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Daughter of Fate

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Blackheath, Australia

“Activate code Lawson-foxtrot-oh-nine-six. Day…one hundred and eighty-nine. Subject has shown marked improvement over the past week. All vitals are now stable. Brain activity remains erratic. It is possible that its unconscious mind is fighting the treatment. As a result, the project continues to fall behind schedule. Despite my assurances, doubts have been raised from above as to whether Subject 57 was ever a suitable candidate for Blackheath. Fuck them. I know she’s perfect.”

Oriana Lawson sighed as she swivelled her chair away from the monitor and rose to her feet. As always, she was instinctively drawn towards the operating table at the centre of the lab. The pale, unmoving form lying there had taken over her life – both her waking hours and her dreams – for the past six months. The need for success went beyond what she had promised to her superiors, to something far more personal. Of all the subjects she had worked on during the Blackheath Project, this one was by far the most important.

Ashley Williams. Alliance Captain. Second human SpecTRe. Killed in action on Chasca.

Almost reverently, Oriana reached out and traced her hand along the body’s jawline, not quite touching, but close enough to feel the electricity that radiated from within. A smile teased at her lips as that feeling reminded her of what she had done. Despite her years of hard work, the powers that be had been ready to pull the plug on Blackheath. As early as next month. They refused to believe that the failure lay in the quality of the subjects. Instead, the blame had been foisted onto her. Her methods questioned. Her intellectual capability – no, her genius, brought into doubt. 

Now, Blackheath was finally coming to fruition.

Her musings were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. With an irritated frown, she watched as Hernandez, one of her lab techs, walked blithely into the room. Hernandez was focussed on a data pad in his hand and didn’t notice her presence. Oriana was forced to clear her throat.   

Hernandez visibly jumped in response. "Dr Lawson. I’m…I didn’t realise you’d be here.”

It was her scheduled day off, of course he wasn’t expecting her. However, Oriana had long since let her work consume her to the point where time spent doing anything else felt wasted.

Already annoyed at having to share the space with someone else, she was in no mood for social niceties. “I’m the Project Lead, why would I not be here?”

"Yes of course. My apologies.” He ducked his head in a furtive nod, clearly wishing that his boss hadn’t decided to come into the lab. “Um...would you still like me to continue with the tests on Subject 57 that were scheduled for today or did you have other plans?"  

“Scrub those, we’re running a full stability analysis.” Oriana turned her attention back to the body. “I need to ascertain whether Subject 57 can cope with an intensified bout of treatment.”

“But…I thought you said yesterday that we’re weeks away from reaching that point,” Hernandez offered uncertainly.

Oriana couldn’t keep her irritation from her voice. “I know what I said yesterday, but unfortunately we no longer have the luxury of weeks. People are nervous. They need to be reassured that we can deliver what was promised on schedule.”

“Understood,” the lab tech said, his tone had now taken on a resentful edge, no doubt at having to participate in an analysis that would take the better part of seven hours. “I’ll start prepping her.”

Oriana remained standing by the biobed, watching as the woman’s eyelids suddenly twitched. It was nothing new. Over the past month, Subject 57 had started dreaming. Out of a possessive curiosity, Oriana wished she could glimpse into those dreams. Were they about the woman she had been? Or was the treatment constructing visions of the life she would lead.

Cocking her head to one side, Oriana lifted her hand and placed it against her subject’s cheek. The skin was ice cold. Gently, she dragged her thumb upwards. A smile creased her face as the eyelids twitched more rapidly in response.

In one moment, Oriana was staring down at a pale, unmoving form, the next she was staring into a pair of wide, dark, frightened eyes. Oriana’s rigorously schooled composure slipped. For a moment, she could do nothing but stare, lips parted in surprise. Her project had suddenly become a conscious person. This should have equated to success, but it was one full month ahead of schedule. The requisite tests had not been carried out. The realisation that she was potentially watching six months of work go down the drain, snapped Oriana out of her shock. As she reached towards the monitor to administer a sedative, she found her wrist encased in a vice-like grip.

The project…Williams, was fixated on her, lips moving urgently without sound. Oriana tried to step back, but Williams’ grip was such that she would have had to wrench her arm free.  

“I-I…need you to remain calm, Captain Williams.”

It felt strange to speak to someone that she had known as little more than a slab of meat for so long. Strange and exhilarating.

“Mi…an…ah.” 

The sounds were little more than a rush of air. Even so, Oriana felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. “What did you say?”  

With a surprisingly display of strength, Williams suddenly lifted herself up onto her elbows.  Oriana was unnerved by the intensity in her patient’s gaze. The woman was staring at her as though she was a lifeline. The look went beyond mere recognition to something far more intimate. 

“Miranda.”

The voice was still hoarse, but this time the name was unmistakable. It was enough to knock the air from Oriana’s lungs. As realisation dawned, she stopped fighting against William’s grasp on her wrist and fought to keep a shocked expression from her face. Instead, she reached up and pressed her free hand against Williams’ clammy cheek.

“It’s alright…Ashley. I’m here. You’re somewhere safe.”

As the panicked look in the subject’s eyes subsided, replaced by an obvious relief, Oriana felt her jaw clench. The barely conscious revelation marked a flaw in the treatment. A memory that clearly should have been excised along with the other ‘deviant’ thoughts in William’s brain. Even though Oriana knew she could not possibly have anticipated this eventuality, it was still a failure that could derail her success. 

“I was dreaming…something-” Williams paused, searched Oriana’s face. “Promise me…don’t leave me.”

“I promise.”

Williams’ face suddenly contracted into a mask of confusion and pain, probably in response to the treatment. “Miri, wha…my head hurts like it’s splitting-”

The display next to the biobed drew Oriana’s attention before the weak cry from Williams’ lips that signalled she was in pain. Oriana glanced over her shoulder, where the lab tech had only just been alerted to the situation unfolding. “Hernandez! A little help?”

“Holy crap, she’s awake?” Hernandez joined her, momentarily stunned into inactivity.

“Clearly, you idiot! We need to get her back under now! Her neural pathways are degrading by the second.”

“Who…?”

Oriana looked back to the woman who still clutched at her. Williams’ was still staring searchingly at Oriana. Now, her eyes opened wide in realisation as the unfamiliarity clicked into place. She knew that Oriana wasn’t her lover. 

“Not Miranda.” Williams was clearly scared, but her voice was tinged with anger. Her other hand snapped out and she seized Oriana by her clothing. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Captain Williams, you need to calm down!” Oriana’s voice was tinged with pain. Her wrist felt like it was going to snap. “Hernandez, what the hell are you doing? Sedate her now!”

His hands shaking, Hernandez finally managed to jam a hypospray loaded with sedative against Williams’ neck. The crushing grip on Oriana’s wrist gradually relaxed and she was able to reclaim her limb. Even as she cradled her reddened wrist in her other hand, she checked Williams’ vitals. 

The silence that descended on the lab was punctuated only by the sound of breathing. In Hernandez’s case, great gasps – as though he had been running for his life. Oriana’s own were quiet and rapid, almost drowned out by the thudding of her heart in her chest. It wasn’t a response out of fear, rather one of anger. Frustration and loathing. Mingled together, it made for a dangerous combination. For the purposes of the Blackheath project, this revelation changed nothing. Especially if no one found out about it. On a personal level, however, it meant so much more. She held the subject’s life in her hands. An individual who had clearly meant something to the infamous Miranda Lawson. Her older sister. 

Killing Ashley for a second time would be effortless. A few seconds was all it would take to destroy the life that she had restored.

Would destroy that bitch to realise that she had lost you a second time? Oriana smiled as she thought it.

Terminating the subject was a fleeting thought, replaced by the knowledge that there was something worse than death. The far more satisfying prospect of erasing all sentiment that existed between the two women. Oriana felt a palpable thrill in the pit of her stomach. A smile crept onto her face.

“Dr Lawson?”

Fuck. In her excitement, she’d forgotten Hernandez had been witness to everything. That was a problem. Albeit an entirely solvable one.

