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Hellhound

Chapter Text

Mindoir, 2168

A young John Shepard sat alone at an aged wooden table in the small inn's tavern, staring at the bottom of his empty mug.

"Waiting to pick up Izzy again, John?" The old barkeep, a pitcher of warm cider in his hand, had ambled up to where the fourteen-year-old boy sat.

"Yea, well, you know my parents. Can't let her make the trip home alone in the dark," Shepard said in an exasperated tone.

The barkeep gave a wrinkled smile. "Quite the responsible young man you're becoming, eh John?" The old man sat down on the other side of the table to rest his wearied legs and began to refill Shepard's mug.

John quickly reached his hand over the mug, causing the barkeep to look up quizzically.

"I just came to pick up Izzy. Plus, I don't have anything I could use to pay for it."

"Nonsense, John. I've known your family for ages and I owe them more favors than I can count. Now give it here."

John grinned and, as he was always willing to accept free cider when it was offered, took back his hand.

As the old man poured, Shepard's eyes began to scan the room. They passed over the tavern's usual customers, its familiar dark wooden paneling, and finally froze on a woman sitting in the back corner.

Her skin was milky white – a telltale sign she couldn't be from around here where everyone worked on the farms under the sun day in day out, especially now that it was harvesting time – and her hair was an intoxicating raven black. The girl, whose age hung somewhere between teenager and young woman, sat alone, totally disinterested in the rest of the tavern, her attention devoted to the omnitool she was tapping commands into.

The old man saw John's eyes widen and freeze and a subtle red begin working into his cheeks. He looked behind him to where the boy was staring and laughed when he spotted the object of John's attentions.

"From what I gathered, she just arrived in town today. No idea what's she doing here though, and quite frankly she hasn't been too keen on sharing. No man that's been up to talk to her has managed to get more than a polite refusal. Except Jacobson's boy." The old man gave a hearty laugh. "His insistence earned him a broken nose, courtesy of the young lady."

Shepard could hardly hear the barkeep speak. His head had decided she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and his pounding heart seemed to agree.

Suddenly the young woman looked up and trained her eyes directly on John, as if she had known he had been shamelessly staring at her for the last five minutes. John looked away and, hands nervous, picked up his newly refilled cup of cider and began chugging away. John, who was still watching the girl through the corner of his eye (though not as discretely as he believed), saw her stand up and begin walking in a beeline straight to where he sat. Those hips…

The barkeep started chuckling and stood up. "Well then, John, I'll leave you to it." He picked up the pitcher and returned to his normal station behind the bar.

John had long since finished the cider, but kept the oversized mug held up to his mouth, hoping it would be enough to keep the girl from seeing his bright red face while he tried to calm himself down. Soon enough, however, the girl was standing right in front of him on the other side of the table and, after an awkward moment's pause, he finally lowered the glass.

He looked up.

As beautiful as the girl had been from across the room, she was even more breathtaking up close. John quickly lost himself in her stormy eyes, her luscious lips, the gentle curve of her jaw…

"John Shepard, I presume." Shocked that she knew his name, and still reeling over the fact she had actually approached him, John coughed up some of his cider.

He quickly clasped his hand over his mouth, forced himself to swallow, wiped his face with the back of his hand, and met her gaze.

"Yea," was all he managed to get out.

"My name is Miranda Lawson. There's something I'd like to talk to you about." Her tone was cold and business-like.

Instead of replying (which, considering John's state, was actually completely beyond his current capacity), John just kept staring up at her dumbly.

Miranda stared down at the boy, waiting for a reply. She cocked her eyebrow when she failed to get one. This is who they sent me out into the Attican Traverse to talk to?

The boy finally managed to choke out a response. "Um, sure. What is it?"

"In private, John. If I can call you that."

John kept staring at the girl, her accented pronunciation of his name echoing in his ears. "Y-yea," he stuttered. He kept sitting there until he finally registered his words. "Oh, right. Um, outside?" The girl nodded.

John stood up and walked around the table towards the exit. As he passed her, he deeply inhaled her scent. Like everything else about her, it was intoxicating.

He pushed open the heavy door and nearly tripped over the threshold. When he recovered, he nervously went back to the door and held it open for her as she walked out.

They stepped out into the muggy summer night, and as the heavy door closed again, stood together, listening to the loud chirps of the local fauna.

The girl turned on her heel and faced him. Now that John was standing, he realized that she was actually a few inches taller than him, and felt foolish.

"It's about your biotics."

John immediately went on the defensive. Nobody but his family knew about that. In a community that was as small-minded as it was just plain small, John had been careful to keep others from finding out. He knew what happened to a lot of biotics once they were found out, after all.

He stepped away from her and addressed her firmly. Fear for himself and his family clearly outweighed the nervousness he had had towards her before. "How do you know about that?"

Miranda was surprised at the quick change that overcame the lanky teen. His brow had furrowed, his eyes had become dark, and his jaw had locked in place.

"I work for an organization that's very good at finding people like you."

"What organization?"

"Cerberus."

"Never heard of them."

"Considering where you live, I don't find that fact particularly surprising. Cerberus is a human survivalist group. We work to advance humanity and its position in the galactic community."

"Isn't that what the Alliance does?"

"Hardly. The Alliance is too busy playing by Council rules. Catering to their whims. Cerberus isn't constrained by such things. We're willing to go farther to achieve more."

"'Isn't constrained'? It sounds to me like you guys are just criminals! What do you people even want from me?"

"According to our intel, you have incredible biotic potential. For now, we only want to help you tap into that potential."

"For now?"

"Ultimately, of course, we'd like you to join the organization."

"Cerberus," John said, if only to etch the name into his memory.

"Yes."

"Well you can forget it. I believe in the Alliance and I won't-"

"John!" John looked over and saw Izzy sprinting towards him. "Why are you out h-" she suddenly stopped when she saw Miranda. "Oh. Should I…?"

"No, that's quite alright." The raven-haired beauty turned and began walking away. "Just think about what I said, John. Even if you don't want to join."

Once Miranda was out of earshot, Izzy looked up at her brother. "Who was she?"

Shepard walked over to where he had left his bike. "Nobody. Now c'mon. Let's go home."

Chapter Text

Miranda was walking down a seemingly endless dirt road that ran between two adjacent cornfields when she checked her omnitool for what must've been the dozenth time in the last half hour. She was already exasperated at having been sent to the middle of nowhere to try and win the allegiance of a pubescent teen, and the fact that the extranet in Mindoir ran painfully slowly certainly didn't help.

The omnitool beeped and Miranda looked to her left, where a small path branched off the main road. This must be it, she thought to herself. She turned and kept walking.

After ten minutes or so, a small house came in to view. Miranda approached it, and once she was within a dozen paces of the porch, she reached behind her with her left hand and gripped the pistol she had tucked into the band of her pants. She slowed as she stepped up to the porch and rapped on the wooden door.

Seconds later, the door opened slightly and Miranda saw half the scarred face of a man in his late 40s.

"Alaster Burkhard?" Miranda tightened her grip on the pistol.

"Miranda Lawson?" Miranda nodded. The man opened the door the rest of the way and looked up and down at the young woman standing before him. Content, he nodded and motioned for her to enter. "I prefer just Al."

"You're the asset's handler?" Miranda stepped over the threshold and looked around the cramped but barren house.

Al walked stiffly to the living room and sat down. "If you can call it that. My orders are just to keep an eye on the kid."

Miranda let go of her pistol and walked into the room after him. "And? Is he worth our time?"

"You're here, aren't you? You must've read the reports." Al poured himself a drink and leaned back in his chair.

"I have. But I'd like to hear it again from the source."

Al sighed. "Fine, but you won't hear anything that's not already in there." Miranda raised her eyebrow expectantly. "I had my suspicions before. Little things, you know? Like a baseball rolling into his glove before he actually reached it to pick it up. Then, earlier this year – I forget the exact day, but again it's in my report – he was exposed to eezo a second time."

Miranda was still standing, arms crossed, in the middle of the room. Al continued: "He's only tripped up one time since then that I know of. During the Spring Festival, most of the community gathers in Miller's Field for games and a feast, right? His mother, that's Hannah Shepard, gave him some kind of pocket watch. A family heirloom, I think. Kid was fawning over it when his sister – Isabelle? – grabbed it from him and started running. So naturally the boy starts chasing her. 'Give it back, Izzy! Give it back!' he goes. By the time he catches up, they're way out on the edge of Miller's field and their parents are watching them, hollering for them to get back away from the forest line. And that's when I see it."

