A/N: Most of the time, my editors will ask questions and make broad suggestions regarding direction and tone, but very rarely, they'll dip into coauthor territory and actually write something themselves. Jacob wrote the first couple lines of dialogue here before pulling back into ignominy where his dirty coal-covered ass belongs. It was well-received though and set the stage for the first section. In fact, the entire plot point of them being on the Citadel and meeting with Ithorex was his suggestion.

As for the lovely Nirin'Ptrun vas Cavaleiro Pálido, I based her suit off of a terrific piece of art from FonteArt, called "Quarian's Creed."


Estêvão Volinski glanced around at the polished causeways and bustling throngs of alien faces walking to-and-fro. Even the worst-dressed people were decked out in expensive dress-casual fineries. The Citadel was a wealth of culture and status – the prestigious sections at least. To even visit meant you had to be someone. To actually work there meant you were someone special.

"What's his name again?" asked Nirin'Ptrun, her arm linked with his as they walked along the Presidium.

He glanced down at the quarian before turning back to the causeway they were crossing. Nirin was wearing the same suit she always wore – or at least that's how it appeared, she had half a dozen identical sets. The deep violet glass of her helmet girdled by an ivory hood which trailed down and merged with her shoulders and continued into a flowing coattail in the back. Dark brown leather boots and gauntlets – custom-made on Omega. A scarlet sash beneath her bosom with leather straps completed the ensemble with a bold exclamation.

All around them the capital station of the galaxy pulsed with life. The air smelt of flame-pears and cherry blossoms. Three salarian workers were busy installing some kind of moss bed for an upcoming holiday, something about Shego. Some wealthy tourists were taking pictures of themselves near the Relay Monument while the locals ignored them.

"Ithorex. The, uh," Volinski paused as he tried to remember the hanar's profile, "Unready. Ithorex the Unready."

Nirin managed to snort and giggle at the same time, she bounced a bit on her feet and somehow clung to his arm even tighter. "Why do these jillies all have such goofy names? He sounds like an old mystic we have to visit before the final boss fight."

"Niri, we need to get this right, okay? We need to," said Volinski.

"Don't. I know that tone, Estê-kun."

Volinski stopped walking and turned to face her, his expression saturated with annoyance. "Don't what?"

"Don't act like you're being forced to take me here. I'm not gonna apologize for trying to lighten the mood and enjoy what was supposed to be some fun R&R."

"That's not what I said!"

"It's what you meant."

"No, it's not! It's just that when we were talking to Vigil—"

"I'm not responsible for what Vigil-bō said, or what it did. It is," said Nirin, eyes flaring.

"You poked him with a dildo," Volinski deadpanned with narrowed eyes, "You don't think that affected his decision?"

"Now who's being naïve? It made its choice long before it ever spoke to either of us. I don't care if you're angry with it. You should be. I am too. But don't direct it at me, Estê-kun."

"I—" Volinski stopped and sighed, "You're right. I know you're right. That paneleiro was probably listening to everything we said and did for months. Years. Who the fuck knows? He knew you were in the network, he knew what we talked about and what we've been dreaming about. And he still chose to screw us over."

They were both quiet for a moment, lost in their own thoughts and the splendid gardens and water parks of the Presidium. The shadow of a colossal stone krogan taking up the periphery.

"Hmm, I wonder if Gulta-sensei is still here," Nirin wondered aloud, breaking the silence.

"Who?"

"Gulta Noor. He took me and mom in after the rest died. He was a good volus, seemed like he actually cared about us."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah. Helped me get an under-the-table contract with Hélice Bleue as a data analyst and security specialist," Nirin said with a melancholic tone, "Life was pretty good before the company went under. Their debtors sold me off to Master in an auction with some other off-the-books contractors. Gulta-sensei… he tried so hard to find me. Hired some retired C-Sec officers to track me down."

"Now I remember, he's the one that hired us to hit the 'Setting Sun,' " Volinski said, remembering the day he found Nirin on death's door in the back of the batarian-owned brothel, "You ever reach out to him?"

"I have. Gulta-sensei was very happy to know I was free. He wanted me to come visit, but I never found the time."

"We could've made some time. All you had to do was ask."

"Mm," Nirin hummed.

"Any reason you didn't bring it up?"

"Sensei is in the past. Maybe he should stay there."

"He cared about you, Niri. That right there makes him better than ninety percent of the people in this fake paradise. You shouldn't just cast him aside when you don't need to."

