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5 mos ago
Current deconstructions are fake lol
1 like
8 mos ago
"return of the mack, you know that i'll be back." in his bed, joe biden lurches awake, wild-eyed. many a year he has watched, waited for the mack's return. hes as ready as he will ever be. he t-poses
11 mos ago
Today Show 9-11-01 ~ Live on NBC as Tragedy Occurred [s l o w e d + r e v e r b]
1 like
1 yr ago
40 hours into the mass effect remaster. gameplay is good but not sold on the plot changes. wish garrus would stop saying "reaper? i hardly know her!" laugh track on the normandy is a weird choice too
6 likes
1 yr ago
fine, since you asked so nicely officer, i will confess my crimes. since i was seven years old i have refused to match any socks in my sock drawer. i practice sock hookup culture. i am a slut
7 likes

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Nicole slumped against a small piece of rubble on the ground, graciously accepting Priya's fist bump but otherwise sitting apart from her teammates. She watched each of them proudly accept the adulation of the cadets and other Ars Magi, basking in their accomplishments - Penny, equal parts fearless and discombobulated after her full frontal assault, and Dana, ever the markswoman and optimist. Even Cordy was getting in on a little of the love, and it was for her that Nicole felt the fiercest pride. She could tell her roommate was still focusing on filling the shoes of a girl she'd never known, and Nicole empathized with that. She knew she could do a better job of treating Cordelia as her own person and not a stand-in, and it was something she was working on. But by the same token, she felt a little proud of herself; this was their first op since Astrelle had vanished from the world, and Cordelia was a natural fit for--

"--does the name 'Team Radiant Storm' sound? A little pretentious, but I think it fits us nicely..."

Nicole winked. A natural fit for a Radiant Storm.

"I think it whips ass. Just like you, babes. We'll squeeze it down into something that can fit on a jacket."

Tomorrow, maybe. Or...whenever.






She had finally gotten the hang of this dumb faucet. Warm water cascaded down her shoulders and the small of her back, its smooth passage to the drain occasionally broken by small cuts or the rough texture of wind-chaffed skin. In the morning Nicole would pick up her moisturizing routine again, but right now her body was sore, tired, and ached from old wounds - or, as the ancients called it, nostalgia. A tablet computer, propped up carefully to the right of the bathroom sink at an angle best for audio fidelity, served as her knife, carving the overwrought lines of sci-fi post-cyberpunk pre-apocalyptic tragically-romantic fuckin' goodness into her heart and pulling the familiar words from her lips. She mouthed along lovingly.

"Promethion was designed to be a bargain, and I've always held up my end."

"I don't need you to tell me how Promethion was designed, Commander Shourichi."

"Man-machine interface, isn't that what you insist on calling it? A bargain between man and machine. And you hate it. You designed the greatest weapon in humanity's history, pulled the whole thing out of that big brain of yours, but you just hate that it needs me to run. You hate me. But most of all you hate yourself, Ryouma. Because you and I are meat. No design involved. The way we're made is dumb and messy and physical. And one person never gets all the credit."


The young Nicole Cognoscenti had watched this a hundred times, and then a hundred more, until she wore the screenplay's scars inside her heart. The retro-future stylings of Studio Quada's Giga Assault Hell Smasher Promethion had made it a cultural smash around the time Nicole was born, but it was Ecumenopolis, released when she was only three or four, that had sealed the franchise's spot in the great canon of filmmaking. The two hour movie concluded the tragic saga of hot-blooded, hedonistic, humanist Commander Corinne Shourichi, her brilliant but insular counterpart Dr. Ryoma Kougami, and the other defenders of the planet-spanning city of Vaucanson from the grotesque aliens who sought to wipe them out. Nicole had been way too young to see everything that conclusion entailed when her father smuggled her into the theater, but many of the images - beautiful, tragic, and horrific alike - had imprinted on the blank canvas of Toddlerscenti's brain, and she had sought the movie out when she was a bit more mature to refresh herself on its entirety.

