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Future Souls

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2185 CE

Normandy SR-2

Fatigue finally begins to catch up with Miranda Lawson. There's still work to be done, but Miranda has reached the point where even she needs sleep. Her preparations will have to be enough.

Although Miranda doesn't want to admit it to herself, the squad that has been assembled is formidable. There is every chance that they might succeed in stopping the Collectors. Stopping them. That's all that matters. Coming back alive isn't a part of the equation.

{Operative Lawson?}

Miranda twitches irritably at the sudden sound of EDI's voice. "I know what time it is. I’m hitting my rack in five."

{You did request that I notify you when it was 0200,} EDI replies. {That is not the only reason for my interruption. You also requested that I notify you of any crew behaviour that could be detrimental to the Normandy's mission.}

That order is a necessity considering the quota of miscreants and criminals that make up the Normandy's 'crew'. Miranda's mind is already working, trying to pre-empt EDI's disclosure. Zaeed Massani is probably blind drunk. No, that's nothing out of the ordinary. Miranda sneers. If she were remotely inclined to gamble, her credits would be on the psychotic ex-convict. It's Jack. Shepard should have left that bitch rotting in Purgatory.

{I have analysed Commander Shepard's behaviour and I can find no logical reason for her current activity,} EDI begins.

Shepard? Miranda is surprised. Although possessing a fiery temper and prone to bouts of sulking, the woman is everything Cerberus brought her back to be. Driven, almost single-minded in her pursuit of the Collectors, Shepard is a powerhouse. Miranda admires her. Despite her past - growing up as a street rat on Earth, the fires of Elysium, facing Saren, dying, being resurrected - Shepard is one of the most stable individuals Miranda knows.

Miranda doesn't want to pry into her CO's behaviour, but at the same time she needs the woman at her best. There's something else as well. Something suppressed. It might possibly be concern, but Miranda doesn't linger on it long enough to find out. Her tired thoughts flit to even more inappropriate territory. Shepard's probably fucking someone. Miranda's lip twitches. She gambles again - her credits are on the irritating Yeoman. Or perhaps Tali. The Quarian worships Shepard like a goddess. Or even worse, it's Jack. Miranda sniffs in distaste. Perhaps she really doesn't need to know what Shepard is doing.

{Operative Lawson?}

"Fine, go ahead, EDI." Miranda is tired and irritated. She's still fixated on her theory of Shepard and Jack. Why the fuck would Shepard choose that tattooed freak? She realises how ludicrous she's being. "Report."

{Commander Shepard has been standing outside your quarters for one hour and seventeen minutes.}

Miranda would have been less surprised if EDI had announced that Shepard was running around the CIC completely naked and flapping her arms like a chicken. "Why?" she asks, momentarily forgetting that EDI doesn't have the answer.

{I brought the matter to your attention so that you could ascertain the answer.} It is EDI's artificial method of conveying 'you're the XO, deal with it.'

"Of course," Miranda mutters.

What the hell is Shepard doing? There is precious little time left. Miranda's body is crying out for sleep. Her irritation is fast becoming anger. She palms the door open with an irritable slap.

Shepard stands still, a comically surprised expression on her face. In another lifetime, Miranda might have laughed. Instead she is tired and inherently disinclined towards humour. The situation calls for a scowl concealed behind a thin veneer of patience.

"What can I do for you, Commander?" Miranda asks. A perfectly sensible question.

"Fuck." Shepard responds as though she's been caught red-handed doing something she knows she shouldn't be doing. The woman scrubs at her eyes for a moment. Shepard is clearly exhausted. "Can we speak in your quarters, Miranda?"

Miranda ushers Shepard inside, hoping that this is just a crisis of confidence. She would normally take a seat, but remains standing in an effort to speed things up. Shepard walks at an uncharacteristic shuffling gait, as though Miranda's office is the last place she wants to be.

It's an act that doesn't suit the powerful woman. Shepard is tall – tall enough for Miranda to have to look up at her. Usually she moves like a predator with lithe, economical movements. That suits her. It suits her fiery red hair and flashing green eyes. Now those eyes are downcast and defeated.

We don't have time for this, Miranda thinks irritably. She's tempted to wake up Dr Chakwas. There has to be some medical excuse for giving Shepard a sedative. Her impatience gives way to guilt. Shepard has always been there for her – especially over her personal crisis with her sister. Miranda squares her shoulders. She can do this. A few well-chosen words of encouragement. Perhaps some praise. It shouldn't be difficult. Shepard deserves every accolade Miranda can give her.

Where to start though? Miranda draws a breath, "So-"

"I'm in love with you."

It's Miranda's turn to look stupid. Her mouth hangs open and flaps uselessly.

