could have their gay ole time. She preferred the cold comfort of her back against the tavern's stone wall, bow and quiver at her side, legs pulled up to her chest where she could brood in perfect, self-imposed darkness.

"So Tychus," she told the man towering over her, "if you don't want me scooping out your eyeballs with an arrow and forcing them down your throat, you'll move them right on up back to the sky…where they belong."

The man gave a throaty chuckle. His teeth clenched a big fat cigar and he held a can of beer. Judging by the sway in his stance, he certainly put more than a few away this night. "I, uh, I just…just think you could use some…some company, ya know?" He hiccuped.

"I don't do company."

"Baby, I can do more than company. We don't need no fireworks—"

"I'm undead, you sicko."

"It don't matter—"

"If the lady says no, she says no." Nova came up from behind him and shoved a mug of steaming liquid. "Here, have yourself some Kafa Press and go dunk your head in water. You smell like a brewery."

Tychus glanced petulantly between the drink he was given and the beer he was holding. "What the…? You gave me coffee? How…how's that gonna help?"

"Just drink it. You're not yourself if you don't have a cup of Joe." He gave her a bewildered look. Nova shrugged. "Sorry, I don't have any chocolate bars on me. Anyway," she turned to Sylvanas, "Tychus is right about one thing: you need to blast off some fireworks!"

"I don't do fireworks," said Sylvanas.

"You don't do much of anything!" Tychus exclaimed, and as an afterthought took a sip from the Kafa Press. He licked his lips. "Hey, this is pretty good!" He began to guzzle it down.

Nova shot him a withering glare. "At least shoot one," she said. "We kinda got this checklist going on, and your name's the only one that hasn't been marked."

Sylvanas grimaced. "Eh…."

"Oh, and there's a bet, too. Word around the Manor is that Arthas will win at least…uh," Nova calculated on the tips of her fingers, "fifty thousand gold if you don't participate. Guy asked every peasant and noble that had coin on 'em."

Her ears snapped to attention. "And just what is he going to do with that much gold?"

"Well for one thing he's certainly not putting any donations into the funds we need to rebuild the stables you and Hammer destroyed the other day."

"That was an accident and you know it!"

"I know, but tell that to Valla. So are you gonna do it?"

"No."

"Come on! It'll be fun! Look, this is one of the few times in a year where people try to one-up each other! That sounds like something up your alley."

"Not exactly. I just give out the rousing motivational speech and light the Wickerman on Hallow's Eve. There's nothing exciting about that."

"We still have plenty of rockets! Don't we, Tychus?"

"Holy crap, this stuff actually works!" the man declared. The color in his cheeks had completely dissipated and the imbalance in his posture restored. "Oh, uh, what were you saying?"

"The fireworks!"

"Oh, right! Er, yeah, baby, we still do! I'll even lend ya my minigun if our selection don't impress ya! It'll give you all the dakka you want!"

"My what now? No, don't even bother telling me." Sylvanas silenced the man with an upraised hand. "Arthas can bet all he wants. I want nothing to do with this tomfoolery."

Nova scratched under her chin. "So…you're okay with Arthas using his winnings to purchase a week's worth of television and Internet time to create a single screen that says 'Sylvanas Windrunner is a big, fat phony'?" She put her hands on her hips and leaned forward, so that her shadow dwarfed Sylvanas. "Is that really what you want?"

Sylvanas leaned to the side so she could see past Nova. Most of the Heroes were mingling with a bunch of groupies playing around with some cheap sparklers, cherry bombs, and firecrackers. There were even a few that had to be jury-rigged by Gazlowe himself, like oversized gnomish bottle rockets and the bastard offspring of Pandaren bamboo cannons and goblin turrets. Sylvanas bet one wrong move on his part, anyone's part, and half the courtyard would go up in flames. Maybe it would go nuclear, too. Sure everybody would respawn in minutes, but at least the resulting explosive would leave a very nice-looking crater. The perfect picture to take while on the scenic route.

But the selection was just pathetic. Absolutely piddly. The Royal Apothecaries could make something better than that; and as for launching them—the Wickerman was as far as she would go. These things? She felt her lips pull in a nasty scowl.

Suddenly, an idea came to her. She leaned back to Nova, smiling broadly. "No. No, not at all. You're right. I'll shoot some 'fireworks' off. As a matter of fact," she added, seeing Nova's beaming face, "I'll show you one of my own. How about it?"

"Of course!" said Nova, clapping vigorously. "I love surprises!"

The smile got broader. "Then you'll definitely fall head over heels with this one."

Tychus sniffed. "Woman, I didn't know you knew how to tinker. Where'd you learn it from?"

Sylvanas made a little waving gesture with her hand. "Oh, you know, in between the years I got my body off the meat wagon and picked Lordaeron off the ground. I've had plenty of time to perfect my form. Now, why don't I show you? If my guess is right, my firework has a lot more…ahem, dakka…than what's in your minigun."

Tychus threw his head back and laughed. "Okay! This I've got to see!"

"And so you will." Sylvanas slung the quiver on, took up her bow, and beckoned Tychus and Nova to follow.

Just her luck, Arthas was the first person to notice her approaching. Good. He sneered from behind the darkness of his horrific helmet. "Come to admit you're not woman enough to prove me wrong, Windrunner?" he hissed.

"As a matter of fact, I am," she said. "I can assure you in full confidence you'll be walking to the Sturmhause empty-handed once I'm through with you."

"Is that so?"

"That is so."

Arthas looked at her steadily then at the pile of fireworks arrayed a short ways off from them. He snorted. "Heh. Go ahead. Make my night."

"Go on, Sylvanas! You've got this!" Nova cheered. "Show him what for!"

Sylvanas smirked. "With pleasure." She reached behind her and felt for the straight metal fletchings that comprised the obsidian arrow. She grabbed it and knocked it against the string. Then in one swift movement she aimed skyward and let it loose. It whistled through the air before exploding in a ball of expanding dark energy.

The blood-curdling scream that immediately followed drove everyone to recoil. Most covered their ears and ran away in fear. Others fell to the ground on their knees or in fetal positions, overcome by paroxysms.

Both Nova and Tychus were knocked off their feet onto their asses, the latter sending his coffee and beer flying out of his hands. "JESUS CHRIST!" Nova cried, but Sylvanas could barely hear her over the noise. She was too busy marveling at the sight of Arthas lying prone with his head between his knees, struggling to regain his breath.

She chuckled and flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Now that…that was worth it."

Chapter Text

When the match had ended and everyone had returned to the Manor, Sylvanas had found Abathur standing outside the main entrance, the claw-like fingers on his four hands steepled in front of those beady little eyes and avian beak of a mouth emitting those noxious green fumes. The look he was giving her, from the best she could discern given his alien nature, was smug and triumphant. "Organism Sylvanas," he greeted at her approach with a subtle nod of his head.

She sneered at him. "Don't you start with me! I know why you're here."

"Organism Abathur does not comprehend," he lied, and he pressed his fingers together.

"Well comprehend this: you didn't win the game. You didn't bring down the core. I owned you. I erased you off the face of the map. That's why it took you five minutes to respawn. FIVE." She shoved her hand up close to his face, emphasizing the number of her own outspread fingers.

Abathur made a low, rumbling sound that, to her increasing ire, sounded like laughter. "Terminator still terminated. Not by Abathur. Organism Sylvanas knows this."

And she did, and it infuriated her.

A new battlefield had been introduced into the lineup: the Infernal Shrines. It was part of a months-long event called the Eternal Conflict in which the High Heavens and the Burning Hells waged their war in their pocket dimensions across the Nexus, and Ilarian and Beleth were all too glad to send forth their emissaries to negotiate the terms of agreement with the noble houses and the Powers That Be.

The Shrines had a very simple objective: power up an activated shrine with the souls of thirty demons before the other team. An empowered shrine would open a portal for a massive demon called a Punisher to step out and kick some ass, prioritizing enemy Heroes over forts and keeps. The Punishers even came in three different flavors: Mortar, which unleashed a storm of fire; Frost, which tossed ice that would freeze the ground where it touched; and Arcane, which dropped down bars of magic energy that would spin in place. They punched, they kicked, they jumped and stomped. They could also grab the unlucky sod within arm's reach and fling him or her across the battlefield like a discus or smacked repeatedly like a hammer.

Abathur was lucky to avoid most of the mayhem, as he preferred to hide in niches on the field or in the safety of the core and dispense his symbiotes onto specific Heroes (and just the thought of having his cells and DNA strands in her so he could assist her made Sylvanas itchy and colder than she usually felt). Sometimes he would dig from wherever he was—Point A—emerge onto another part of the area—Point B—plant some locust nests or spit them out before retreating.

So it made sense that, while Sylvanas and her team were getting pounded by the other team and their Punisher, he would take the risk and dig a tunnel toward the opposition's beaten core. All the way on the other side of the Shrines.

Everyone was equipped with a miniature computer provided by the Hero League. It would show the map of the battlefield, the location of each individual Hero, hired mercenaries, and bosses via facial markers (mercs were indicated as a skull, bosses had unique ones), the length of the match, warnings issued of approaching objectives and so on. Such as an unattended core being under attack by bands of minions and catapults with nary a cannon tower or keep to stop them.

Sylvanas recalled she had been taking cover behind a wall, tired and wounded. With her hearthstone in hand she was ready to teleport back to the core to recuperate and deal with the oncoming army when the computer chirped an alert. Having tucked the hearthstone back in a pouch, she dug out the device and checked to see what it was.

Her eyes bulged.

On the screen, in their very base and right on top of the core was Abathur's face.

Abathur, the Evolution Master of Kerrigan's Zerg.

Abathur, whose only weapon of choice other than his locusts and symbiotes was his hands. Hands meant for slapping and clawing.

Abathur, who was slower than Hammer's tank full on fuel while everybody zoomed past her on their mounts and could only crawl like the slug he appeared to be away from danger.

Abathur, who was about to take down the core all by his damn self.

Sylvanas pursed her lips hard, shook her head. "No," she said vehemently. "NO." She scrambled to her feet, snatched her bow, and booked it back to the base, ignoring the Punisher's roars, the crackling ice, and her teammates' cries of pain. "No no no no no no no no no no!"

Closer and closer, the base loomed. But not fast enough. Not enough! Sylvanas screamed and flashed across the glittering white span of the High Heavens toward the creature smacking away at the core, whose shields had deteriorated from the onslaught of spears and hellish magic the minions were flinging.

"NO YOU DON'T!" she cried, and she peppered Abathur full of arrows. He continued scratching until a well-placed arrow in the head literally made him disintegrate.

But still the army had pressed on and the Punisher was drawing near. In her hastiness, Sylvanas picked off the remnants that weren't destroyed by the core's energy beams; it swiveled back and forth, striking down soldiers and catapults (which looked like miniature starships).

Except for the lone locust that was lobbing globules of acidic saliva.

Of all the things that could've brought down the core—the army, the Punisher, the enemy team—it had to be a damn locust.

A locust!

And when Sylvanas had her bow trained on the thing, it was too late.

Abathur drummed his fingers together, studying the rage settling on her face like a mask. His eyes squinted; to a lesser person the emotion in them would be unidentifiable, and Nova, while she had no love for the Zerg, would probably crack a racist joke about the way they were shaped, Sylvanas knew for certain he was making no secret of relishing in her discomfort. The fact that for all her skill she couldn't put an arrow through his locust in time. "Wind runner indeed," he chuckled. "Work harder. Better. Make faster. Stronger. Evolution never over."

Sylvanas nodded tightly. "Oh, I will." She leaned forward and put her face right up to his. "I. WILL. Guard your cradle with your life and sleep with all four eyes open!" She brushed past him with a huff and entered the Manor.

Chapter Text

"Who…in the world…would do such a thing?" Kael'thas sneered at the watermelon. It was as smooth as a pebble and completely red with nary a sign of the green skin that covered it. It sat on top of a china dish in one half of another watermelon skin that was scooped clean of its own fruit, catching the light off the dining room fluorescents.

Sylvanas scoffed loudly and shook her head. She made to move away. "Don't you talk to me like that!" Kael'thas snapped at her. "This is serious!"

"What is there to be serious about? It's a watermelon. We've gone over this before."

"Yes, and the last time it happened I was sick to my stomach!"

"Was it because your childhood was ruined over seeing peas in your precious guacamole or because of the thought of what goes through Stitches's stomach?"

Kael'thas gagged and swallowed back bile. "P-Please don't remind me," he said thickly. "B-But still! No one should be carving their food in this manner! Nor smooth it out as such, especially with steel wool! That cannot be sanitary, and I will not touch food that has been tampered with!"

"On the contrary, my good friend, the Butcher used a dish pan scrubber," said Chen Stormstout. He was backpedalling out of the twin kitchen doors, hauling a keg of (What else? Sylvanas thought sourly) booze in his massive paws. It had to be filled to the brim, for both elves could hear the brew sloshing around in its vast confines. He set it down on the floor next to him with a huff. "I was the one who helped him scoop out the other watermelon. I do not know why he insisted on using an axe for it."

"What!" Kael'thas exclaimed. "Why would you do that?"

Chen gave him a confused look. "Mister Sunstrider, it would be a waste if we were to throw out the watermelon over such a project—"

"Not that! Why would you allow the Butcher of all people to lay his bloody hands on our food?! Have you heard of the things he's done for a living?"

"Hmm, I can't say I have. He is a creature of very few words. He hardly speaks at all. But I do know one thing: he likes knives and meat. Very, very much. He has a great big belly, just like me."

"Because he's a demon, you fool!" Kael'thas cried, and snatching Chen by the lapels of his coat shook him roughly. "Don't you see the horns, the red skin tone, the dirtiness of his weapons? Are you blind? He's called The Butcher for a reason! Carving is all he knows about and all he cares about!"

"And meat, too," Chen added. "If he could open up more, I am sure he would reveal himself to be quite the connoisseur."

"The ignorance in that statement is so astounding you could raise mountains and move them with it," Sylvanas snarled, throwing her hands up in the air. ""Riddle me this, Stormstout: did you and that niece of yours come into the Nexus before or after you wound up in the Eastern Kingdoms?"

Chen tapped a meaty finger to his chin. "Ah, my dear Lady, if my memory serves me right I believe I touched upon the shores well before the First War, on the back of a humbled whale shark—"

"I wasn't being serious about that!" she bit out, making him quail a little at the outburst.

"Oh? Are you sure? It's a very interesting story—"

"Nobody has time for that and I'm not one of them! You want to consort with demons, that's your business, but sooner or later, Stormstout, that fat, inarticulate waste of earthly resources will literally stab you in the back and make a four-course meal out of you! Then maybe your niece will finally get some meat on those bones of hers!"

"I think she's eating quite well," Chen said kindly. "Ah, but the beer—she could afford to drink more. It is in our nature."

"Great. Whatever."

Kael'thas turned his nose up and sniffed. "You tell him, Sylvanas! He has only himself to blame if he doesn't abide to our elven wisdom!"

"I'm not finished here yet," said Sylvanas.

"Whatever do you mean? I think you got the point across well enough—"

"I'm talking about you."

He sputtered. "Wh-What about me? What do I have to do with demons? Why, the very thought! Surely you jest!"

Sylvanas squashed the laughter rising unbidden in her throat. Oh, if only you knew. "I meant that!" She gestured at the shaved watermelon, to which Kael'thas glanced at with the expression of one who just stepped in something gross. "Do yourself a favor: grow a pair, pick them up, and walk away. You getting offended is making me feel offended, and I'll have none of it!"

"But—!"

"But nothing! First it was the peas, now it's the watermelon. Move on already! And you!" She seethed at Chen, who blinked widely at her. "You need to stop giving out free brew to everyone! It's making certain parties get touchy-feely around me! Mark my words; I'll chop anyone's hands off if they so much as show me how to 'embrace the skinship'! Including yours! Then we'll see where your kung-fu fighting leads you!" She stomped out of the kitchen.

Kael'thas shrugged. "My, and she thinks I'm overreacting!"

"She could use a good drink to raise her spirits," said Chen. "Perhaps I can ask Gazlowe if he could help devise a way the undead could imbibe to their heart's content."

"That wouldn't be a very good idea."

"No? We won't know unless we try."

"I wouldn't."

"I see. I suppose I shall go about it another way."

They stood in silence for a moment.