Since then, the movie - especially its first act, the final moments before the apocalypse came calling for the doomed cast, where twenty-six episodes worth of pieces began to finally fit together - had become a comfort food for Nicole, as fulfilling as fresh bedsheets or a good slice of pizza. Nicole had promised Penny and Dana that she would keep going with her Altea binge watch, and even as she had gotten their finnicky shower to Goldilocks temperature she'd meant it. But tonight, as she washed the rain, rubble, and blood from her person, what she craved was something familiar.

"You're right. I built the greatest weapon in human history, and you...you drink all the time, you play arcade games and pachinko so much you basically fight for free, you spend every night with someone new because you think you'll never see tomorrow. Maybe you don't even want to."

"Maybe."

"But tomorrow always comes, and Promethion always rises. Without you, and your attitude, and your yelling, the greatest weapon in human history would be scrap. Corinne, I don't hate you. I'm in awe of you."


"You're the most human being I've ever met," Nicole Cognoscenti whispered.

"You're the most human being I've ever met."


Despite the heat of the shower, there were goosebumps along her arms. Nicole hugged her chest, rubbing her hands up and down her shoulders to her elbows and shimmying her shoulder blades. She had tried showing a few of her friends this movie over the years, and even the boy she'd had a thing for, but all he wanted to know is why they just didn't mass-produce Promethion's chest laser at any point.

The whole movie kinda needed context to work.

"You always dreamed humanity would overcome. I always dreamed of the stars. If we survive this--"

"--when."

"If we survive this, you'll be the one to take us there."


"I burn hotter than any star, Ryoma."

"I burn hotter than any star, Ryoma. Some of them are dead already, and even more are winding down. Even if we left tonight, the party would be over anywhere we go. The stars have had you distracted since the day we met, Ryoma. There are no stars. There's only you, and me, and what happens here tonight."

"...And tomorrow?"


"What about it, doc?"

"What about it, doc? I can burn forever if I've gotta."


"Holy crap, I'm so aloooonnnnnnne!"

That was about all Nicole could take for one night, thank you very much. She turned off the water and hurriedly stepped from the stall, extending an arm to pause the movie before any muffled sounds of passion carried through the door. A few drops of water lingered on the screen, sliding down its smooth surface the same way water slid down Nicole.

Bad enough that Cordy might have even heard that pathetic confession over the twin sounds of shower and sci-fi soap opera, but after this love scene always came the inevitable denouement - the deaths of beloved cast members, the final wave of alien attacks, the layers and layers of betrayals and conspiracies that come home to roost. On nights like this, when she wanted a moment to feel fuzzy, she would always stop the movie here. That was one of the things she loved most about movies. When things were at their best, freeze them there.

And nothing else had to ruin them.

She smiled wistfully and reached for a towel. When she did, she felt her muscles ache.

But even that felt good.





"Then it's help you'll get, beautiful," sang the wind.

Dana, as always, had done splendid work in thinning out the onslaught of missiles; it seemed to Nicole's eye as though half, maybe less, of the munitions the robot had unleashed in its death throes now remained intact and buzzing. That was more than enough to turn the average city block - and the average cute girl defending it - into cinders and craters. But this testing dump was no average city block - and Nicole and Dana were definitely not the average cuties.

With a wave at the direction of her team's sniper and her trainee cohorts, Nicole buzzed by parallel to the ground team, slowing her roll slightly, so that the intent tracking on the missiles would be tempted towards a similarly aerial target. The shift in their trajectories was barely perceptible, but it was there; enough for Nicole to grin in resigned triumph and began flying to evade again, kicking a little more speed out of her long, outstretched legs.





Above the trinity of Ars Magi, an angel shimmered into being - shooting forth from a pool of splintered glass, a scarlet valkyrie flitted nimbly through the skies, dodging fire and weighing her fateful choices.

As Penny had gone for her most tried and true method of problem solving, and Dana's little body had swelled with determination to save her dance partner's group (uhh-dorable!) Nicole had elected to go draw fire from the beleaguered Priya and Blair. One was playing a game of evasion as best she could while the other tirelessly sawed at the war machine's limb like so much lumber; it was a potent combo in theory, especially against an opponent slow to recognize physical detriment, but as Nicole watched Blair hurtle into a pile of rubble and shake herself off, claymore still gripped in hand, she had to figure that it sucked for robots to lose legs too. The Ars Magi couldn't imagine she would have been too thrilled if anyone started hacking at her lovely legs with a pizza cutter.