Shepard clasps her hands together in a white-knuckled grip. "I mean…I think I'm in love with you. I think I have been from the moment I saw you standing over Wilson with a smoking gun in your hand." A laugh escapes the Commander's lips. It's self-deprecating, awkward. "I thought I had it under control, just another thing I could compartmentalise, but I can't. Not this."

Shepard pauses. Miranda knows Shepard is trying to read her expression to gauge what she's thinking. But Miranda has had years of practice at concealing emotion. She keeps her face a mask while inwardly cursing the Illusive Man and his order not to implant Shepard with a control chip. One tiny little piece of tech, and this whole mess would never have happened.

It's happening, and Miranda is perilously tongue-tied.

"Fuck, say something," Shepard pleads. "You're making me feel like an idiot standing here."

"You are an idiot," Miranda fires back. She means it, injecting enough venom into her voice that Shepard can't possibly misconstrue her intent. "We need you at your best, and instead you're moping around in the middle of the night, keeping us both awake out of sentiment."

It's Shepard's turn to be surprised. "Miranda, you know what's coming tomorrow. I needed to tell-"

Miranda surges forward. The movement forces Shepard to take a step back. "You're a selfish child, Shepard. Neither of us have any place in our lives for this at the best of times, certainly not now. I'm not compromising our mission by dragging meaningless fucking into it."

"I wasn't suggesting-" Shepard splutters.

"That's all it would be on my part," Miranda cruelly interrupts the Commander. "Meaningless fucking."

The resulting expression on Shepard's face is one of complete devastation. Although Miranda is pleased by the result, the pleasure is tempered by the concern that she's taken it too far. If she has, then Shepard won't be able to do her job properly.

Thankfully Shepard is quick to wipe the hangdog expression from her face. A mask snaps back into place. The mask Miranda recognises as Shepard's business face.

"I'm sorry for disturbing you, XO." Shepard's voice is flat. "I'll expect to see you at 0600 sharp in the briefing room."

Miranda inclines her head. "Understood, Commander."

The grace hasn't returned to Shepard's movements but her back is ramrod straight and purpose like as she turns and marches out of Miranda's quarters. The door slides shut behind her departing figure. An eerie silence descends. Like the wake of a storm. All Miranda can hear is the rasp of her own breath.

Beneath her, Miranda's jelly-like legs finally give out. She searches for a chair. As she sinks down, her composure finally slips.

Damn you, Shepard.


 

2208 CE, Present day

Nevos, Teyolia System

Miranda Lawson didn't make a habit of clock watching. Even after more than two decades in the same line of work, she was kept busy enough to require twelve-hour days. Even longer when working on more urgent matters. During the brief hours she wasn't working or sleeping, she subjected her body through military grade drills. Staying in perfect physical condition required some effort, even for someone with her genes. Her routine left little time for recreation, and that was the way she preferred it.

Tuesdays were the only day that necessitated a slight deviation. She needed to finish by 5pm. Miranda was looking for something productive to fill her remaining fifteen minutes when she was interrupted by the incessant chime that signalled an incoming call. Her irritation was short-lived. Only one person was permitted to be put straight through to her private terminal.

She possessed an infinite supply of patience where her younger sister was concerned.

Miranda accepted the call. A few moments later a smiling face came into view on the screen. As she grew older, Oriana still favoured keeping her hair just below her jawline. Given that they were almost identical, the same style would have aesthetically suited Miranda. However out of habit she kept her hair just below her shoulders – suitable for throwing into a braid when she needed it out of the way, or leaving it loose during the rare occasions she needed to dress to impress.

Oriana's smile had already become a frown. "You look tired, Miri."

"It was a late night," Miranda admitted. She was rarely dishonest with her sister. White lies had always come easily for her. "There was a deadline."

Oriana wrinkled her nose, as though immediately smelling bullshit. "You specialise in R and D. What can possible be urgent enough to make you work harder than you already do? Not to mention you own the damn company. The only deadlines you have are self-imposed."

"There was a-"

"It was a rhetorical question," Oriana interrupted curtly. "Were you too busy to call Aaron?"

Fuck. Miranda felt an acute jolt of guilt. "I'm sorry. Was he disappointed?"

"Not really, no. He knows you too well and your present made him forget what a terrible aunt you are." Oriana folded her arms across her chest. "A skycar. Honestly?"

Miranda did not share her sister's concern. What else was she supposed to buy a young man on his eighteen birthday? She chose to ignore the question. "How are you?"

"If I tell you I'm fine, are you going to say goodbye so you can get back to work?"

"Of course not."

"Well I'm fine then." A trace of petulance crept into Oriana's voice.

"Are you sure-"

"Stop it. It was a divorce, not a death. To tell you the truth, Aaron and I barely notice. Greg spent almost every waking hour at work, much like someone else we know."

Miranda bristled. That hurt. "You're not seriously comparing me to your ex-husband?"

"Why not?" Oriana shrugged. "If it wasn't for vid calls, I'd forget what you look like."