"You said you saved that watermelon you used for the shell?" Kael'thas asked.

"Of course. Would you like some?"

"Count me in! My good friend, I know many a recipe I can impart upon you. Come this way. Perhaps we can make some ourselves some salads…."

Chapter Text

The dance club was bumping and jiving to this strange Terran music (from an era called the Nineteen-Nineties, she was told: an era where kids made the most out of their childhood, mainstream media wasn't a joke, and video games inspired impressionable minds to get in touch with their inner devil), but no one in all the Nexus, Hero or peasant or noble, could convince Sylvanas Windrunner to—as Nova put it—'get down'. "No, I don't do that kind of thing," she said. "I have heard too many comments about 'getting down' in all sorts of manner headed my way in the past and I don't intend to start anytime soon, so you can go on right ahead and shake that…ugh, 'money maker' all by yourself."

"But it's not the same!" exclaimed Nova. The strobe lights above them were flashing an array of psychedelic colors, making her face cycle through the shades of the rainbow; Sylvanas wished black was a part of it so she wouldn't have to look at the wheedling, girlish look the Ghost was giving her. "Dancing is a group activity. I'm not meant to do this on my own!"

"Well you're going to. I don't do dancing."

"Unless the Chief forces you to," and with the Power of Rock, Sylvanas had no choice but to partake in his Mosh Pit. In which case his team would proceed to beat the loving crap out of them until the compulsion wore off or someone got a lucky shot on his guitar, "and when you do it doesn't look like dancing at all! I mean, who does the Macarena while levitating?"

"Ask me when I don't have any choice and maybe I'll tell you. But I'm not dancing." She glanced around. Chen's fat hide was jiggling way too much for her liking; Li Li was…jumping around with her hands up to her ears (the term 'Caramelldansen' flickered vaguely through Sylvanas's mind); Tychus was doing the running man; Raynor…she didn't know what the hell Raynor was doing, other than looking like a fool trying to catch himself from falling and not break his back in the process; and Jaina—what was she thinking, twirling like that? That belonged on an ice rink! Abathur could do better than that, and he was doing the worm! She turned away, shaking her head in disgust.

"Come on! It'll be fun! And don't you tell me you don't 'do fun'; even the so-called heartless Banshee Queen knows how to indulge."

"Only if it involves the suffering of others." Including Nova's, but did that bother her? It sure didn't.

"So pretend to indulge in sadomasochism and sweep me off my feet! You're keeping that body all to yourself. You can't deny the world that."

"I can and I will."

"Please?" Nova pleaded.

"No." Sylvanas turned her nose up at her.

Nova sighed and pursed her lips, tapping her foot on the linoleum. Suddenly she snapped her fingers. "It's because you're shy, right?"

Her ears flapped twice. "What?"

"It's because you're so bad at dancing, you don't want to make a spectacle. You're so bad at it you'll wind up the biggest laughingstock the Nexus will ever know. Is that it?"

They pulled back. "No, that's not it! That's not it at all!"

"It's got to be!"

"It isn't!"

"Then what's there to be ashamed of?"

"I am not ashamed! I am the Banshee Queen of the Forsaken! There isn't a challenge in all the Nexus that I can't do!"

"Then let me teach you! It's never too late to learn!" Nova tacked on quickly, seeing the disapproval slamming down on Sylvanas's face like an automated door.

She threw head back and barked laughter. "You, teach me? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard—"

"Oh oh oh oh! Oh! OH!" Nova gabbled, holding a hand right up to Sylvanas, and if anybody else had done that they would be enjoying a heaping helping of broken bones and enflamed nerve endings. "Oh my God." Her face was one of rapt attention, an emotion that looked very odd on her.

"What?" Sylvanas asked.

Nova's eyes lit up in recognition and elation. "I know this song!"

"What song?" Sylvanas pressed growlingly. This girl was being evasive!

"Ooh, this is the best part!" Nova interrupted her. Again, that hand thrust forward and forced Sylvanas to take a step back.

The Banshee Queen could barely hear the song above the thumping of the subwoofers and the Chief running his fingers hard on the guitar strings. So she gave Nova her precious space and watched her break out into a dance, perfectly in time with the start of the chorus.

Her eyes flew open.

What the hell was this? This wasn't a dance! This was asking to be kidnapped by a giant bird to feed its young…and whole! Forget what she said about Jaina, this was worse! And embarrassing! Okay, that sudden split looked great but the rest…the rest!

There were people here!

Tychus was here!

"Nova," Sylvanas said. "Nova…Nova!" She lashed out and narrowly missed swiping the Ghost upside the head, but thank Darkness, it got her to stop. "Nova! Cut that out!"

That look of pure joy would haunt her for the rest of her undead life. "Why? Doing the Carlton makes this song even better! Gets me in the mood!"

"No, it's making you look like a bigger ass than you already are!" What moron thought it was a great idea to name their dance The Carlton? What the hell was a Carlton?!

"Bigger is better, baby!" Tychus shouted above the din, and he went past the pair doing the Robot. In circles. Sylvanas saw him off with a seething glare.

She turned back to Nova. "You're looking to get lynched if you keep doing that," she snarled.

Nova scoffed. "For your information, this dance was all the rage back in the Nineteen-Nineties. Even now, its legacy lives on in my home dimension among many other dances, like the Harlem Shake, Crank That, and twerking!"

Oh dear Darkness, twerking existed in other dimensions, too?! "Only nerds like Jaina Proudmoore dance like that! They're so desperate for attention they'd do anything to make people notice them! It's why she's still single!"

"But you're not a nerd, and you don't look desperate for attention."

"I don't want any to begin with!"

"Then I'll give you mine," Nova declared. "Like this!" She reached out and took Sylvanas's hands in her own.

Li Li, who happened to be dancing nearby, heard their conversation, but most of all she saw the whole thing. She instantly stopped, whirled around, and, cupping both hands to her mouth, shouted: "EVERYBODY CLEAR OUT! NOVA TOUCHED SYLVANAS!"

"Hot!" said Tychus; he gyrated by her and fist-pumped as he went. He wasn't fazed by the young panda girl quickly ushering him off the dance floor toward the exit. Still, one glance at Sylvanas and the sight of her ears folding low and flat against her skull was enough to send everyone in the opposite direction. Tychus, as much as Li Li was tugging on his arm to get a move on, lingered by the door.

From atop the platform, the Elite Tauren Chieftain sighed explosively and flung the head of his guitar to the floor, creating a many-splintered hole for it to rest in. "Aw c'mon now! You guys always do this! There ain't nothin' wrong with a little PDA!" He shook his head and picked up his instrument. "Live 'n' learn, I tell ya!" he mumbled under his breath as he took his leave backstage.

Sylvanas glared down at their joined hands, then up at Nova. The glow in her eyes was ominous. "You know what this means, don't you?"

Nova smirked. "I'm a ghost, Sylvanas. I'll just come back and keep trying. Now...what would you like to learn?"

"I believe I should be asking you that." She squeezed Nova's hands tightly and moved in.

-

An hour later, under a stormy sky, Nova awoke at the Hall of Storms with Li Li and Tychus peering down at her. Li Li held her fancy umbrella over her head to shield her from the rain. "Thank you," she told the young Pandaren girl; her voice issued forth as a hoarse croak.

"You okay?" Li Li asked. "Can…Can you even move?"

Nova tried to move her arms and legs. They felt like they had been emptied of blood and instead filled with liquid steel. At least there was some feeling in her fingertips, as she managed to elicit a very minor twitch from them. "Doesn't look like it."

"Man, she really made you twist and shout," said Tychus, "and I don't mean your half-baked kung-fu fighting little Li Li's uncle's been teaching ya."

"I got her to dance, though."

He grimaced. "Still, why do you keep at it? I mean, I still think it's hot but…you know…Sylvanas bein' Sylvanas an' all…." He let the sentence trail off lamely with a shrug.

"Because it's worth it," said Nova. "Every," she attempted to sit up on her elbows and fell back with a soft grunt, "time."

"Even so, you should really watch where you cross the threshold," said Li Li. "This is Sylvanas we're talking about. The undead one."

"Doesn't matter which one it is, they're both my friends. No one should be lonely in the Nexus. Not even demons and demigods like Diablo and the Lich King."

"But you'll always draw a line at Kerrigan."

"I'm not just some 'hopeless fangirl' she says I claim to be. She doesn't know what she's talking about."

"And me," Tychus added, and sighed sadly. "Girl, I've never steered ya wrong…no matter how many times I allow my eyes to, uh, wander."

Li Li coughed. "Uh, yeah. Just…keep them still and help her up? Please?"

"Yes, please," said Nova, and if she could she would have lifted her arms and beckoned the large man like a cat wanting to be held. "Don't make me crawl all the way back home with my chin. I hear it's painful." Not only that, but she would make herself look like a fool if Abathur, or even Kerrigan, saw her inch along like a caterpillar.

"Gently," Li Li told Tychus, tacking on the word for emphasis. "My fragile little mind's corrupted enough as it is, but I can do without some things for a few more years."

"Oh, fine! But only because you said 'please'."

"That, and you don't want incur her uncle's wrath," said Nova.

"Yeah, you really don't wanna incur my uncle's wrath. Ancient Pandaren wisdom and all that jazz."

He frowned. "Yes, there is that. Alright, Nova, girl, it's time we head home. I hope you like piggyback rides."

Chapter Text

High up in the belfry, the bells of the Church of Light tolled.

From the gloomy recesses of the Haven of the Dark, the shades wailed.

The cries of townsfolk in pain and in fear reached far and wide, shrill and clear.

But most of all, he could feel the heat. A raging inferno consuming everything in its path, tossing shadows made of soot to taint the earth, the wood, the purity of the air, the fragile borders of flesh—

On the edge of a foggy horizon, the Kaijo tossed its head back and unleashed a roar of triumph that shook earth and heaven.

Time and again you are vanquished, and yet you still come, he thought. It is certainly a conundrum that, in the short time you are in the Nexus, the Darkness has not ensnared you in its eternal prison.

But one day, you will not return.

Far below the Manor, in a vast chasm of steel, chrome, and pylons, the gene-crystal protruding from the center of the massive robot's chest flared a brilliant blue supernova. The machines within the husk stirred to life, powering up tertiary systems and running rapid-fire diagnostics that concluded everything was in the green. The klaxons installed throughout the tunnels would surely send the bridge crew to their battle stations as quickly as humanly possible.

All that left now was the pilot. His pilot, the one whose synch ratio was the highest among the Heroes of the Nexus.

He would sigh if he had the ability to do so. His pilot was so…hardheaded, even more so as a squishy who was undead. Why would anyone want to refuse the call to mete out justice to the invasive Kaijo? There were people to save and housing properties to restore! Money to fundraise and smiles to form! Spirits to raise! Love to spread, that not all was hopeless! That life could still go on! Order could still be restored!

And his pilot wanted nothing to do with any of that! She was…! She was…! What was the phrase? Ah yes, laissez-faire.

How could she say that…and with a face so straight?!

His HUD alerted to the message that, as politely as the messenger could express, if they should activate the failsafe as soon as he returns to his body and ready to launch?

Yes. The failsafe.

The failsafe always worked. It worked because, like it or not, she had no choice.

But it got the job done, didn't it?

He would have preferred Zeratul to be his pilot, but on top of having a less than average synch ratio and a penchant for making flashy entrances from the comforts of the shadows. "Like those ninja in Terran manga," he would say, and the hologram would wish so much he had been programmed to emulate a sigh instead of ripple with snowy static.

Well, she would have to do. At least until Artanis arrived.

On the other hand, it was amusing seeing her unknowingly segue into the role of 'hot-blooded main protagonist' while they were kicking ass. That was a sight and a tale he and everyone else would never let her live down. Sometimes a person just had to free the beast, as long as it was healthy and unleashed upon the unclean, the heretic, and the impure!

So he sent a brief reply back to Jaina Proudmoore that, yes, she had the go-ahead to start the failsafe and to remain on standby. He closed out the window and drank in the view of the Kaijo Diablo, who broached ever closer on the horizon.

Project Tassadar, codenamed T-455474R by the engineers of the AIUR Geofront, took one final glance at Diablo, and then dissipated in a cloud of digital data.

It was time to cancel the Apocalypse!

-

"What's it say, what's it say?!" Hammer chirped, latching onto Jaina's shoulder with a mighty glomp. The force of the impact nearly shoved Jaina's face into the battle station's instruments.

"B-Back up! I c-can't breathe!" Jaina gasped, and she lunged back and threw Hammer off. Smoothing down her robes, she turned the holographic monitor toward Hammer so she could see. "Here. He just sent this."

Hammer's eyes lit up as soon as she finished reading the response. "Aw hell yeah! Time to rain down some hellfire! When do we start?"

"As soon as Sylvanas synchs up with him."

"Lucky girl! Why couldn't I have gotten a higher ratio? She gets to have all the fun!"

"Oh, I'm sure she'd given anything to trade places with you," Jaina said, chuckling. "But it is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it."

"Actually there is," said Hammer. "We can help by smashing that glass again!" She jabbed a finger at the big red button protected behind a thin, transparent shield. There was a latch you could undone to lift the glass and set the launch, but that was boring and nowhere near as fun. "I wanna try!" She made to raise her arm above her head.

Jaina stopped her, almost falling out of her chair in the process. "By the Light, wait until she gets here!"

"Well we can't have you doing it again. Last time you did, you broke all the bones in your hand!"

Jaina stammered and averted her gaze. "I-It was the heat of the moment! I didn't realize until then I wasn't using magic to mitigate the damage…."

"And we don't want a repeat of it, now do we? So," said Hammer gently, in contrast to the quivering and the sinews bulging on her arm, "if you'll be so kind as to…let…go…."

"I assure you, I won't be foolish as to injure myself a second time," Jaina assured her, while a cloak of purple magic lined her tightening grasp.

"Hammer, you had your turn last time! I'm going to press the big red button!" Nova declared, taking long strides toward Jaina's station. "And Jaina, you shouldn't put so much strength in your hand! There's a time and a place for you to act like you're in the quintessential shounen manga, and this ain't one of them! Relax, and let me handle it!"

"And when is it going to be my turn?" asked Kerrigan. She was leaning back in her seat with her feet up on the dashboard and her hands clasped over her chest. "I've been for, like, I don't know, whatever passes for a month in this place? Let me push the button. You don't get a free pass just because you staked your claim as Sylvanas's so-called waif—"

"YOU CAN WAIT YOUR TURN, GODDAMMIT!" Nova snapped, cheeks blazing a healthy shade of red.

"I don't understand what the big deal is," said Valla from the far corner of the room. "It's a button. Why should it matter who presses it?"

"It does matter!" Nova exclaimed. "Have you never heard of shounen manga?!"

"The closest to that word would be 'mange', so…no. I haven't." Valla puffed out her cheeks in irritation. "I come from a dimension that does not have these computers or books that force you to read from right to left. Use your brains."

"Rock paper scissors!" Hammer suddenly said. "Let's decide it right here, right now!"

"Yeah…no," said Kerrigan, shaking her head. "That's not happening."

"It's the only way!"

"Just let me do it just this once and you can merrily smash that button to your heart's content as much as you want. That's all I'm asking."

"Fair is fair!"

"Let me remind that I'm still Queen Bitch of the Universe regardless of what universe I'm in. I don't have to play fair. There are no exceptions."

"Whoever gets to Jaina's station the fastest gets to smash it and that's final!" said Nova. "I've got this in the bag!"

"I can't believe we're arguing over this," Jaina groaned, resting her forehead against the monitor…even as it passed through.

From the audio receptors, a loud, static-filled sound interrupted the escalating argument; it sounded eerily like a cough instead of a burst of communication lines adjusting to the right channel. "Excuse me, humans! I do not mean to intrude, but I am well and ready for enemy contact! You may activate the failsafe now! The sooner the better, if I do say!"

"Oh, Tassadar!" Jaina straightened up. "Sorry to keep you waiting! We'll summon Sylvanas right now—"

"We still need to decide who presses the button," Hammer insisted.

"It's going to be me," said Kerrigan. "I've waited too long for this moment."

"No, it'll be me!" said Nova. "I'm the only person here who gets the Universal Greeting right!"

"I'll press it, just so you lot can clam up and we can get this over with," said Valla. "And besides, I need to get back to the stables soon."