“Do you have any idea what she...the subject was talking about?” Hernandez ventured, still quietly gasping.

Oriana looked him in the eye. He was clearly shaken by the incident. “Jumbled nonsense, no doubt due to the treatment. Nothing that cannot easily be solved.”

He nodded, entirely trusting her judgement. “What do you need me to do?”

“Nothing at present.” She reached out and pressed her hand to Hernandez’s forearm, squeezing gently. “Why don’t you go get some air, Jake? Take half an hour at least. You look like you need it.”

He let out a nervous breath and nodded eagerly. “I think I’ll do that. Thank you, Dr Lawson.”

Oriana waited until the door closed shut behind the lab technician to turn her attention back to the unconscious woman lying on the table in front of her. Once again, she pressed her hand to the subject’s cheek. The skin was hot and clammy as she swiped away a single tear that had leaked from beneath Williams’ eyelid.

“Even in death you are full of surprises, Captain Williams,” she mused to herself.

Although Oriana wanted to linger and savour the moment, there was a great deal of work to be done. A renewed sense of excitement coursed through her body as she returned to her personal terminal. In a matter of minutes, she transferred the security feed to a storage device, before scrubbing all traces of it from the lab’s log.

She clutched the small device in her palm as she connected to Blackheath’s security chief. Besides the record contained within, there was only one other person who knew anything about what had happened.

Security Chief Rattan’s face appeared on the screen. “Dr Lawson, what can I do for you?”

And Hernandez’s employment was about to be terminated.

“Chief, I need you to urgently send a team to arrest my lab tech, Jake Hernandez. Unfortunately, I’ve stumbled across evidence that he has been selling information about our work off-world.”

“Understood, Dr Lawson,” Rattan nodded, already pushing his chair away from the monitor. “I will attend to this matter personally.”

Oriana swivelled delightedly in her chair. She lifted the storage device up to eye level, running her fingers over its innocuous surface. The video it contained meant little on its own, it was barely even inflammatory, but to her it meant everything.

The ultimate ammunition against the sister she had never met. 


 

Ten months later…

Armali, Thessia

 

The morning air carried a distinct chill, but it was a crisp, clean cold. Almost pleasant. Clad in form-fitting commando leathers, Shepard felt it only on her exposed skin – just her cheeks and her right hand. Her left hand, impervious to the cold, simply tingled with anticipation. Her eyes slid closed and she pictured her surrounds in her head.

This was Liara’s ancestral home. Her home now. Although scarred by war, it was still massive and imposing. Shepard stood in the ruins of the South Wing, destroyed during the War. The walls still surrounded her, towering above, but the ceilings and everything they had contained had collapsed into a pile of rubble. Exposed to the elements for months, the ruins carried with them a reminder of everything that had been lost. They seemed a world away from the rest of the house, which was slowly but surely being shaped into a semblance of its former glory by Shiala and her staff.

Over a year had passed since she had fled the facility in Alberta as a shadow of her former self. Although her recovery had felt agonisingly slow at times, in reality it had been surprisingly rapid. She would never ‘return to normal.’ These days, ‘normal’ meant little to her. While she still recognised herself in the mirror, there were days where she could no longer be sure of her own identity. Days where she believed that Evan Shepard had died during the explosion of the Catalyst and the human shape that had been recovered beneath London was someone – or something – else. The person she had been before the War, was gone. The Catalyst had moulded and shaped her into someone – or something - altogether different.

For all that she shared with Liara during their melds, these were fears that she managed to keep deeply buried.

Shepard drew in a deep breath and forced her attention back to the present. The ruined wing had been given over to another purpose entirely – the one which currently had her poised and ready.  The faint tang of salt filled her nostrils, accompanied by the less salubrious whiff of mould and decay. She became aware of small sounds filtering through the silence – light scrapes, rustling – sounds that were barely there, but gave away a great deal.

Her eyes snapped open at the same moment that she threw herself to one side. A baton whistled through the space she had just occupied. Her hand snatched out and seized the weapon. With a violent tug, she wrenched her opponent off balance. There was a strangled, surprised cry as the body pitched forward. The asari landed on her back, staring up at Shepard with a bewildered expression on her face. A split second later, Shepard was moving. Her boots barely made a sound as she vaulted up onto a fallen pillar.

Movement caught her eye, shadows in the darkness up ahead. Legs pumping hard, Shepard sprinted the short length of the pillar before launching herself off the end. She tucked her body into a compact shape, somersaulting down to the floor level. She landed behind her next two targets. The first she caught unawares. The asari went sprawling, unconscious before she hit the ground. Her companion responded with her own weapon, rounding on Shepard, catching her squarely in the stomach with the baton’s point. Although winded, Shepard barely doubled over and recovered quickly. The two of them traded blows, back and forth without giving any quarter.

Shepard had fought asari before, but she’d never spent such a dedicated period of time training with them. She’d quickly learned that they didn’t use their long life-spans as an excuse to slack off. Commandos trained every moment as though their lives depended on it. Consequently, she’d spent most of her first months on Thessia covered in mottled bruises and aching in various muscles she hadn’t known she possessed.

No doubt her training partners had expected that to simply be the state of being. After all, how could a human hope to best commandos who had been training for hundreds of years? Slowly but surely, Shepard proved them wrong. She’d always been a quick study, especially when it came to physical combat, but her prowess went even further. The stamina and strength she’d possessed as a marine didn’t just return, it improved astronomically.

Although evenly matched in terms of skill, Shepard battered the asari with her sheer physicality. Eventually she knocked the baton from her opponent’s grip. Shepard danced away from the follow up kick, dropping into a roll as she recovered the fallen baton. With batons in both hands, she delivered a furious set of blows that left her opponent with no opportunity to counter-attack. Shepard felt some remorse as she delivered a cracking blow across the asari’s temple, but it was short-lived. She’d been on the receiving end of far too many batons during her first months to give any quarter now.

There was one further opponent lurking in the shadows. Shepard knew that she would receive very little warning when the move came. All too often it had been the whistling of a baton through the air a split second before it collided with her head. Once, a deliberate chuckle before her legs had been swept out from beneath her. Regardless of what form the first move took, Shiala was a formidable opponent.

Liara’s former tutor, once resident of Feros, voluntarily took part in Shepard’s combat training. Shepard suspected that Shiala’s motivation wasn’t entirely magnanimous. The green-skinned asari seemed to take a great deal of enjoyment in her work, more so when Shepard ended up in a groaning heap on the ground.

The attack came from above, pre-empted only by the faintest glimpse of a moving shadow. Poised and ready, Shepard darted to one side. A fist sailed harmlessly into the space she had just occupied. Her counter-move was a swiftly timed kick, catching Shiala in the ribs. There was a surprised ‘oomph,’ before Shiala recovered quickly. Shepard was immediately on the defensive, parrying several jabs and narrowly avoiding a wicked left hook that would have knocked her off her feet. As well as concentrating on avoiding being hit, Shepard had to stay on her feet. Finding purchase on the rubble was challenging. The asari was always one step ahead, using her speed and agility to avoid Shepard’s blows. It was like a dance, a dance where one partner had no sense of rhythm and didn’t know the steps.

Shepard could see the knowing twinkle in Shiala’s eyes. She changed tactics. The trick was allowing the asari to get in close, restricting her movements. When it came to sheer brute strength, Shepard would always have the upper hand. The final move came amidst a flurry of strikes that sought to disorientate rather than disable. Shepard deliberately caught a blow to the side of her head. It disrupted Shiala’s flow. Shepard used the hesitation to her advantage. Swiftly delivering a knee to Shiala’s stomach. The asari dropped to her knees. Before she could regain her feet, Shepard swooped forward, knee pressing against Shiala’s chest, driving her into the ground.  

“Yield?” Shepard growled, giving no room for movement even when poised to win. She’d made the mistake of easing up too early and paid the price for it several times over.

Shiala’s piercing emerald green eyes were narrowed with fury, but she offered up a taut nod in response.

Shepard grinned delightedly and bounced to her feet before helping Shiala up. “Not bad for a morning’s work, huh?”