Miranda motioned for him to keep going. "Now the boy has his hand reached out in front of him since the girl's so close, and he screams 'Give it back!' one more time. He grasps out at her but misses her barely, so his arm comes back to his side. I imagine that's what triggered it. The pull. And I mean pull. The girl is suddenly being propelled backwards so fast her legs and arms are out in front of her as she goes. She must've gone forty feet like that, and that's before she even landed."

"And you've seen nothing since?"

"Courtesy of the boys parents, I think. They ran over to the girl once she landed, you see, and once they figured she was all right – nothing but scrapes and bruises, luckily – they lectured that boy good and long. My guess is he's strictly forbidden from using biotics at all, especially when other people are around. Well, we all know how it goes once biotics are found out, after all."

"You're sure it was forty feet?"

"I didn't believe it at first myself. There's hardly an L2 that could pull off something like that. But I went back after and stood right where he had stood at the tree line and measured the distance over to where the girl had left a sizeable divot from her landing."

Miranda had to admit, assuming the man was telling the truth, that she was impressed. Human biotics that could move a credit chit without an implant were rare enough. Most L1s could barely lift an object the size of a baseball. But a teenage boy who could pull a 70lb girl forty feet without an implant?

It's damn near impossible.

"So have you met him yet?" Al looked up at the young operative who seemed to have lost herself in thought.

"Yes."

"No luck then, I guess? I thought it was a good move, personally. What better way to persuade a young teenage boy than the words of a beautiful teenage girl? Not to be rude or anything."

"No, and thank you." Miranda paced the room. "We were interrupted. I'll meet him again tomorrow and try again."

"And if he says no?"

"To joining Cerberus? He won't. Even if it's not tomorrow, he'll join us soon enough. Recruiting him is my assignment. And I don't fail."

Chapter Text

Having returned home, John Shepard lay in his bed, his mind swimming with thoughts of Miranda Lawson. He had spent the last hour completely still, his forearm rested over his eyes, carefully reconstructing her image in his head down to the finest detail. Over and over, his mind replayed the sound of her saying his name in that strange yet seductive accent he couldn't place.

"Miranda." He said her name out loud, wondering what it would sound like in his voice.

"Is that her name?" Izzy popped her head out over the side of the top bunk and looked down at her brother. John lifted his arm slightly and opened one eye to peek up at her.

"Yeah."

"She was pretty."

"Yeah, she was."

"And totally out of your league."John pulled his entire arm back and threw his pillow at her, causing Izzy to squeal playfully and retreat away from the edge. When she deemed the coast clear, she looked over at him again. "Besides, I thought you didn't like girls."

"Of course I like girls Izzy. Just not any of the ones from school. What?" John saw Izzy pout.

"Nothing. I just thought…"

"Spit it out already!"

"I thought I'd be the only girl you'd ever like." John laughed and pulled himself out of bed. Standing on the bottom bunk, he reached up to the top bunk and put his chin on the edge of the mattress not far from where Izzy lay.

"Don't worry Izzy. I'll never love any girl the way I love you." John smiled and kissed his baby sister on her forehead. Izzy beamed.

John jumped down deftly and climbed back into bed.

Once he fell asleep, he dreamt of the elusive beauty, Miranda Lawson.

The next day, John was back out in the fields with his father.

"John! How're you down there?" John reached over to a nearby stalk and grabbed the husk – dry and brown like it was supposed to be. He squeezed it to be sure before peeling it back and taking a bite out of the ear of corn. Sugary sweet.

"All ready!"

"All right, then. Let's head back and get the others." John's father turned and began walking through the rows of corn towards the house.

John sprinted to catch up with him and followed behind him closely.

"Hey, Dad."

"Son?"

"Can I head back into town again tonight? I wanted to hang out with some friends." Shepard cringed knowing he was lying to his father.

"Oh? You rarely head over there when it isn't to pick up your sister."

"Yea, well it's only to hang out at the tavern. Mr. Hubbell can keep an eye on us."

"Get all your work done, and you can go."

John nodded. "Have you ever heard of Cerberus?"

"Cerberus? Where did that come from?"

"They were mentioned on the news the other night is all."

"Is that so? And what did they do this time?"

"'This time'?"

"They were the ones that robbed that Alliance ship of antimatter a couple years back."

"I didn't know. I only heard of them for the first time last night." At least that wasn't a total lie.

"They're terrorists, son. Pure and simple. They managed to stir up a fuss after the First Contact War, but haven't done much since. Just goes to show that all they're good at is manipulating xenophobic sentiment."

"So you don't think they've ever done any real good?"

"Where's the proof? I've yet to see one positive outcome brought about directly by their actions."

"Well, what if they're doing good and we just don't know about it?"

"Son, if we don't know about it than it's because they chose not to tell us about it. And if that's true, how 'good' could they really be? Now go get your sister."

Once the sun had set and John, his day's work complete, had taken a shower, he climbed on his bike and made the half-hour trip to the town center. He pedaled quickly, eager to reach the tavern and meet her again.

The old barkeep was the first to look up when John entered, breathless. He chuckled. "She's not here, boy."

John glared at the old man as he made his way over to his regular table and then plopped himself down. Winded from the ride over, he leaned forward and put his head against the table. He covered his head with his arms and waited for his breathing to slow.

The minutes passed painfully slowly and John kept his head down so he wouldn't have to face the disappointment of looking up and her not being there.

After ten minutes or so of near complete stillness, Shepard heard the tavern door open and a familiar set of footsteps walk over to where he was. The figure sat down, eliciting a gentle creak from the chair opposite John, and John's nose was filled with the unmistakable scent of her. John looked up and there she was, beautiful as ever, watching him with an amused look on her face.

"Have you thought about my offer?"

John was afraid to say no, less she disappear again (this time, perhaps, permanently).

"I have."

Miranda crossed her legs. "And?"

"And…I don't know. I mean, why do you guys want me? I barely have any biotics."

"Quite the opposite. From what I've gathered, you have the potential to become one of the most powerful biotics humanity has ever seen. A biotic even more powerful, maybe, than me."

"You're a biotic?"

Miranda nodded. "You have no idea what it's like, John. You could be so much more than what you are now."

"Thanks, but I'm happy with what I am now."

"Really? Look at your life, John. Look at your parents. Your neighbors. You'll be trapped here your entire life."

John's tone became somewhat angry. "Leave my family out of this. Look, I'm happy here, ok? Here is where everybody I love is – my family, my friends."

"Friends? The friends you're too afraid to use your biotics in front of?"

"Maybe they're afraid, but they're not bad people."

"So this is it? This is everything you want? You don't want anything more?"

John hesitated before responding. "No."

"Then maybe Cerberus was wrong about considering recruiting you." Miranda sighed. "Look, John. I can't stay here forever waiting for you to make up your mind. So I'll ask you one last time. Will you come with me?"

John could feel his body screaming yes. Not to a life with Cerberus, but one with Miranda.

"No." This time John said the word more firmly.

"Then I'm afraid I have to go. The last shuttle off Mindoir for this week leaves tonight." She stood to leave.

"Wait!"

Miranda looked back at John with those stormy grey eyes.

"Will I see you again?"

"You will when you're ready, John."

John watched her turn and leave the tavern. She was gone.

Chapter Text

Mindoir, 2170

"C'mon, Izzy! Hurry up!" John had his hand clasped firmly around her wrist as the two of them sprinted through the cornfield. He had been pulling Izzy behind him as he ran frantically through the rows, lightly tugging at her whenever she started to slow, but now he was practically dragging her.

"I can't!"

John finally stopped and looked back at her, her bare feet dirtied from running through the muddy fields and her formerly bright white sleeping gown thoroughly soiled and soaked through.

"You saw what they did to them! We have to keep moving if we don't want them to catch up and kill us like they killed Mom and Dad!" he shouted through the pouring rain.

It took a moment for him to realize that Izzy had started crying – the sound of the freezing rain pelting the ground had surrounded the two in a dull roar and John could barely make out her face in their near-pitch black surroundings.

John bent down (he had grown another half foot in the last year and now stood multiple heads above his sister) and wrapped his arms around her. "Please, Izzy. Just a little while longer. We'll go to our fort in the forest like Mom told us. It'll be just like when we used to play." John could feel Izzy's body shivering violently in his arms and squeezed tighter. "Please."

After another moment, John felt her nod slowly into his chest where she had buried her face. "C'mon."

The two resumed their frantic escape.