Jaina slammed her hands on the dashboard, being mindful to not hit the glass over the button. "Everyone has a button on their stations! If you want to break it and have a dozen shards of broken glass in your flesh, then by all means go right ahead! This button is no different than the ones you have!"

Everyone paused. Even Tassadar's visage, which peered down on the group from the massive supercomputer screen, froze, the alien eyes of his virtual persona wide and luminescent with shock. To break the tension, he elicited another burst of static. "Did…Did you all not know you had separate buttons?"

"Of course we know!" Kerrigan sniped at the projection.

"Then why?"

"Because it ain't the same, buddy boy!" said Hammer.

"But what is it about Miss Proudmoore's button that makes it so special?"

"It's the closest to that big ole screen of yours!" said Nova. "Jaina gets to see all the action front and center!"

"But does it matter?"

"Yes!" echoed all but Jaina and Valla; the latter promptly covered her face with the palm of her hand, while the former shook her head in obvious exasperation.

"I…I see. Well then, if one of you would be so kind as to call Sylvanas-Commander…?"

Like an oncoming wave, Nova, Hammer, and Kerrigan rushed toward Jaina's station. At the same time, Jaina shot from her seat, whirled around, and with an outstretched hand blasted them away with a tide of pure ice. They were pushed up against the wall and frozen in place as swiftly as they charged. Their struggle was both sad and amusing, but she was from far either mind. "You can settle your petty argument right where you are! But please keep it down; I have a job to do!"

"Fine by me," said Valla, reclining back in her seat, smug and triumphant shining on her face. "I have this space all to myself now." She tilted her head back over the headrest, towards the ensnared women. "From this angle, I'd say the view is spectacular. For you? Not so much."

"K-Kinda hard to enjoy it when your t-t-tanks are freezing!" Hammer complained through the chattering of her teeth.

"Or if your wings are frozen," Kerrigan added with a sour frown. "I could really use a stretch."

"JAINA!" Nova cried, causing the other two to flinch. "Make sure Sylvanas says the Universal Greeting! Don't forget what happened the last time she mispronounced it!"

"Yes, please do!" said Project Tassadar. "It is a very unkind phrase in the tongue of my people, even if her slip was unintentional!"

"I don't know about that," Jaina murmured to herself. Then, more loudly and addressing the rest of the room, "Right then!" She crossed her fingers together, stretched them out before her, and popped the bones. Then, flipping the glass cover off, Jaina curled a hand into a fist and lifted it. "NEXUS DRIVE…ENGAGE!"

She smashed the button as hard as she could. This time, with that protective layer of magic.

-

Far removed from the Manor and Kaijo Diablo's scene of destruction:

Why am I doing this? Sylvanas asked herself again. She stared at the lake's unmoving surface, the plastic bait floating serenely now as it did an hour ago. The icebox next to her remained empty of game, the contents within filled more with water than ice. The tacklebox filled with hooks, worms dug fresh from the earth, and balls of cheese that had long since hardened from exposure to the air sat open behind her in the very center of the Viking longboat.

"Have ye caught anythin' yet?!" Erik hollered at her…from atop the ship's figurehead.

She cringed, ears flickering hard and fast at the sheer volume. The nerve of that pint-sized, time-displaced fossil! "No," she said as evenly as she could, the hands holding the fishing pole trembling with restrained fury. "No, I haven't."

"Well I hope we find somethin' soon! And I hope those two dingdongs come back with the real big game! Not the puny little quails or bunny rabbits; those are appetizers! I'm talking about deer! Bears! Maybe even Bigfoot!"

I know exactly where my foot's going to be in the next sixty seconds if you don't SHUT THE HELL UP. "You will have your fill in due time. Be patient."

Erik snorted and ran a hand through the thick curls of his beard. "It's that necklace of yores that's keepin' the fish away! Whadja say it smelled like again? Nay-palm? Ha! 'Nay', indeed! No wonder we haven't had any luck! You smell better than ya did without it!"

Her lips pinched together. She felt the bones in her fingers tense, ready to break. Slowly, she looked over her shoulder and saw that Erik the Swift had his back turned to her. "I highly doubt that's the case, my good man," she said, drawing the dagger from its sheath. "Perhaps it's just…one of those days." She let go of the pole and softly, carefully, got to her feet.

The short Viking crossed his arms over his chest, humming thoughtfully. "Maybe…but that stench! That stench has gotta go!"

"But it's just blood!" hailed a deep, gruff voice. "Blood's what puts the hairs on yer chest!" Baelog and Olaf emerged from the woods surrounding the lake, the former hauling the carcass of a deer across his shoulders, the former dragging a bear behind him by one of its hind legs as though it were a ragdoll. Sylvanas whirled around, sat down, dropped the dagger back in its place, and resumed her position at the fishing pole, faking the indifference fishermen were wont to have.

Erik stamped his foot. "Well it's about time ye showed up! What took ya?"

"There's a giant lizard on the loose!" said Olaf. "He's-a breathin' fire everywhere and smashin' houses left 'n' right!"

"Yeah! And half a house just happened to land right in front o' us as soon as we were leavin'!" said Baelog. "We had to take the scenic route…again! And you know what that means we take the scenic route: we get lost…again!"

"I thought I heard-a screamin', too…but I think those were just birds!" Olaf glanced at Baelog. "Birds can be loud, too, right?"

"Aye, too damn loud for my likin'! We oughta slug one next time we go a-huntin'!"

"Wait a minute," Sylvanas said under her breath. She raised her head from the stillness of the lake toward the vast greenery of the forest and beyond. Toward civilization. "Giant lizard…breathes fire…screaming…Oh no." Her face drew back in dawning disbelief. "No." Then, more loudly, eyes flying wide open: "NO."

The air freshener around her neck began to glow blue and make a high-pitched keening sound that forced the Vikings to stop and cover their ears. Sylvanas shot up, stumbled, and caught herself against the boat's railing. "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!" Pinpricks of light drifted off her body and into the air, the result of her molecular structure breaking down and rearranging for inevitable teleportation.

"It's a Nexus portal!" Baelog cried.

Olaf scrambled backwards, jaw agape. "Oh no, she's a-goin' ghost!"

"Good riddance, I say!" said Erik, raising his voice above the din of the noise. "Maybe now I can actually catch something!"

"Then I hope you choke on it, you damn pygmy!" said Sylvanas, and whatever else she wanted to say was cut short. Her form collapsed into a beam of light that rocketed toward the sky like a shooting star and vanished.

-

When she regained consciousness, she found herself sitting in the pilot's seat housed within the metallic bowels of Project Tassadar. And, to her chagrin, wearing the risqué, skin-tight outfit passing for a jumpsuit; the plug attached to the small of her back lay unconnected to the I/O port behind her. "God…dammit!" she swore, and then winced as the needles in the armrests punched into her wrists and injected her veins with cold, numb molasses. The lights on the instrumentation panels winked and danced in coordinated patterns, and the monitors around her displayed an assortment of graphs and charts of internal systems synchronization.

A holographic screen appeared before her, presenting Project Tassadar's virtual visage. "I greet you, Sylvanas-Commander!"

Sylvanas looked away, leering. "Ehhhh…."

A smaller window popped up below Tassadar. "Now Sylvanas," said Jaina Proudmoore, "I believe this is the part where you enlighten your companion with the Universal Greeting. Correctly."

"You're the one who brought me here, didn't you? There'll be a special place for you in whatever serves for a hell here when we're through with that Kaijo."

"That's great, but really, Sylvanas, say it right this time."

Sylvanas rolled her eyes. "Must I?"

"Yes, you must—"

"I insist, Sylvanas-Commander!" said Project Tassadar, speaking over Jaina. "Proper pronunciation and syntax is key to forging an everlasting bond between comrades and ensures a stable synch ratio!"

"I want off this ride," Sylvanas grumbled, lips pulling back.

"Do not be shy, Sylvanas-Commander! I believe in you! That last time…that last time was an unfortunate circumstance! You did not know any better! Come now, say it with me: BAH WEEP GRANAH WEEP NINNY BONG!"

Sylvanas groaned and bowed her head. "Darkness, just smite me where I am and take me to hell already," she uttered under her breath.

"What was that?" Jaina asked, perking up at the incoherent transmission. She appeared confused, but there was something in her expression that suggested she may or may not have quite heard those words.

"Do I have to?" Sylvanas asked, giving the mage an unamused glance.

"The longer we sit here, the more destruction Diablo's going to cause," said Jaina, "so please, for all our sakes, just say it and we can get this problem over with. The sooner the better."

"What's even the point? Everybody will just come back, anyway."

"Be you not ashamed, Sylvanas-Commander!" Tassadar chimed in. "I, too, have trouble speaking-expressing the complexities of the human words-language! Allow me to repeat the Universal Greeting more slowly for your convenience: BAH WEEP—"

"Granahweepninnybong," Sylvanas finished quickly. "There, I said it. Can we go?"

Jaina glared at her. "That didn't sound very sincere—"

"Don't care." Sylvanas closed out the window, took the plug and jacked it into the port. The instrumentation panels and machines turned a soft, hazy blue and elicited a steady, droning thrum—the synchronization process of positive and negative harmonic energies between pilot and mecha, the gateway to power overwhelming. "Now are you going to launch us or not?" She reclined in the seat and remained still as the visor settled down over her face and closed around her, displaying real-time visual and audio feed of her surroundings, Tassadar's systems, and their linked gene-bond.

A sigh crackled through the audio receptors. "You're incorrigible, you know that? Fine then." A pause, as she looked off to the side. "Valla, open the gates."

"Unlocking," said the demon hunter, and there was the tremulous sound of grinding metal. From beyond the mecha, earth rained down on the station. "Gates 1 to 5 now unlocked. Launch preparations are now complete. Systems all green. You're clear to go."

"Joy," said Sylvanas, without a trace of said emotion. "Standby ready in ten…nine…eight—"

"GOOD LUCK, SYLVANAS!" Nova's voice cried, causing the Banshee Queen to flinch.

"Yeah!" said Hammer's voice. "Whoop some ass for me, will ya?"

"You're just jealous that you're not the one piloting Tassadar," said Kerrigan's voice.

"Nuh-uh! I ain't even mad! See?"

"Wow. How very convincing. With a face like that, you could pass for Stitches's sister and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

"HEY NOW!"

"Man, ignore those two!" said Nova's voice. "The future of the Nexus lies on you, Sylvanas! Knock 'em dead!"

I'll do more than knocking when I come back, Sylvanas brooded, glowering. Be grateful you won't be the first to fall. "Are you ready, Tassadar?"

"NOW MORE THAN EVER!" proclaimed the robot. "LET US DISPENSE ORDER IN THE NAME OF LOVE AND JUSTICE!"

Her features darkened. "For you, yes, but for the last and final time I will remind you again: I am not and never will fight for love ever aga—!"

The thrusters on the soles of Tassadar's exploded to life and propelled him high up through the tunnel at a velocity that forced the wind out of Sylvanas and her body to be pressed painfully into the contours of the seat. She hung onto the handles, clenched her muscles and teeth and flattened her ears in the hopes that the pressure wouldn't cause her to spontaneously explode into dust, but that still didn't stop the keening "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"from escaping.

-

Everyone in the station watched them disappear in silence, heads tilted back as far as they could go.

"…Is she going to be okay?" Nova asked.

"I…I don't know," said Valla, and she put a hand over her eyes to see if she could discern Project Tassadar among the shadows the fluorescents tossed across the walls. She couldn't.

Jaina tried to unsuccessfully burn a hole in her keyboard with the power of her glare and protruding lower lip. "She hung up on me…."

"Why are you mad?" Hammer asked. "I should be the one getting my keister launched into space, not her! Man, what's a girl like me gotta do to get a higher synch ratio?!"

"Fill a moat with your tears and build a bridge over it, for starters," said Kerrigan, rolling her eyes. "God, put a sock in it. You lucked out, fair and square. Now be a good girl, suck it up, and wait for this ice to melt ANY DAY NOW. Wake up, Proudmoore, I'm freezing over here!" But Jaina ignored her, lost in her own world and tapping random keys on the keyboard.

Hammer tucked her head in and whined. Her legs were frozen solid, so all she could was lamely beat her fist against the wall. Valla sighed and turned away in disgust.

-

All across the Manor and its fairgrounds, everyone ceased what they were doing and turned their heads up at the yellow speck rising to the heavens.

Li Li reached the top of the hill, Raynor and the High Templar Tassadar tagging along behind her. Just like Valla, she shielded her eyes against the sun and indicated Project Tassadar's form with an outstretched finger. "Wow! So cool! Just look at them go!"

Raynor joined her at her side, mimicking her gestures. He whistled lowly. "Hot damn, if there ever was a sight! Who'd have thought you'd make a kickass robot?"

"Friend Raynor," Tassadar began, "I would never have guessed my other self would become host to a…less than desirable Chosen One. I cannot help but wonder what the fates were thinking."

"They must see something in Sylvanas if they made her a pilot. And hey, the town's still standing! You gotta give credit where it's due."

"Don't forget, Tassadar chose her," said Li Li. "I'm sure he knows what he's doing!"

Tassadar hummed thoughtfully, his eyes expressing doubt. "I hope you are right, little Li Li. Perhaps the Lady Sylvanas will prove me wrong, in one fashion or another…."

-

"The next time we sortie, you had better warn me in advance!" Sylvanas snapped at the disgustingly cute, super-deformed VI projection of the mecha on her dashboard, "or Adun Prime help you, I'll rip your gene-crystal from your chassis and have that blowhard Hammer use it as a ballistic missile! See how you like being launched that way!"

"My apologies, Sylvanas-Commander, but we cannot tarry!" said the VI. "The threat must be neutralized before it can deal any permanent damage to the Nexus!"

"Then transform and let's get on with it already! You've been hanging in midair for over a minute!"

Project Tassadar glanced around himself, at the systems outputs, turned around and studied the visual of the forest and hillocks rolling far and away where they met the horizon and vanished over yonder. Pillars of smoke swirled above the treetops as though they came from chimneys and not an evil, out of control Kaijo. An explosion sundered the air as if to emphasize her point, followed by a colossal fireball of warm primary colors. "…Oh. Well then, I suppose we should get a move on."

"Yes, you should! Before I decide to eject and have you go solo!"

"That is unthinkable! Come, Sylvanas-Commander, there is no time to waste!"

"That's what I want to hear! GET MOVING!"

"EXCELSIOR! THEN LET US RIDE FORTH AND PURGE THIS FOUL MENACE FROM THIS LAND! HEN. SHIN!" The interior rocked back and forth as his body reconfigured into the shape of an airplane, and system outputs and the HUD changed to meet the accommodations. A reticule appeared on the center of the screen and Sylvanas's visor.

She gripped the handles tightly. "LET NONE SURVIVE!"

"MEGA THRUSTERS ARE GO!"

-

Finally, for better or worse, the hero that we haven't been waiting on has arrived.

She is not the hero the Nexus neither needs nor deserves, but she is called upon all the same.

She is the Banshee Queen, SYLVANAS WINDRUNNER!

Chapter Text

"…Well," Li Li said after the silence dragged on long enough, the word forming on a vapor of white smoke before evaporating. "This is…disappointing. I kinda expected it to be…you know, an actual cloud, and not, uh—"

"That?" said Sylvanas.

"Yeah. Exactly." They regarded the floating piece of hexagonal tile, one of boredom and one of dismay. The words CLOUD9 was embossed beneath the logo of a cloud, drawn in the curlicue manner of three number nines, but other than that and the blue trim around it there was nothing too impressive about it. Simplistic, if one could see that kind of artistic value in it. "I mean, it has a good design, but that's just it. It's too hard. It needs to be soft and fluffy, like a real cloud! If the sponsors are going to commission a mount in their name, it should at least look the part!"