“You are insufferable when you win,” Shiala muttered. 

“And you’re not?” Shepard countered as they picked their way out of the rubble. “Let’s agree that we’re both competitive?”

“Some more so than others.” Shiala’s follow-up was barely audible.

Thoughts of a breakfast of galactic proportions filtered into Shepard’s head as her stomach growled. She was lamenting the absence of pancakes from the asari diet when it felt like she’d walked into a solid wall. With her arms flailing uselessly, she was lifted from her feet and swept backwards several metres – all in the space of a second. It was accompanied by something that sounded suspiciously like a yelp of fright. It came to an end when she landed hard on her backside before sliding to an undignified halt against a pillar.

Shepard picked herself up gingerly. Thankfully, her limbs appeared to function. It wasn’t hard to identify the source of the attack. Matriarch Calis, still wreathed in a bright blue corona, made no attempt to hide what she’d done. Or appear apologetic about it.

“I thought this session was strictly no biotics,” Shepard protested, a hint of petulance in her tone.

“It was.” Calis replied, her blunt tone reflecting her expression. “However, I deemed that you were becoming overconfident. This was a reminder of your fragility.”

“An unnecessary reminder,” Shepard snapped. “How about next time I’m being an arrogant ass, just tell me?”

Calis regarded her carefully. “I do not think so. A demonstration was eminently more satisfying.”

As Calis turned and walked away, Shepard was sure she saw a smile appear on the Matriarch’s face. Perhaps the old battle axe has got a sense of humour after all, she mused. Although apparently, it’s at my expense.

“Your situational awareness needs work.”

Shepard was rubbing her smarting backside when she heard the comment. She glanced up to see Liara leaning over the railing of a balcony overhead, a broad smile on her face. “Please don’t tell me you saw that?”  

“Not all of it,” Liara replied breezily. “Just the surprised expression on your face as you were flying backwards.”  

Although she could have easily taken the nearby stairs, Liara flared a brilliant blue. In a movement that was both powerful and graceful, she vaulted over the railing and dropped down to ground level alongside Shepard. There was no sound as her boots hit the ground.

“Now who’s the one showing off?” 

Shepard sank down onto a nearby bench. The surface was hard and unyielding, but she was grateful to be able to take the weight off her legs. While commando leathers allowed unrestricted movement, the lack of padding was a serious drawback. Liara remained standing, a teasing smile lingering on her lips.  

“You have been working extremely hard over the past few months,” Liara said as she folded her arms across her chest.

Somehow Shepard had managed to get a hole in her leathers, just over her knee. She absently plucked at it while mulling over an answer that wouldn’t draw Liara’s patient ire. “There are people out there counting on me to get back into the fight. Speaking of which, have you heard from the Normandy?”

Liara shook her head. “You already know as much as I do. If that tip panned out, they will be due to hit the outpost in the Nemean Abyss in a few hours. There is nothing more that we can do other than wait.”

Shepard opened her mouth to speak-

“And do not even think about saying you wish you were with them,” Liara interrupted, as if on cue.

“C’mon, do you seriously think Miranda won’t kill Varek on sight if he’s actually there?”

“She’s with Jack,” Liara offered, as though that was the only answer required.

Just hearing it sounded strange to her ears. Shepard would have never believed that a time would come when Jack would be the instrument of mercy and reason to Miranda’s irrational vengeance.

“I’m worried about her. Miranda, I mean. She hasn’t stopped since Ashley’s death. She needs to come out of the field. Take some time to process.”

“You know she will not agree to that,” Liara said with a sad shake of her head. “Our best hope is to mitigate. Jack has proven herself to be an able leader. We need to trust that she can hold the crew together and keep Miranda in check.”

“You’re right, as usual.” Shepard sighed. “I’m just going a little stir crazy with nothing to do.”

“You have not forgotten about tomorrow? Liara asked pointedly.

Shepard frowned deliberately. “Why, what’s happening tomorrow?”

Liara’s expression shifted in a heartbeat, halfway between irritation and anger. “Evan, this meeting with Councillor Tevos has been scheduled for weeks-”

“Relax,” Shepard interrupted quickly, especially knowing that Liara was on the verge of a full-blown lecture. “It was just an ill-timed joke.”

“All of your jokes are ill-timed,” Liara grumbled.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Shepard continued. “How can I when I’ve been dreading it for weeks?”

“Tevos may be intimidating, but she is not unreasonable-”

“I’m not intimidated by that bitch.” It was Shepard’s turn to interrupt. And she did so swiftly, almost scathingly.

Her face was stormy for a few moments, reflecting her feelings towards the asari councillor. Even though it had been a lifetime ago, Shepard could not forget Tevos coldly informing her that there was insufficient evidence to prove Saren’s treachery. Their mutual animosity had continued in subsequent meetings, leading to Shepard throwing Tevos’ offer of reinstating her to the SpecTRes back in her face. Unfortunately, Tevos was the logical choice to be the first individual in power to be informed that Shepard was still alive. After all, she was hiding in Tevos’ back yard.

“I’m dreading losing my temper and disappointing you.”

“Any slight on your part could do more than simply disappoint me, Evan,” Liara replied calmly. “We need allies.”

Shepard nodded. She looked up at Liara with a determined expression. “I know. And I’ll play my part.”


 

Asteroid 34-Delta, Nemean Abyss

Moving silently didn’t come easily for Jack. She was a creature of noise and destruction. Of fire and light. Preferring not to fight from the shadows, but to ensure that her opponents knew she was coming. It was satisfying to see the terror in their eyes.

Things changed. And Jack was changing. No one could accuse her of not being able to adapt.

There was a flash of movement up ahead, beyond the shadows. The rap of footsteps. Sluggish. The footsteps of someone that was bored. Bored and more than likely inattentive. Jack didn't bother to flare. Bare hands would be enough. There was time only for the gestation of a shout as she struck - wrapped her hands around the guy's head, muscles coiled. One savage moment. A few beats of silence.

Jack heard purpose-like footsteps behind her. An extra pair of hands helped her grab the dead guard and drag him back into the shadows. He was unceremoniously folded and shoved into a narrow crevice in the rock. Jack met a pair of flashing dark eyes. Unlike Jack, Tasha Kurin was well suited to the darkness. The commando didn't make a sound as she left Jack to press forward.

Jack looked back over her shoulder. It was an unnecessary habit. The individual moving stealthily down the ladder did not need her concern. Clad in a skin-tight black combat skin, hair braided back, Miranda Lawson cropped into a crouch at Jack's side. Jack nodded towards the dead guy and held up one finger. Following the sound of a strangled grunt in the direction Kurin had just taken, Jack added a second finger. Two down.

Miranda responded with a taut nod. So far, it had been almost effortless. Jack wasn't about to jinx the operation by thinking that it was the smoothest one yet, but it wasn't far off the mark. They'd been doing it for almost a year after all. Using intel gathered from previous raids, combined with the analytical power of the Shadow Broker, they'd infiltrated five outposts supposedly connected to Varek Kor'Amon. They’d taken each one down, even as security tightened in response to their actions. However, so far, they had found only echoes of the Batarian himself. It was almost as though he were one step ahead of their every move. While Jack simply viewed it as the noose tightening around the bastard, she knew that it weighed heavily on Miranda. Her friend was almost single-minded in her pursuit, believing that responsibility for Ashley’s death could be laid at Kor’Amon’s feet. Almost being the operative word. Jack had done her best to temper Miranda’s need for vengeance. The task was getting harder with each passing month.

There was no sound as Miranda moved off in Kurin’s direction, leaving Jack to wait for the last member of their small squad. In the silence, a muffled cry sounded like a shout. Even as Jack looked upwards, a split second later, a dark shape fell to Jack’s right and landed in a tangle of limbs. The clatter of armour on metal made her wince. The silence returned, aside from a quiet shuffling as Traynor reoriented herself after falling down the ladder. Jack had to bite her lip to restrain herself from uttering several choice words in response.

Instead, she unceremoniously dragged Traynor to standing and pressed her finger to her lips. Jack could only hope that the sound hadn’t been as loud as it had seemed.