Nirin was quiet, she knew he was right, broadly at least. Hell, she wanted to see Gulta again, but it felt so… awkward. It had been almost a decade since they'd seen each other face-to-face – or rather, helmet to… mask? Did the volus suit have a mask, or was it considered a helmet? Nirin couldn't tell, and she shook the thought away as she forced down her melancholy and brought her bubbly persona to the fore. "Maybe one day, Estê-kun, but not today."

Volinski grunted an acknowledgment, knowing there was little point in arguing further. What someone needed, and what they wanted or were willing to do, were two very different things. All he could do was drag her along to the small art shop and hope the hanar proprietor could fix a problem of theirs.


The hanar behind the counter… glanced? It was hard to tell, given the lack of eyes, but it appeared to be studying the image of the batarian slave-lord Bassac. Volinski's ocular implants picked up a sudden shift in the UV patterns that danced across the alien's bulbous pneumatophore. In the corner of his eye he could see the other nearby hanar flash with sympathetic radiance. Volinski wondered what the two were really discussing, the translation of 'ebony convent' seemed spasmodic and disconnected from the situation. Given that the software was hanar in origin, he suspected it wasn't as accurate as they wanted everyone to believe.

"Apologies," Ithorex the Unready intoned with solemn finality, "but this one does not possess the skill needed for such a commission."

And there's the fucking punchline. I hate this universe so goddamn much, Volinski thought with a scowl. He looked over his shoulder at Nirin, expecting to see the glowing puppy-dog eyes she always made when she felt dejected, but instead, she was happily tapping away at her omni-tool, utterly oblivious. Does… she not know what's going on? Meh, might as well keep it that way.

"Is there anything else this one may do for you, traveler?"

"Não, thanks anyway," Volinski said, offering reflexive gratitude as he left the shop with his quarian. He glanced over to her and noticed the haptic screen on her omni was displaying a bunch of playing cards. "Niri, what are you doing?"

"I'm playing the Legend of Sol-Tar!"

Volinski shook his head and sighed. "It's pronounced Solitaire."

"Yeah, that's what I said," Nirin said as she eyed her man and gave a huff, "Still got your thong in a twist?"

Volinski grimaced and gave a facial shrug. "You could say that. I was hoping to get more out of this trip, but…"

"Yeah, me too. I mean, creepy-pastafarian back there had sick-ass security on that computer and all I find when I break in is some goofy sentence. Total rip-off."

The quarian girl kept walking with an annoyed shake of her head, seemingly oblivious to her human who had come up short at her words. As she glanced back, his grumpy demeanor had morphed into a quiet seething rage as he glared daggers at her. No, not daggers. Chainsaws. He was glaring chainsaws at her. And they were on fire. He was glaring flaming chainsaws at her.

"I have no idea why I feel this sense of surprise. I really don't. I know what you're like and yet there it is, gut-twisting bewilderment," he said as he shook his head, "It's like you have no sense of self-preservation when it comes to computers."

"Ridiculous. I always double-check my firewalls."

"See? That right there. Not: 'I consider the risks before I hack.' Or: 'I weigh the pros and cons beforehand.' Or better yet: 'I make sure it's worth my time.' You glibly trespass without a care in the world and you think you're untouchable. You are not untouchable, Nirin'Ptrun."

"Of course not, Estê-kun. You touch me all the time," she said in a husky tone, dragging her claw slowly down her chest.

"I don't think you're taking this seriously. No sex or toys for a week."

"NANI?!"

"You're on perv lockdown, girl. It's about time I rein you in." With that, Volinski walked away in silence, leaving the dumbstruck quarian in his wake.

"Wait! Estê-kun! Hey!" Nirin yelled as she gave chase, "I'm talking to you! Don't ignore me, you jerk!"


Nirin tossed and turned, tangling herself in the bed's linens. Normally, she slept peacefully, having made a habit out of taking thanazepam every night to avoid the ever-present nightmares that haunted the tapestry of her unconscious mind. The sedatives would make her sleep less rejuvenating than it should have been – given the lack of REM – but a little grogginess was a small price to pay to not relive the brothel.

Tonight, much like the past three nights, she found her medication to be ineffective.

Volinski looked up from his workbench as his quarian thrashed about on their bed. She'd been 'off' since they'd left the Citadel, at least in terms of her sleep patterns. He set about reassembling the revolver she'd bought him from Morrigi the Peaceful – a peace offering designed to mend his bruised ego… and convince him to revoke her week-long celibacy.