"Hey, I think I saw something move over there!" Though John's ears were pounding and his breathing was ragged, he just barely made out the sound of the batarian's voice. The same voice, he recognized, that had taunted his father in the moments before he had been brutally killed.

"John, I heard something!"

"It's nothing, Izzy." Despite his words, John's grip on Izzy's wrist tightened considerably.

Less than a minute later, John saw thin beams of light crisscrossing the stalks just a few dozen yards in front of him. He stopped suddenly and Izzy, not expecting the halt, bumped into him, tripped, and squealed as she fell.

John turned quickly to cover her mouth with his hand but it was too late. The beam of light was now pointed straight at the two of them and he could hear multiple sets of heavy footsteps approaching them from both sides.

"They're here!"

Cursing his carelessness, John picked up Izzy, held her to his chest, and started moving in a path perpendicular to the one they had just been traveling.

Izzy clutched onto John's shirt and started crying again. "I-I'm sorry, John. It's all my fault."

"Nothing's your fault, Izzy," John managed to say through a strained voice. It was taking every ounce of his willpower to fight off the fatigue of the wet, of the cold, of his burning legs, and of lugging his sister through the fields.

Izzy looked over John's shoulders and could see the batarians closing in on them. "They're catching up!" Izzy squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face into John's shoulder. "…I'm scared," she whispered to him in a small voice.

"H-heh." John attempted to laugh but was too out of breath. "Izzy Shepard, scared? I don't believe it." John could feel his legs getting heavier and himself slowing down. "We're going to be fine, Izzy. Everything's going to be fine."

John looked up at the cloudy sky as he ran. He tried to inhale deeply but his breathing had become uncontrollably rapid and shallow. His chest felt like it was being crushed and his heart felt about ready to explode. Finally unable to run, he still struggled to drag his legs forward through the mud. He managed to take a few steps like that before finally collapsing to his knees. He fell forward, heaving, his palms dug into the mud.

"You have to…keep running, Izzy."

Izzy shook her head stubbornly. "What about you? I don't want to leave you like we left Mom and Dad!"

"I told you….to…run!" John pushed Izzy forward violently. He saw the hurt flash in her eyes before being quickly overcome by a steely determination. She gave one last look at him before she turned to go.

Shepard watched her back as she ran down the row. As long as Izzy can get away…His eyes started going dark; he was on the verge of passing out.

It was then that he saw another batarian jump out of nowhere and grab his baby sister.

"John! John! Help me!" The batarian had grabbed Izzy around the waist but was having trouble managing the small girl who was kicking out frantically with her legs and pummeling him with her small fists.

"Iz-" John, still unable to get his breathing under control, couldn't even manage to get out her name.

"Don't worry, kid. We'll take care of her." Another batarian came up behind Shepard and pushed his head down into the mud.

"John! John!" John could hear her screams becoming more distant. He felt a surge of adrenaline course through his body and let out a guttural roar. He rolled on to his back and grabbed the batarian around his neck with both hands. Using what strength he had found, he slammed the batarian to the ground and tried to stand up. He slipped at first, but eventually managed to get to his feet. He started running after Izzy, still just barely able to make out her and her captor further down the row.

"John!"

"Izzy!" John could hear Izzy sobbing.

"I love you John!" All the sudden, John saw an assault rifle come down in front of him as a batarian wrapped his arms around him from behind. John struggled to break free, but couldn't.

"I love you Izzy!" John screamed out into the darkness – he could no longer see Izzy or her white gown. He swung his head backwards into the batarian's face, causing the alien to stagger and loosen his grip. Shepard used the opportunity to break free and then squatted down, readying himself for a fight.

The batarian he had managed to fight off before was coming up behind the one whose chokehold he had just escaped. Behind him, from the direction Izzy had been carried off in, another batarian came out of the corn stalks.

John squeezed his hands into fists. He looked down at his hands and remembered his biotics.

… you have the potential to become one of the most powerful biotics humanity has ever seen…

He looked up at the batarian with the assault rifle. John unballed his fist, drew his hand back, and pushed it forward in the batarian's direction.

Nothing happened.

The batarian laughed and took the butt of his assault rifle and swung it into John's face. John reeled at the pain in his temple and fell to the ground. Another batarian – John couldn't tell which – walked over to where John was crouched on all fours, lifted his leg, and brought it down violently on John's back. John's arms gave way and his face slammed painfully into the ground. The batarian spit on Shepard's face and began kicking him savagely, repeatedly in his stomach. Shepard tried to curl into a ball, but the batarians' attacks were relentless.

Just when he thought he couldn't take any more, he heard a short grunt come from one of the batarians, a terrible crack, and a short burst of assault rifle fire.

"John? John, get up. We have to go." John slowly opened his eyes and saw the battered old face of the town recluse.

"Mr. Ermingild?"

"Al Burkhard, actually."

"Who…?"

"Let's just say I'm a friend of Miranda's."

"Miranda?"

"Don't tell me you forgot." Of course, John hadn't forgotten. Recollections of their brief encounter had consumed him for years, and hardly a month went by where he didn't dream up a new scenario for how he might have stopped her leaving.

"No, that's not what I mean. I thought she left – for good."

"Cerberus doesn't pass up finds like you that easily. Miranda's still in charge of recruiting you. She's also working on her degree in Nos Astra, making her the closest operative to our location. Contacting her is our ticket out of this mess and that means we have to get to my place, now."

"I…I can't. I have to get Izzy!"

The man shook his head. "She's dead."

"She can't be!" John screamed out desperately. "I mean, did you even really see—"

"John, she's gone. Now—"

"No! I can still save her!" John tried to get up, but felt a searing pain on his side.

Al saw John gasp sharply. "Probably just a couple of broken ribs. Here." He reached out and tried to help John up.

"No! Get away from me! If you're not going to help me, I'll get Izzy back myself!" John lashed out with his hand, unleashing a massive biotic wave that bent over rows and rows of corn stalks.

Al had managed to drop down quickly enough to avoid getting pushed back by the throw field. Once the danger had passed, he leapt back up and tackled John, who had just managed to get to his feet, back to the ground.

He climbed on top of the well-built teen and pinned his arms and legs down. "Sorry, kid. I didn't want to do this, but you're not giving me much choice."

The last thing John saw was Al's fist coming straight at his face. Then everything was dark.

Chapter Text

When John awoke next, it was to the smell of disinfectant. He sat up, slowly because of his throbbing head, and looked around him. He was sitting on one of a dozen or so cots that lined each side of the makeshift medical tent. To his left was a young girl – the Walkers' youngest, he recognized – breathing through a ventilator and to his right a man who had been badly burned and whose bed had been surrounded with plastic sheeting.

"Here, you should drink this." A woman dressed in Alliance blues and who sported a white armband emblazoned with a red cross, came over to John and offered him a paper cup filled with water. Realizing how thirsty he was, John reached forward – his arms felt like led – and took the cup gratefully.

"You woke up just in time…" the woman grabbed the chart that had been hooked to the end of his bed and looked at it closely. "John Shepard. Somebody just finished the paperwork and is here to pick you up."

"Is it my mom?" John asked, still in a daze. The nurse looked up at John sadly.

"I…look, I think you should ask your cousin when she comes in."

Cousin? That couldn't be right. Both his parents were only children.

The woman patted John gently on the leg before standing up to go.

John swung his legs slowly over the side of the cot and looked down at himself. He was dressed in a white medical gown and had an IV catheter in his right arm. He reached over with his left hand and prepared to yank it out.

"Let me." John immediately recognized the cool voice. He looked up and sure enough, there was Miranda pulling a stool up to the side of his bed.

She pulled on a pair of latex gloves, reached over to the nearby table and grabbed the roll of tape.

"What's going on?" he asked, his voice groggy.

Miranda lay one piece of tape against the table surface and then another on top of it, only with part of it hanging over the edge.

"It was a slaver raid, John. If you want to call it that. Considering how many people were outright slaughtered, it's likely just the batarians trying to punish us for colonizing this far out into the Verge. Give me your arm."

John did, and watched her start peeling back the tape that kept the tubing flat against his arm.

"Once our operative-"

"Al?"

"Yes. Once he realized what was going on, he went to your house but it had already been hit by the batarians. He managed to track you down in the cornfields."

Miranda turned and clamped the tubing to stop the liquid's flow.

"And then he knocked me out."

"Rightly so, considering your emotional state." Miranda picked up a piece of gauze and held it to where the needle led into John's arm.

"And then?"