{What the hell was that?}

Miranda’s urgent whisper dispelled that hope. There was nothing further over the comm, as several loud shouts down the tunnel told Jack that someone had heard Traynor’s ungainly entrance. The shouts were quickly and efficiently silenced by Kurin and Miranda, but the damage was done. The situation escalated when the corridor was suddenly and completely bathed in a harsh, unnatural light. Jack blinked for a moment. Someone had turned on the lights.

“Well, there goes our element of surprise,” she muttered, turning to look at Traynor. The Ops Chief’s embarrassment had already given way to fright. “Stay behind me…and try not to trip over anything else.”

“Shit,” Traynor whispered. “They’ll have time to scrub the mainframe!”

Jack couldn’t resist a smirk. “Not if I get you there fast enough. Now move!”

With a sensation akin to euphoria, Jack flared a brilliant blue. Their loss of surprise should have bothered her, but this was a dance that she understood. Fire. Light.

Breaking into a run, she chased the sounds of violence further down the corridor.

Some things didn’t change.

 


 

 

Although a failure in terms of their overall objective, their latest mission wasn’t without its successes. Another of Kor’Amon’s cells had been put out of action, with the only casualty being Traynor’s confidence (and dignity). Despite coming up empty in terms of the Batarian general himself, they’d gathered valuable intel. Not to mention the bloody good time Jack had managed to have despite things not going entirely to plan. Save for bruised knuckles on account of refusing to wear gloves, she was unscathed. 

The crew were in the process of flushing out the few surviving mercs – non-combatants. A sorry looking pair of turians and a scowling batarian were under the hawk-like gaze of Gunnery Sergeant Natasha Petrova.

“What are we doing with this lot, ma’am?” the Gunny asked as Jack walked past.

“Lose ‘em,” Jack paused for a moment, staring down the batarian with a scowl of her own. “There’s a perfectly good crevasse over there. Looks deep enough.”

Jack couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction as the batarian’s scowl disappeared behind a look of pure terror. All four of his eyes widened almost comically.

“Was thinking the same thing myself,” Petrova replied.

Jack turned to leave, but not before catching Petrova’s corresponding wink. Whatever their new purpose had shaped them into – pirates, bounty hunters, vigilantes – the Normandy crew had not become cold-blooded killers. Or at least in Jack’s case, she wasn’t about to let her sensibilities rub off on the people under her command. Save for Tasha Kurin, all were ex-Alliance, still used to rules, regulations and a sense of honour. Jack would have pushed the mercs into the crevasse without pause, satisfied that she was tying up loose ends. Instead, they’d be dumped on the nearest inhabitable rock.

Nevertheless, the raid’s aftermath wasn’t pretty. It never was with this kind of work. Kor’Amon’s followers weren’t neophytes. Just a year earlier, they would have all been fighting on the same side against the Reapers. Even before that, they would have been some of the most hardened mercs, eking out existences on the fringes of civilisation. Just the sort that were ripe for recruitment to a cause like Kor’Amon’s. One that promised them power, and a chance to tear down those they viewed as overlords.

It had been difficult to see the carnage in the dark. Mostly it had consisted of sounds. The slicing of skin, following by the gentle patter of blood on a hard surface. A barely audible grunt, the only sound made just before death. In the light everything was revealed for what it was. There was a lot of blood. Splatters against the wall – some with brain matter mixed in. Wide swaths on the floor where some unfortunate sod had tried to drag themselves into hiding or towards help. Thanks to Cerberus, Jack couldn’t remember a time when these sights would have bothered her. Due to her recently discovered ability to ‘give a shit,’ she had developed an awareness of its effect on others.

There was one person who found life as a vigilante more challenging than most. Jack found Traynor in front of a bank of monitors that looked as though they were several decades old, her fingers working feverishly across the out-dated manual interface.

“Found anything useful?”

Traynor was so intent on her work, she hadn’t noticed Jack’s approach. She jumped, clutching her chest in fright. The old Jack would have openly disdained the Ops Chief’s lack of fortitude for their work. Traynor had been military, but she was no solider. The role sat uncomfortably on her slender shoulders. Yet, for all her fragility, she was damn good at what she could do. And, in a way, Jack envied the fact that Traynor still possessed empathy and a conscience. They were luxuries that she’d had to do away with a long time ago. Or perhaps she’d never had them to begin with.

On seeing who had surprised her, Traynor quickly composed herself. “Nothing yet, ma’am, although I’m confident there will be some useful information. They destroyed the mainframe, but there wasn’t enough time to completely scrub their back up systems. It’s all here, I just need some time to dig it out.”

“You’ve got an hour, capiche? Then we’re bugging out of here before any of Kor’Amon’s friends arrive.”

“Righto, I’ll do my best.”

Righto? Jack fought to keep a sneer from her face. Who the fuck says righto?

“And ma’am, I’m sorry about earlier. I could have screwed up the mission-”

“Screwed up is putting it mildly, you could’ve gotten us all killed-” Jack stopped herself mid-tirade. With an impressive amount of self-control, she held back a flurry of expletives. “Just pay more attention next time. It’s called stealth for a reason.”

Traynor looked relieved. “Aye-aye, ma’am-”

Jack rolled her eyes. “And quit it with the ‘ma’am’ already. This isn’t the damn Alliance anymore.”

Pleased with her little pep talk, Jack absently wondered where the mercs that inhabited this shithole would have kept their booze. She was poking around in some footlockers when she heard urgent footsteps in the distance. They were the kind of footsteps that signalled nothing good. And they were getting closer. She sighed as her fingers closed around the motherload - a nearly full bottle of Krogan Brandy.  

Jack ignored the footsteps for as long as possible. She prised the cork out of the bottle with her teeth. It stubbornly refused to budge for a few moments, then popped out with a satisfying sound. A decidedly rotten aroma seared her nostrils. She flopped back onto some merc’s rack, kicking her feet up just as a decidedly out of breath Lieutenant Grenier approached.

“Whatever it is-” Jack waved the bottle under her nose, already getting high off the fumes from the booze. “-I have every confidence that you can deal with it, soldier-boy.”

Grenier reminded her of Jacob Taylor. She’d always liked that guy, despite the fact that he’d always driven her to boredom before he opened his mouth. Grenier was cut from the same cloth. Solid. Dependable. Fairly pleasant to look at. The kind of guy you could fuck a few hours before a suicide mission and think nothing of it. Someone who’d throw himself in the path of a fucking Praetorian’s laser beams without a second thought.

“I’m sorry. It’s Ms Lawson. I tried, but-” Grenier ended it with a shrug.

That changed everything. No further explanation was needed. With a muttered expletive, Jack slammed the cork back into the bottle. She tucked it back into the foot locker for retrieval at a later point.

“Where?”

“The shuttle pad.”

“Follow me, but keep your distance,” Jack advised. “No need for both of us to be in the firing line.”

Over the course of their hunt for Kor’Amon, there had been a gradual but discernible shift in power. The original intention had been for Miranda to ‘captain’ the Normandy. With her leadership experience, it had made sense. However, almost from the start, it had become clear that Miranda’s head wasn’t in the right place. Since Ashley’s death, she’d retreated further into herself. Jack gradually found herself stepping up to fill the void.

When it came, Jack’s realisation was swift. The crew were wholly taking orders from her. Miranda didn’t argue, simply saying that Jack was doing a good job. That was true enough (she was doing a bloody good job), but it was destroying her to see the former Cerberus operative reduced to a shadow of her former self. The Miranda she’d first met on the Normandy SR-2 had been a different person. Jack had hated that woman, but eventually she had grown to respect her. Now, that respect had morphed into something altogether. Jack didn’t want to dig too hard and try to define what she felt for Miranda, but it went deep. And it was intense. She was beginning to understand what feeling like that entailed.

Things were so much simpler when I didn’t give a fuck, she mused.

She bounced on her heels impatiently. The elevator up to the docking bay was taking an eternity. That was another thing. Anxiety was a new experience for her, one she didn’t particularly like. On the rare occasion that she gave into it, she could always trace its origin back to the damn Cheerleader.