With Blair momentarily taken out of the equation, the brunt of the mecha's assault fell upon Priya Khatri, glimmering like a vermillion bird on the ground below her. She was putting up a valiant hybrid attempt at offense and evasion, but neither were serving her much good without Blair to fight in tandem. Nicole put her superior speed and agility to work, crowing in exaggerated delight at the feeling of wind and rain whipping her hair behind her as she strafed closer to the mecha. It served her well for a time, although she could feel her Parma singing slightly at the occasional close call with a magitech blast that felt uncomfortably close to what she imagined plasma would look like.

She would file a complaint with the fashion police about it later.

It was still taxing work, but much as Priya and Blair had non-verbally communicated a gameplan, so too did Nicole and Penny - with the heady brew of brash confidence, never-say-die attitude and hoarse vulgarities that came naturally to Penny and made her beloved amongst her team, her teammate began hammering away at the robot and found at least moderate success. The craters that pocked the militaristic behemoth's surface like pores were proof that if you dumped mints into a magical girl, shook her up and dropped her from the mesosphere then the resulting boom would be enough to leave a hole in just about anything. But like Blair, Penny's fearless fighting style had been punished. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her bespectacled teammate slide from the side of the robot with only as much grace as she could afford, and her landing looked anything but soft.

Visibly, Nicole's flying changed.

What had been a focused, but harmless enough attempt at diverting magitech fire away from street level was suddenly whetted with malicious intent, as Nicole stuck her legs to the side and skidded to change direction as though she were skating on the air itself; though skateless, her long legs worked like serrated blades themselves, rending holes in the very air. Her eyes had changed too, her bright-eyed, guileless stare squinting, sharpening, and sucking what dim light the stormy evening afforded them. The hue around her figure made up for the warmth her gaze lacked; she glowed orange as a star, and with her right arm pointed to the heavens for succor, she resembled a creature of myth - bedecked in white samite like an angel or a faerie, with all the skies of the world as her lake.

"Whoa whoa, hey now," she muttered at the mecha in a tone of warning.

The winds swirled around her outstretched arm, and at their mistress' command they congealed to form a sabre. She saw Penny and Blair standing up as one, dusted off and ready to rejoin the fight, but first it would be up to Nicole to give them an opening - or rather, for Nicole to capitalize on the progress her forebears had made, and for them to stand on her shoulders in turn. That was why they put Ars Magi in teams.

And that was why Ars Magi always killed their monsters.

Mecha sense my power and seek the life essence.

More wind began to swirl around Vedfolnir, turning what was a slender limb and blade into the beginnings of a burgeoning tornado. Her gaze fell upon the robot's gimped left leg.

I do not avoid mecha.

Nicole's body curled up into a crescent as she wound back her right arm in a pitching motion--

But I do deny them my essence.

--and hurled, aiming her frustration and power at the rend in the war machine's limb, to teach it a valuable lesson about tossing around her girls.





Nicole was grateful for the moment to catch her breath. As she plopped down, she felt her knees lock together for a moment and thought back to her school days - kids circled around each other, daring each other to lock their legs together into rigid planks and see who passed out last, playing their stupid kid games. Of course, Nicole was no exception.

But she was totally grown-up now, and way beyond testing something that dumb, so she made sure to unlock them after just four seconds. After she'd made sure she had a bit of the old 'staying conscious' magic. Penny approached her just as she spread and stretched her legs, testing her ankles with little twirls. She grinned coquettishly back at Penny as her bespectacled teammate inquired about their relationship status, and leaned in to give an emphatic smooch to the Siscian girl's freckled cheek.

"Nahhh, we're like this," she confided, locking her index and middle fingers in a tight cross. "Thick as thieves always, Penny, you know that. Great firepower out there."

She leaned in and munched on her own energy bar while she listened to Aiya stoke Dana's fire a little. She had to giggle. Aiya was as relentless a flirt as Nicole herself, but it was brilliant watching Dana completely no-sell it and start going off on another tangent about Guardian Gunslinger Alexis and making friends.