"A shame it doesn't have any spikes to dig into somebody's ass." That was one thing she could appreciate about Horde architecture (and, reaching further, the designs of the Gilneans and her own folk): they had plenty of spikes to go around. She had thought them ugly and unsightly, too tribal for the likes of a fanciful lady such as herself, but then the Siege of Orgrimmar happened and friend and foe alike were impaled with extreme prejudice upon the pointed ends of blockades, ramparts, battlements…goodness, Garrosh put them everywhere. It was an even bigger pity that nearly everyone suddenly became a bleeding heart in the span of sixty seconds and put him on trial instead of, well, taking a spike and ramming it through that oafish brain of his. Or maybe egg Jaina on with that newfound hate of hers and have her put an ice pick in his heart, or maybe his eyes; Darkness, his eyes were so piggish. How could he stand to eat boar when he looked and sounded like one—

"Well I'd rather a spike doesn't dig into anybody's ass! Not even a mule's! No one deserves that kind of discomfort!" Li Li said firmly. "It's Winter Veil. Come February, this thing will be off the market. Collectors from all over the Nexus will be hounding us celebrities for even just a scraping of the engine's nanomolecular paneling!"

"Better that than your fluffy cloud. They would get nothing but cotton balls."

"Yet you ride on colorfully vibrant goat refugees that fart glitter and rainbows. GLITTER and RAINBOWS, Sylvanas," Li Li emphasized with a shake of her hands.

"I don't lose bets in Hearthstone. That's why Illidan's dead in our default sector."

"Hey, I don't know about that. Call it a gut feeling."

"Then he should be better more prepared, don't you agree?"

"I bet you ten gold he'll surprise us one of these days. Or, at least the Illidan that wasn't taken into the Nexus."

"That's a conversation I will not indulge myself in. Leave that to the bronze dragons. Oh wait, they can't. Thank you very much, Thrall!" Sylvanas mumbled this last under her breath, lips pursed and shaking her head.

"Well, anyway, back to our topic: if people can ride on goats that are commonly mistaken for cartoon ponies, they can ride on clouds," said Li Li. "There's this story I heard way back on the Wandering Isle about Son Wukong, the Monkey King. Apparently a long time ago he was given the Kinto'un, the Somersault Cloud, as a gift from the Celestials after making a journey from the Jade Forest to the Dread Wastes and back on foot during a time when the mantid were making their attempts to go over the Serpent's Spine. Others say he already had the cloud, but that he was only allowed to ride it when his quest was complete. Master Shang Xi used to say that thing was really fast and could cover great distances in a matter of minutes. The only drawback was that only the pure of heart could ride it."

Sylvanas hummed appreciatively. "That's very convenient. If it's that fast and there are many more like it, the Forsaken could spread blight and destruction and conquer Azeroth in a heartbeat. They would be unstoppable!"

Li Li stared at Sylvanas as though she had suddenly sprouted a second head. "Let me repeat that for you: you have to be pure of heart."

"Well of course the Forsaken are pure of heart. They have the best intentions."

"For themselves."

"Indeed. Would you not consider that pure?"

"Uhhh…." Li Li glanced to the left, then to the right up at Sylvanas, who glared back at her, stared at the snow between her feet, to which she shuffled them and kicked the smattering of flakes off. She brought up a fist, coughed into it, and rubbed her hands together. "Well then. I suppose we better head back inside and warm up. It's pretty cold out here."

"Oh you're telling me!" said a female voice. "What I wouldn't give to be by a fire right about now!"

Sylvanas and Li Li looked down the row of the pens and saw a four-legged creature sitting on her haunches. Her lower body resembled that of a spotted deer. Her upper half, however, was more humanoid and night elven, with wide amber-colored eyes, long foliate ears, and a long shock of green bedecked in snow, leaves, and thorny brambles; Sylvanas so desperately wanted to call it a weave, especially since the creature wore an expression of outright displeasure and had her teeth clenched together, presumably to keep them from chattering.

"Holy moly! A talking deer!" Li Li exclaimed, and she pelted down the aisle to get a better look.

The deer-lady scoffed and tossed her head back, shaking loose a powdery white shower from her antlers. "I am not a deer! How would you like it if I called you a tailless skunk, or a wild dog?"

"Oh, that's old hat!"

"Yes, and at your age you wouldn't be able to keep it on," said Sylvanas, coming up behind Li Li. "A coat rack would do a better job than you keeping an old hat together."

"And the hat will always look better than you," said the woman. She harrumphed, turned up her nose, and flicked her tail, but the air around her was thick with smug triumph; she did not need to see the Banshee Queen glowering at her, but she did hear the bamboo umbrella snap shut with a vicious click. "Anyway," she resumed, regarding her guests. "I am not a deer. I act nothing like a deer. I am a dryad. I am Lunara, the First Daughter of Cenarius. I am also the latest Hero to be called into the Nexus."

Sylvanas snorted. "Who would've guessed?" Li Li smacked her hip with the back of her hand.

But Lunara nodded. "Indeed. Who would've thought that I, a child of the gods, would be mistaken for a peasant's mount and be held against my own will in the muck and filth among the more base variants of the animal kingdom? They even tried to put a saddle on me! A saddle! I am not like those druids who like to go into stag form and offer free rides around Darnassus, you know!"

"That's terrible!" said Li Li.

"I know! The water tastes like eggs, the food is bland and mixed with chemicals, and there's simply not enough space for me to gallop around in! I want freedom! Clean air! Organic sustenance! And a mortal to run my spear through for the injustice they have brought upon me!" She snatched the carved bough from the ground and shook it once at them.

"We're immortal," said Sylvanas. "We don't stay dead in the Nexus."

"Then damn my stiff, cold and weary hooves, I will simply go on a rampage until my vengeance has been sated! And if I should die I will come back and do it again! And again! I will not be treated in such a manner!"

"Hey now, there's a better way to go about this!" said Li Li. "It's bloodless, too! Sylvanas and I will go to the administrator's office and explain the situation. He'll see it was a mistake and fix it in no time—"

"Or you could just go on that rampage," Sylvanas interjected, ignoring the look of chagrin the panda girl sent her way. "Look, let's be real for a moment here: for being the daughter of a demigod, you sure like to complain a lot. Hear me out," she added, silencing the outrageous protest ready to fly from Lunara's lips. "They made a fool out of you. So long as you sit here, they're going to keep treating you like some circus animal. Seize your destiny, Lunara! Make an example of them ten times over until they see the error of their ways!" She shrugged nonchalantly. "After all, we're stuck here indefinitely. You may as well make the most of it, for what it's worth—"

"IT SHALL BE DONE!" Lunara cried, and bounded over the gate in a single, graceful leap that would put a basketball player to shame. She lashed out behind her with her back hooves and knocked the fence down, then reared up on them and kicked the air with the front, stabbing the spear's point at the wintry downfall. Sylvanas snatched Li Li by the shoulders and pulled her back, narrowly avoiding being struck. She was about to take off when she paused. "Oh, and just for the record," she said, looking at Sylvanas, "this was my idea. Not yours. I was totally not inspired, whatsoever."

Sylvanas nodded, lips thinned. "Right. You were biding your time. Gotcha."

"I mean it! Your rousing speech didn't do any wonders!"

"Then you better get a move on, then, before someone makes leather out of you."

"Or humble pie!" Li Li piped up.

"Oh, I will humble these fine folk tonight," Lunara growled. "Tonight, they dine not on pie or meat but on the BLOOD OF THEIR FOLLY!" She galloped off, kicking a backwash of snow and ice in their faces. Li Li sputtered and wiped her face clean of it while Sylvanas, ears flattened against the sides of her skull, huffed and shook her head like a wet dog coming out of a bath.

Coming around the corner toward the stables, there came the sound of orcish laughter. Rehgar appeared, dressed in a red suit and hat, overly large yellow gloves and boots. A beard made of feathers spilled down his chest, accentuated by the plastic red ball planted squarely on his nose. He hauled a sack full of toys and goodies across his back. "HO HO HO! What seems to be all the ruckus about? Winter Veil is a time to be gay and merry! Whatever vitriol you may, you should save it for later—"

"OUT OF THE WAY, GRANDPA!" Wood flashed in a blur and struck Rehgar upside the face, knocking him off his feet and bowling him over onto his stomach. The sack fell in a rustle and a jingle. Lunara ignored him and kept on going, her tracks the only sign that remained of her passing.

"Rehgar—I mean, Greatfather Winter!" Li Li cried. "Are you alright?"

Rehgar picked himself up off the ground. With the back of his hand he wiped his mouth and saw that the material was covered in a strip of blood. He sneered, and a dangerous light entered his eyes. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine, little girl. Greatfather Winter has suffered worse than this."

"Yes," Sylvanas drawled sarcastically, "poor, ole Rehgar. How scoured your pride must be to be sucker-punched by a dryad of all things."

He clenched his teeth. "No, little girl, this has nothing to do with pride. Or double standards, for that matter!"

"Who the hell are you calling little—"

"This," Rehgar continued, pulling off his gloves and throwing them to the ground, "oh this! Somebody's just got herself a heaping full of coal for Winter Veil…and so. Much. MORE! Ho! HO! HO!" He tore the beard from his face, yanked off the hat, leaped forward and transformed into a ghost wolf; the bulb on his nose glowed so bright and so very, very red. In the dark and whiteness of the land, it was a homing beacon that raced further and further away from them.

And as Li Li and Sylvanas watched and listened, toward the lights and sounds of festivity. Soon there were shouts, cries of surprise, glass breaking, wood snapping, gunfire popping, thunder crackling, magic exploding, and the guttural roar of a hungry, angry Stitches. Somewhere among all that, Chen and Brightwing laughed, one drunkenly and another maniacally. "YES, YES!" cried the faerie dragon. "More HELLFIRE! More MAYHEM! MORE, MORE, MORE!" As if on cue something exploded, followed by an elephant's distressed trumpet; they could barely hear Gazlowe shouting for Peanut to come back before it dissolved into a litany of vicious swearing.

Li Li and Sylvanas looked at each other, and then looked back into the darkness. They stayed like that for a while until the chaos receded and silence returned to the pens.

"Well," Li Li began, shifting from one foot to the other, "that was…uh…."

"Ridiculous," Sylvanas finished for her. "Don't look at me like that," she tacked on at the annoyed face the panda girl sent her way, "it was either that or continue being miserable. Personally I hope she gave Rehgar a good sticking through; he's so into his role I'll bet you he thinks he's Greatfather Winter himself. Not like that troglodyte of an abomination is any better…."

Li Li turned away, shaking her head. Her eyes fell upon the discarded sack. "Hey! He forgot about the gifts!" She plodded over to them.

The Banshee Queen snorted. "Leave them. If he's not too lost in bloodlust, he'll remember and come back for them. If not, someone will notice and take them someplace else. It's none of our concern."

"It's a bit wet, but at least nothing fell out," Li Li murmured under her breath, pawing at the sackcloth material and poking at the shaped lumps of gifts here and there. Satisfied, she got to her feet, turned around. Looked Sylvanas Windrunner square in the eye and, steeling herself, smacked the top of the sack. "Sylvanas, how do you feel about performing a Winter Veil miracle?"

Her ears quivered, lifted slightly. "What?" she said, as flat as can be. Then, as realization dawned on her: "No. Out of the question."

"Come on, Sylvanas!"

"I said no!"

"You saw what happened! Rehgar and Stitches will be too busy respawning at the Hall of Storms. It's up to us to finish the job! All the little boys and girls of the Nexus, the nobles and the peasants, the Heroes and the Villains, are counting on us to bring them joy and cheer!"

"Then you can go right on ahead!" Sylvanas waved her away dismissively. "I want nothing to do with it! What do I look like, that stupid elf on a shelf?"

"With the way you're acting, yah-huh!"

"Ugh, you're insufferable!" Sylvanas put her back to Li Li. "Go ask the other Sylvanas! She's lame enough to oblige to your request and do whatever you please!"

"She's probably dying out there, too!"

"Then go ask someone else! Anyone, for that matter! I don't care who it is as long as it doesn't involve me!" She bore up the umbrella and snapped it open. "Now, if that's been settled, I bid you good night, Li Li Stormstout!"

She had not gotten several steps in when Li Li called out, "Anybody I want, right?"

"That's right!" Sylvanas called back.

"Then I guess you don't mind if I invite all the girls. You know, Jaina, Valla, Kerrigan, Hammer, even Nova. We'll all pile up in Hammer's siege tank and we'll blast the presents out one by one. Well, after we play a few rounds of jankenpon and the catfighting's out of the way. There's always the risk of hitting the wrong button and, uh, blowing up another building again, like you did with the stables—whoa!"

She was hauled off the ground and into the air, her feet kicking lamely against the ranger's sternum. So she found herself staring into a frosty crimson glare, folded ears, and a ragged scar across the pale blue skin of her nose. Her heart thrashed against the ball of Sylvanas's fist, where it gathered the front of her tunic. "Are you challenging me?" she hissed, pushing her pointy nose against Li Li's wet, black, round one.

She stared cross-eyed at her. "Challenge? What challenge?"

"For someone who's never had, let alone fought, elves on the back of a massive turtle, you sure talk big."

Li Li chuckled. "Well, I do have a big heart."

"My aim is true," Sylvanas said, jostling her prey once. "It's always true. What happened before? An innocent mistake on my part and a colossal error of judgment and lack of brain cells on Hammer's. And let me tell you, it will not happen again." She jostled her twice more.

"So does that mean you're gonna help, after all?"

"Help you? This is merely a means to an end. I don't do miracles."

"Not in the eyes of everyone on Greatfather Winter's Nice List."

Sylvanas heaved a world-weary sigh and closed her eyes. "Just…don't bring the others. For Darkness's sake." She opened her hand, dropping Li Li like the forgotten sack lying in the snow. She walked back and picked up the umbrella she had tossed aside.

On her back, Li Li clenched her fists and pumped her arms in the air. "Yippie! But, uh, before we do that…."

Sylvanas rolled her eyes. "What?" she groused, looking back.

Li Li sat up and shook off the powder and ice coating her clothes. "We gotta look the part."

Silence.

Sylvanas stared at her. "Hah?" was all she could manage.

"Something festive," Li Li posed. "Something bright. Something colorful. Something that'll draw the eye and make 'em think 'so Greatfather's helpers do look as they do in the stories!' Something like…"

-

"Uh…this." Li Li backed away from Sylvanas as fast as she could and didn't notice she bumped right into the cashier's desk. The few customers doing last-minute Winter Veil shopping ceased their activities and turned as one (or, rather, they turned as their dread allowed them to without risk of painful death) toward the Banshee Queen.

Sylvanas bared her fangs in a nasty sneer back at the reflection in the mirror. Forgoing the armor and weaponry befitting her station, she wore a long red dress with swirling gold filigree patterns; the trim along the cleavage and hips were fluffy white wool bedecked in mistletoe and tinsel. A fat black belt and buckle cinched the ensemble together. Her sleeves and stockings were white and striped in an obnoxiously loud shade of green, and her hands and feet were covered with gloves and floppy boots topped with jingle bells. At the sight of the large plastic wings shedding glitter and Darkness-knew-what kind of child-friendly crap all over the floor with every flutter, along with the bow made from one massive candy cane leaning up against the glass, her ears flattened against hair stylized into ringlets and curls dyed a luminous gold.

Slowly, timidly, the cashier inched up to Sylvanas, the object in his hands rattling in a miniature earthquake. As steadily as he could make his voice sound, he said, "Ahem. You, um, forgot this." He all but threw the red Winter Veil hat on her head before dashing to his counter, stumbling, and rolling over the surface in a mad jumble of limbs; Li Li sidestepped him just barely and winced at the sound of his fall.

She approached her much more bravely but just as cautiously. "Hey, it's not that bad. I mean, I think we complement each other quite well: I as your cute-as-a-button helper, and you as the sexy, eternally long-legged Greatmother Winter, who's come out of the workshop to assist Greatfathers Winter on this holiest of nights…depending on where you stand on the religious spectrum, that is." The image in the mirror glared at her. "No, really, given your condition you've still got back."

"I look like a child's play doll," Sylvanas snarled.

"But you're a very pretty doll!"

"…who belongs more on a pinup calendar than on a mantelpiece. I believe there's a term for that in your culture—Lolita, wasn't it?"

"That's because you see yourself that way."

"It's all about the sex appeal! No one wants some burly, shirtless orc or a rotting amalgamation of mismatched skin and bones going around delivering gifts and coal unless it's steeped in Nexus tradition! They want a woman who's got the body, who's got the looks. It doesn't matter if she's alive or dead so long as she has the aesthetics to get the job done!"