Her old self would have told her to run. She wasn’t duty bound to the Normandy…or Miranda. But for all the irritation and inconvenience, Jack didn’t want to be anywhere else in the Galaxy.

The elevator doors had barely opened before Jack forced her way through them and out into the small docking bay. Grenier was forgotten behind her as she broke into a run, having already laid eyes on the source of the trouble. It was easy enough to spot.

Miranda, magnificently wreathed in a corona of blue, stood on the edge of the platform. Her arm was extended, fingers clamped around the neck of a petrified human. His legs kicked helplessness over the abyss below him. The guy was wearing filthy coveralls – sure sign of a grease monkey. Three others wearing similar garb knelt nearby, heads bowed, none willing to look up in case they wound up next.

Even as Jack watched, too far away to do anything, Miranda jerked her fingers open in a simple, deliberate movement. The grease monkey dropped like a stone. The echo of a drawn-out, blood-curdling scream was all he left behind. Before the scream faded, Miranda was already dragging her next victim to his feet. She ignored his protests as she dragged him towards the edge.

Jack recognised the single-minded determination on Miranda’s face as she sprinted up the steps onto the platform.  Before Miranda could haul her next victim out over the ledge, Jack snapped into action. Her biotics flared with the movement as she reached out to grab Miranda’s wrist in a vice-like grip.

“Miranda. Stop.”

Miranda stopped, but only because she was forced too by the pressure of Jack’s grip. Although not anywhere near full strength, not enough to break her wrist, it was enough to force Miranda to loosen her grip. The grease monkey was too petrified to run and simply curled into a tight ball. Additional footsteps sounded on the platform as Grenier joined them.

Jack didn’t take her eyes off Miranda. “XO, get these assholes the hell out of here. Put them with the rest.”

In response, Jack caught the full force of Miranda’s icy cold glare. If looks could kill, Jack would have been reduced to a glistening, pulpy mess in a matter of seconds. That was inconsequential. Miranda could be pissed at her for as long as she wanted. Jack just wanted her to stop.

“Miranda, these guys are bottom feeders.” Jack jerked her head in acknowledgement of the pathetic trio being led away by the XO. “You know as well as I do that Kor’Amon wouldn’t have let them in on shit.”

“And you know as well as I do that no one is innocent in this business!” Miranda snarled in response. “They’re just as complicit as the mercs with guns in their hands.”

“But they didn’t have guns in their hands! That’s the point,” Jack retorted. She tried to temper her voice. “One which you used to understand.”

It was akin to a face off. The two stared at one another. Neither offering up any quarter. Even without seeing her reflection, Jack knew exactly what Miranda could see – the determination, tinged with far too much compassion for her own good. She’d gone bloody soft. Unfortunately, it was needed. The corresponding expression on Miranda’s face was enraged, enhanced by the dark circles beneath her eyes and the hollow cast to her cheeks. There was no hint of repentance for what she’d done.

Jack remained unwavering, eventually forcing Miranda to back down first. Jack released Miranda’s wrist.

“We’re done here?” Jack asked carefully.

Miranda gave the barest of nods in response. “We need to move out, follow up on the next lead in the Haskins System.”

“That lead was even more tenuous that this one.” Jack sighed. “Hence why it was dismissed and we ended up on this shitty rock.”

“We can’t leave any stone unturned-”

“I’m not ordering the Normandy to Haskins,” Jack interrupted, realising that Miranda wasn’t about to be dissuaded by simple futility. “The crew is exhausted and our supplies are too low.”

“Put everyone on half-rations.” 

Jack would have slapped Miranda if she didn’t think she’d end up at the bottom of the abyss like the poor soul a few minutes earlier.

“No,” Jack said firmly. “We’re going back to Omega. We need to restock. The crew needs time to unwind.”

“I don’t-”

Jack snorted. “Have you looked in the mirror recently? You don’t eat, you don’t sleep. You need to take time out as much as the rest of us.” She paused for a moment and bit her lip. “Please.”

Miranda was unaffected by Jack’s plea. “Is my performance affecting the mission?”

“No,” Jack replied angrily, irritated that being nice wasn’t getting her anywhere. “But you’re a pain in my ass.”

Jack already knew that being flippant would have little effect on Miranda she couldn’t care less. The old Jack would have told Miranda that her shtick had become boring a long time ago. But Jack was growing. Miranda’s behaviour was still as boring, but Jack knew that she couldn’t just let it go. It many ways, she felt responsible.

“Ashley has been dead for almost a year. This-” Jack waved her arm in the direction Miranda’s victim had fallen “-is pissing on her memory.”

Miranda looked like she’d swallowed something sour. “You don’t get to-”

“I don’t get to what? Make assumptions like that? Well guess what, Cheerleader, they’re not assumptions. I know for a fact that Captain Perfect would fucking hate this person standing in front of me.” Jack jabbed her finger towards Miranda for emphasis. “You even look like you’re trying to pull this shit off again, you’re off the goddamn ship. Now, the Normandy is going back to Omega. I’m going to get rottenly drunk, possibly even laid, and then maybe I’ll be able to forget that look you’re wearing on your face right now – the one that tells me you hate my guts.”

It was only at that point that Miranda showed the first signs of something. It wasn’t remorse, more like guilt. Although Miranda opened her mouth to say something, no words emerged.

Before Miranda could say anything, Jack walked away without looking over her shoulder. It was enough of a start.


 

Blackheath, Australia

Sitting at her desk, Oriana Lawson was lost in a moment of reflection. Over fourteen months had passed since Ashley Williams’ body had been brought to her. While outwardly there had been only superficial damage, the marine’s internal injuries had been extensive. Oriana had no qualms about taking pride in her achievements. She did not view it as arrogance, it was merely pragmatism. Taking a dead body and restoring it to life was one thing, but to restore that dead body exactly as it had been in life was another thing entirely. 

Oriana turned her attention to the adjoining room, linked by a wide panel of one-way glass, just in time to see a shape hurtling towards her. There was a dull thud as a man collided with the surface. His face compacted into an inhuman mask before he slumped out of sight. Oriana’s attention was immediately drawn to the individual responsible.

Ashley Williams.

There was a world of difference between the subject who had spent months on her operating table and the woman standing in front of her. While Ashley’s first victim did not rise to his feet, Oriana watched as two further assailants rushed toward the Captain. Ashley was poised to respond, calm for a moment before she erupted in a flurry of violent action.

Her fist snapped out, catching a muscular woman square on the jaw. The blow was enough to disorientate, leaving Ashley time to deal with the man who rushed at her from behind. A kick caught him square in the gut. He barely grunted and continued driving forward to catch her in a full-on tackle. Even as they both crashed against a nearby wall, Ashley was already struggling to extricate herself. She brought her elbow downwards into his shoulder three times in rapid succession. He released her, stumbling backwards and leaving himself open to her counter-attack. She didn’t make the same mistake twice. This time the ball of her foot slammed into his nose. With blood streaming down his face, Ashley caught him with a succession of jabs to his already broken nose, rounded off with a solid hook to the jaw which sent him crashing to the floor.

The second opponent had regained her feet, but she needn’t have bothered. Ashley was on her in a matter of seconds. There was a half-hearted attempt to retaliate. One punch even caught Ashley in the stomach, but it failed to do anything other than anger her. Oriana watched the resulting rapid flurry of blows out of interest. There was no concern for the woman whose face was gradually being turned into an unrecognisable pulp, only for the one who was dishing it out.

From the moment Oriana had let her patient start training, Ashley had pushed herself beyond reasonable limits. It was hardly surprising. The woman was driven – even more so than she had been in her first life.

With a last, savage grunt of effort, Ashley brought her fist smashing down. Like a sack of meat, her opponent dropped unmoving to the canvas. Oriana deemed it safe enough to rise from her chair and step through into the training room.

“Captain Williams?”