"You tell her, Dana!" crowed Nicole in support of her teammate, when she was between mouthfuls of granola. "Youuuu tell her. Nothin' wrong with it at all. You're doing great, babe."

Cordelia was a little less prepared for Aiya's onslaught, and Nicole felt her mouth twitch in empathy for her roommate. She knew that, despite her best efforts, Cordelia was still adjusting to the idea of replacing Astrelle - a phantom that the new arrival to their team had never even seen before, yet still hung over her as surely as the grey and indigo storm clouds above. Nicole was still grappling with some of the implications of her friend's transfer herself, but she was doing her best to treat the one-time butler with every bit of the encouragement and zest she fronted for the rest of the team, too. Maybe they all needed to go out together. Force her to enjoy town the same way Nicole herself had, and Vanna too.

Her smile widened and she swung around on her perch, lifting up her legs and wrapping them around Cordelia's midsection. Nicole's right leg tucked between her midriff and her tightly drawn legs, wedged underneath her head protectively.

"You girls don't think I'm that jealous now, do you? Think I need to try and keep all the hotness to myself?" she asked the two nobles playfully. "You can dance if you want to, Cordy. All my best friends love to dance. Especially with each other."





Nicole bared her teeth in a proud grin as Cordelia manipulated the fields of ruined glass to guide in their extraction. Her roommate had made a poorly kept secret of trying to fit into Astrelle's shoes, but clearly she didn't suffer from a lack of ability as an Ars Magi. It wasn't just pride that made the redhead grit her teeth, though; she was doing as much as Cordy was to keep them masked from the drones, and though her adrenaline was doing much to keep the winds at her beck and call, she was beginning to feel the tugs of effort upon the muscles of her limbs and face.

It was enough strain to give any average girl some unsightly, premature wrinkles. She had no idea what the benefits of an Ars Armagus were when it came to the aging process, but Nicole wasn't about to use the core in her tummy as a crutch. Her fate and her skin care were just where she liked them - in her own hands.

Her eyes landed upon the two larger machines that Cordelia and the officer cadets pointed out. As much as she would have liked to completely ghost this extraction, she recognized the two machines and their specifications, at a glance, as the much gossiped about mecha from the gala. If she were a bit fresher, maybe she could have done more to completely mask them - but it was just as likely that, being such cutting-edge prototypes, they would have been found no matter what. That was more likely, given the parameters of the exercise. So she quit beating herself up over the unattainable dream of a "perfect record" and continued delegating.

"Alright, Cordy, I think we've done all we can to trick them from here. Focus on confusion instead of evasion with me, we'll see if we can keep them from targeting us directly. With our firepower we won't even give 'em a shot to react. Penny!" she called out to Team 3's smallest member, giving her the same exhausted, wolfish smile and sticking a thumbs up. "It's time to do what gotcha to the dance, babe. If you can kill them, great. If not, focus on weak points. Let's crack the biggest, most expensive parts we can eyeball wide open and let Dana shoot 'em up, yeah?"

Man, I love this.

Being alive?

No. Something way less obvious than that.

Being an Ars Magi?

No. Something even more egotistical than that.

I feel like such a boss.

Yeahhhh. She loved that.





Nicole felt an electric thrill lance up through her chest as pride, a superior's approval, and the excitement of flirting all mingled together into one pleasant sensation. She grinned back at the praise from Aiya and then stepped up to the cargo doors. The door opened for the Ars Magi with a hydraulic hiss, albeit one that was lost in the noises of the storm as the hatch yawned open to greet it. A sheet of rain was bisected into strips by howling wind, and one such strip splashed across Nicole's face and chest. She licked her lip to taste the rainwater, remembering vividly how storms like these had blanketed the neon of her home. It felt good, knowing that even on the other end of the planet, the rain always found its way to landing on the lights of Hasta.

The wind is on my back.

It was only talked about in stories, of course, but in the days before the First Void humans had leapt from transports like this for fun. Skydiving, it had been called, in the days before the skies had become a hunting ground of the Void. People had jumped in tandems or groups, taken pictures, posed garishly as they plummeted to earth like missives from God. Of course, for anyone not guarded by an Ars Magi, a recreational jaunt through the lower troposphere was just as likely to end in meeting God as it was to greet your family on the ground - and the Ars Magi, even those who guarded the nobility, usually had better things to do than guard their charges on a ship-less flight. If they didn't, doubtless Aiya would have tried it by now.