It hadn't worked. And she spent the rest of the day pouting over it, and the fact that he refused to take her to 'Drilled' – the Fornax-brand sex shop in Shin Akiba – to replace the toy Vigil had so callously denatured.

He took some measure of pride in his ability to resist her for the past three days. She'd taken to wearing leather straps and latex lingerie at all hours in the sterilized captain's quarters, and striking alluring poses whenever she thought he was watching. It made him smile to think back on all her efforts. There was no one else in the galaxy who knew him like she did.

He forced the final piece into place, his ears registering the click of metal on metal as the cylinder was nestled in its home. Leaving the weapon behind, he rose from his chair and sauntered over to the bed where the naked quarian continued to thrash and mewl as her mind rode roughshod over her body. A gentle shake accompanied by her whispered name was enough to rouse her. Panicked eyes relaxed as she took in the sight of her bahnt. She sat up and threw her arms around his neck and cried into the nape. He held her close as the fear-fueled adrenaline-analogue subsided in her blood.

"It's okay, Niri. You're safe now."

"No. No I'm not," she sobbed, deep gasping breaths accompanying her cries as if she had been held underwater for too long.

"What did you see?"

She didn't answer, she only squeezed tighter and whimpered with renewed vigor.

"You can talk to me, Niri. You can let it all out and I'll be right here for you."

The crying continued at a diminished pace, but she refused to speak. Perhaps she was so out of sorts that she couldn't form any words even if she tried. But after a time, her voice croaked and cracked between wheezing sobs as she forced out the words that tormented her, "It was e-everything, Estê-kun. E-Everything… all rolled t-together. When we were cast out… when dad died… when Fydr and Lial died… when mom went into a coma and they pulled the plug… when I was sold to B-B—"

She couldn't finish the word, the sound deteriorating into more wailing pain. In all the years since they'd been together, she'd never once uttered the name of her Master. It was a psychological scar the batarian had reinforced on his chattel with drugs and near-constant conditioning.

He was 'Master,' not 'Bassac.'

Volinski once spoke to Kelly Chambers about it. She alluded to the similarities between Nirin's inability to speak her Master's name, and Trellani's inability to avoid praising the Thirty whenever she mentioned them.

"Niri… you've been weird since we left the Citadel. What changed? You haven't been like this in years. Do you need new pills to keep the nightmares away? Maybe you've built up a tolerance."

Nirin settled down a bit, her mewling becoming far more sporadic as she tightened her grip on her bahnt, rummaging her claws through his hair and leaving thin lines of red on his scalp. When she finally spoke, it was with a resigned and relieved air, " 'Regards the Works of the Enkindlers in Despair.' "

"Que?"

"That was the was the sentence I found in Rex's computer. It was the only thing in the entire system," she explained, her voice once more under control, "It's been eating away at my thoughts for days. I don't know."

"And you think it's related to…" Volinski drifted off with a shrug, "this?"

"I think so, but I don't know why. Nor do I understand why sharing it with you feels so… right."

"I'm always here to be your rock, Niri. You know that."

"I do," she whispered before pulling back and leaving a gentle kiss on his lips, "Thank you, Estêvão."

Volinski didn't respond, he just stared for a moment before pulling her into a tight hug. She almost never used his name like that. Honestly, that might've been the scariest part of all.


Nirin rested peacefully that night, though the thanazepam still refused to suppress her unconscious mind, the visions had shifted from traumatizing nightmares to psychedelic fever dreams. Forms and faces shifting and morphing, splitting and merging. A conversation with her former sponsor, the volus named Gulta Noor, was interrupted as spindly crab legs erupted from his mouth before planting their tips on his cheeks and lifting the rest of the body out before skittering away – then the entire scene melted into something equally outlandish.

Despite the horror of it all, she felt no fear – even as her neck tingled and she felt like she was being watched. It was a lucid dream, and she vaguely knew she was in no danger. She tried to gather her thoughts and force her body to change into one of the heroes she always imagined when she hacked into a computer system – she managed to summon a sword, but it quickly morphed into a pile of slithering asari scalp-crests. She moved to step on them when she felt the dream dissipate, like her body was jostled.

Opening her eyes, Nirin reflected on her dreams, but didn't know what to think. If they remained lucid and didn't dip into the nightmare zone, she'd be happy to accept them as part of her life. Then she felt a shift on the bed and noticed her bahnt writhing in subconscious agony – hitting her in the arm with his own.