At first, the woman made no attempt to respond to Oriana. Williams simply stood amid the carnage she had created, as though an unseen force had hit the ‘off switch.’ Oriana knew better. The soldier wasn’t switched off at all. It was the opposite. Like a snake, poised and coiled, on the verge of striking. Oriana had once made the mistake of touching Williams while she was in such a state. In less than a second, she had found herself on her back, unable to draw a breath with a hand at her throat. Williams had provided a half-hearted apology in the aftermath, but it was more of a rebuke. You created me. You should know better.

“Captain Williams?” Louder this time, more insistent.

As much as Oriana enjoyed basking in her own success by watching her creation in action, she did not enjoy any reversal in their relationship. While Williams still resided at Blackheath, she answered to Oriana. When the soldier finally acknowledged the summons, her posture relaxed as she turned. Her breathing had already returned to normal. Aside from a thin sheen of sweat on her body, there was nothing to indicate that Williams had been in a training session.  

“How are you feeling?”

“Five-by, ma’am,” Williams replied sharply.

The resulting sigh that left Oriana’s lips was deliberately obvious. “I’m not military, Williams, I’ve asked you to stop referring to me as ‘ma’am.”

“Apologies, old habits die hard.”

It wasn’t just an old habit. Oriana had achieved exactly what Kessler had demanded of her, the creation of the quintessential soldier. No, beyond that, the perfect soldier. Looking at Williams now, with her ramrod straight posture, it was impossible to see anything else. Indeed, everything else had been erased by months of meticulous work. Following the unfortunate demise of her lab tech in a shuttle accident a few months earlier, Oriana was the sole witness to the last vestiges of Williams’ old self.

“Excellent. There are several hours of tests scheduled for this afternoon. My recommendation would be to visit the mess first, then report back here at 1300.”

“Understood.”

Although Williams responded with a nod, Oriana knew her charge well enough to know that there was something she was leaving unspoken. “Was there something else, Captain?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma-” Williams stopped herself “-Dr Lawson?”

“Of course.” Oriana nodded in encouragement.

“These tests have been going on for months. What more do you need to know?” the soldier demanded impatiently.

“Well, firstly, we need to know if you’re ready.”

“With all due respect, ma’am…Dr Lawson, I feel ready. Every day I read reports on the rebuilding efforts of our former allies – the Turians, the Asari, they’re re-building and re-arming their forces just as rapidly as the Alliance, if not more so. If we don’t strike now, we’ll lose the slim advantage we have.”

Oriana raised her eyebrows. “It’s not your job to advise your superiors on their tactics, Captain Williams. The next time the Fleet Admiral visits, you’ll do well to keep those opinions to yourself.” Oriana knew full well that Williams would do the exact opposite. “Was there anything else?”

Williams pursed her lips in a tight line, holding back her anger. “This thing impersonating Shepard? It’s out there somewhere. No doubt building up support as well. Every day that thing is allowed to roam free is an insult to my friend and her memory. If you can convince the Alliance to approve the assignment, I know I can find it and infiltrate its inner circle. It will let me get close. Dr Lawson, it needs to be put down.”

“Absolutely not. The Alliance won’t risk you…I won’t risk you. We’ve every reason to believe that this fake Shepard is surrounded by some of your former associates – Liara T’Soni, Subject Zero. The crew of the Normandy. There are rumours she is working with the remnants of Cerberus.”

Williams lip twitched slightly at the mention of the names. “Traitors, all of them.”

Now Oriana risked touching the marine. She reached out and laid a firm hand on Williams’ shoulder. “Captain Williams…Ashley, you will get your chance to restore Shepard’s memory. In the meantime, you know the role you are expected to play.”

“They want me to be a figurehead,” Williams replied bitterly. “I’m a marine, not a goddamn show pony.”

“They want you to inspire humanity to achieve greatness.”

The marine seemed to accept Oriana’s reasoning. “I’m sorry for losing my temper – especially when you’ve done so much to get me back into shape. I just want to get out of this facility. Start doing something worthwhile.”

“I know you do.” Oriana let her hand fall.

“Dr Lawson, can I ask you a personal question?” Williams’ stern expression faltered for a moment. At Oriana’s nod, she continued, “When will I be able to see Abby and Lynn?”

Oriana forced a neutral smile onto her face. The sisters. There was a headache that she didn’t need. With the distinct possibility that Abby and Lynn had been aware of William’s relationship with her own sister, Oriana knew she needed to proceed carefully. All memory of Miranda Lawson had been painstakingly excised, she had no desire for her hard work to be unravelled by a couple of civilians.

“Soon, Ashley,” Oriana said softly. “I promise.”

 

Chapter Text

Armali, Thessia

A breeze created ripples in the water of the decorative fountain, twisting Mycea Kasos’ scowling face into something more distorted. It suited her mood, and she dashed her hand against the water. The whole edifice angered her. What kind of people prioritised the re-building of a fountain in the wake of a catastrophic war?

Across Thessia, the various asari governments had created a convincing veneer of order and prosperity. Rationing had curtailed widespread famine some months earlier - alongside a system of distribution that could only have been developed by a race as zealous as the asari. The widescale destruction was being repaired, although resources were concentrated in the powerful cities. In some cases, being wasted on trying to restore grandeur first, as opposed to the necessities.

There were no scars of war in the plaza where Myke loitered. Except if you knew what to look for in the painstaking newness of the construction and the perfectly manicured, young plants bordering the fountain.

Thessia was an illusion. It may have looked nicer than Omega, but underneath the surface it was just as ugly. When you scratched the surface, the scars began to bleed. There were asari still living in temporary shelters. Alongside Samara, Myke spent much of her time in the communities far from the places of power. It was where she felt the most useful – running errands, ensuring supplies reached those in need. In some ways, it reminded her of her life on Omega. Except that she had a grand house to return to – albeit one that was half in ruins. And there was no hiding the fact that Thessia was under a system of martial law. Even she could see that the systems keeping the peace on Thessia bordered on the brutal.

At least Omega never tried to hide what it was.

Myke also missed Sam. She didn’t regret her decision not to join the crew of the Normandy. After her first and only disastrous foray into their world, she knew that there was little she could contribute. What she did want was more time together. She could count on one hand the number of times they’d seen each other since parting. Although once that had involved a whole glorious week frolicking on the beaches of Nevos. And frolicking definitely was the right word for it. She now knew exactly what sand felt like, and just how unpleasant it could be when it got into all the cracks. Not to mention sunburn. Her delicate spacer skin had darkened and then peeled unattractively. It had been worth it though.

With her eyes closed, Myke smiled at the memories. Sam had tried to teach her to swim, but she’d panicked the moment the waves had lapped at her thighs. Like the petulant maiden she was, Myke had refused to go in any further. Even the fact that Sam had been naked hadn’t been enough to coax her out further.

Pleasant memories drove her foul mood away, and she lingered in a contented reverie.

“You there!”

A sudden shout interrupted her just as she was picturing the way the salt water glistened on Sam’s dark skin.

“Stand when we address you!”

Myke wrinkled her nose at the disturbance to her daydreams. She cocked one eye open, only to find that three leather-clad commandos were standing in a half-circle around her. Clearly, she was their intended target. Myke had long since lost her infatuation with commandos. Nor was she remotely intimidated by them. They were mostly bluster and very little action.

“Let me guess, I’m sitting on the sacred fountain of Athame’s azure?”

“What is your occupation?” the nearest demanded.

Myke stared blatantly at the haughty looking maiden clearly trying to pass herself off as older than she was. The maiden was a hundred and twenty at most. Definitely not old enough to wear that expression.  

“Well I was quite happily occupied thinking about my girlfriend’s tits before you three came along. If you piss off, I can get back to it.”

‘Piss off’ was a phrase she’d picked up from Sam. One that she enjoyed using immensely. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired effect on the three commandos. Instead they stared at her as though she’d told them all to go fuck themselves. Which incidentally, was about to be the next sentence from her lips.

“Loitering is an offence under martial law,” the other maiden injected far too much self-importance into her voice – and pleasure. “Punishable by a month’s hard labour. And an additional month for your unpatriotic attitude.”