Oriana had a point. They hadn't seen each other physically for almost three years. Aaron had been a gangly, spotty kid. Greg had still been dutifully playing his role as husband and father. It all boiled down to competing obligations. Family was important to Miranda, but her anxieties kicked in at the simple thought of leaving Nevos for any length of time.

That thought suddenly reminded Miranda that she was going to be late. "Ori, I do need to cut the conversation short but not for the reason you think. I have somewhere to be."

"Please tell me you're doing something nice-" Oriana started. She paused and realisation dawned in her expression. "Oh, it's Tuesday. I forgot. How is she?"

"Stable," Miranda replied quietly. "Which is as much as anyone can hope for at this stage."

"Miri…" Oriana hesitated. It was a difficult subject for both of them. "You know I've always admired you for doing this, but have you ever stopped to consider the personal cost? You never leave Nevos. You don't date. And as far as I know, you don't have any friends."

"I have friends!" Miranda bristled. Oriana made it sound like she was some sort of recluse, which was far from true.

"I meant actual friends. Friends who don't have anything to do with your work. Friends that can actually reciprocate. Someone other than me who will be honest with you and tell you to your face that you're being selfish."

"I'm not-"

"Aaron turned eighteen yesterday, Miri. Eighteen! He's not a kid anymore." Oriana looked away from the screen for a moment. When she turned back, her eyes were shining. "I guess I wish we had a few more memories than involved you."

Miranda let out a shuddering breath. She didn't care about her personal life, but Oriana's statement cut to the bone. She'd always doted on her nephew. The son she would never have. Yet despite that, Miranda knew that this was the one promise she couldn't break. "I sorry for all the times I wasn't there, but I need to do this. She saved my life…and she has no one else."

"No…I'm sorry. I know this is important to you. I just miss my big sister." Oriana sighed. She reached out and laid her fingertips on the screen. "Come see us soon, won't you?"

Miranda reciprocated Oriana's gesture. "You know I'd like that. I promise-"

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Oriana interrupted gently. "Just tell me you'll call Aaron this weekend. He wants to thank you for his present."

Miranda nodded. "I will. I love you, Ori."


 

Over the years, Miranda had grown to hate a certain kind of hospital. The kind where people went in never expecting to leave. Although this particular hospital was nicer than most, set amid lush gardens overlooking a lake, the surrounds still couldn't disguise the taint. It seeped into everything. The buildings, the overly beatific staff and, most of all, the patients.

An orderly was paused outside the door as she approached, selecting a meal from a trolley. The strike of Miranda's heels on the tiles caught her attention.

"Oh, good evening, Dr Lawson." The asari had a neutral smile fixed on her face.

"Hello, Iania. Do you mind if I take her meal in?"

"Be my guest." Iania handed Miranda the tray. "Today is a good day."

Out of habit Miranda glanced over the meal. The food looked fresh and appetising – an appropriate balance of nutrients and taste. She nodded to herself in approval, then pushed her way into the room. Miranda was surprised to find the curtains thrown back to make the most of Nevos's late evening sunshine. There was even music. The sound was too heavy and primitive for her own tastes, but it made for a nice change from the usual gloomy silence.

The bed was empty. The room's sole occupant was sitting in a chair by the window, already alerted to Miranda's presence.

"Well fuck me sideways. Look who's decided to show her fucking face. Bout time, Cheerleader."

"Nice to see you too, Jack."

Miranda didn't bother to remind Jack that she visited at the same time last Tuesday. It was a routine designed to help Jack remember. Unfortunately, it had never worked.

"Dinner?" Jack's eyes lit up at the sight of the tray. "Fuck yes, I'm starving."

Jack accepted the tray eagerly and fell on her food with great relish. It was all Miranda could do to manage an encouraging smile as she took up a seat on a nearby window ledge. Despite Jack's healthy appetite, she looked even worse than last week. Jack's once strong, wiry frame had wasted away to literal skin and bone. Although Jack was happy and alert, her eyes were sunken and red rimmed.

On the plus side, Jack was wearing actual clothes for once. Her grey hair appeared freshly washed and slicked back against her scalp. The orderly had been right. Today was a good day.

"So, what's happening in the wonderful world of Miranda Lawson?" Jack asked as she chewed. "And make it juicy, dammit. I don't get any news in this hellhole."

"Hellhole?" Miranda asked worriedly.

The hospital hardly fit the definition of a hellhole. Less than a decade old, it was already one of the Galaxy's leading institutions for treating biotic degradation. Despite having been colonised by asari centuries earlier, the garden world of Nevos was still a pristine paradise. Although the planet was popular as both a tourist destination and a corporate haven, the hospital was located far away from beaches and centres of civilisation. Nestled in the mountains, the vistas were unparalleled and the temperature remained cool.