"Then he took you to his safe house and contacted me." Miranda pressed down on the gauze as she slid out the catheter. "Hold this." John did as he was told.

"Where is he now?"

"On his next assignment."

John watched Miranda take the catheter and throw it away in a nearby hazardous waste bucket. "Lift." John picked up his hand, allowing Miranda to take the piece of tape hanging off the table and use it to secure the gauze in place.

"So how did I get here?"

"We still needed the Alliance to find you to get your name on the survivors list. They 'found' you a couple days ago collapsed along a side road. Seems even the Alliance can manage that much." Miranda took off her gloves, placed them on the table, and looked directly at John.

"The Alliance…"

"They sent over a patrol as soon as the colony went silent. The slavers had landed their ship in the center of a civilian area though, so they couldn't bomb them. They also had this entire area locked down with AA guns. The Alliance sent in a ground team but…"

"But what? There better be a damn good excuse for why they let those batarians kill my parents!" The throbbing in his head finally subsiding, John was beginning to remember piece by piece the events of that night.

"The only way into the colony by foot is through Miller's Field. But the team they sent in was found out before they managed to cross the clearing. They were pinned down for hours."

"And the rest of the colony? My friends? Neighbors?"

"John, the only people the Alliance recovered alive are in this room and most of them probably aren't going to make it through another night."

John looked around the room at the various cots, most of which were entirely empty.

"So Izzy? They didn't find her?"

Miranda softened as she looked at the clearly distraught young man. If there was any part of his pain she could understand, it was the immense pain of having to watch a sister you love be taken away from you.

"I'm sorry."

"I need to go back."

"John…"

"I know…I know she's gone. I just want to go home one last time. Please." John looked up at Miranda with pleading eyes.

"That entire area's been sealed off by the Alliance."

John's hopes had barely begun to fall when he saw Miranda stand up. "Not that that means much, of course. Put these on and then we'll go." Miranda picked up the bag she had brought in with her and handed it to John.

John opened the bag and pulled out sneakers, black pants, and a black T-shirt with a peculiar emblem on its shoulder – an elongated hexagon with a bent line on either side.

John pulled out the shirt and held it, waiting for Miranda to leave. She didn't.

"Are you…?"

"What?"

"I-I was going to change, so…"

Miranda smirked. "Sorry, John. But I can't let you out of my sight."

John's eyes widened.

"Well?" Miranda crossed her arms and tapped her finger expectantly.

"Fine." John pulled off the gown and got dressed quickly, trying his best to ignore the red flush creeping into his face.

"Good. Let's go."

John followed Miranda out of the tent and into the Alliance's main camp. The first thing John saw were the rows of body bags and the Alliance soldiers that kept carrying over even more. John slowed and Miranda, realizing that he was no longer following her, turned back and grabbed his wrist.

"John." John pulled his stare away from the bodies and back to Miranda's stormy eyes. He nodded and kept following her. They started moving down the main road and when they came to the Alliance's haphazardly put up barrier, easily climbed over and kept going.

John stared at his wrist where her hand had been, lamenting its sudden absence. He was surprised, to say the least, when she gripped it again and kept pulling him forward.

Eventually, John spotted the familiar wooden fence that encircled his family's property. They kept moving forward and a hoisted wooden sign reading 'Shepard Farm' came into view. Now John was the one pulling Miranda forward.

They turned the corner and Shepard saw his house. It was no longer that warm, yellow, quaint home he had grown up in, but a black, burnt, and partially collapsed heap.

He walked forward slowly, absorbing the terrible damage.

When the two reached the porch, they climbed the stairs carefully and John pushed open the front door, which was barely hanging on its hinges. They walked into the living room and John paused briefly.

"That's where they were killed," he said, looking down at the floor. "My parents. Iz…Izzy and I saw through that window over there."

Miranda was totally quiet, her eyes carefully trained on Shepard's stoic face.

John kept moving past the kitchen and dining room and started climbing the stairs in the back. The landing creaked as they walked over it. The whole area smelled of ash.

When they reached the upstairs hallway, John headed straight for the second door on his left. He put his hand out towards the knob, took a breath, and opened it.

Miranda could tell immediately that it was the room he had shared with his sister.

The first thing he did was head for his own desk and rifle through the drawers, eventually finding what seemed to be an old pocket watch and stuffing it into his pants. He then led Miranda to a large, singed chest on the other side of the room. He opened it and inside, completely unscathed, were the clothes and few precious belongings of what Miranda guessed was a ten to twelve year old girl.

He knelt down and Miranda, her hand still clasped around his wrist, squatted down beside him.

John reached down into the chest and pulled out one of Izzy's shirts. He felt its softness in his hand and felt a surge of emotion flood over him. Suddenly everything that had happened was real – his parents, Izzy, the whole colony. Everybody was gone. Everybody, dead.

He buried his face into the shirt and felt the hot tears start streaming down his face.

Miranda saw John's broad shoulders seem to shrink in front of her eyes. She watched him inhale the shirts scent and noticed his whole body start quivering ever so faintly. She loosened her grip on his wrist and put her hand over his.

John, who had squeezed his hand into a fist, opened it and felt Miranda's hand slide inside.

"All of this…everything is their fault. The Council and the Alliance, they let this happen. My family and friends…they all died because of the Council's selfishness and the Alliance's incompetence." John turned his head and looked at Miranda. His tears had stopped.

"I wish I had said yes when you asked me back then. I wish I had at least gone with you to train my biotics. Maybe then…maybe then I could have saved her."

"John…"

"Ask me again." Miranda lifted her gaze to meet John's. His eyes were clear – no hesitation, no confusion, no doubt.

"John Shepard: will you come with me?"

"Yes."

"Will you join Cerberus?"

Shepard's voice was firm: "Yes."

Chapter Text

Illium, 2170

"This is amazing!" Shepard leaned forward in the sleek skycar's passenger seat and looked out the window at the sprawling city illuminated by millions of lights and forested with hundreds-of-stories high asari towers.

Miranda, deftly weaving the skycar through the traffic, pretended to give an exasperated sigh, but couldn't keep the small smile from pulling up the corner of her mouth. "Honestly, John, sometimes I find it hard to believe you're even sixteen years old." Miranda thought back to their arrival at the spaceport and Shepard's face when he had seen an asari for the first time. She let out a small laugh.

Shepard looked over at Miranda and furrowed his brow. He hated it when she brought up his age.

Beautiful, cultured, and attending one of the galaxy's most prestigious universities, Miranda Lawson was unattainable enough to Shepard without factoring in their four year age difference. Before her, Shepard couldn't help but feel like a backwoods fool.

Shepard looked down at his hand and squeezed it into a fist. If there was one thing that could close that gap...

"What is it?" Miranda asked, noticing Shepard's lack of reply. She had been expecting a playful, boyish rebuttal instead of his total silence.

"Huh? Nothing."

Miranda nodded slowly and, assuming Shepard was simply still occupied by thoughts of his recently deceased family, refocused on the highway.

"This is it."

Miranda motioned upwards with her chin at a nearby tower, the tallest in the area by far. Shepard was pushed back into his seat as Miranda brought the skycar down out of the stream of traffic and into a tunnel running through the tower's center.

Shepard watched the bright blue and purple lights flash by as they soared down the tunnel, finally turning off to the side into a small alcove.

The shuttle came smoothly to a stop and Miranda reached to her side, effortlessly lifting up the skycar door.

Shepard watched her carefully so that he, never having ridden in the more modern civilian sector skycars, might be able to open it without having to ask Miranda for help...again (getting into the skycar back at the spaceport had been, for Shepard, frustrating enough).

Much to his relief, Shepard managed to open the door successfully. He stepped out, brought the passenger door back down, and looked over the roof of the car to Miranda. She waved him after her and walked to the back of the alcove before swiping her omnitool over the door's console. It opened directly into a relatively roomy elevator. Miranda stepped in, followed closely by Shepard.

Miranda noticed Shepard staring quizzically at the single option on the elevator's digital panel. She reached forward and tapped it once.

"It's a private elevator, John. It goes directly to the penthouse."

"Whose?" Shepard stumbled backwards against the railing as the elevator shot upwards rapidly.

Miranda, completely unfazed by the process, waited the few seconds it took the elevator to reach its destination and open its doors to reply.

"Ours." Miranda walked out of the elevator into the suite.

The first thing Shepard noticed was how open the penthouse was – the ceiling was at least forty feet high and the majority of it seemed to double as a retractable skylight.