Warning bells ought to have gone off in Myke’s head at that point, but all she saw were the three upper-class asari judging her – or trying to judge her – and her temper flared.

“Since when is waiting for someone a crime?” Myke snapped, finally rising to her feet. “Shouldn’t you be focussed on helping people instead of punishing them? You can all go fuck yourselves and this pox-ridden planet.”

In hindsight, Myke knew that her big mouth had just landed her in a steaming pile of varren-shit, but the outburst had felt good. And she was getting a kick out of the indignant expressions on the faces of all three commandos. There was also an element of confusion - as though they weren’t used to someone speaking back to them and had no clue as to what to do.

“Are we just going to let this pyjak get away with that, Rhana?” one of the others spoke up, almost nervously.

The next thing Myke knew, her feet were swept out from beneath her and she found herself horizontal, facing the trio at waist height. While it wasn’t painful, being restrained against her will did nothing for her mood. Not for the first time, Myke wished she was back on Omega.

“You’re all brave as long as it’s three against one,” she muttered. “You could all do with a swift kick to the azure.” 

The one she guessed was Rhana, leaned in close. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” Myke replied sullenly, finally appreciating that she did need to shut up. She wondered if Shepard would believe her when she said that she had literally done nothing.

“We’re taking you in,” Rhana announced, opening her omni-tool. “Name?”

Myke rolled her eyes. That wasn’t happening. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you let me go about my business, and I don’t tell my boss about this little incident?”

Rhana snorted blatantly. “Athame forgive me, I find the prospect of you being gainfully employed somewhat unbelievable.”

“Well forgive me, but I find you to be a colossal cunt.”

Even as the words left her mouth, Myke knew that she’d pushed too far. This time, there was pain as the dark energy pinning her body shifted, pulling each of her limbs in different directions. She couldn’t hold back a shriek of pain.

“Can I be of any assistance in this matter?”

Myke had never been so grateful to hear that particular monotone. Although she couldn’t see Samara approaching, she saw the change in the body language of the three commandos.  Their confidence and bluster drained swiftly, replaced by a very palpable fear.  Finally, Samara came into her limited field of view. The justicar’s attention was directed at the three commandos. Myke would have smirked, but she knew that Samara’s withering stare would eventually turn towards her.

“Justicar…um…this is a civil matter. W-we have it well in hand.”

“If my acolyte has caused any disruption, then I must apologise profusely and request that you transfer her into my custody. I will punish her as the code dictates. What are the charges?”

“Ah…the charges?” Rhana spluttered, looking to both her companions for support. Finding none, she continued, “Loitering, Justicar. Loitering and a belligerent, unpatriotic attitude.”

“Then I will ensure that she receives an appropriate punishment. If you would release her, we will swiftly remove ourselves from your jurisdiction.”

The biotic fields holding her in place suddenly disappeared and Myke dropped like a stone onto the tiles. “Ouch! She didn’t say drop me on my head, you-!”

Myke caught Samara’s eye and promptly shut her mouth before finishing her tirade.

All three commandos nodded their heads respectfully, while Rhana spoke on their behalf, “Athame bless you, Justicar, and your…acolyte.”

“Athame bless your azure,” Myke muttered when the trio were barely out of ear shot. She turned to look at Samara with a chastened expression. “Okay, I know that look and I’m really sorry. You’re not actually going to punish me are you? Errr, what is the punishment exactly?”

“The Code contains no punishment for either loitering or an unpatriotic attitude. Both subjects are…trifling. Disobeying your teacher however carries a severe penalty.”

“Hey, you told me to wait for you and I waited!” Myke protested. “It’s not my fault that some trumped up maiden and her goons came along.”

“I also told you not to draw undue attention to yourself.”

“There was no drawing!” Myke made an emphatic motion with her hand. “None whatsoever. I sat here, and I waited. I was bored shitless, but that doesn’t mean I was drawing attention.”

“Boredom is the product-” Samara began.

“Of a small mind. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that one,” Myke interrupted. Having made her case for not being punished, she began to feel slightly blasé about the whole affair. “That was nicely done by the way. I thought those fathead’s were about to piss their pants.”  

“I can assure you that such a triviality was far from my objective. It was imperative that I diffuse the situation and dissuade them from bringing you into contact with any higher authorities that might ask questions. Such a development would place our employer in jeopardy. Something you seem to excel at.” 

“Well, that’s why you’re here,” Myke said sheepishly, very much aware of the potential ramifications of what she had just done. She was eager to steer the conversation away from her latest transgression. “Are you not going to admit how seriously scared they were? How do you even do that?” 

For just a moment, Myke thought she saw an actual expression on Samara’s face. Sadness. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone and Myke was left wondering whether she had imagined it.

“I am both an object of fascination, and of fear,” Samara replied, as though that was all the explanation Myke would need.  

Samara’s words had explained everything…and nothing. Nevertheless, the words struck a chord. Myke had never considered how lonely it was to be a justicar – probably because she had thought the pleasure of her company was ample. Or her head was so stuffed full of the romanticism portrayed in vids.

“We should go grab a drink,” Myke announced. Well, Samara could drink tea and she would have a drink. The strongest one she could find. “There must be somewhere around here that serves alcohol.”  

“I do not think so.” Samara regarded her calmly, apparently not appreciating the gesture. “We will sit here and meditate in silence while we wait for our friends to return. You will meditate on your temper…and your belligerent, unpatriotic attitude.” 


 

In a display of discomfort rather than nerves, Shepard kept plucking at the tight collar of her suit. She tried to swing her arms to test her range of movement and was displeased at finding the suit unnecessarily stiff. It was an uncomfortable reminder of wearing navy dress blues.

The outfit wasn’t her choice. She’d wanted to wear cargos and a leather jacket in a puerile demonstration of how little respect she had for Councillor Tevos or her position. Liara had different plans, cajoling her into an outfit that exuded expense. It was all understated of course – expensive fabric and tailoring rather than unnecessary frills and excessive decoration. The dark fabric seemed to swallow light, but it was accented by white, pearly fabric at her cuffs and collar. Everything was carefully designed to fit a specific persona.

The fallen hero returned to life. Or a figurehead – to be strutted out at the appropriate moment.

Shepard cast a sideways glance, Liara’s outfit had been designed to match. A dress made entirely of the pearly material, clinging to every curve and contrasting starkly with her skin. However, while Shepard felt as though she looked like a turkey, Liara looked majestic.

Their clothing was at odds with their surroundings. From what Shepard could see, the council chambers lacked the traditional elegance of asari architecture. The corridor through which they walked was purely functional. It could have been any diplomat’s office, anywhere in council space. It seemed at odds with the significance of their visit. Tevos would be the first leader to find out Shepard was alive. The first step in a potential chain of events that could change the course of Galactic events. Shepard had been trying not to look at the meeting in that light, but Liara was there to keep reminding her at every step.

“Stop doing that,” Liara chided her quietly, almost under her breath. “If you look remotely uncomfortable, Tevos will see it immediately. And she will not attribute it to your garments.”

“I know, I know.” Shepard sighed “Walk in there like ‘The Shepard’, as opposed to just plain old Shepard. I hate to remind you now, Liara, but there’s a flaw in your plan. Tevos knew the old Shepard. The old bat didn’t like me then and the feeling was definitely mutual.”

Liara huffed impatiently. “I am not going to humour you by asking what an ‘old bat’ is. I will simply remind you of the significance of this meeting.”

Shepard gently took Liara by her wrist, stopping them both. She reached up to cup Liara’s cheek. Liara’s skin was unusually warm to the touch. She cursed herself that she hadn't realised earlier that Liara was seeking to allay her own nerves.

“These will be the smoothest diplomatic negotiations I’ve ever participated in. I promise.”

Liara appeared to relax, even smiling slightly. “I will believe that when I see it.”  

Shepard grinned. “To tell the truth, despite this getup you’ve made me wear, I’m actually looking forward to this. Just anticipating the look on Tevos’ face is making this whole thing worthwhile.”  