Her companion, unlike her, refused to take anything to suppress the nightmares. She'd questioned his stance, as he'd never turned down narcotics when awake. He told her that he needed to relive the pain, that he would never allow himself to forget what he fought for. She didn't understand the point, since his mechanical arms and legs served as reminders in their own right.

This aversion to sleep-aids left the Brazilian tossing and turning as he did every night, drenched in a cold sweat and letting out pitiable groans and moans. Nirin received a light kick as her bahnt jostled, she curled close and held him tight, the one thing that seemed to calm him, but even this did nothing.

Another minute passed before Volinski leapt up with a scream, shoving Nirin away in the darkness and extending the retractable nano-ceramic blades from his forearms and holding them up in a defensive posture – wild eyes darting through the darkness toward unseen enemies.

Nirin did what she'd learned long ago to do – she prepped the stunner app on her omni-tool and slowly increased the room's light with a haptic dimmer switch. Then she called out in a gentle voice, "Hey, it's okay. You're safe. No jungle here."

Volinski's breathing was heavy, his muscles and myomer bundles tense and ready to spring. For a time, it seemed like he hadn't heard her, but then his breathing calmed and he sat on the edge of the bed, retracting his blades. "…It wasn't Zorya."

"Anhur?" Nirin asked as she saddled up behind him and slid her arms around his neck, burying her nose into the nape of his sweaty neck.

He shook his head. "No… something else… I can't remember, but whatever it was… I feel its eyes upon my soul, even now. I felt a crushing darkness… a cold pressure that my bones—"

"It was just a dream," Nirin interrupted, worried he might become lost in a flashback.

"Maybe… Something about it… I've been on edge ever since this morning. When you told me what you found in that hanar's computer," he admitted with a quiet sigh.

Her eyes widened at his words, finally realizing just how similar his dream had been to hers. "I'm sorry, Estê-kun. I shouldn't have—"

"I've told you before, Niri, seu fardo é meu fardo. Don't suffer alone when I'm here, willing to help. Even if I get hit with psychic shrapnel."

"I know… I'm not sure I deserve you, Estê-kun."

"I'm not sure I deserve you either, Niri," he said as he pulled the quarian into a tight embrace and nuzzled the area where her quills met her forehead plates, "But I don't think we're made for anyone else."

Nirin's brow scrunched up around her forehead plates. "What about Isabel-sama?"

Volinski tensed at the name of his late wife, but as the tension fled him, he held his quarian tighter. "Izzy… she was made for the old me. She was a good woman. I'm not sure she would forgive the things I've done in her name… I'm not sure I'd want her to."

Nirin didn't respond, unsure what to say. Her bahnt so rarely spoke of the woman he'd once loved – still loved. It felt like prying to even utter her name. So she remained silent and nuzzled against her human.

The past was the past, and no one could change it.


After another hour of holding each other and taking breakfast in bed, the pair set about seizing the day.

Nirin logged in to 'Galaxy of Fantasy' under the handle 'BudaPest_Gambit' and loaded her main profile to try out the 'Waters of Kolono' expansion pack. As her quarian technomage (level 67) set out with a small party of 'randos,' they were joined by one of her gaming friends, 'AmberCladQueen68.' And off they went in search of 'K'l'rh,' the rachni blood wizard hidden in one of the procedurally generated island dungeons – in short, their day was booked up solid.

Volinski, on the other hand, had opened the comm-link on his omni-tool and selected a TTL from his favorites list. It took a minute to connect the FTL comm buoys all the way to Noveria, but once it did, the screen resolved itself into a small office area with a swarthy woman in an expensive business suit staring back.

"Hello, Estêvão. What can I do for you?"

"Hey, Gianna. I need to book a room for the weekend."

"Shouldn't be an issue. You gonna stick around for a bit? You still owe me a beer."

Volinski grinned at the reminder. Gianna Parasini wasn't one to forget a debt, no matter how small. "You set me up with a room at the Hónghuā and a session with T.Y.M., and I'll buy you the whole goddamn bar."

"Generous."

"I pay my debts, woman. I also desperately need a break from this life."

"That bad, huh? Still flying with the corsairs?"

"Killin' pirates and slavers is about the only thing I'm good at," Volinski said with a dismissive shrug, "Nowhere else to go but the corsairs."

"Mm," Parasini hummed with the shadow of a smile.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"I see that smirk, you're laughing at me. Why?"