Notwithstanding its location on an asari world, the majority of the small patient population was human.

Jack's window overlooked a lake below. It was serene, idyllic. A direct contrast to the life of the woman herself.

"You should see your face, Lawson. Lighten up. It's a fucking figure of speech. These digs are the best I've ever had," Jack explained, her mouth still full. "I get waited on day and night and it's fucking pretty out here."

"Yes, I know," Miranda murmured as she stared out of the window. "I like this view."

She liked best that there were no Reapers were visible from Jack's window. Not that there were more than a handful on Nevos to start with, but the ageless creatures distressed Jack with the memories they stirred. Or perhaps it was Miranda projecting her own lingering acrimony. As long as she lived, she knew she would never adjust to the sight of the ancient beings towering above the skyline. Most veterans expressed similar sentiments. It was younger generations that held no such animosity.

The silence lingered, save for Jack's enthusiastic chewing. Perched on the window ledge, Miranda was slightly uncomfortable. However she didn't try to rectify this, knowing that if she relaxed her thoughts would drift towards work. She was here for Jack, and that was where her focus needed to stay. The 'juicy gossip' Jack had requested was proving difficult to concoct. The most important events of the past week had been her nephew's eighteenth birthday and Lawson Dynamics winning the tender to develop its newest biotic suppressant for use by the asari military. Neither of which would interest Jack. When Jack's spoon scraped against the bottom of the tray, Miranda fixed an attentive expression on her face.

"Bored though," Jack offered up suddenly, almost nonchalantly.

"We can take a turn around the garden if you like?" Miranda tried to inject some enthusiasm into her voice.

"Nah. I guess I just miss the old days – busting heads, saving people and shit, hell…even my fucking annoying students at the Academy." Jack stared thoughtfully out the window. Her expression suddenly brightened. "Shepard was here the other day. We reminisced about everything…even her piss poor dancing skills."

"Shepard was here?" Miranda asked, trying to keep the resulting frown from her brow.

"Yeah, she visits more often than you, Lawson," Jack said in an accusatory tone.

"I'm sorry, Jack," Miranda replied. "I come as often as I can. Perhaps I can rearrange my schedule-"

"You and your fucking schedule, Cheerleader," Jack sneered. "I don't wanna be an appointment slot. Fuck!" She shifted slightly in her seat, her mouth suddenly twisted into a grimace. "I gotta visit the little girl's room. Can you call the fucking orderly?"

"Why don't I help instead?" Miranda suggested. "If you'll let me."

Jack gave her a level stare. Miranda didn't let herself show an iota of pity. This was just one friend, helping another.

"Fuck it, you've seen it all before…and I do kind of get a kick out of you helping me take a shit."

For all the advancements in technology, the things that made Jack's life liveable, nothing could make her legs work. There was a time when Jack could still manoeuvre herself with her arms, bouncing from chair to gravchair to bed as it suited her. That had been some months earlier. Now her arms were almost as wasted as her legs.

Miranda wheeled Jack's chair through into the spacious adjoining bathroom. There was absolutely nothing comfortable to be said about helping Jack onto the toilet. Miranda performed each task as quickly and efficiently as she could to save them both embarrassment. Helping Jack pull down her trousers, manoeuvring her down onto the seat, waiting patiently nearby in case she fell.

"At least I can still wipe my own fucking ass," Jack muttered good-naturedly.

A polite smile followed on Miranda's part. Nothing more. She knew that the time would come when even that simple task would be beyond Jack. It would come soon. A part of her already dreaded that day, as she had dreaded all the days that had come before. To see Jack reduced to this level of dependence ruined her every time.

Miranda simply waited nearby. It felt ridiculous to even thinking about small talk while Jack was sitting on the toilet. Instead she stared at her own reflection in the mirror. Miranda had never been vain, just honest. She had no qualms about scrutinising her own appearance. However two decades had passed her by and barely left a trace.

On the surface at least. With each passing year, Miranda felt more weight settle on her shoulders. Guilt. Regret. At her most introspective, she thought of Jack as the portrait to her Dorian Gray.

Jack seemed to be in no hurry. Time passed. Miranda's thoughts instinctively drifted towards work. The recent contract was significant. She'd spent a decade trying to break into the asari market, competing with firms that had been in business for almost a millennia. She had less than forty-eight hours to prepare for the arrival of the asari delegation. Miranda had already decided that she needed to work after her visit.

Her foot tapped an impatient rhythm on the tile before she stopped abruptly. Miranda cast a quick glance to check Jack was alright. There was a pensive expression on the other woman's face as she stared determinedly at a non-descript spot on the floor.

"Are you alright?"

Jack still did not look up for some time. However when she did, Miranda noticed that her eyes shining with unshed tears.

"Shepard's dead…isn't she?"

"Yes," Miranda replied quickly. There was no glossing over that particular truth. "She didn't survive the War."