May my sword cut like my smile.

But Nicole Cognoscenti, unique among all the girls in the world, had a chance to take her one day. Maybe when it was sunnier, but to a girl who commanded the winds and welcomed the rain, no inclement weather would have made a difference to her. In her heart, she felt like she could jump and fly right now, just as gracefully as their plane.

"Vi faccio vedere come lotte un Hastano."

And at her murmured declaration, made husky by her native tongue, the wind began to howl backwards. A small crease of concentration formed on the redhead's brow as the wind began to blow the rain into the direction of the drones, buffeting the sensors of the drones intent on making their evening harder. She couldn't make many of them out with the naked eye, but with the other officers in the corps and Dana providing spotting, Nicole was confident she could keep them blind.

"Cordelia!" she called out to her roommate, voice radiating strength even over the noises of the storm. "Shine for me, babe!"





It was hard for Nicole not to bob in place, a buoy rocked and animated by adrenaline, at the outset of their first group combat exercise. It was controlled, of course, but that took none of the fun or anxiety about it; during the weeks at a time their training was limited to classwork or limited class exercises, it often felt like it would be a cold day in hell before they were even allowed to head to the MEZ again. How did her friends see fit to celebrate the occasion with her?

By mogging her over her popular phase, of course! Their good-natured ribbing brought a sheepish grin to Nicole's face throughout their briefing, as they ragged on her for her date with Aiya. Not that Nicole would return fire, of course! She was, after all, a cool, down-to-earth kind of girl, flippant in social situations and composed on the job. She was an Ars Magi, an example to humanity - hardly the kind of girl who was going to stick her tongue out and nag Penny and Dana about their movie date to see the new Altea movie, or to harass them about not being given an invite. Especially not after she'd devoted some of her precious off-time to catching up on the Alteaverse too, manga, spinoffs and all. She was nowhere near that callous to act like that in front of nobles like Vanna, Aiya or Cordelia.

But the wink she gave them both in response to their teasing was proof she was capable of it, at least.

She weighed all their suggestions and stood, stretching a long limb and brushing her fingertips against the roof of their transport. The briefing weighed heavily in her mind, and though it was nice to know they weren't expecting Void combat, her memories of the nasty shock they'd received during their last trip to the Exercise Zone were heavy in Nicole's mind. So was the scrape she'd taken along her midriff, which had scarred her spirit if not her stomach.

"If it comes to that, Cordelia, I can draw them off," she appraised, looking over Team 3. It was nice and simple, in her mind. Would it be cool to have a team name or emblem? Probably. But it was also a lot of effort to design that sort of stuff, and she only really trusted Dana to come up with something suitable anyway. All her stuff would look like old stills from horror movie productions, or remind people of devils and succubi more than Ars Magi. "I can outfly anyone here, and with all this rain I could probably blind their sensors by blowing sheets right into them. But they're trained to detect our magic output, too. So we can't just throw Penny at the problem and hope for the best."

She even surprised herself with how authoritative she sounded. Instinctively, what she knew of politics told her she should be letting Vanna dictate all this, but...something about what Cordelia's words when they'd first met, the unsung leader of the team, had stuck with her somewhere. Even if she didn't see herself that way, if others did, wasn't it her job to live up to that standard? "You heard what they said in the briefing, the second one drone sees us they all do, and they'll harry us the rest of the way until we're home free. We should keep the element of surprise as long as possible somehow. Harsh their sensors, use Cordelia's glass, and if it comes to a fight I know I can bank on Dana's support at range. Especially if their sensors are goofy. Penny, you can do what you do best, babe."

She pumped a fist at their bespectacled highlander and winked again. She tried not to look at Aiya or the Officers Academy cadets, for fear of blushing in their direction. The quiet one was kinda cute, too.

"Vanna, you're our nuke. The long we can keep you from exerting yourself, the better - you can help Dana and Cordelia if our VIPs are being pushed too hard, but ideally we'll really be able to let you cut loose at the end, so we have a clear trip to the finish line. That make sense to everyone?"