"Buy me that beer, and maybe I'll tell you."

"Shocking that a tease like you is still single."

Parasini narrowed her eyes and glanced to the side. "Oh, would you look at that. No vacancy. I can probably squeeze you two in next month."

"That's cold, Gianna. And here I thought what we had together was real."

"Ha! Cool your jets, stud, I'll get you your room."

"Thanks. I'll see you in…" he trailed off as he glanced at his omni-tool, "three days."

"See you then," she said as the video feed cut and the line went dead.

Volinski took a deep breath and moved to exit the room, glancing once at his quarian as she tapped away at the haptic keyboard like her life depended on it – cursing someone named 'butcherfanboi_CV.'


Breaking through the frigid atmosphere of Noveria, the ship's pilot brought the converted frigate low to pull into one of the lower-tier VIP docking bays. Volinski made a mental note to leave a case of kriek lambic for Gianna as thanks – the public docks took forever to process and were, understandably, public.

As the ship settled into the magnetic clamps, he and Nirin – along with a small complement of Blood Dragons looking for some R&R – made their way off the ship. Only to be stopped by the stern eyes of Major Maeko Matsuo, commanding officer of the Noverian System Defense Force.

"Alright, Niri?" Volinski whispered, "This is gonna be hard for you, but I need you to shut the fuck up and let me talk to her."

"Nani? But Matsuo-senpai—"

"Do. Not. Start. You know she hates your fucking guts. So keep quiet. We don't need this to become a scene."

Nirin huffed in indignation, crossing her arms over her chest. Volinski rolled his eyes slightly before putting on his most charming expression – overclocking his social augmentations in the process. "Major Matsuo, what's it been, two months? And you look as dignified as ever."

Matsuo didn't respond beyond narrowing her eyes.

"Is there something I can do for you? I'm sure Parasini-san made all the necessary arrangements, given that we weren't shot out of the sky."

Matsuo's frown deepened at the Japanese honorific Volinski had used. It was how she referred to Parasini, true, but it felt like a veiled insult coming from him. "You know why I'm here, Rodríguez-san. Your quarian."

"Listen, I know she's been trouble in the past, but—"

"I suppose five minutes ago is technically the past."

Volinski furrowed his brow at that. "Five min—" he stopped mid-word as he whirled around on his quarian and fixed her with a glare, "What. the. Fuck?!"

Nirin glanced at her bahnt before shifting to Matsuo and then back. "I'm sorry, am I allowed to talk now? You said I wasn't before, so…"

Volinski let out a withering sigh as he turned back to the Major. "Alright, no talking our way out of this. We have an appointment with Gianna and a session with T.Y.M., what do we need to do so you're okay with that?"

"Her omni-tool will need to be confiscated," she said with a nod toward Nirin, "and anything else that's capable of hacking a computer system."

"Mm, that's a problem, Matsuo. She's not relinquishing anything, and I think you know that. I'm more than willing to have her lock up her tech on the ship, but we're not handing it over to you. Wouldn't want it to get conveniently 'misplaced' in Noveria R&D."

"That wouldn't happen."

"Because your boss has such a sterling record?" Volinski deadpanned, "Look, I'm willing to compromise with you here, Maeko. Lord knows this girl gives me fits with the shit she pulls, but we can't give you her omni."

Major Matsuo's frown deepened and she shook her head. "If it weren't for Parasini-san, you'd both be under arrest right now. I honestly have no idea what that woman sees in you."

"A good friend?" he offered with a shrug.

"Then she should be more discerning," Matsuo said as she inclined her head, "You may return to your ship to store her tech, but you will need to submit to a body scan before entering port. If either of you – or those men behind you – have anything more sophisticated than a comm-link, you'll be denied access and expelled from the system."

"…You drive a hard bargain. Come on, guys, back to the ship."

The small group made their way back and deposited all their removable tech in storage lockers. It took no more than five minutes for the Dragons to be ready for shore leave. Volinski and Nirin took a bit longer, as the quarian kept hiding datapads and ANI datasticks in her suit. Volinski let his men go on without him as he spent an hour stripping Nirin of her suit and searching every nook and cranny for contraband – the search ended with over a dozen pieces of Matsuo-banned tech.