"My bed is up there." Miranda pointed to the open staircase built jutting out from the wall in front of them. Shepard followed the steps with his eyes and saw that at the top of the steps was an area containing a bed, dresser, desk, and terminal and that looked out over the rest of the suite. Below the steps was a small coat closet.

Miranda turned right and walked adjacent to the staircase. When she came to where the staircase started she turned left into the penthouse's main area. Never ceasing her stride, she then pointed around the apartment.

She first motioned to the door in the corner closest to them. "Your bedroom." In a slightly lower voice she added, "Formerly my closet."

"The kitchen and dining rooms." Miranda pointed to the right, northern side of the apartment. The kitchen was in the back and was separated from the dining area beside it by a wall with a horizontal rectangular cut out that allowed items to be passed easily between the two. Neither had a door but instead was completely open to the main area, separated only by the three shallow steps one had to ascend to reach them.

Miranda kept walking forward. "Entertainment." Opposite the dining room was the living area. It consisted of a massive display flat against the southern wall and, in front of it, the depressed area containing a rectangular table with two long black leather couches on either of its sides.

"The view," she said as they finally came to the back of the apartment. The western wall was curved so that a small table and two stools could fit in the center of the elevated end area and lined with the high glass windows that allowed one to look out on the rest of Illium. "The doors in the corners lead out to the balcony."

"Bathroom?"

Miranda spun around and pointed to the door in the wall under her bed. "Speaking of, you should take a shower before we leave to see the doctor." Shepard looked down at himself and realized he still had some of the mud and blood caked on his skin from that night.

"Why? What doctor?"

"We need to get a full body scan to see what we're dealing with and then get you prepped for surgery. Cerberus wants you readied with the new L3 implant by the end of the week. After we get the necessary data, we can have our specialists get working on a custom amp for you."

"Implants? Amps? What are you even talking about?"

Miranda sighed. "Look, I'll explain it during the ride over. Just get in the shower so we're not late."

Shepard shrugged and, seeing as he really did need a shower, headed for the bathroom.

Miranda waited until he had closed the door behind him and turned on the water before typing a set of commands into her omnitool, causing the display to flicker on. The first thing she saw was the bright orange and blue of a star about to explode and the shadow of a man sitting in a chair in front of it.

"Illusive Man." Miranda straightened her back and spoke deliberately.

"Miranda. I trust you have good news." On the screen, the Illusive Man was still facing away from her though she could see the wisps of smoke rising from the cigar he held in his right hand.

"Yes. The target's been recovered, unscathed. Both I and our locally stationed operative managed to do so and leave Mindoir uninjured and uncompromised."

"Good. I knew you wouldn't disappoint me, Miranda." Miranda let her pride swell briefly. "Is he on board with our cause?"

"Completely, sir."

"Hmm," the Illusive Man exhaled slowly. "What changed his mind?"

"I believe he blames the Council for allowing the attack that killed his parents to happen, and the Alliance for not doing more to stop it. He also…"

Miranda saw the Illusive Man turn his head to the side.

"He also has no one left."

"A fact I know you will use fully to your advantage. Let him grow close to you and no one else. Let him rely on you, confide in you, and trust you. Maintain absolute control over him."

Miranda paused as she looked over to the bathroom door. She let her eyes linger before snapping them back to the screen. "I will."

"You know what your mission is now. What normally takes years, I expect you to do in months. Develop his biotics and turn him into an asset we can use. Project Endymion is yours, Miranda." At that, the display went dark.

"Should I just put on the same clothes I was wearing before?" Miranda turned to the source of the muffled voice; Shepard had just stepped out of the bathroom with one towel around his waist while vigorously drying his hair with another.

"The dressers in your room are already full." Shepard nodded and walked across the apartment to his bedroom door, leaving a trail of small puddles behind him.

Miranda sighed. Living together with John Shepard was going to take getting used to.

Chapter Text

"So remind me why I have to undergo surgery again." Shepard sat in the passenger seat of the shuttle again, his arms crossed.

"To put in an implant," Miranda said plainly. She guided the shuttle through Illium's night skies, the lights flashing past, alternating illuminating her and Shepard's faces in a dark blue or purple before letting them return to darkness.

"Which I need because?" Shepard was obviously unhappy at the idea of going to the doctor, least of all letting said doctor cut him open. His parents (and consequently Shepard himself) found hospitals and doctors to be generally unnecessary; they were simply ways to take your money to fix with expensive drugs what could've been fixed by the 'healthy, hard-working, honest life of a farmer.' Shepard inwardly smiled, imagining the words he so often heard from his father's mouth.

"Because having one will allow you to use bio-amps which will increase the strength of your biotics at least a hundred fold. Quite frankly, without an amp, human biotics are useless in combat scenarios."

"But I managed to pull Izzy like a hundred feet before, and that was without an amp!"

"First of all, it was less than fifty feet – not a 'hundred.'" Miranda rolled her eyes.

Shepard looked over at her, his lips slightly pursed. "How…Al?"

"Yes. Second of all, you only ever managed to pull something like that off once. We don't even know for sure whether you can do it again."

Shepard leaned his head back against the passenger seat and sighed. "Fine. How is this all going to work anyways? Where do they put the…the implant?"

Miranda took one hand off the steering wheel, cocked her head slightly to the side, and pushed back her hair to reveal her slender neck.

Shepard felt his throat go dry and heart rate spike.

"They'll put the implant here, at the base of your skull." Shepard's right hand started moving towards her neck without his realizing, and once he saw it stretching out in front of him, he hurriedly grabbed it in his left hand and slammed it back down into his lap.

Miranda, whose eyes had been on the traffic in front of her, glanced sideward at the sudden movement, but Shepard's eyes were suddenly looking everywhere but in her direction. She put her hand back on the wheel, letting her hair slide back down.

Shepard cleared his throat. "And the amps?"

"Think of amps as software and the implants as hardware. Amps can easily be plugged in or pulled out, but you'll have to be careful nothing gets caught in the implant when you do."

Shepard was rubbing the back of his neck, imagining having some foreign piece of technology permanently lodged in his flesh.

"And once the implants are in, they're in for good?"

"That's the idea. You can upgrade to newer implants, just…"

"Just what?"

"The surgery required is incredibly tricky and the chances you emerge alive and without some kind of physical or psychological disability is just as incredibly low. Luckily for you, should you ever want to upgrade your implant, you have all of Cerberus' resources at your disposal: the galaxy's best surgeons, first-rate facilities, and technology that's consistently ahead of the Alliance's." Seeing Shepard's evermore distressed face, Miranda added: "Cerberus has never botched a retrofit, John. Never."

They drove a few minutes in silence before Shepard spoke up again. "So how do they work? Amps I mean."

"Do you know how drive cores work?"

"Yea. I can't say how many times they beat it into us at school. You basically take a chunk of eezo, run an electric current through it, and produce a mass effect field."

"Perhaps a bit oversimplified, but that's pretty much the idea. Embedded in your flesh, John, are eezo nodules – mini drive cores, if you will. Your nervous system provides the electric current. But to use your biotics to their fullest, you have to simultaneously activate as many of those nodules as possible and direct them all towards producing a single action. That's where amps come in. They synchronize your nodules to a degree you wouldn't be able to sync them naturally."

Miranda paused to let the information sink in.

"Even if you were powerful enough to use your biotics to pull your sister like that, if you did it repeatedly without training you'd probably kill yourself."

Shepard looked up worriedly. "How do you mean?"

"Essentially, you'd be unleashing dozens of relatively powerful mass effect fields without properly controlling them. You'd rip yourself apart before you did your enemy. We're here."

Shepard pushed away thoughts of pulling himself apart with his own biotics and climbed out of the skycar. They had landed on the roof of a low, flat, indistinct building near the outskirts of Nos Astra. Shepard followed after Miranda who had already crossed the roof to the door, behind which was an elevator to the lower floors.

As the two began their descent, Miranda noticed John fidgeting with his hands.

"Nervous?" Miranda smirked.

"Gonna call me a kid again?" Shepard replied defensively.

"No." Almost immediately, Shepard felt stupid and petty and completely regretted his words. "Look, John, everything's going to be fine. I've been through this entire process before. As long as you're with me, nothing's going to happen." Miranda was surprised at her own display of compassion. She was also confused. Did she mean it? Or was she just playing her asset? The last two days had been a dreamlike respite from her normal life, and she couldn't say she was entirely ungrateful. She had enjoyed Shepard's innocence and boyishness. He had let himself trust her despite barely knowing anything about her, yet he didn't doubt his decision or pester her to know more. With him, she could at least temporarily forget her past.