“Come and find me later. I’ll introduce you to some of the officers—but you won’t like any of them as much as me.”

It was surreal to see a member of the Duodecim coming on so strong. Nicole had always flitted through life pretty flirtatiously, casually keeping everyone on their toes with signs of her interest. She was an engaging girl who liked to show her interest in people, but it was as much a form of conversation to her as jokes or heart-to-hearts full of sisterly advice. Aiya was something altogether different; she was a girl who had the whole planet at her disposal, cut from the same staggeringly lucky cloth as Vanna, conceived as part of a grand cosmic plan and born within the winner's circle. It was Nicole's luck that she had been born a carefree girl, a meandering pirate captain whose childhood had been spent navigating a sea of technicolor xenon, with good vibes and cheap street food at every port; it was Aiya's divine right to dance and rule and flirt the way she did.

In that moment, some terrified part of Nicole screamed what Astrelle had been screaming aboard the Laurus at Penny and Dana, with their heads full of cartoons - grow up. No fun allowed.

But that didn't seem like much of a way to live, either. Would the others have made her 'heart of the team,' as Cordelia had put it, if she wasn't working overtime to be their sister figure? It was still work to make people love you, wasn't it?

She'd been having a lot of these thoughts over the past couple days. Not for the first time, Nicole missed Astrelle. Aiya had been taken aside by her own set of responsibilities - responsibilities in this case being defined as stocky, well-groomed guards straight from central casting, a cabal that was uncannily comely and disquietingly faceless, each bodyguard utterly indistinguishable from each other. So following dumbly in her stead, while tempting, was also a no go. Besides, being clingy wasn't a good way to get girls to keep thinking you were hot.




For a while, Nicole sought the company of the other remaining noble in her life. Vanna had survived enough of the pleasantries of the Duodecim over her own life that she was afforded some leeway the other cadets were not; she had found her way out onto one of the balconies adjacent to the ballroom, nursing a single flute of champagne that her pale fingers in a way that reminded Nicole of a woman clutching her a throat. She cajoled and schmoozed her teammate for a bit, trying to get her to come out on the dance floor, but Vanna seemed content with the breeze and the moon for companionship. Nicole's presence was tolerated, maybe even with a hint of warmth, but in the end the Hastan realized that her light wasn't really necessary in such serene company, and she bade Vanna a goodnight.

A dance with her lilac-haired coffee queen was the next highlight of her night; the two chatted about mochas and music for a few minutes, Nicole twirling in her arms, before her counterpart was pulled away for an introduction. Another, less engaging conversation or two followed before she managed to extract herself; Aiya had caught her eye again, gesturing for her to meet some of her compatriots from the officer's academy. On the way, Nicole found herself stopped by a leonine blonde boy, blue-eyed and grinning impishly. He pushed a flute of champagne from his family's table into her hand, along with a napkin containing two chocolate-coated strawberries. "She's the girl!" he called out to Aiya's table straining to be heard over the upbeat swing of the band changing tempo. Nicole giggled; she raised her voice to match his, tingling all over, buzzed and alive. She felt like her whole body had become her Ars Armagus. Maybe it had.

"I'm the girl!" she crowed, taking a big sip of her drink and feeling her arms tingle again at the taste.

She spent the rest of the night there, surrounded by young men she'd never met before and a Duodecim who seemed to hang on her every word. It made Nicole think again about their different life experiences, but this time she hit upon another truth - to Aiya, and to all of them, an Ars Magi must have been equally exotic. The nobility among them had grown up with them as a faceless, powerful fact of life, more beautiful than the guards who had escorted Aiya to her next engagement but equal in purpose and obstinance. They were there to be mysteries, not to be explored and bantered with. So she broke the ice the way Nicole Cognoscenti did best, telling stories from home, mining them each for more things to do in Palmyra, and even explaining again her superpower of free samples magnetism. One cadet had been as skeptical as Penny before another Nova Lux cadet drifted up with some delicious-looking bread and spread. Nicole took a bite out of it and silently freaked out when she felt the familiar texture and flavors of pesto on her tongue; she'd had a humiliating pine nut allergy all her life, and for a few minutes she desperately tried to play it cool...before realizing that nothing was happening, and it was safe to take another bite. A passive effect of her metamorphosis into a magical girl?