Satisfied with his search, he gave the suit back and watched her put it on – making sure she didn't sneak something in. That's when he noticed the ghost of a smile on her thin lips. It was the same smile she had whenever she thought she was getting away with something. He immediately reached out to stop her from dressing herself and performed an on the spot cavity search – which found an overly complicated bit of contraband in a very uncomfortable place. He questioned how she would have even used it, and she sheepishly admitted to jury-rigging the thing to work in tandem with her nerve-stim rig to act as a wireless receiver for her suit's UI. A move she justified by claiming she could never be fully disarmed if she was still in her suit.

Finally, finally satisfied that his girl had been 'disarmed,' they made their way off the ship and found Major Matsuo and her Lieutenants still standing stock-still where they'd been before.


"Hey there, Estêvão. Did Maeko give you any trouble?" Gianna Parasini asked as she brought her glass of beer to her lips, a knowing smile on them as she did.

"Gianna, you know she did, why are you even asking?" Volinski grumbled as he sat down across from her in the booth, Nirin plopping down beside him.

"Because it's funny. Did it seriously take you that long to put away an omni?"

"No, it took that long because every goddamn compartment on that suit of hers had something else that would've given Maeko a fit."

"And yet you put up with it. Ah, true love. Is there anything in the galaxy so romantic?"

"Right, you sure that's your first beer of the day, Gianna?"

"Of course, after all, Noveria is world of technicalities. Even a lie can be true from a certain point of view."

Volinski smiled at her facetious response. It was always amusing to play word games with the silver-tongued. "You spend too much time with the company lawyers, Gianna."

"Can't deny that. Been in meetings with the pedantic bastards all week. I was relieved when you called me. Even if it's a short visit, it's good to unwind for a bit."

"True, it's half the reason we're here," he said as he swirled the beer in his glass, watching the foamy head cling to the sides, "You said you'd tell me what you were smiling about if I bought you a beer."

"I said I might tell you. There was no guarantee."

"It was implied."

"Ha! Now you're the one who sounds like a lawyer," she said with a smile as she shook her head, "You'll have to refresh my memory. What did you say when I smiled?"

"I told you I was killing pirates with the corsairs."

"Ah, yes, that was it. I was smiling because I wanted to confirm that was the case. Because I heard through the grapevine you were running with dogs these days."

Volinski cocked an eyebrow as he sampled his own beer – a novelty ale made from acorns. "Grapevine, huh?"

"Yep. So, is it true?"

"That's a bold claim, Gianna. Makes me wonder if you're spending too much time in the shadows."

Parasini's eyes twinkled in amusement as she smiled. "See? Doesn't it feel nice to share mutual secrets?"

"And you wonder why I was leery of a relationship."

"Eh, it all worked out in the end, no? We stayed friends, and you managed to find someone just as crazy as you," she said with a laugh, "You two make a cute pair."

"Aw, you hear that, Estê-kun?" Nirin said as she leaned into her man and brought the glass of triple filtered turian brandy up to her helmet's emergency induction port, "She said I'm cute."

"That's one interpretation," he said as he finished his beer, it had an interesting flavor, but he didn't plan on getting a refill, "How are things with the Board? Heard it was pretty touch-and-go after the Benezia Incident."

"True. Asari commandos, geth troopers, rachni abominations… it's a wonder anyone survived all that. The company took a hit, but it's since rebounded. There's a lot of money coming in from the Alliance. They leased Peak-23 and turned the surrounding area into a killzone. No one goes in without ten different identity checks, minimum."

"And here I am without my key FOB, bummer."

"You'll just have to make do with a hotel suite and a pile of narcotics. It's a hell of a consolation prize."

"Mm," Volinski hummed as he leaned back in the leather booth, "Which room did you book?"

"16B, same as last time. You have an appointment with T.Y.M. in an hour, but you could probably head over now and get a jump on things."

"And leave you alone with my bar tab? Fool me once, Gianna."

"Heh, worth a shot," she chuckled as she finished her beer and signaled the waiter for a refill.


An hour later and the human-quarian duo were lying next to each other in modified dental engines and surrounded by medical monitors and IV drips. The proprietary narcotics flooded their bodies as the volus research team took notes on their therapeutic effects for psychological trauma.

Volinski's vision exploded in euphoria as his mind melted into itself. His dull, earthly form giving way to the bright colors of a children's cartoon. It was an intoxicating feeling as all the anxiety and stress drained away.

He was content to drift amongst the stars in a drug-induced haze as his high reached its apex. He felt himself floating in zero-g; the sterile walls of T.Y.M. giving way to the vastness of the universe. His body pulled into orbit around a gas giant planet with enormous, vibrant rings as the sound of an electric guitar played in his ear.