She had to admit it was refreshing.

Miranda looked back at Shepard and noticed he was grinning at her and had stopped fidgeting. Miranda doubted that such simple (and quite frankly trite) words coming from her would've had the same effect on many others, if any.

The elevator stopped and its doors hissed open. Standing on the other side of the threshold waiting for them was none other than the doctor.

"Ms. Lawson, a pleasure. This must be Subject Endymion." The doctor glanced at Shepard with an intrigued look.

"Endymion?" Shepard looked at Miranda.

"Your code name," she replied in a low voice.

"You said this guy is my doctor, right? I don't want to keep being called 'Subject Endymion' every time I have to come over here."

Miranda paused thoughtfully before replying. "I agree. The doctor here will be observing your growth over the foreseeable future and has already proven himself a dedicated Cerberus supporter. Dr. Zarnow, this is-"

Shepard stepped forward and held out his hand. "John Shepard." Shepard and the doctor shook hands once, firmly.

"Dr. Hugh Zarnow."

"It's a pleasure to meet you."

Dr. Zarnow clapped his hands. "And he's well-mannered! Splendid! Though I doubt you'll last long here on Nos Astra…" Shepard furrowed his brow. "But then again you do have the aid of the ever beautiful, ever deadly Ms. Lawson…"

Miranda cleared her throat and looked at Shepard. "Dr. Zarnow is the foremost human neurologist in the galaxy. He also happens to specialize in Human Biotic Analysis and Development. Now, shall we get started?"

"Certainly! Certainly! If you'd follow me this way please…" Zarnow led them down a bright white corridor, only pausing for the amount of time it took the door at the end to hiss open.

"Sit down! Go ahead! Now, if you'd give me your arm…" Shepard waited to see Miranda, who was standing behind the doctor, nod before he held out his right arm.

Zarnow picked up a needle he had prepped and left on a nearby tray, and Miranda watched Shepard glare at it so intensely, it appeared as if he was trying to will it to stop its procession or, better yet, make it melt in the eccentric doctor's hand. The attempt, however, was futile.

"Not to fret, John!" Zarnow said merrily. "It's simply a dye that will travel through your system and grab on to any eezo nodules."

Shepard looked away from the doctor as he inserted the needle into Shepard's vein, and instead tried to divert his attention by concentrating on Miranda.

Sensing Shepard's distressed state, Miranda started talking. "The doctor will scan you afterwards and create a 3D holographic recreation of the number, size, density, and location of your EZNs."

"Quite right! This young lady would be one to know, of course." Zarnow led Shepard to the reclining medical chair in the center of the room and then stepped back to enable the scanner. "What degrees are you pursuing these days Ms. Lawson?"

"Biomedical Nanoengineering and Human Genetic Manipulation."

A long arm came down from the ceiling and started to circle Shepard.

"Try not to move now, Johnny boy!" Zarnow looked back at Miranda. "That's right! You've made quite a name for yourself these last few years within a very select, very elite group of scholars. And that's not just because your father funds most of their research either!"

Zarnow's jovial tone persisted, though Shepard could see Miranda's face darken visibly at the mention of her father.

"Ah! Done. Let's take a look, shall we?" Zarnow sprung forward and started entering the data into another terminal.

While the doctor's old but surprisingly sprightly fingers worked away, Shepard climbed out of the chair and walked over to where Miranda stood.

"Hey, you ok?" he said softly.

Miranda looked at Shepard and quickly buried what anger she had let slip in a frosty exterior. "I'm fine." She walked past him briskly and headed towards the doctor.

Miranda had been caught off guard by Shepard's sudden approach. More specifically, she had been caught off guard by his naked, genuine concern. While held captive by her father's influence and while carrying out missions for Cerberus, Miranda had become accustomed to manipulation, exploitation, and deception. Those she knew how to deal with easily. But genuine concern? To her it was very much terra ignota. And it irked her.

She was similarly irked by its surprising ability to allay her anger.

"Well?" Miranda came up beside Zarnow and deliberately let her tone express her impatience.

Zarnow put in one final command and the room dimmed as a 3D rendering of Shepard's body came up. Displayed in a similar manner to Michelangelo's Vitruvian Man, the holograph kept changing, the various layers of tissue flickering on and away before Zarnow came to the setting he desired.

"Here we go!" Shepard watched himself, reduced to the light blue, illuminated pathways of his nervous system and a spattering of blood red notches he assumed were his eezo nodules, hover off the ground and rotate slowly.

"What a specimen!" Zarnow gasped. Shepard, uneasy at the doctor's exclamation, looked over at Miranda.

Her eyes were trained carefully on the holograph. She squinted before looking over at Zarnow. "Let me see your display settings."

"You'll see that they're all quite standard!" he said excitedly.

"What is it?" Shepard asked.

"The intensity of the red is proportional to the density of your EZNs," Miranda said in a clipped voice. "I've never seen nodes anywhere near this level."

"Neither has anyone else! It's a shame we can't get a sample…at least without causing excruciating pain." The doctor was visibly dejected.

"That's good, right?" Shepard moved closer to Miranda.

"It's not good or bad. Just unusual. Where eezo nodes develop is entirely unpredictable. Most don't actually end up embedded in tissue anywhere near the pathways of the somatic nervous system. And as you already know…"

"No nerves, no electrical current."

"Making such nodes unusable towards biotics. Normally, those are the nodes samples are taken from."

"And me?"

"Every one of your nodes lands on a SNS pathway. This actually compensates for your below average number of nodes. And no, that's not bad either. If anything it's a good thing – overly numerous and oversized nodes are a leading cause of harmful side effects in biotics. Ultimately, the effect of the actually quite ideal location of your EZNs means you have more accessible nodes than the average biotic. Substantially more, in fact."

"So I'm alright?"

"You're perfect, my boy! Or at least the closest thing to it I've ever seen."

Miranda sighed. "Let's not jump to conclusions. We'll continue running tests to watch for any growth or degradation. His second exposure was still relatively recent so we can't be sure the EZNs are fully matured. Forward the information to the Skunkworks over a secure line." Miranda turned to face Shepard. "We can go now, John."

"Ah, but my samples!" Zarnow shouted out.

"Not the day before his surgery. You'll have everything ready by tomorrow?"

"Not a problem! Not at all! But installing implants is really quite standard, Ms. Lawson. Are you sure I can't-"

"Good night, Dr. Zarnow."

The doctor finally gave in and bid Shepard and Miranda good night.

"Good night, doctor," Shepard said in a rushed voice. He turned on his heel and sprinted after Miranda, who was already waiting in the elevator.

Chapter Text

Returning to the apartment, Shepard rolled his shoulders and Miranda stretched her neck. Between the trip from Mindoir to Ilium, the drive from the spaceport to the apartment, and going to and returning from the Doctor's private facilities, the two of them had spent the better part of their day in transit and were understandably stiff.

Miranda walked up the stairs to her bedroom (though it really wasn't quite a room) and out of Shepard's sight. He watched her figure climb the stairs and, realizing that his eyes had become glued to her backside, forced himself to look away and shamed himself as he went to his bedroom. He stripped off his clothes and pulled on his pajamas – a plain white tee and plaid pajama pants with a black base and orange-gold lines. Shepard noticed that this particular color combination was quickly beginning to dominate his wardrobe.

He sat down at the foot of his bed but, feeling entirely restless, decided to get back up and go out into the main area.

When he opened the door and stepped out of his room, he recognized the sound of water running coming from the bathroom. Shepard went down the three stairs, closed his eyes, and collapsed onto one of the black leather couches. When he opened his eyes, he was staring out the skylight into Ilium's night sky. Yet he could see no stars. Whether due to smog or light pollution, Shepard didn't know. But he did know it was nothing like the clear night skies of Mindoir. Shepard closed his eyes, put his forearm over his eyes, and tried to visualize the sky as, in his mind, it should've been.

Shepard's nostrils were suddenly filled with the intoxicating scent of one Miranda Lawson, and when he opened his green eyes it was to meet her own grey ones.

Miranda, her skin glowing as skin often does after emerging from a shower, was leaned over the back of the couch, looking down at Shepard, and smirking.

"You don't like your room?"

Shepard felt his heart flutter. He hated how every little thing she did could do that to him, while nothing he could do seemed to have any effect on her. He calmed his self to what small degree he could, put his arms behind his head and looked up at the skylight. "There're no windows. It's suffocating."