"You're dressed pretty conservatively, but hey, if we go by that logic we'll be filling out the niches and appealing to the masses who crave cute and cool. It's marketing ingenuity! I mean, just look at me!" Li Li squeezed around to stand in front of Sylvanas and posed herself at the mirror. Sylvanas scowled down at her. At least she looked the part of a helper, in suit and pants adjusted to her size. The hat didn't come off as ridiculous and her hair fell in a low black fountain compared to the usual high ponytail she sported. Bracelets and wooden bangles inlaid with bells hung from her wrists and a big green ribbon in the shape of a bow tied the clothes together.

She…did look cute, actually.

But one look at the mirror, at her reflection, and reality set in. What the hell was she getting herself into? She would rather spend the rest of the holiday season locked away with a yarn to read, preferably one where people died left and right and the world had little to no hope of recovering; and if it did it got wrecked again, all for her amusement and those of the fictional, cosmic variety.

Why did she always get involved in these things?

The bell over the entrance rang, signaling the arrival of a new customer; and at this everyone in the store jumped with a start and whirled to see who it was.

"Hey, where's the music?" Nova asked, kicking the snow off her boots on the welcome mat. "It's so quiet in here!"

Sylvanas's eyes bulged. The cashier quickly ducked for cover under his desk.

The fear and anxiety thickened. At the far back, among a row of cosmetics and jewelry, a few shoppers fell to their knees and began to whisper fervent prayers.

Li Li lifted a hand in greeting. "Hey, Nova. Happy Winter Veil!" She couldn't have said it more nonchalantly.

"Likewise! Say, I didn't know Greatfather Winter had helpers this year," Nova said, nodding to Sylvanas. "She's cute. Who might you be?" She crossed her hands behind the small of her back and leaned forward; too close and, in Sylvanas's opinion, way below where a person should be looking at when addressing another.

So she grabbed her by the chin and yanked her eyes up to her own. "It's me, you dumbass!"

Nova's jaw unhinged. "No way…Sylvanas? Is that really you?"

"No, I'm the tooth fairy," she scoffed.

"I'll say! Change the coloring and the patterns to something more hygienically appropriate and you could be the poster child of a multi-million gold toothpaste brand!"

Sylvanas rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes. Save me your prattle. Oh, by the way, your scarf's loose." Around Nova's neck was a pretty red and green croqueted scarf with crystalline snowflakes and pinprick stars decorating every third stripe.

"Oh? Is it?"

"Indeed. Here, let me fix that for you." Sylvanas placed her hands around the ends of the scarf hanging over Nova's chest. She undid the failing knot and with swift, graceful movements redid it. Then she pulled, hard, causing a choked, chicken-like squawk to erupt from Nova's lips. "There. Better?"

"Y-Yes," she rasped. "Thank you."

Li Li sighed and put a palm to her face, shaking her head. "Anyway, how's the night treating you?"

"Fine and well. Just mostly stopped by to warm up; mighty nippy out there. What about you? What brings you two out this way? Figured you'd be partying it up; well, before the random deer showed up and starting trashing the place."

"I don't know what you're talking about," said Sylvanas, feigning ignorance.

"Greatfather Winter's hopped up on bloodlust because the deer beat him up," said Li Li. "He left his bag behind so Sylvanas and I decided it'd be up to us to give him a helping hand."

"I hope that's without Stitches's hook," said Nova, "and if by any chance it does, I hope it's thoroughly sanitized."

"No hooks. We have the bag ready and we're dressed for the part, but I was thinking we're going to need a mount to seat the both of us and the rest of the stuff. Do you think Hammer will let us use her siege tank?"

"Please," Sylvanas groaned, "anything but that. I would rather ride the goat refugees than overshoot my target with the shock cannon." And demolish the stables again.

"I don't think you'll be able to," said Nova. "Last I checked, Hammer was getting, uh, busy getting hammered over at the punch bowl. If you could call it that, that is. Most of the animals and reindeer should be asleep right now in the barn, so your best bet would be to check the garage."

"The only other vehicle I can think of that we could use would be the Vultures, but those are one-seaters," said Li Li. "They wouldn't be able to accommodate all the weight."

"Well, now that you mention it, there is one mount you could take it."

"What is it?"

"Some sort of flying chariot, like that Cloud9 tile. At least I think it's a chariot, but without the wheels; that's what it was registered as on the dashboard computer. Border patrol from the Cursed Hollow found it smoking inside the Haunted Mines. They managed to haul it out and bring it back to the Chop Shop to repair it. 'S all well and good now, but we haven't been able to track down the owner. Well, what they don't know won't hurt them. It's pretty big, so there's enough space for you to put the stuff off to the side. I have the code for the start-up sequence if you want to use it."

Li Li clapped her hands. "Would we ever! But…the bag's awful big. If the chariot's as big as you say it is, then there'd only be enough room for one person to drive it. And, well, I'm, uh, not of legal age, so that means…."

Sylvanas huffed tiredly. "There's no point worrying about the details. You take the Cloud9, I'll take the chariot. We'll split the gifts fifty-fifty and get moving once we have everything assorted."

"Then that's settled!" said Nova. "You're going to rock that chariot, Sylvanas. Your outfit reminds me a little bit of it, so you'll definitely stand out."

Sylvanas stopped in midstride. Glancing over her shoulder with the bag draped over the over, not to mention in that outfit, no one could take the sinister, challenging expression quite seriously…but then again, none dared to outright say it. "What do you mean 'stand out'?"

-

There was a buzzing as Nova inputted the four digit code, and then foot by foot the metal garage door lifted and clanked open, receding on its rails into the mechanical darkness above. At her side, Li Li and Sylvanas caught their first full look of the so-called chariot parked at the leftmost corner of the garage, away from the siege tanks of Bama "The Hammer" Kowalski, the Hammer of War World III, and Grimina Doomhammer.

The bag fell from Sylvanas's limp hands. "Are you kidding me," she said dully.

Nova shrugged. "Well, it's not exactly festive for this particular holiday, but I'd say its design does this nighttime setting wonders, don't you agree?"

"I'll show you 'wonders'," Sylvanas drawled, and made to draw the dagger from her hip sheath.

"Wait a second!" cried Li Li, clapping a hand around her wrist and shoving her body between them. "Has anyone tested it out since it was fixed?"

"I gave it a quick run not too long ago," said Nova. "Trust me, this baby can fly. We're talking up to at least two-hundred kliks on the speedometer if you're not flooring it. I bet you, if someone were to place bets on who'd win a race between Falstad and whoever's driving this thing, I'd put my money on that person."

"Yes, but only if it was Sylvanas. Anybody else and you'd put your stake on Swiftwing, even if he was losing."

Nova's face and ears burned. "Th-That's not true! It…It really depends on who's behind the wheel! Really!"

"Heh, sure you do." Li Li grinned. "Man, you should look yourself in a mirror. You don't even need a scarf to keep warm!"

"Sh-Shut up!"

"I can't believe I'm going to ride that," Sylvanas told them. She did not sound thrilled. No, not at all.

"Think of the children, Sylvanas!" said Li Li. "The adults! Their pets! There's no greater joy to Winter Veil if they don't have presents to show off to everyone else!"

"And here I thought bragging rights was the antithesis of what Winter Veil was all about."

"It's only one aspect!"

Sylvanas blew air from her cheeks. "I'll tell you what: I'll give you my license and have you drive the chariot—"

"No way I'm getting a black mark on my record."

"It's just for one night. I know someone in the Underworks who makes counterfeits for a living—"

"Uh huh. Forget it. My record's going to stay as clean as Johanna's knick-knack collection. Besides, you're the Banshee Queen! What harm is driving a chariot fit for a magical girl anime's going to do to you?" Li Li huffed and put her arms akimbo. "And here I thought you had brass! Hmph, I guess I was wrong!" She lifted her nose and tossed her ponytail with a flip of the hand.

Sylvanas peeled her lips inward, revealing gum and fanged teeth at her. Then her features relaxed, settling for a scowl. She tugged on one end of Nova's scarf. "Where's the code for the start-up?"

"It's in the office," she said.

"Go get it."

"You mean you're going?"

"Yes, Nova. I'm going."

"Then can I come with?"

"I don't care, just go! Before I change my mind!"

"Ooh! Let me get changed first!" Nova tore away from her, pelting into the garage where her footsteps yelled and echoed. She vaulted over the hood of the War World tank and disappeared around the bend.

"You're doing a good thing, Sylvanas," said Li Li, nodding approvingly, proudly, and maybe a touch smugly that she got her way. "I know in the deep, dark recesses of that rotting, necromantic carcass, your heart feels the same way, too."

"Put a sock in it." Sylvanas retrieved the sack from the ground, bore it across her shoulders, and began plodding across the floor toward the chariot. Li Li tagged close behind her. "If I were alive, I would already be in a diabetic coma. I can only imagine this will be the last of the tomfoolery I will have to put up this night."

-

"No. I was wrong. IT WASN'T!" She had to yell over the roar of the wind and the music on the dashboard PC. She clung onto the handles of the chariot, the three large stars on its front end blaring loud and purple in the clear dark night. The afterimages it and the Cloud9 tile trailed in their wake like the glassy glimmer of the sun on a lake. Nova clung to her like a parasite, breasts flush against her back, one arm slung around her waist, the other holding a smaller sack of gifts beside her. For a brief instance she had to wonder how the hell she wasn't freezing her tits off, what with being dressed more…freely, flashing all that skin and legs. She could've at least brought a cloak; her own lack of body warmth wasn't going to make her any more comfortable than she probably already was.

From the loudspeakers, the lyrics crackled and fluctuated in and out in static quality:

"Who's that, look,
Flying higher than a bird,
SAILOR! SAILOR MOON!
She's got a life in the sky
And another here on Earth.
SAILOR! SAILOR MOON!

She's got her cat, Luna,
Who gives her advice.
She's so fine,
So stand by her side!

SAILOR! SAILOR MOON!
SAILOR! SAILOR MOON!"

Nova tossed her head back, laughing in her ear. "This sounds so nineteen-ninety-eighties!"

"Well your nineteen-ninety-eighties music is absolutely atrocious! They couldn't have come up with anything else better than this simplistic garbage?!"

"NO!"

"Not every magical girl show got systemically butchered by corporate bigwigs and had a corny opening theme song, you know!" Li Li called out. Riding next to them she had the rest of the gifts in her own bag and a wrapped present held aloft, ready to be tossed into a waiting chimney.

"Prove me wrong then!" said Sylvanas.

"Okay! When we get back!"

"I see some houses up ahead!" Nova shouted, jabbing a finger Sylvanas had to duck under at the approaching rows looming steadily over the horizon. "Step on it, Sylvanas! For the children!"

"For what little remains of my sanity!" Sylvanas grumbled, and pressed down on the pedal. The chariot rattled and then rocketed past Li Li on a burst of speed.

"Hey, wait up!"

Chapter Text

Everywhere Sylvanas looked, there was pink and red. Cards, decorations, signs and posters, clothing, sugary delights and condiments, flowers of the plastic and fake varieties blooming in the gardens or set on display at the shops. People giving out their gifts and propositions of dinner, movies, and behind-the-doors intimacy to their significant others, and oh how they gushed. Sweet, diabetic, fairy tale come true. Heroes, most of all, were given particular attention from all walks of life: nobles, peasants, fans, and friends; even the villains got in, if you counted their presents (or "Valentines", as Doc Morales called them) being booby-trapped to be sincere.

Everyone was busy doing their own thing. Animal rights activists somehow snuck into the barns and stables and freed all the mounts and beasts from "the shackles of their oppression" and so Hammer and Sonya got a group together to hunt them down and herd them back to their pens with nets shot from the shock cannon and walled craters while Valla specifically went about hunting down the enemy. Leoric and Anub'arak had raised the dead in the graveyard, chased out the visitors, and threw themselves a party among the skeletons, shades, man-sized earthworms and beetles. The swimming pool was all well and dandy until Murky swarmed it and the surrounding marshes with an army of murlocs and Stitches, in his outlandishly hand-crafted "bikini" cannonballed literally out of nowhere from the Vikings' longboat (how he was able to fit inside it was a complete mystery). Then there were Chen, Kael'thas, and the Butcher rallying all the patrons in the taverns into a massive cook-off that, once again, left the cellars empty and the kitchens scorched to blackened oblivion.

It was not even the worst of it, Sylvanas reminded herself, as her ears perked at the sound of masculine ruckus. She turned her head in its direction and openly sneered as Jaina dealt with another gaggle of smitten, simple-minded morons. Behind her was a pile of gifts in every size and shape, bouquets in nauseatingly fluorescent, matching colors, and stuffed animals; and at that moment Brightwing emerged from the pile of fluff to fly up and light on her shoulder.

Her skin, which was normally blue and green, was now a mandarin orange, her belly and wings tropically green and forestial.

Even the damn dragon was in on it!

Sylvanas flashed her fangs at them—not that they saw, so enamored and ignorant were those fools—and stalked off. Surely there was a dark corner to be found in the Nexus; all the colors and the happiness made her think of how people with epilepsy had to put up with strobelights and disco balls flashing their repetitive, psychedelic rainbow. It was madness! It was hell! Out of one diabetic coma and into another! Winter Veil was bad enough!

Sylvanas shuddered and reached behind her back to brush pixie dust and glitter from her cloak, though by now they were no longer to be found. The outfit and bow were locked away in not a closet but a high-tech bank vault secured by wards she made from scratch: wards that could curse, fry, electrocute, and vaporize anyone who made the fatal error of slipping up. There was also a spell, too, that could teleport a person some thousands of feet into air, causing them to plummet to their death.
She took stock of her surroundings. All forest and child-sized toadstools, dotting here and there with reeds and that odd, humming plant herablists called the nirnroot. Nowhere near the Haunted Mines. Not that she would want to go in there; the place had been under renovations since the fall and still was until further notice, most likely in part because the sheer manpower of particular Heroes could easily take advantage of the terrain and push onward before the first of the bone golems were summoned. Then that abominable Star Chariot had been recovered and set back the construction by however long it would take to reopen them. She scowled and continued skulking, shoving aside the memory of her first meeting of its owner to the furthest possible corner of her mind. This would have to do.

Her train of thought derailed when there sounded a string of high-pitched yipping, and the recognition caused her ears to flatten and a groan to be stifled. Oh Darkness, she hoped it wasn't that thing again. Already the scene replayed itself in her head—the snow, the children, her and Nova and Jaina and Valla and Kerrigan with her Ultralisk, the whirlwind of steel and fur and slobber

This time, she would be ready.

Sylvanas crept closer. Not much to her surprise, the source of the barking indeed came from the hulking, armored Greater Dog, on all fours and staring up at the face of the girl on the rock with that stupidly happy, panting look on its face. Around them in a semicircle were the rest of its kin, smaller dogs pure white and one-hundred percent pure fluff; one of them was curled up in her lap, tail thumping and ready to fall off if it so decided to stretch its legs.

On the other hand, her surprise came from seeing the absolute mountain of presents and flowers teetering all around them. Then again, the folk of the Nexus had some sort of fixation on anything remotely Asian that bordered on zealotry, so it was not so much a surprise that Li-Ming of Caldeum got swamped with welcome gifts, love letters and marriage proposals, a position as lead singer in the Elite Tauren Chieftain's impromptu band (Sig Nicious and the others were woefully left behind), and fan clubs that locked horns with one another and waged war whenever and wherever they met. And it would seem, just recently, she had earned the adoration of the Greater Dog and the dogs; even the quilen!

Sylvanas recalled there was a term for that kind of person: Mary Sue. Girl who had all the power at her disposal, got served hand and foot, was given everything on a platter, and had the love of many; she wondered if, upon living in that land of Caldeum, if foreigners like her changed their names to better reflect their integration into their host society. She would laugh if she wasn't so damn angry.

Oh well, at least she looked down on Jaina and Kael'thas for being mages, so that was a plus in her book. Especially Jaina: pretty, disgusting, happy Jaina.

In Li-Ming's hands was a rectangular box of candies. Chocolates? Truffles? Whatever it was, she kept reminding them: "No, no, you can't have these! These are poisonous! It wouldn't do to have you all sick! What would the children think?" The dogs at her feet shifted their weight and eyed the piece between her fingers. The pup in her lap tilted its head back and lapped its pink tongue across the underside of her chin. She giggled, a high, melodious, girlish sound, and ruffled the fur between its ears. "No, stop, stop! You'll not sway me with your cuteness!"