He floated toward one of the moons, finding Nirin drifting alongside him and reaching for his hand. Taking hold, the pair descended toward the moon and gently landed on a patch of grass near a field of wheat on one side and a stable of horses on the other. Together, they marched down the dirt road toward the house in the distance, an empty tree swing in the front yard.

Nirin grew shorter with each step and her demeanor changed with it, becoming more energized and bubbly. As they passed the horses, she'd reverted to the size of a child, squealing with delight as she took off as fast as her little legs could carry her. Plopping down on the wooden seat and kicking her legs back-and-forth – too high up to touch the ground.

Volinski smiled and approached, putting his hand on the small of her back and pushing. He smiled at her high-pitched giggles as she climbed into the sky only to swing back again.

"Mais alto, papai!" she shouted with glee.

He obliged and pushed the swing even harder. He felt a sudden welling up of tears in his eyes. The sheer bliss of normalcy all around them. Just him and this child and the wonder of her childhood. It was the purest dream he could conceive.

One more push and the girl flew out of the wooden seat, squealing with delight as she arced through the air and landed with a tumble in the grass, laughing the entire time. Volinski laid down beside her and the pair cloud-gazed.

A swarthy woman with dark, curled hair approached the pair from the porch. "Hey, you two, lunch is ready."

"Aquela parece um debulhador," Volinski said, smiling and pointing to the sky, drawing a coo from the little quarian.

The woman pursed her lips. "It's rude to ignore your wife, Estêvão."

Volinski smiled and looked up at her. "Why don't you lay down with us for a bit, Izzy?"

"Your parents on their way and I don't want to muss up my dress."

"Don't be such a pill, you only live once."

"Fine. If they ask, I'll just blame you."

Lunch grew cold as they picked out animals and monsters made of fluff against the backdrop of a multicolored sky. None of them gave much thought to the colors, nor noticed the way they undulated in the vague shape of a squid that stretched from horizon to horizon. The glowing mass of the sun an all-seeing eye upon them and their private family moment.

Volinski smiled and whispered to himself, "Minha culpa."


Volinski and Nirin made their way down the ramp toward their ship, the Cavaleiro Pálido. The heavily modified ship barely resembled the salarian Chryma-class assault-frigate the Blood Dragons originally purchased. They'd arrived in Port Hanshan Friday evening, and had spent the weekend in the tender embrace of their family-friendly neighborhood pharmaceutical mega-conglomerate. All stress and anxiety violently purged through euphoric intoxication.

All in all, it was time and money well spent.

As they made their way back to the docks, they were arrested by the melodious voice of a hanar, "Excuse this one, but we were told to speak with you."

"Who? Me?" Volinski asked as he glanced about.

"Yes. You have been blessed by the Enkindlers. We humbly request that you accept the gift of their benediction."

Volinski glanced at the proffered 'gift,' a sealed metal trunk large enough to fit a batarian corpse if you finagled it a bit. It was apparently shielded against external scanning as well, his ocular implants failing to penetrate the surface. He glanced back to the hanar and cocked an eyebrow. "Who… are you, exactly?"

"This one's declared name is 'Opold,' " the hanar said with a swaying of its luminous body, "We are a humble merchant in this port of call."

"Uh-huh," Volinski said with an unbelieving tone, "If you're a merchant, why are you giving me this for free?"

"The Enkindlers smile upon you."

"…What the fuck does that mean?"

"You have been gifted a soul name."

"Soul name? What are you—" Volinski's words came to an abrupt halt as the pieces fell into place, "Wait, if this is what I think it is, how is that a gift? She fucking stole it."

"Your quarian is quite talented to have broken through the dummy firewalls. Her technique was luminous and instinctual, something most trespassers disdain in favor of rote formula. She was gifted the soul name within as a reward for her creative skills… and she shared that gift with you. You both now walk in the light of the Enkindlers' grace."

"You hear that, Estê-kun? Luminous and instinctual."

Volinski ignored the girl's shallow gloating and focused on the hanar. "You're offering free shit over a fucking name?" Volinski scoffed with a shake of his head, "Follow-up question, that soul name… does that have anything to do with the fuck-all dreams we've been having?"

"The Enkindlers offer their wisdom, but it can be painful for those unprepared. The visions will pass in time, once you accept their benediction."

Volinski narrowed his eyes as he glanced at the case with suspicion. "What is this 'gift,' exactly?"

"This one cannot say. Only that the Enkindlers wish you to have it."