Miranda, still leaning with her forearms against the back of the couch, looked up at the skylight herself. "You know each of the walls and the ceiling in your room is covered with microfilm monitors. All you have to do is pick a setting from the wall console and they'd light up as whatever you want – beach, jungle, countryside."

Shepard sat up and looked at Miranda. He was so close to her now, it was dizzying. "Just not the same, I guess. Plus I'm starving."

Miranda stood up and walked across the apartment to the kitchen. "You know you can't eat since you have the surgery tomorrow," she shouted back.

Shepard sat back against the couch and splayed his arms across its back. "Which is terrible timing, I might add. I've barely eaten anything these last few days – and Alliance IV fluids don't count."

Miranda emerged from the kitchen carrying a small salad, and headed for the table situated near the vista. She looked back at Shepard and nodded her head, beckoning him to take the other seat. Shepard gladly obliged and walked across the apartment, finally sliding himself onto the high stool.

"I don't know what you're talking about. You completely gorged yourself on the shuttle ride over from Mindoir. I have the bill to prove it." Miranda started eating.

"Well, other than that." Shepard leaned his face against the palm of his hand and looked to his side out the tall glass windows.

Miranda continued to eat in a comfortable silence. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten a quiet, casual meal with someone she didn't intend to torture, maim, or kill.

When she finished, she put down her fork and glanced thoughtfully at Shepard.

"John?"

"Mmhmm?" Shepard's face turned slightly and his eyes pulled slowly away from the vista, finally resting on Miranda's face.

"Why did you really join Cerberus? Was it just to prevent another Mindoir from happening?"

"I…No, I wouldn't say that." Miranda waited silently for him to continue.

"You know how you were talking before about making me into an 'asset Cerberus could use'?"

"You heard that?" Miranda tensed and began running through scenarios of what had happened that he had heard and what might happen since he did and what she would have to do to preserve her project. She then recalled his surprise at hearing the term Endymion back at Zarnow's – it had seemed genuine enough (though perhaps she was beginning to assume that everything he did was genuine by default), which would imply that he had only caught fragments of the conversation. She relaxed somewhat.

"Yeah. Not much else though, so you don't have to worry. And I'm not angry."

"No?"

"Yeah. I mean, thinking of people as assets doesn't make Cerberus the bad guy. Everybody thinks that way." Shepard turned his head back towards the vista. "If I had joined the Alliance, I would've been their 'asset.' If I got some white-collar, pencil-pushing job somewhere, I would've been that company's 'asset.' So why would I be angry? If I was just going to end up somebody's asset anyways, I'm glad I got to at least choose whose. I don't regret my choice; I want to be an asset to Cerberus. I still think you guys can do a lot more for me and for people in general than the Alliance or some company could do. And a helluva lot more than if I just stayed to work on the farm."

Shepard looked back at Miranda and smiled. "Plus I trust you Miranda. And you trust Cerberus. So that's good enough for me."

Miranda felt…guilt?

"What about you?"

"Why'd I join?" Shepard nodded. "I suppose because I knew what I had the potential to do, and Cerberus was the only group that, not being bogged down in politics and bureaucracy, could let me do it. Cerberus never tells me that something is impossible. They give me my resources and tell me to get it done."

"And it, this time, is me? Subject Endymion."

"Right."

"And what happens when you're done? What do I do? Where do you go?" What happens to us?

"We move on to our next assignments." Miranda saw that Shepard was obviously dissatisfied with the answer. "But that day is a long way away, John. For now, let's just worry about your surgery tomorrow. And maybe getting some decent sleep."

Shepard yawned. "Agreed." He watched Miranda stand and take her dishes to the kitchen. A short while after, she reemerged and started heading for her bed.

"Night, Miranda," he called after her tenderly.

Miranda turned and looked back at Shepard. "Goodnight, John." Miranda continued towards the staircase that led to her bed. From the railing that enclosed the elevated, open bedroom, Miranda peered down and watched John stretch himself along the couch, turn on his side, and fall asleep.

Minutes later, Miranda did the same.

Chapter Text

Shepard woke the next morning with the sun.

“Good, you’re up.” Shepard craned his neck and saw Miranda seated in the dining room, sipping a cup of coffee and reading from a datapad.

“Yea. How long have you been awake?” Shepard pulled himself off the couch and was heading for the coffee when, feeling Miranda’s scowl send chills down his spine, he remembered the no foods/no liquids rule and sighed miserably.

“A while. I don’t sleep much.” Miranda looked across the table at Shepard. “Apparently neither do you.”

Shepard leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. She was right; he hadn’t. He couldn’t close his eyes without reappearing back in the cornfield, in that terrible cold rain and impenetrable night. He would realize where he was and then he would see Izzy being hauled off by the slaver, screaming his name, pleading for his help. He would run after her, run and run and run thinking that unless he found her he would never escape.

He never did find her, but he always woke up. How many times had he broken out of his dream only to fall back into it again?

Sensing that Shepard had no intention of talking about what had kept him up the better part of the night, Miranda continued reading the datapad. “We’ll head for Zarnow’s once you’re dressed.”

Shepard, brought back to the present by Miranda’s words, nodded and left the table for his room. Once he had changed and returned the main apartment, Miranda stood and walked briskly past him towards the elevator. Shepard followed and together they stepped inside.

The doors closed and Miranda turned and held out a small red pill. “Put this under your tongue. It should dissolve by the time we get to Zarnow. Try not to talk and don’t swallow it.”

Shepard took the pill and rolled it between his thumb and index finger. “What’s it for?”

“Honestly, John, do you think I’ve been chauffeuring you around these last few days just to poison you? It’s an adjuvant.” Shepard’s face was no less confused. “To strengthen the effects of the anaesthesia.” Shepard must’ve been content with the answer; he promptly dropped the small pill under his tongue and closed his mouth.

Once in the aircar, Shepard, unable to talk, sat quietly as the Galactic News broadcasted over the aircar’s radio.

“…In other news, authorities are currently investigating the cause of the explosion of an Eldfell-Ashland Energy vessel that released hundreds of tons of dust-form element zero into the atmosphere of Yandoa, a Systems Alliance colony…”

Shepard paid little attention to the broadcast, choosing instead to lean his head against his window and lose himself in the hypnotic effect of watching the aircars zoom by.

“John.” Shepard heard his name being called and looked to his left to see that they had already arrived at Zarnow’s and that Miranda had already climbed out of the aircar. Shepard did the same and rejoined her in the elevator.

“All you feeling alright? You seem a bit out of it.” Miranda looked up and down at Shepard, as if trying to diagnose him with her eyes alone.

“Just…bad dreams is all.” Miranda’s eyes stopped their survey.

“Mindoir?”

Shepard nodded but was careful to keep his eyes well out of range of Miranda’s magnetic gaze. He had long since discovered that her eyes had the ability to null any and all of his defenses.

The elevator opened, though this time Zarnow wasn’t there to greet them. They travelled down the same white corridor and entered the room at the end.

“John!” Shepard heard his name being stretched out in the Doctor’s familiar, rather histrionic voice.

“Dr. Zarnow.” Shepard gave a polite nod.

“And Miranda! I take it you heard of our success at Yandoa this morning?” Yandoa? Shepard thought the name sounded familiar but couldn’t place it.

“I did. You must be pleased.”

“Naturally. Cerberus has already begun planning new facilities, though the children won’t manifest their abilities for years. It’s a shame I won’t be able to get the whole batch, though.” Zarnow leaned forward and whispered: “I hear the Alliance is starting up a new biotic academy to replace the BAaT after what happened last year.”

Zarnow straightened his back and clapped his hand on Shepard’s shoulder. “Well, at least I have you to study in the meantime, eh John?” Shepard smiled uneasily. “Now, if you’ll follow me downstairs, we’ll take your personal items and set you up with an IV.”

“We? Miranda, you’re coming?”

Zarnow laughed. “Oh, no, no, no. There’re a couple other doctors who’ll be assisting me. Ms. Lawson will be able to observe you from up here.”

“You’ll be fine, John. Go.” Shepard stopped resisting the doctor’s nudging and let his self be led from the room. Once he had been stripped of his possessions and subject to a lengthy decontamination process, he was led into a large, high ceiling white room filled with operating equipment. Aside from Zarnow, there were three other doctors inside, though he couldn’t make out any of their faces as they were all wearing blue masks. One of them gestured for Shepard to sit down and then came over and hooked up his IV. The blue man, as Shepard came to think of the figure, pushed his head back and Shepard found himself lying flat against the table. He looked up at the ceiling and saw a series of long metallic arms.