Holy crap. Holy crap!

Aiya had been half-right; for the rest of the night, the de Mars' heiress' table was the one she'd stuck with, and she liked each cadet equally, but none so much as her one-time dance partner herself. When it was finally time for the glittering jewels of Nova Lux to return to their chambers, Nicole did so with smuggled armfuls of pesto bites, strawberries, and a rich girl's number.




The Ars Magi had partied with various levels of enthusiasm, and for a time they relaxed in the common room, with Nicole sharing her snacks, stories, and plenty of giggles with Penny and Dana. Somewhere in all that mingling, one of the many unseen Powers that Be that made the campus run must have moved Cordelia's things into Nicole's empty dorm. The butler's things had all been meticulous tucked in and the sheets on both beds had been freshly changed - obliterating any traces of Astrelle Lennox that might have remained, save perhaps in memory or races of aura that Nicole was not yet attuned to. With that in mind, and as the buzz of the evening turned to a general feeling of drunken sleepiness, she tried her best to make her shower prompt - and made sure how to explain to Cordelia beforehand the necessity of fiddling with the shower knob to get the best potential water temperature. It would save her from going through the scalding initiation that Nicole and Astrelle had.

As the water plastered her scarlet hair to her forehead, her fingers brushed her bare stomach and touched the emerald inlaid there. Maybe the rest of her life wouldn't be filled with nights like this one...but that was all the more reason to treasure them. That thought - and the hot water - teamed up to cut through her drowsy, inebriated haze, and she focused hard on the feeling of every droplet that broke or clung to her bare body. Through trial and error, and endless curses, she had found the dark alchemy required to coax a perfect shower out of this damn thing every morning and every night. Such a perfect shower deserved to be remembered, and she wanted to commit every second of it to memory - every second of the whole night to memory.

She focused hard, biting her lip and smiling dreamily, until she felt like she'd succeeded. Only time would tell if she was right. Tomorrow morning would be the first test. She turned off the shower and dried off, only barely remembering before opening the bathroom door that she actually had to begin getting dressed before bed again.

After all, she had a roommate to consider.




"Me? Psssh. I was almost getting trampled in raves before I could walk. This is the same principle, just more champagne."

Nicole let out an easy laugh, a chiming giggle that lilted with all the grace of her element. She immediately liked her dance partner. Her parents had always been politically-minded, sure, but Nicole had never really put much thought into the workings and lives of the nobility before. Having rubbed elbows with so much of it lately...

It turned out she just had a thing for noble girls. Curious.

Curious!

She looked around for Penny, Dana and Vanna, catching each of their eyes for a second as they engaged and bantered politely with their own dance partners. She wondered if any of them had managed to find the fun in this. For Vanna, galas like these had probably come with the territory that was her whole life, endlessly polite chat that led to no engagement and no connections. From the way she talked, that was probably how Aiya felt about them too.

"That sucks," she sympathized with a playful grin and the same conspiratorial whisper. "You would think those are the moments that make guarding someone easier and make you better at it. Dances, inside jokes...the intimate stuff, right? The things that make you give a crap about life."

Aiya was a master of closing the distance between them and then widening it again - constantly keeping Nicole on her toes, as the distance between them bounced back and forth from hairline fracture to gulf.

"The lights or the boys..." she mused playfully during one of the hairline fracture phases. "Well, in all the movies, they say that the people of Hasta are its real lights, so I guess I've got that covered." She winked. "Palmyra has plenty of neon if you know where to look. It's not the same, but if I work hard enough and crank up the charm, I can turn any place in the world into Hasta. The boys..."

Golden, surly eyes beneath bangs plastered down by the rain - they prowled left to right like tigers, discontent inside of cages. Droplets rolling down his full lips. The nostalgia-filtered snapshots that led to what-ifs, and would probably make her feel alone even in the arms of her final, truest love one day.

When she blinked, it was Aiya's face she saw again - exotic and feline, gorgeous and amused at her own exotic partner. Nicole's own playful grin glinted with the sheepishness of the Best Friend Next Door.