"…Listen, if you're looking for a smuggler, you can just ask outright. I know people."

"Why are you so hesitant to receive the Enkindlers' benediction?"

"Because this reeks of a tra—" Volinski's words came to a halt and he shook his head to clear his suddenly muddled thoughts. Was it the drugs, or something else? "Actually, on second thought, I'll take it. Qual é o pior que poderia acontecer?"

"Indeed. Fair travels, warrior."

"Same to you, merchant," Volinski said as he gathered the case and turned back to his ship, only to find Nirin standing in his way with her head cocked, "What?"

"Why'd you change your mind, Estê-kun?"

"I… don't know. Just felt like the right thing to do, I guess?"

"Mm, sounds like you're still high, bebê."

Volinski frowned. "I don't feel high… wish I did. Incidentally, does this make you question your compulsions at all?"

"Nope."

"Not even a little? You hacked a computer and were infected with a memetic phrase, and then you infected me."

"Calculated risk."

"I'm calling bullshit on that. You hacked it for the thrill, without any forethought."

"Yep, and now we got a gift from the Enkindlers. Really, you should be praising me, Estê-kun."

"Eat a dick, Niri," he snapped as they sauntered into the airlock.

Nirin gave a huff of indignation. "Not until you praise me."

The Brazilian grunted at the quarian's stipulation, hoping he could summon the willpower to resist for the night. Reaching for his comm-link, he called to the pilot as the decontamination cycle concluded and the door to the ship opened. "We're back, Guilherme. Everyone else on board?"

"Aye, Capitão. Heads-up, João is hungover and pissed-off. Some asari cadela fleeced him at the hotel."

"João é um idiota, that's no secret. Weigh anchor and take us back to o Canil," Volinski ordered, feeling the slight vertigo of his ship as it left the Port Hanshan dock.

The Cavaleiro Pálido hummed as it broke through the upper atmosphere on its way back to Minuteman Station. Ensconced in the captain's quarters, Volinski opened his 'gift' and beheld a strange orb of odd textures resting on a bed of satin fabric. It was the size of a beach ball and held an opaque sheen, something that left the eyes unfocused if it was viewed for too long.

"Well… that's fucking ominous."

"Yeah…" Nirin agreed as she started tapping away at her red omni-tool, even as she was entranced by the orb.

Suddenly, the cabin was engulfed in the sound of odd harmonics of an Indian persuasion. It was, in a word, ominous. Though it didn't last long.

"VI," Volinski called out, "change music to 'Blues Club' playlist."

The light drums and chanting gave way to a saxophone and the soulful crooning of a vocal savant.

"Darn it, Estê-kun, now I have to dance," Nirin whined as she started swaying her hips and singing along.

"That's better," he said as he saddled up behind her and placed his hands on her hips, swaying with her to the music.

The dancing shifted into a teasing strip as each peeled off the clothes of the other in rhythm to the music. Tangled pant legs left them both stumbling to the bed as their mouths sought each other out. Their passion flared and neither noticed the subtle luminescence radiating from the nearby orb.


Nirin felt strange, she remembered her bahnt's arms cradling her as she drifted off to sleep, but now it was like her body was weightless – even as her feet were firmly planted on an indiscernible floor. It felt like a dream, but it was off somehow. By this point, there should have been leering Masters or joyous technicolor waifus. Instead, it was endless drear – nothingness as far as the eye could see. A twilight plane of gray ink without any other feature – though she could feel her bahnt in her periphery.

The air was bone-cold and thick with an ephemeral pressure, as if they were standing at the bottom of an ocean. Yet even this paled in significance as they bore witness to the majesty of an ancient and terrible entity. Its bony mantle rising into the unnatural clouds of this place. Three jagged tentacles hung in the air. And in the center of this transcendent form, was a cluster of six glowing blue eyes.

They were captivated and enthralled by the sheer magnitude of its presence. And when it spoke… nothing else mattered.

They heard but one word, strummed against the strands of their souls as the Voice filled their minds and compelled them to obeisance.

One word.

Katha


A/N: Shout-out to Ranubis's "Infiltrat0rN7" for inspiring Niri's gaming habits. That fic is absolutely hysterical and I command you to read it toot sweet!

Also, I'm afraid part three (the finale, originally) will be delayed indefinitely. I reviewed it and determined it didn't fit thematically with the first two chapters and would need to be scrapped and rewritten. It's a shame, but I'm glad I caught it.