“What’re those?”

“Hmm?” Zarnow traced Shepard’s gaze to the ceiling. “Oh! Yes, normally they’d be used for this type of procedure but I’m afraid there simply wasn’t enough time to properly input and review the necessary data. One small mathematical error could lead to permanent full body paralysis, you know?”

Shepard, who was naturally uncomfortable enough in hospitals, was overcome with minor terror. It was then that he saw a shutter lift on the upper part of a nearby wall, revealing Miranda on the other side of a pane of glass.

Zarnow placed a mask over Shepard’s nose and mouth. “Inhale and count to three!”

Shepard felt his body being drained of its strength. He weakly lifted up his hand and waved at Miranda, who uncrossed her arms and waved back in return. Shepard felt himself getting sleepy and his vision start fading.

“Hand me that razor, would…” Zarnow’s voice was suddenly very distant. Then everything went black.

When Shepard woke next, he felt as though barely a second had gone by. His limbs were still heavy but now he could also feel a steady throbbing from the back of his neck. He rolled slowly onto his side and reached back warily to touch it. Though the back of his neck was covered in what felt like a large rectangular bandage, it was still sensitive to the touch.

He was about to pull his hand back when he noticed his head felt surprisingly light…and cold. He tried to run his fingers through his hair, but he no longer had any, save for a soft chestnut fuzz.

“Wha…?” Shepard blinked his eyes open and, after recovering from some momentary blindness, realized he was back in the room where he had been scanned the night before.

He tried to sit up but met resistance from a slender hand that reached out across his chest.

“Slowly, John.” Miranda put down her datapad on a nearby table and rolled over closer to where he sat.

“They shaved my head?”

“I’m afraid so. Working around the skull base is delicate work and they wanted to minimize interference.” Miranda reached up and held Shepard’s face in her hands. He hoped she couldn’t feel his cheeks warming.

“What’re you-“ Miranda put her thumbs under his eyes, leaned forward and stared into them with a critical look.

“I’d like to get started node mapping as soon as possible, but I need to be sure most of the effects of the anaesthesia have worn off.” Miranda pulled Shepard’s face to the right, then left, then brought her hands to the sides of his neck and pressed her index and middle finger into his flesh. Shepard gulped and made a futile attempt to pull his eyes away from Miranda.

Miranda held up both her hands in a stop position. “Push.” Shepard did.

“Good. Squeeze.” Miranda held out her hands with her palms facing the floor. Shepard froze but then reached forward and brought his palms under hers and with his thumbs against the backs of her hands, squeezed gently. He let his hands linger like that, remembering that moment back on Mindoir when he had held her hand in his.

Miranda, briefly, had as well. She cleared her throat and removed her hands from Shepard’s light grip.

Shepard, his hands still hanging in the air, quickly brought them back to his sides. “Where’s Dr. Zarnow?”

“At home sleeping I imagine. Touch your fingers to your thumbs.” Miranda demonstrated with her own hands.

“Sleeping?” Shepard mirrored Miranda’s motions.

“The surgery was over twelve hours long, John.”

“Twelve hours? I felt like I barely blinked.” This time Shepard drew a circle in the air. “I thought all they did was put it at the base of your skull.”

“And connect it to dozens of nerve endings without causing paralysis or retardation.”

Miranda, satisfied with Shepard’s performance, concluded her battery of tests.

“So what now?”

Miranda stood up and headed to a nearby terminal. “Now we mark your eezo nodes and figure out what movements will signal the proper pathways to activate them.” The room dimmed and Shepard saw 3D images of his self and Miranda be projected into the middle of the room, above where he sat. He moved his arm and watched his digital self do the same. “This is seriously cool.”

Again, Shepard watched as the various layers of tissues in his second self flickered away until all he could see were his EZNs, nervous system, skeleton, and ghostly outline of his skin. Miranda’s holograph underwent a similar transformation.

“Take off your shirt and pants,” Miranda called back nonchalantly; she was faced away from Shepard and pulling a small case out of a nearby cabinet.

Shepard, who had of course been through this entire process before and who had resigned himself to the fact that he would no longer be able to keep anything private from Miranda Lawson, sighed and started pulling his shirt over his head. Once stripped down to his boxer briefs, Shepard was acutely aware of the cool temperature of the room.

Miranda pulled over a small table on top of which was the small, metallic case.

“Hold out your arm like this.” Miranda lifted her arm so it was perfectly horizontal. Shepard did the same.

Miranda turned and opened the small case, revealing dozens of circular stickers, each less than a centimeter in diameter. She took out the first one and balanced it carefully on her index finger tip of her right hand and held Shepard’s arm in her left. Watching the interaction of their two holographs suspended in the air above her, Miranda placed the sticker on Shepard’s skin not far from one of the blood red spheres. Shepard too was watching the projection, and noticed that Miranda’s EZNs were far more numerous and a rosy pink.

“Pay attention to where these markers go, John,” Miranda said in a chastening voice.

“Huh?” Shepard was still staring at the holographs.

“I expect you to memorize the locations and number of your EZNs by tomorrow. Eventually you’ll have to memorize their relative sizes and densities as well.”

“What for?” Shepard looked at Miranda as she continued placing the stickers on his tanned skin.

“The better understanding you have of your body, the better understanding you’ll have of your biotics. The strength of your biotics and the degree of control you have over them depends not just on the frequency of the nervous impulses you send, but the number of and which EZNs you send them to. Other arm, please.”

Shepard turned in his seat and held out his left arm. He looked at his right arm, which was dotted with over a dozen of the stickers. He wiggled his fingers and saw the stickers glow purple before fading again.

“Whoa. Are they supposed to do that?” Shepard wiggled his fingers more vigorously and watched the dozen stickers light up more brightly, each at a different time. He squeezed his fist and watched them all light up at once.

Miranda watched Shepard grin unabashedly as he played with the stickers. Miranda, amused by his fascination, decided not to berate him and simply continue her work on his left arm. “They glow whenever you generate dark energy from their respective EZN. It’s how we’ll map the nodes to specific muscular contractions.”

“Hey, Miranda, check it out!” Shepard wiggled his pinky and lit up a single sticker.

Miranda shook her head but couldn’t help smiling a little.

A few minutes later, when Shepard had mastered lighting up the better part of the markers on his right arm one at a time, Miranda let go of his left arm and told him to stand up.

“There’s more?”

“Most nodes are in your arms, but there’s also a substantial amount in the muscle wall of your upper chest, with a few more along your back, abdomen, and in your legs.” Miranda took another sticker in her right hand and placed her left flat against Shepard’s chest. Shepard, unable to concentrate, ceased playing with the markers on his arms.

Knowing that silence would only make his nervousness worse, he asked Miranda the first question that popped into his head.

“How’d you become a biotic? Were you born one like me?” Shepard noticed Miranda’s hands slow at the question.

“If you’re asking whether or not I was exposed in-utero, then no.”

“So how?”

Miranda reached for another sticker. “I was exposed as a young girl.”

“Industrial accident?”

“No,” Miranda said flatly.

Shepard cocked his head to the side, obviously confounded. “I didn’t know there were other ways.”

Miranda continued working as she spoke: “I was deliberately exposed. Multiple time, in fact.”

Shepard’s face hardened. “By who?”

“My father. He…He wanted a daughter who’d also be a powerful biotic. At one point, he actually considered surgically taking EZNs from known biotics and implanting them. Naturally, he tried it first on a couple of test subjects but he could never find a way to keep their bodies from rejecting them, let alone use them.” Shepard couldn’t make out Miranda’s expression in the dim lighting. “So he tried forceful exposure. But like I said before, where EZNs manifest is impossible to foresee. To him, they were never large enough or dense enough or in quite the right place. Thus the multiple exposures. He only stopped once the doctors convinced him any more would kill me. Even to this day, he believes my biotics aren’t up to par.”

Shepard was torn between the desire to hunt the man who had done such a thing to Miranda, and to simply reach out and hold her. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. My father was a maniac. Though I suppose his efforts weren’t a total failure: I’m still listed as one of the ten most powerful human biotics in the galaxy,” Miranda said bitterly, as if her success was somehow a sick validation of her father’s actions.

Shepard, against his better judgment, reached out and held her hand in his. He wished he knew what to say or what she needed to hear. But he didn’t.

So he held her hand hoping that somehow she would understand everything he was feeling.

His anger.

His compassion.

His love.