"The boys kinda had a catchphrase for babes like me - Ti voglio bene."




Not for the first time, he missed the feeling of shooting at batarians - a human pastime that had become a sacrosanct duty, ever verging the edge of becoming a birthright.

The last four years of Jackson Pulliam's life had been spent amid the relative, if spartan comforts of the Systems Alliance's black ops squadrons. From the fringes of Alliance space into the Attican Traverse, with even a few toes illicitly dipped into the Terminus Systems, he had served as one of humanity's sterling tools, tasked with strenuous jobs along the frontiers humanity had not yet sucked dry. Between those jobs his arrangements were caring and careful alike, stored properly and maintained often the way a master craftsman would store and maintain the unique set of tools he had bonded with.

He found solace in that definition of care. He had tried other definitions in his life and found them all unsatisfying.

In the weeks between his assignments, the ships or backwater ghost towns he was posted to offered him a form of solace, too. He found something of the ragged old pioneer spirit in the horizons of empty worlds, barren planets freckled with only the occasional Alliance prefabs across the face of what was otherwise a seamless, unending vista. Space was beautiful in the same way, a blank canvas dotted with more history and chemistry and quirks of existence than Jace could ever understand. He had given up on understanding it all as he grew up. Now he preferred to just look out at it from an observation deck and find silence in his mind, where once he had churned with questions.

Tayseri Ward offered none of those comforts. The Citadel was the great cardiovascular system of the galaxy, its relays connecting to the home clusters of almost every political presence in the galaxy, asari and salarian and turian and hanar and elcor alike. Its Wards were all multicultural, some to greater extremes than others. But it was the asari that functionally ruled the galaxy, and it was the asari who ruled Tayseri. Tayseri Ward was a beacon of asari culture tertiary only to Thessia and Ilium. Concert halls bearing the names of Matriarchs who had been old when the first nations of Earth were young, nightclubs that teemed with maiden dancers and mercenaries, and most of the streets and lights were aglow with the famous asari color palette - purples and oranges like the lips of sunrises, and blue everywhere. It saturated every level of Tayseri Ward and clawed its way through any surface with a hint of translucence. When Jace looked at his hands, sometimes he caught himself shocked that they had turned blue too. It was only the lights - and the asari.

He didn't like the idea of meeting any contact here - especially with the sparse intel he had been given in his briefing from the brusque Rear Admiral who had assigned him this mission. Tayseri was a known destination for parties and cultural events alike throughout the Citadel, but it had been struck hard by the geth attack. Concert halls, biotiball venues, and entire city squares had been obliterated by wreckage from Sovereign and the assorted Citadel ships that escorted that monster to Hell. If this extraction became heated in a hurry, it would become difficult to move his contact anywhere with any degree of speed - let alone get a viable route to the Presidium, which was only barely habitable even months after the battle. He could see the wisdom of meeting in an asari dominated Ward, at least; after all, it would be easy to pick out other humans like him, discern who was there for partying and who was there with a goal in mind. But it was humanity's fleet that had rescued the Citadel and it was humanity that was starting to dominate many walks of life on the Citadel. Citadel Security, embassy staff, transit authority, even the cleanup crews working district by district...Sovereign's apocalypse had forced gentrification upon many of the Wards, and that bell couldn't be unrung.

It also made his job of parsing the threats out of everyday new arrivals that much harder.

At least he found the doctor where he was supposed to be. Sometimes contacts liked to get a little loose where brokered meetings required strictness; it was a whiff of uncooperativeness that would never quite waft away, and usually led to jobs gone wrong. He sat down across from the scientist and took the man's measure. The aliens liked to make a big deal of humanity's genetic diversity, but the doctor seemed particularly nondescript to Jace. Older man, anxious and uncertain of himself. He got the feeling that even if he was a necessary presence to the doctor, he certainly wasn't a welcome one.

He ran a lazy finger along the bottom rim of the doctor's cup, feeling the slickness of condensation on glass beneath his fingertip. A drop pooled on his nail. He waited for the code phrase - one the doctor had suggested, likely with far more pomp in the face of the admiral than he seemed capable of delivering it with now.

A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery. If those weren't the first words out of the jittery man's mouth, Jace was leaving.
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