"Oh, so you do love something other than yourself," Sylvanas called out upon approach. "Maybe now you can learn to pipe down when we're in the middle of the match, instead of screaming out your kill count when we're supposed to be hiding and in position!"

Li-Ming paused in her ministrations and turned her head to see the Banshee Queen. Then she popped the candy in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "Ah, it's you. What was your name again…Sylvanas, yes? The 'undead' variant."

"So I am."

"That's right~ You're the one who, shall I quote Mister Findlay, 'doesn't do anything'. Not even love yourself, so I'm told."

"You're both misunderstood. I love myself. What I don't love is the Ranger General variant." Seeing her every day reminded her of how…human she used to be. An elf with feelings. An elf whom, she was pretty, acted just as idiotic as the rest of the Nexus. My, was she young! And not for the better, she tacked on mentally. "The only thing I 'do' is me."

"Not even love?" She snatched another candy—closer now, Sylvanas saw it was a chocolate truffle—and tossed it in that gullet of hers. Chew, chew, chew.

"Not even," Sylvanas said, nodding. "Of course, we're not on Azeroth. Then I would have cause to worry about my mortality. My…guardian angels, if you'll call them that, didn't follow me into the Nexus. Here I can die and come back, again and again, and not face the inevitable darkness that awaits me once my luck runs dry. But that, miss wizard, I don't intend to happen. I won't make it happen."

"For how long?" Swallow. Grab another truffle.

"As long as it takes." That is, until all the val'kyr sacrificed themselves in exchange for any future resurrections. Idly she wondered what they, and Undercity, were doing in her absence, and hoped that Mishka and her dolt friend weren't attempting to petition building a quilen corral again to anyone in a position of authority, especially Nathanos.

"Huh." Li-Ming took a bite from the truffle, savored it, tossed the rest in to finish. All the dogs' eyes were on her, calculating her every movement. "Well, don't take this the wrong way, Lady Queen: it's one thing to not like everyone…but it's another thing to not love yourself. There should be some pride in that. I mean, look at me; I'm a gorgeous wizard who's destined for greatness! And I'm powerful to boot! What's there not to love about me?"

That teenage arrogance, for one, Sylvanas thought, resisting the urge to scowl. Darkness, her head was hotter than Kael'thas's. But, "Of course I have pride in myself! That's par for the course in being an elf, not to mention I, as you so mentioned, am Queen. The Banshee Queen, for I am the first of my kind. That, however, is beside the point. I want nothing to do with this farce of a holiday."

"It's not really official, I do believe."

"Whatever it is! Why dedicate one day out of the entire year when you can damn well do it any other day? For that matter, what makes this particular day so important? Why even the cause for celebration?" Sylvanas sniffed disdainfully. "It's a waste of time and resources. All this gallivanting and chivalry make me sick!"

"Hmmm," Li-Ming hummed.

For a while she sat there on her rock, eating her truffles. Now and then she would stroke the pup on its head or its back and its tail would begin again a fresh wave of wagging and thumping. On his haunches the Greater Dog danced and stamped his front, gauntleted paws at Sylvanas, but he knew better to take his chances with her so he was content to admire her from this distance.

"Surely," the wizard resumed, slowly drawing the word out, "there's someone?"

Sylvanas tipped her chin up arrogantly at her. "Not a one!"

"What of your people?"

"A means to an end. My bulwark and my arrows."

"Well, that's one way to love, I suppose. Guess it comes with being undead."

"You know who to thank," Sylvanas growled.

"Yes, yes, I've heard plenty of it the Nexus over." Li-Ming selected another piece of chocolate. "But it tells me one thing."

"And what would that be?"

"You were alive at one point."

Sylvanas rolled her eyes. "Congratulations! How long did that take you to figure that out?"

"I'm being serious!"

"As am I!"

"Oh, just hear me out, why don't you? You were alive at one point," she repeated. "You could feel more than, well, what you usually do now. Am I wrong in that assumption?"

"You know little if anything about my personal life."

"And your evasiveness makes it all the more telling that you did, and, most certainly, you loved. Any type of love, really; this holiday isn't just for your gallivanting, you know."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"Good idea. Ah, just a moment." Li-Ming set aside the empty tray on the ground, causing Greater Dog to jump up and the rest of the pack to push among each other in a bid to get closer and lick any crumbs; even the puppy stretched its neck as far as it could, even though it was nowhere within reach. She twisted around, dug through the mountain behind her, and fished out a flat, square box wrapped in a fat red ribbon. "Here you go. Happy holiday."

Her ears shot up. "Wh-What?" Her hands automatically accepted the present and brought it up to her face. She read the fancy writing on the cover. "'Gallifrey and Sons Chocolatier, proudly serving the Nexus since N.D. 9225 (and counting). Now back with popular demand! Mana-Flavored Sweets.'" She peered up at Li-Ming and stared, as though it was Leoric—or Nexus forbid, Arthas himself—gave them to her and not the pretty wizard.

Li-Ming grimaced. "You…can eat mana, right? I am told the undead in your universe can no longer indulge in physical sustenance."

Sylvanas nodded and swallowed (although there was nothing to swallow at all). "Y-Yes. I still can. Undead elves, as well." She glanced at the box again. "Why?"

"I already explained it to you. Besides, it's a pleasant feeling to give a gift to another, yes? It's all in good spirits."

"This is a pity gift."

For a quick second, Li-Ming looked affronted. Then she regained her composure and sniffed. "Well, if you want to look at it that way. But really, we aren't enemies by any stretch of the imagination; we haven't done much of anything to earn each other long-
lasting ire. After all, you don't need to be a certainly obvious stalker with a crush to join in on the festivities let alone all the good eats. Friends, too, you must know."

"Friends," Sylvanas parroted, testing the word as though it was a foreign substance.

Li-Ming nodded. "Yes," she agreed. "Friends. Regardless of what you think of me, I don't have that many. At least, not where I come from." She laughed, features softening and…was that sadness? If indeed it was, then Sylvanas thought it looked very wrong on her. "I had a couple of them. They're…well…the world moved on without them."

"Oh…."

"Ah, but listen to me! All doom and gloom! They wouldn't want me to be this way—not with all these bright colors and cute dogs here. They can tell when something's wrong, you know. Like Doodle there."

Sylvanas blinked owlishly. "…Doodle?" The same high-pitched bark had her looking down at her feet where a dog gazed back up at her. It spun in a circle a couple times, then got on its hind legs and danced a little jig, reminding her of the odd dance Rehgar would do when in ghost wolf form. Absently she asked herself how the wizard could tell any of these dogs apart. "You…You have the wrong idea."

Li-Ming arched an eyebrow. "Do I? Perhaps. Still, it's the thought that counts."

"I…guess it does." She picked shyly at the ribbon. Shy; that was a feeling she hadn't had in some twenty or so years. Had it really been that long ago?

Li-Ming took note of the shift in demeanor. "Well, don't just stand there! Come, sit. The day's still young and I need someone to help me get all this stuff back to the dorm later; the dogs will help. What do you say? Unless, that is, you're in a hurry—"

Sylvanas shook her head. "No. No. I…I'll accompany you. For a while," she tacked on, squaring back her shoulders and setting her ears apart in a proud, firm stance. "Don't get used to it."

Li-Ming shrugged and turned her attention to the dogs, but there was a sly smile touching light on her lips, as though it wasn't quite directed at the dogs. Sylvanas brushed the thought off and walked up to the rock, silently proud of herself when the pack parted for her. She sat down adjacent from the wizard, knees drawn up partway with the box nestled in the space between. Doodle went over and made himself comfortable at her side.

She felt the Greater Dog approach before the shadow of its armor covered her, and felt something like cold iron on her shoulder. She craned her neck back and saw that, just like the pup, it gazed back at her.

Regardless of the everlasting mask of smiling happiness on its face, it seemed to have understood.

Sylvanas scowled and brushed the gauntlet off. Then she focused on the box and undid the bow on the box.

-

"Here, Sylvanas," she said, and the Ranger General turned around to find a flat bar gift-wrapped held almost right up to her face. She backed off a step and got a better look at the person offering it to her.

Alleria grinned toothily. "Happy holiday."

Sylvanas made a face, as though she had a lick of something sour. "Alleria…it's not until next week."

Her cheeks colored. "I-Is it?" She looked away, the tips of her ears drooping. "Well, uh, just take it anyway! I mean, it's not much, but still! After all," she said, focusing once more on her sister, "you'll be heading out soon."

"Yes," said Sylvanas. "We have to once again 'remind' the trolls about the lines drawn between our land and theirs. They won't get far this time."

"Of course they won't. You're the embodiment of Quel'dorei marksmanship. Your aim is always true. The trolls would be wise to fear you." Her grin softened into a doting smile. "Plus, you're my little sister. You've bested me many times over the years. You've earned your keep. So, here," she gently shook the bar, "take it. Think of me when you're out there and have a bite for me, because that's the last bit of chocolate I could find in the pantry." She pressed her lips together and blushed again.

Sylvanas stared at the bar of chocolate, up at the look of embarrassment Alleria wore, then again at the sweets. "The pantry," she repeated blandly. "You couldn't have gone to the market instead?"

The elder shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Well, this is high-grade chocolate! We don't usually break these out unless it's for a special occasion. And, er, I know how much pride you take in keeping count of how many trolls you kill, between the rest of your troop. Consider this is a good luck gift, or, uh, a welcome home present when you get back."

"I don't need luck. All that matters is my skill." Sylvanas said, accepting the bar. "But…thank you. I'll be sure to savor this treat when I can find the time for it."

-

And although it had the shape and texture of chocolate, it melted on her tongue as soon as Sylvanas tasted it. She leaned back, legs now stretched out all the way, head tilted toward the sky. She placed her hand on Doodle and gently scratched her nails into its fur, causing it to grunt pleasurably and lay against her hip.

It was just like having a fill of the Eversong rivers in the spring; cool and deep, steeped in the musk of earth and vegetation with a thick, sugary layer that felt like cotton.

Just like magic.

Before….

—stormwind-lordaeron-quel'thalas-draenor-DRAENOR—

Sylvanas fingered another sweet.

The faint outline of a half-moon could be discerned. No sign of planets in the Twisting Nether, no sign of floating landmasses held just by the gravity of calm, fibrous, unstable energy.

Just the silent blue beyond.

At the corner of her eye, Li-Ming stretched her arms above her head and yawned loudly, followed by the subtle clack of teeth meeting upon a closed jaw. "Who knew the Nexus could have such nice weather. I wouldn't mind if it was like this all the time."

Sylvanas continued to stare at the sliver of moon. "Only once in a while," she said. Then she dipped her head and took the candy into the cusp of her hand.

Chapter Text

Sometime later, Sylvanas went for another walk—one that was more contemplative, genuine, and relaxed. Still the sight of decoration and flair of the holiday unnerved her, and the pins and needle sensation of mana-infused chocolate swirled numbingly in her veins and lingered on her tongue.

She slowed to a stop and looked behind her, at the dormitory nestled at the base of the indent in the shrub and scrub consisting of the valley. She could make out some of the dogs flittering in and out of the building, presumably delivering the last of Li-Ming's presents to her side of the room she was assigned to. There probably wouldn't be that much space for her to move around in, so however much they had left they would deposit them wherever she could access them: the library, the arcane sanctum and towers, the training fields, the attics; in short, her favorite haunts. Perhaps she would come across Jaina's pile later and gloat about how much more attention she got; kids like her thrived on making such an accomplishment, self-indulgent as it was.

For now, Li-Ming had gone off to the fairgrounds where the height of activity was, riding on the Greater Dog's shoulders and her face turned up into the wind, the exhilaration of being so high up in the air shining in her face and extending to her hair flowing free as a windsock behind her. The other dogs, those that had finished with their tasks below, crowded around their alpha in a fluffy, furry, white circle, all identical and open-mouthed smiles.

Meanwhile, Doodle the pup kept pace with Sylvanas, feet pattering on the grass much more quickly than the slow stride her feet were taking on. For once, she did not begrudge the company of another, especially an animal from another universe far removed from the Nexus, nor, surprisingly, did she mind or care if it had already imprinted itself upon her; it would make fast friends with all the quilen.

"I'll suppose I'll show you around," she told Doodle, who glanced up at the sound of her voice. "Introduce you to the other beasts; that is, if Valla and her band of troglodytes managed to round them all up and herd them back. As far as I'm concerned, you and your pack don't have a home to go to, or if you do we of the Hero League have no idea where it is. If it's even in this particular plane. But that doesn't matter, now does it?" Doodle responded with an affirmative yip. Sylvanas sighed. "Yes, that's what I thought. Well, come along then. Try to keep up—"

"THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT!"

Music drowned out her words and the words from the speaker—a funky riff that escalated up and down in keys. That, and it came out popping and crackling with static. A sudden blast of wind gusted up behind them, forcing Sylvanas and Doodle to a stop. The Banshee Queen twisted around to see where the source of it could be coming from.

The Medivac came roaring in from the direction of the marshes. As it came closer toward them, the vehicle slowed to a crawl, its shadow passing over Sylvanas like some herculean beast. Then turned around, a complete three hundred sixty degrees, and hovered in midair. Beneath the Medivac a hatch opened and out shot a pink tractor beam, from which a platform descended to the crescendo of the riffs and obnoxious synthesizers blaring in the background. On it were two people: one in a bulky suit of pink and gold armor, decorated in large hearts and fake angelic wings; the other in a skimpy fuku that matched suspiciously and eerily the description of clothing magical girls of anime were prone to wear in the fabled Nineteen-Ninety Eighties.

At first, Sylvanas thought the Medivac was heading in the same direction as the Nephalem Li-Ming, toward the fairgrounds, for what reason other than a possible medical emergency? Lieutenant Rosa Morales didn't use her dropship for anything but that and a quick getaway in matches. Second, she wouldn't be playing music from the mythological Nineteen-Ninety-Seventies, what Nova called the Decade of the Hippy (whatever the hell that was). So what in the world was going?

When she saw them come down the platform doing the Robot, not to mention the lyrics blasting from wherever the speakers were located on the Medivac, Sylvanas went on full alert:

"Rollercoaster~ of love~
(Say what?)
Rollercoaster…oh-hoo-hoo-hoo!
Rollercoaster~
(Ride!)
Of love~
Rollercoaster…oh-hoo-hoo-hoo!"

And so forth it went on in similar variations. Doodle barked at the new arrivals and wagged his tail hard enough for his hips to move back and forth.

"What is this?" Sylvanas asked impatiently.

"Our sensors have detected negative energies indicating the telltale signs of a lonely, broken heart!" said Morales, still in the throes of the mechanical Robot. "They were so powerful! So intense! That we had to investigate at once! We have reason to believe that, of all the people celebrating the joys and pitfalls of love, friendship, and camaraderie, you, Banshee Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, are the only one in the Nexus who is suffering this malady…and single!"

"In the name of the stars, we will heal you!" declared Star Princess Li-Ming. "Your heart! Your soul! The power of love and light will leave nothing untouched! Come, Sylvanas!" She stopped dancing, or whatever passed for striking anime-inspired poses, got on one knee, and spread out her arms. "Let us shower you in the warmth of my bosom!"

"Get the hell out of here!" Sylvanas snapped, insulted and scandalized. "I'm not lonely! My heart doesn't even work anymore to constitute brokenness, either! I'm undead!"

"That doesn't matter to me, Sylvanas! It doesn't matter to anyone who's looking to mend your wounds! Even though your internal organs no longer have the means to function properly, it still retains the process to feel—physically! Emotionally! SPIRITUALLY! You are no different now than you were when you were legally alive! And if we're to believe the machinations of afterlife after undeath, the Powers That Be have had your number on speed dial for a long time; but be you not afraid, I will save you from the bowels of eternal, tortuous darkness!"

"I would rather go there than to the kind of hell that's sitting stacked below your neckline!" Sylvanas jabbed a finger directly at the twin mounds pressed firmly but not too tightly against the Star Princess's blouse. "What kind of person do you take me for?!"

"Well for one, you won't suffocate—"

"I'd prefer being thrown off my feet and have the better part of my bones crushed to dust by the Greater Dog than stuff my face in that!"

A scowl flickered across Li-Ming's face. "Better me than, you know, Tyrande; that, my dear, is a surefire to endure suffocation. Then again, there's no such thing as too much 'talent'."

"I'll have none of it! Go hug Doodle instead!" The pup barked and, as if on command, charged at Li-Ming, and leapt into her arms, to who she barely caught. She had to move her head back to avoid being slobbered by his searching tongue. "There you go. Here's your daily dosage of love, diabetes, and all that sickeningly sweet crap. Beam back up into the stars or whatever and find someone else to preach. Like, oh, I don't know, the Space Lord. I hear he's been a real pain in the ass."

"But it's my mission to dispense positive harmonic energies across the stars! I can't focus on just one person!"

"Well that's just too bad!" Sylvanas sneered openly at her in a reed-thin voice. Darkness, at least the Sanctuary variant knew when to back off. This Li-Ming was all up in her face as much as Johanna was with the Light and getting her to attend her sermons at the Church more often.

"We can't just leave you as you are!" said Morales, who was still dancing (no longer the Robot but now in the throes of the Running Man) to the beat of the song. "My nanites can only do so much, but this…this is one of those problems they can't resolve. As your doctor, I recommend a couple hours of bloodless interaction with whom you consider to be…well, I'd be hard pressed to say they're friends but acquaintances would pretty much be hitting the sweet spot. But hey, I won't stop you if you're bonding on the battlefield; that's part and parcel for being in the Nexus!"

"That's all fine and dandy. I think I'll do just that."

"Well that's great!" Morales beamed.

"How's about we do it…hmm, I don't know, now?" Sylvanas emphasized her point by smacking her fist against an open palm a few times, glaring challengingly at the pair. "No one to see…nor report…for miles around. It sounds all so…perfect."

"But that's against the rules!" said the Star Princess, aghast.

"Big whoop. I don't do the rules unless it's within my own realm, and when I do…well, let's just say they don't see the light of day for…hmm, give or take a couple years." Sylvanas shrugged and rolled her shoulders, limbered her neck from side to side. "Poor, poor Koltira. He really should've known better."

Li-Ming scrambled to her feet and in her haste dropped Doodle in favor of grabbing her wand and focus. The pup sat down on his hind legs and raised his front ones, eyeing the wand expectedly, as though it were a stick to fetch. "Lieutenant Morales, I can't tell if this variant is friend or foe! The rational side of me is telling me to help her, but the emotional side is saying to blast her into atomic oblivion! What should I do?"

What difference does rationality and emotionality make? Sylvanas thought, scowling deeply.

"It's alright, Li!" said Morales. "The sensors picked up more than just negative energy! Allow me!" She took a step forward and raised her arm-mounted cannon at Sylvanas. Before the Banshee Queen could draw out the shadow dagger, thinking it a concussion grenade, a pink light shot forth and encompassed her from head to toe: the nanobot healing beam. Sylvanas cringed and shielded her eyes against the light as it scanned her. Behind the Plexiglas visor of her helmet, Morales squinted hard in concentration.

"There we go!" she said after a moment's silence, and to Sylvanas's relief clicked off the beam. "My scanner says that—"

"If this has anything to do with that overdrawn 'meme', as you call it," Sylvanas began, "I'm going to reanimate that dead horse and beat you over the head with it! And whatever's left of it I'll bring down the sun, moon, and stars to Li-Ming while I club her senseless!"

"Far from it! It shows that somewhere in that deep dark abyss of a heart there's a ray of sunshine! Now whether or not it's going to grew three times larger instantaneously is up to debate, but I can take a guess and say someone's touched you in a way you've
haven't felt in a long, long time!"

"You had better choose your next words very carefully," Sylvanas growled warningly, "or gods help you, if it goes in the direction I think it's going in—"

"No, no! This is a good thing! You must find this person, whoever it is, and bond with them more often! Open yourself up! Express yourself…as non-violently as you can manage! Think of this an opportunity to undo the negative stereotypes and assumptions that comes with being undead. I mean, you don't kill everyone that annoys you; look at Li Li! Anybody can become a better person. If they can make the pains to change, then so can you."

"Oh spare me your motivational babble! Being a hardass is a requirement for my title. And the only reason I don't kill Li Li on a daily basis (unlike a certain somebody) is because she's a child and I have no intentions of incurring the wrath of that lush she calls an uncle. See, I'm not entirely heartless."

"Well yes," Star Princess Li-Ming agreed, "but once she's an adult—"

"She'll still be a kid. That is how elves view the younger, lesser races."

Morales elbowed Li-Ming in the ribs. "You see that? She said so herself. She's got it in her. Have faith! That's the point of being a Star Princess, right?"

She nodded slowly. "Yes," she said. Then, more resolutely, "Yes, you're right! I mustn't forget my mission. I thank you, Lieutenant Morales, for reminding me thusly so. As for you, Lady Windrunner," Sylvanas quirked an eyebrow at her. The Star Princess returned her wand and foci back to their place and stood for a moment to catch her breath. Then, once again, she got on her knee and held out her arms, exclaiming: "Come! Spread your heart's wings and fly!"

Sylvanas scoffed. "I said it before and I'll say it again, so kindly etch this in your feeble little minds." She leaned forward and, as clear and pronounceable, "No."

"Come on, Sylvanas," Morales wheedled. "What's one hug going to hurt?"

"I don't do hugs."

"You say that now, but in time you'll be doing the opposite! You'll be doing a new running gag!"

Sylvanas closed her eyes, breathed in and out through her nose. Her ears turned sideways and folded against the back of her head. "Doodle," she said to the dog, voice tight. "Get behind me." Doodle barked and went to stand as she requested. "Don't make me repeat myself," she told Morales and Li-Ming.

"Don't make me come over and give you a dose of marshmallow hell," said the Star Princess. "Men and women alike can't resist the marshmallows! Trust me, it feels real good!"

Sylvanas crossed her arms, nodded her head once. "Do you know what feels even better?"

"Better than that?"

"Better than that."

"What is it?"

"Birds."

Li-Ming blinked. "Eh? Birds?"

Then Sylvanas's eyes snapped open and the crimson light in them pulsed once. The birds in the trees around them, all black and brooding in their nests, suddenly ceased what they were doing, and the world they stood in became quiet.

"GET THEM," she commanded.

A wave of red pinpricks lit up the branches high and low, sweeping in from left to right. The air grew loud with the sound of squawking, the air thrumming with the sound of beating wings. Two groups emerged from this black swarm: one directed at the Medivac, the other nosediving straight for Morales and the Star Princess.

"Gods alive!" Li-Ming exclaimed. "Are those ravens or crows?"

"Does it matter?" Morales asked. "Let's go! We're gonna get bombed!" She grabbed the girl by the crook of her elbow, yanked her back onto the platform, and from somewhere on her suit input a command. The tractor beam engulfed them and carried them into the belly of the dropship.

As soon as the plate clicked seamlessly closed, the birds were upon them. What followed was a pitter-patter reminiscent of rain…but smelled far from it. The group that had aimed at the pair where they had stood swooped up and thrashed and pecked at the windshield, obscuring their vision. Some even dared to attack the thrusters at the stern but were immediately incinerated and fell back to earth, charred and smelling gamey.

Something crackled and sparked from within the ship, and just before it took off the Star Princess's voice boomed from unseen speakers, as though she were talking through a tin can. "This isn't over, Sylvanas! I will make you see the Light! You won't go blind from it, either! Thus is my missiooooooonnnnn!" The thrusters emitted a furnace blast of heat, scorching more of the birds into crispy meat; the rest managed to avoid it and fled into the sky, in part of Sylvanas breaking the compulsion spell binding them to her will.

She harrumphed at their passage. "Good riddance, I say! I thought they'd never stop going on with their nonsense prattle." She sniffed the air a few times. "Not bad. It overpowers the smell of the air freshener, but if I had to choose between this and that…well, I'd rather not become some mongrel's meal. Take no offense, Doodle." She looked toward the dog, who had picked up a dead bird and carried it to her. He looked up at her expectantly. She grimaced and shook her head. "No, keep it. At the very least it's better than chocolate."

"Woof!" Doodle barked, muffled with the bird in its mouth.

"As for the rest, let nature sort it out. Or the Greater Dog and his pack. It means little to me." Sylvanas sighed. "Well, Doodle, I can't say I have anywhere else in mind. I've no intention to going back to the dormitory just yet, or the graveyard, and I'd rather not be at the marshes again. So that just leaves," her ears deflated, "the fairgrounds." Doodle's tail went into overdrive, which made them droop even lower. "Oh for the love of…Fine. We may as well. But seriously, don't give that to Li-Ming. Or anyone in particular. They like their food when it's drenched in their saliva, not yours, no matter how clean your mouth may be."

"Woof!"

-

Meanwhile, among the pomp and liveliness of the fairgrounds, Nova sat alone nursing a mug of mead tapped from Chen's barrel. At least, now that she took a cursory sip of it, she hoped it was from his barrel; the guy was blitzed out of his mind at the moment, and, so far as she knew, the tavern was packed to the walls that no one from the outside was able to get in. In the end, it didn't matter where it came. Getting sauced was the last thing she wanted to do this day, but nothing beat having a bit of fermented honey to put warmth in her belly.

Then she glanced at the lone flower lying next to her hand. She could just imagine what Li Li and Tychus would say, and she colored slightly. Then she imagined what Kerrigan might say, would do, and she blushed angrily. She huffed at the flower and buried her face back into the mug.

Seriously, screw Kerrigan. What the hell would she know about…well…?

Nova perished the thought and downed some more mead. Damn, there went the plan for staying sober. Huh, she wondered now if, upon getting drunk, she could shoot not only straighter but better. That would certainly wipe the smug look off that Bitch Queen's face! She would, indeed, never know what hit her!

And so Nova continued to chug.

"And here, my friends, we arrive at our next exhibit in 'Disasters Waiting to Happen': a woman on a mission! To loosen her inhibitions and either make herself absolutely sick to her stomach or an even more complete ass than she's already making herself out to be! Just look at her go!"

That did not sound like Kerrigan at all: too girlish and way too British, unless Kerrigan suddenly went native overnight. That still didn't stop from Nova sputtering into her mug and shooting an indignant—and a bewildered glare immediately following it—glare at the Greater Dog and his pack. At the Hero sitting atop his shoulders. The new girl.

What was her name again? Nova's mind rifled and filtered through a dozen names in the span of a couple seconds.

"Li-Ming," she said, and judging by the look of relief and approval in her eyes, Nova guessed she was right. But, back to business and gathering her wit: "I-I won't get drunk! I'm…I'm going to drink responsibly. See, it's just this one mug!" She hefted the empty thing up at her. "Now you…you're the one I should be worried about. You're…nineteen, give or take? Somewhere around thereabouts. You're still a kid. Under the legal age, but hey, that doesn't stop the kiddies from indulging their inner dumbass. Kids are known to get wild when they have plenty in 'em, you know. Who knows what a wizard might get up to being inebriated?"

Li-Ming raised and lowered a shoulder in a shrug. "Not I, for one, but I can tell you a few tales about my friend Eirena. There was that one time in New Tristram, with the treasure goblin, a crate of snakes, and those bedeviled bovines—"

"Yeah, well, I don't care about who did what to whom or whatever transpired between the three. I've read and seen plenty of hentai to know where that's going!"

"What is this 'hentai' I keep hearing about? I'm just saying she had way too much beer and—oh. Oh." Li-Ming's face went scarlet in zero to five, like a speedometer clocking in at sixty. "OH! Oh no! N-N-No! No! Nothing of the sort occurred, I swear! I was even there and, and, I mean—no, dammit, that's not what I'm trying to convey at all!"

Nova nodded knowingly. "Kinky. I didn't think of you to be that kind of girl—"

"I'm not! I'm nothing like how those strange books portray young women to be!"

"Yeah, I know you're not. You're a Nephalem. Your kind probably grows wings when you drink."

"Is it that obvious that I look and act no different than the rest of humanity?"

"Very."

"Yes, my thoughts exactly." Li-Ming petted the Greater Dog between the ears and jumped off his shoulders onto the ground. The dogs took it as a sign to plop down on the grass and relax, or to wander off with their alpha to bring cheer to the partygoers. "So enlighten me as to why you're about to drink yourself into a stupor you'll regret later."

"I already told you, I'm not," Nova rumbled.

"Then why aren't you among the others? Didn't you also receive gifts?"

"I did. Li Li says you got me and Jaina beat in how much we've got."And by that logic she also beat out on Kerrigan, too, and that made Nova feel slightly happier. Her closet was crammed with chocolates, flowers, and rubber-banded stacks of letters: proposals, confessions, and…more intimate favors. She had to imagine how much more stuff Li-Ming had. "They were nice. A bit of overkill, but I appreciate the thought."

"And yet you're so glum."

Nova sighed. "Well, since you're here I may as well tell you. No sense in lying. I'll bet you wizards can sense not just magic but read minds, anyway." Li-Ming said nothing, and if she was thinking otherwise it didn't show on her face, so Nova continued, jerking a
thumb at the flower: "I wanted to give Sylvanas a…uh, present. The undead variant, that is."

"So many variants in this realm. And here I was thinking you'd already given her one."

"Nah, not that one. The Ranger General's kinda getting bombarded at the moment. She's around here somewhere. I have no idea where the Banshee Queen version might be."

"We were just at the dormitory earlier putting away my gifts. I didn't really see where she went off to, though, but if I had to guess she's probably going back to the river marshes. She seems to be drawn to that place."

"But there's nothing to do there except pick herbs and mushrooms and all that earthy stuff. Sylvanas is the type to do—"

"To do anything, I know," Li-Ming finished for her. "And that's the perfect opportunity for you to get off your sorry hide and act."

Nova's eyes widened. "What?" she exclaimed, alarmed.

"You heard me. What else is Sylvanas going to do other than brood and take random potshots at the local wildlife to sate her frustrations and deeply rooted loneliness that she'd vehemently deny if questioned? Just think: a gift from you, one of the few people she socializes but the only person she kills on an almost daily basis for…I don't know, whatever reason, might be just the thing to cheer her up."

Nova shrugged. "That, or she could just stab me between the eyes. Or kick me off a cliff. Or make me into a literal pretzel and thus snapping every bone in my body. I mean, she's no kitten." But the mental image she had of her as a chibi in nekomimi mode made her inner little girl squeal and want to take her home from an adoption center because no one else could be assed to put up with an undead woman who wore Bitchy Resting Face to a T. And if she were a kitten, she'd probably thank Nova by scratching her face. "I'm not expecting her to gush all over me." But that also provided even more…'pleasant' images, picturesque film sides with that shoujo flair, and it made Nova duck her face into the mug so Li-Ming couldn't see the flush taking over like a red tide.

Li-Ming hummed thoughtfully, put a hand to her chin. "Hmmm. Yes, you're probably right. This Sylvanas is by no means as sociable as her living counterpart."

"I know I'm right. My mind is my greatest asset. Everything else is supplemental. Even if I weren't a Ghost, I'd still be right." Gods, this whole thing was making her feel depressed. The idea of getting plastered was sounding more and more appealing by the second. She had half a mind to get up and tap off another few cups of mead or whatever was in Chen's cask that got him roaring from a block away, just to help make her forget…and maybe, just maybe, put a round between Kerrigan's stupid, smug, Zerg-y face. Because why not? She'd be doing Zagara a favor, too.

"Well," said Li-Ming, after a moment's quiet, "it would appear you won't be making any moves. If I'll have your blessing, I'll just…take this here flower and…what's the phrase…sweep Sylvanas off her feet." She made to reach for the flower—

Only to have her hand smashed down and held fast by an even stronger one fit in a black gauntlet. She winced, not because her wrist was aching (and going by the grip, any tighter and it would snap) but because she thought she heard the wood beneath the linen cave in a bit.

She looked up and was startled to see steel blue lightning glare at her. Challenging her, to outrun the storm before the calm dispersed. They were the eyes of a Ghost. "What," Nova said, dully. Emotionlessly.

Li-Ming smiled, held up her free hand in a placating gesture. "Easy now," she replied casually. "I'm just saying…if you're not going to do anything about it, I figure I could do it. That's what Best Friends are for, right? I gave her one gift already. What's one more? She'd surely appreciate it, coming from somebody who's much more courageous, more daring, and more open than the 'Best Friend' who's sitting here moping and finding solutions to her troubles at the bottom of a mug."

Nova's glare intensified. "Is that so?"

"It is."

"I see." The tightness of her grip remained. "Tell me, Li-Ming," she began, "do you like living?"

"Why yes, Nova, I do."

"Do you want to see Eirena again?"

"Indeed I want to."

"Do you want to die knowing seeing her in Sanctuary, however long ago, would be your last?"

"I have no intentions."

"Then which do you prefer?"

"Why life, obviously. Death is overrated, especially when it's mad."

"I see." Nova let go of her wrist and leaned back in her seat. Her face was calm, her posture relaxed. Her eyes…much less stormy now. "That's good. That's good." She looked off to the side, having heard the sound of a running engine. Raynor was sitting astride a Vulture with a glass of foam-topped beer in hand, chatting it up with a gaggle of ladies. He looked very at peace with himself. All that was missing to complete the image was a cigarillo between his chompers. "Hey, Marshal," she called, which got his attention. "Nice bike."

"Yeah, she's a beaut, ain't she?" he agreed, patting the side of the vehicle. "Gazlowe helped me get 'er up and running. We just finished work last night. Just look at her, blondie. She's got herself a nice, fine coat. Really catching, wouldn't you say?"

So she did have a nice, fine coat, a deep dark red with bright orange flame decals streaking across the body. Nary a scratch or dent to see on it, too. Those two must've spent plenty of hours on it: they did a splendid job on the work, whatever it was that kept it in the Chop Shop. Nova nodded. "Very," she agreed. She rolled her neck around, warming the muscles underneath. "It'd be a shame if something happened to it."

Raynor laughed. "Oh don't worry your pretty little head there. I'm gonna have this baby under lock and key; she's not going anywhere on the battlefield. No, ma'am, not at all—GUH!"

Not only did Nova have the eyes of a Ghost, Li-Ming was convinced that Nova literally was a Ghost, for the person sitting at the table became a digital hologram that dispersed in a sparkling shower and the real Nova had just sucker punched Raynor off the

Vulture and scattering his squawking fangirls aside like birds on a street. "MOVE, DAMMIT, I'M ON A MISSION!" She mounted the bike, revved the engine, and sent the women even farther away by doing a U-turn. Li-Ming caught a glimpse of the flower in her hair, just below her goggles, before Nova floored it and rocketed out of the fairgrounds, blowing cutlery and napkins flying into the air.

Li-Ming went up to Raynor, who was struggling to push himself into a sitting position with one hand while the other was pressed to his face. "Are you alright, Marshal?"

He shook his head furiously. "Fuggen blundie!" he swore, voice muffled. Raynor removed his hand and looked at the blood coating the palm. His nose didn't appear broken, but it was bruised and would certainly swell up in no time. A thin trickle slid over one corner of his mouth. He grimaced. "Yeah. Yeah…I'm fine. Goddammit!" He punched the ground. "I can deal with Sylvanas's crazy. I can even deal with Sergeant Hammer's crazy! But although as a man I much prefer Kerrigan's above all the others, that kind of crazy just ain't right! I'm-a gonna my bike back, miss! I ain't gonna let three days' worth of blood, sweat, and Kaja Cola go to waste on some girl who's projectin'!"

"Projecting, eh? Well, this whole matter's concerns no one but Nova alone." I only said that stuff to get her going, she thought, and sighed. I hope now I didn't start something that's beyond even MY control. "Here now," she said, holding out a hand for Raynor, to which he took to stand, "let's get you to the infirmary and have that patched up, yes? You can eat ice cream and pet dogs, too, when we're done. How's that sound?"

-

And while Raynor was getting his nose patched and working a case of carpal tunnel into his other hand from petting the Greater Dog and the pack way too much, Nova sped across the green expanse of the hubworld, bent low over the dashboard, knuckles white and hair whipping behind her. She didn't have to check twice to see if the flower was still attached there; she could feel it slapping against her head.

What she should have been checking was the speedometer, vaguely aware that she could've easily passed Sylvanas and not even notice in her haste. That, however, was a minor inconvenience, so embroiled in her own thoughts.

I may be a Ghost, but that doesn't mean I haven't lost my humanity! People can say whatever they want about me; that's not going to stop me from goddamn caring about someone!

…Even if she does murder me, but better her than the Marshal.

Especially Kerrigan. No one else has the right to kill Sylvanas. Not Arthas, not Anub'arak, and most definitely not Greymane—just me! We base our friendship on snark and battlefield ambushes! That's just how it is here.

To be honest, it doesn't bother me if she sees me as a nuisance. My deaths don't even bother me anymore. It wouldn't surprise me if she tried to kill me the second I give her this gift, and I don't blame her: it's Valentine's Day, or whatever it's called in her sector. She's gotta be pissed. Most everyone is happy. One sister's dead, the other's holed up in some magical city in the sky with her own family, and what does Sylvanas have? Her people? That's not family; not in the immediate sense, but I suppose it could count. And since she's been without them for a good year, I can imagine how it would affect both parties.

But even with the treatment I get from her, at least I'm there for her! Not like you, Kerrigan, trying to make yourself Big Bitch on Campus just because there's another Queen on board! At least you have Raynor! Everyone I know is…

Nova squinted, and not from the lashing wind. She gritted her teeth and bit down hard on the inside of her cheek, hard enough to draw pain but not blood.

Well, they're gone. Ghosts of a past to be forgotten ages from now.

But not here. Not in the Nexus.

And…well, I always thought Sylvanas saw me as a sister of some sorts, not just in resemblance and demeanor but in the way I carry myself. Perhaps I remind her of Alleria. Nova bit down harder. Maybe…Maybe that's another reason why she kills me so much. Maybe I'm in the way. But that's just it: I don't want to get out of the way! I don't want to impede! I…

I don't want to make things worse than they already are for her!

Ah, there was the blood. Sweet and copper, bringing about memories of mind wipes and the stench of cordite. Of the temporal unraveling of emotions suppressed upon stepping foot into the Nexus. Dammit! Dammit, dammit, dammit! I'm a Ghost! A soldier and no other! I can't do this! I'm not supposed to feel any of this! I don't want to! It hurts! What am I even thinking—?!"

"WATCH WHERE YOU'RE DRIVING, MORON!"

Nova's thoughts derailed, and the blank space inside was instead filled with the sound of the Vulture's engine and…a dog barking?

Regaining focus, Nova found she was gunning straight for Sylvanas and the white dog at her heels. "Oh SHIT!" She slammed on the brakes and banked hard to the left. This allowed her to avoid hitting them but also caused the Vulture to spin out beneath her and the inertia forcing her out of the seat and spilling onto the ground. It glided across the grass and bumped unceremoniously into a tree and remained there, idle. Nova picked herself up, stumbled, and was in the process of crashing face-first into gravity again.

Sylvanas grabbed her and almost also fell back with her but maintained her footing. Grunting, she held Nova away at arm's length. "What are you doing?" she asked.

Yes, what was she doing here? Nova stared at her, which only prompted Sylvanas's unamused stare to grow more annoyed and impatient. "Oh!" She remembered! "I, uh, I wanted to give you, um—" She patted herself down. Where the hell was it?

Doodle barked. Nova looked down and the pup looked back up, smiling. They engaged in a silent staring contest.

Nova started. "You got a puppy?!" she cried, and put her hands to her head. "Li-Ming didn't tell me that! Goddammit! I need to step up my game!"

"She didn't give me the dog, you dolt!" said Sylvanas. "Doodle decided to follow me because he felt like it."

"…Doodle?" The dog barked again at the sound of his name.

"Yes, I know, small world."

"Who names their dog 'Doodle'?"

Sylvanas threw her hands up in the air. "Does it look like I have the answer to that?"

"Uh-uh. Oh, here it is!" There it was! Nova yanked the flower out of her hair and held it out to Sylvanas. "Here. For you."

Now it was Sylvanas's turn to start. "Oh." She glanced at the flower, glanced at Nova who nodded and held the gift a little closer, then back at the flower. Then she took it into her hand.

"I hope you like it," said Nova. "I searched high and low for it."

"Nova, this is plastic."

"And so it is!"

"I've seen these at the thrift shops. They're either decorating for your living room or to doll up earthenware statues in your garden. These are, like, not even a gold piece."

"But cheap as they are, they're much better than the real thing. These will never die, just like us!" Nova deflated slightly. "So…what do you think?"

Sylvanas inspected the flower, turning it this way and that. Her lips were pursed together tightly and one of her long, furry eyebrows was arched, which didn't do much for Nova in a way that indicated what the Banshee Queen was feeling. More importantly, her ears were down and sideways but not flat or against her skull, flickering inquisitively.

Nova quashed the urge to wring her hands. She fought off the cringe that creeped upon her when Sylvanas lowered the flower—violet, it was a stupid, washed out shade of violet, and Nova just realized it—to look at her. She held her breath, waiting for the inevitable death to make its presence known. Maybe she would be stabbed. Maybe she would get her neck snapped. Maybe Sylvanas wouldn't have to do anything at all; there was power in those eyes, maybe they would do the work for her. Maybe she would—

"Thank you."

Even thank her.

Wait, what?

"Wait, what?" Nova parroted the thought aloud.

"I said, you have my thanks. It is…much more simplistic than I had anticipated…but, from you, it is to be expected. The color compliments my attire. Although," she looked down at herself, "this is not exactly something you could pin on." She sighed. "I suppose that leaves us with this." She reached up and peeled back the hood, revealing the brittle, bleached yellow hair underneath. "I'm hardly, if ever, seen going about like this, so if you happen to make the slightest peep about it to anyone—"

"You know, you're very pretty," said Nova.

Sylvanas stared at her, a mixture of both displeasure, at being interrupted, and knowing, of the plainly obvious. "Of course I'm pretty. I was the second prettiest elf in all of Quel'Thalas back in the day."

"Second? You?" Nova laughed. "Don't tell me the first prettiest was Kael'thas!"

"Heavens forbid! We have enough jokes about his appearance as it is!"

"I'm joking, I'm joking!"

"You had better be! My sisters have got him beat in looks!"

Nova smiled. "Yeah. I can see where you got it from. You still look good, though. That's one of the things Arthas can't take from you."

Sylvanas gave her a strange, indiscernible look. It seemed…almost curious. "Do I now?"

"Of course."

"…Huh." Sylvanas scratched the side of her cheek and, very briefly, looked away. The way she held herself in that span of time surprised Nova. Was that…Was the Banshee Queen being shy toward her? And, oh dear God, was that a blush? Could the undead really blush? "Well," she resumed, turning back to her, "I suppose I still do. Well, don't just stand there. Come put this on."

Nova's face blazed scarlet. "M-Me?"

"Yes, you. You're the only other person here. I'm not going to debase myself and ask Doodle to do it. He doesn't have any thumbs."

"Dogs, uh, they have dewclaws…."

"Those don't count. Now stop dawdling like a schoolgirl and get over here. I want this on me while the day's still young and everyone else is off doing their own business."

"Plenty of time left for that," said Nova. She retrieved the flower and, as she was getting to stand on her tiptoes, Sylvanas bent down closer. Nova smiled and, mindful of the brittleness, inserted it in a place just above her left ear where it would not be pressed flat.

The smile broadened into a full-on smirk. Now I don't know what YOU got, Li-Ming, but this…THIS is a real gift. A cheap gift, a smart gift, a gift fit for a Queen. A gift that's everlasting! And what will yours give you in return? Nothing! Nothing, nothing, nothing! I was here first, and if you want any sort of attention from her, you're gonna be waiting in line for a long, long, long…TIME!

"What are you looking so smug about?" Sylvanas asked, straightening up. She touched the flower absentmindedly with her fingertips.

Nova grinned and shrugged. "Oh…just thinking how good today has been." Troubling thoughts notwithstanding, but today was still positively grand. There was no need to worry about the Program; they weren't here. She was free from them and, at the very back of her mind, although the feeling felt strange it was also…happy. It was a good kind of difference.

"Come on, Sylvanas," she said, squatting down. She clapped her hands at Doodle, caught the dog as it leaped into her arms, and stood. "Let's go find Arthas and use him as target practice."

"Why?" Sylvanas asked, surprised. The ear grazed the edges of the flower.

"Why not? You don't need a reason to do things with Arthas around. It's just you, me, and a guy who doesn't have access to Bolt of the Storm anymore. What do you say?"

For once, the smile Sylvanas gave her was not only genuine; it was shy, but it was glad.

-

"It suits you," said Vereesa, leaning back to admire her work.

Sylvanas touched the flower pinned to her hair, then lowered her hand and stared at it as though she had touched something she wasn't sure she was supposed to. "Does it?"

"Yes. Look." Vereesa gestured to the pond in front of them.

So Sylvanas peered at her reflection, and the reflection stared dumbly back at her. The violet didn't quite match her outfit, all natural leather and blue cloth, but with the sunset at their backs it did provide a sort of stark contrast. Indeed, it was very pretty, but: "This is real, right?"

"Sylvanas," Vereesa said, embracing her from behind, "if the deer in the south look real, sound real, and feel real, then everything is real. Including the flower."

Sylvanas huffed, blushing. "It was just one time. How was I supposed to know it was real and not plastic?" She leaned back on her hands and lifted her head so that Vereesa could rest hers in the crook of her neck. "But…thank you. You didn't have to."

"But I wanted to, because you're my sister."

"A smart sister," Sylvanas added, smirking. "At least you went out of your way to check your stock, unlike a certain ranger."

"Alleria was in a hurry that day!"

"With what, stuffing her face?"

"Sylvanas!" Vereesa lightly nudged her forehead against her elder's.

Sylvanas laughed. "I'm joking, I'm joking!"

"I hope so! She's not that gluttonous! Unlike someone I know!"

She quirked an eyebrow. "Who, me? Far from it!"

"Then you better work on keeping that figure, or you'll never find someone to impress upon someday!" Vereesa smacked her stomach for emphasis. "Step up your game, Sylvanas; Alleria's way ahead of you!"

Sylvanas slapped her hand away. "Stop that! I-I know what I'm doing! And the fan club doesn't count, either!"

Vereesa chuckled. "Sure you do. Sure. You. Do."

-

"Uh…Miss Ming?"

"Yes, Marshal?"

"I, uh, I don't know about you, but, um, I think we might have a problem."

Li-Ming followed his finger and looked up at the Lesser Dog. Or rather, at the hole in the ceiling where the Lesser Dog's head had punched through, then at the Lesser Dog himself. Or rather, at the way he was looking at her—upside-down with an upside-down smile, where its neck had reentered the atmosphere and cleared another hole to appear right next to her. He panted excitedly.

"That's not possible, right?" Raynor asked. "Tell me it ain't."

Li-Ming stared at the Lesser Dog some more. A pink tongue flew out and licked down her face. She held out a hand to pet him, stopped, hesitated, and pulled it back.

"Good question," she said. To the Lesser Dog, she added: "Hey, listen. You can go now. Raynor's feeling much better…aren't you, Raynor?" Raynor nodded a little too vigorously. "See? We appreciate your help. He'll be alright." It was just a busted nose—and carpal tunnel—after all.

"Woof woof!" barked the Lesser Dog, and as though his head had been sucked in through the hose of a vacuum cleaner, his neck retreated through the hole it came out of in a high-pitched whistling noise. Li-Ming and Raynor both looked up, watching as he disappeared into the clouds; a few seconds passed, and then there the faraway call of a train horn blaring. Then the Lesser Dog's head reappeared in a blur and asserted itself back onto its neck with a fleshy slap. He licked Li-Ming one last time, properly up on
her cheek, and made his exit.

Not through the door but the wall, past the startled doctor, leaving behind a tall, dog-like outline. Raynor winced. Li-Ming merely stared, mouth agape.

All three stood in silence.

Then, timidly, Li-Ming asked: "…How much is, um, all this going to cost?" She indicated the room's destruction.

"A lot," said the doctor.

Li-Ming paled. She reached into the rune bag tied at her waist, pulled out the little handheld computer and, tapping a few keys, checked the balance on the savings and checking accounts. Her face whitened even more. She whirled around at Raynor, pleading silently.

Raynor sighed. "I'll cover it," he told the doctor, and felt instant sorrow. His poor, poor bike. He hoped Nova didn't wreck it; and if she did, well…there wasn't exactly a rule against looting someone's corpse on the battlefield.