“I should hope that making the first step towards an alliance which could prevent a Galactic War would make it all worthwhile,” Liara said pointedly, mirth gone.

To say that there were no nerves as she and Liara were ushered into Tevos’ chamber was an understatement. However, there was also a sense of triumph. After almost two years of hiding, with the Galaxy believing her to be dead, she was finally making the first step towards living a normal life. Or at least as normal a life as possible. While Shepard didn’t have any desire for achieving more notoriety than she already had, she was tired of hiding. Not to mention outraged at the potentially irreparable damage done to humanity’s reputation within galactic politics. For all her lack of diplomatic nous, she’d bled to get humanity a seat on the Council. If this meeting was a tiny step towards repairing that, then she would put aside her hatred of politicians – and Tevos in particular.

“Liara T’Soni.” The half-greeting left Tevos’ lips before she even turned to see them.

The asari Councillor hadn’t changed an iota. As regal as ever. Still standing stiffly, as though she had the mother of all sticks up her ass. A haughty expression was fixed on her face as she acknowledged Liara with something that resembled a smile. She barely flicked a cursory glance over Shepard, dismissing her as someone of no importance.

“I expect you to have an exceptionally good excuse as to why it has taken you this long to pay me a visit? I received word of your family estate being reoccupied almost a year ago.” Tevos’ tone carried a distinct note of hint of reproach. “And when you do arrive, it is with the utmost secrecy via a door used only by my acolytes.”

Liara stepped forward but she made no move towards a more intimate greeting.

“Had the secrecy not been essential, I hardly think I would have been welcome through the front entrance,” Liara replied frostily.

Shepard lifted an arched eyebrow in her bondmate’s direction. Clearly the warning to behave should have gone both ways. 

Surprisingly, Tevos’ expression softened in response. “Liara, the crimes of a mother should never linger over her daughter’s life. Please believe me when I say that your name is held in esteem in the highest circles. Many asari know of your exploits during the War. Many children claim you as their hero.”

Shepard couldn’t stop a grin from spreading across her face, it broadened as she realised that Liara had turned a violent shade of purple.

“Definitely a more attractive hero than The Shepard,” she quipped.

That was enough to draw the ire of both asari – for two entirely different reasons. Had Liara been able to elbow her in the ribs, Shepard suspected that it would have been swift and sharp. Tevos regarded her suspiciously, as the unknown quantity that she was. For someone so used to hiding in the shadows for months, the scrutiny was unnerving.

“We have not been introduced,” Tevos intoned affectedly. 

And here it comes. “Actually we have. The first time on the Citadel in 2183 - you refused to believe my testimony of Saren’s treachery. Fast-forward to 2186 and I told you to kiss my arse when you offered to reinstate my Spectre status.” Shepard almost winced as she realised how juvenile it all sounded. “I’m sorry about that by the way. In hindsight, it wasn’t my finest moment.”

Shepard met Tevos’ stare directly and calmly as realisation slowly dawned. The resulting expression on the Councillor’s face was everything Shepard had hoped for and more. The elegant, refined asari’s eyes goggled like a small child faced with a wondrous sight. For several seconds, Tevos’ mouth gaped open before she snapped it shut again and tried to restore some form of composure. It wasn’t much, but it spoke volumes.

“Commander Shepard?” Tevos asked in disbelief.

Shepard was taken aback by the mention of her old rank. No one had referred to her as such for a long time. “It’s just Shepard these days, but yes.”

Tevos continued to stare for almost a full minute – although it felt like longer as Shepard grew uncomfortable.

“Well…this is unexpected. I…trust, with your involvement, Liara, that this is not some form of deception?” Tevos eventually replied. Although she addressed Liara, she kept her gaze fixed squarely on Shepard.

“I can assure you that it is not,” Liara replied smoothly. As if on cue, she handed Tevos something. “I know Shepard’s biometrics were recorded when she became a Spectre. I think you’ll find that more than proof enough.”

Tevos took the small vial of blood and regarded it studiously for a long moment, before slipping it into a hidden pocket in her dress. “Indeed.”

“If I were in your shoes, that would have been my first conclusion,” Shepard added. She extended her hand gracefully towards the Councillor. “Especially given that I am standing here, offering my hand as opposed to another angry tirade. I was an arse, Councillor, and at a time when we needed to work together more than ever. It was unforgivable. I hope that we can put that behind us in this new life…well, a new life for one of us at least.” 

Tevos took the proffered hand. While Shepard didn’t want to read too much into it, she supposed that the handshake was warm enough in the circumstances – even if the asari Councillor did not return her smile.

There was a moment of awkward silence, before Tevos gracefully ushered them towards a small seating area. Shepard and Liara gravitated towards one small sofa, sitting so that their knees were touching. Just barely, enough for Shepard to sense that Liara was proud of her for reining in her temper.

“Can I…offer you a drink?”

From the manner in which she asked, Tevos clearly wasn’t used to serving the drinks. Shepard had barely opened her mouth to accept the offer when she felt a sharp jab in her ribs. She cast a quick glance to one side, to find Liara discreetly shaking her head.

“We’re fine, thanks, but please don’t let us hold you back.”

Being held back was obviously the last thing on Tevos’ mind. No sooner had she poured one glass of rich Thessian red, she downed it in a swift gulp. She also took a deep sip of the second glass before joining them.

Tevos’ obvious nerves set the tone as all three of them were on edge. Shepard felt an uncomfortable weight settled on her shoulders. It had always been evident that navigating such engagements weren’t part of her skillset. Her mind wandered to the depressing thought that this needed to change. It was likely that diplomacy was where her future lay, not in the heat of combat.

Although surely not being shot at was a bonus, Shepard knew that politicians could fire their own kind of ammunition.  

“I have a great many questions.”  

Tevos’ sudden statement interrupted her thoughts. The asari Councillor was still staring at Shepard, obviously struggling to process what she was seeing. “There is much to discuss. Perhaps too much…but we do not have the time for any reticence.”

“Not if we’re to avoid another war,” Shepard replied.  

Just the mention of the word ‘war’ was enough to cause Tevos to reach for her glass again. “It appears that the only species with any lingering appetite for war are humans and what is left of the batarians. Even the Krogan have set aside their violent ways in the wake of the genophage being cured.”

“Humanity itself desires peace,” Liara replied smoothly. “The warmongering can be laid squarely at the feet of the military dictatorship that has installed itself in power. They are responsible for inciting the populace to a misguided state of fear. And we all know just how dangerous people can be when they are afraid. There is still time to act, to keep any violence to a minimum, through subversion.”

“And you seek our support in these efforts?”

“Morally, politically, yes,” Liara continued. “But beyond that we already putting in place the mechanisms to take the current government down.” 

Tevos’ interest was clearly piqued, but her lips curved into a wry smile. “We? Does your allegiance now lie with humanity, Liara?”

“My allegiance is to Shepard,” Liara replied, the frosty tone creeping back into her voice. “And our only goal is peace.”

“That much I do not doubt,” Tevos said as she turned once again to stare at Shepard. “But what is to be your role in all of this?”

“I’m prepared to do whatever is needed. Be whatever is needed.”

The Shepard?” Tevos asked casually. “Their god?”

“What? No!” Shepard shook her head. “Why would I want that?”

“It’s not a question of what you want, Shepard,” Tevos pointed out with no malice in her tone. “You defeated Saren. You returned from the dead to begin the galaxy’s fight against the Reapers. You then sacrificed yourself to defeat them once and for all…and returned from the dead a second time.”

“I wasn’t dead that time,” Shepard protested ineffectually. “I was…in stasis.”

“Regardless, there is the very real likelihood that you could be perceived as a god all the same. Or at least an approximation of one – especially if you take on a figurehead role within this endeavour.”   

“If I can unify humanity against those in power, then so be it, but I do not want to replace their despotic leadership with my own. We’d all end up in the proverbial shit pretty damn fast.”

“Proverbial shit?” Tevos repeated. “Indeed.”

“What Shepard is trying to say – badly -” Liara injected swiftly “-is that we are seeking to reinstate democratic leadership and restore humanity’s place in the galactic order.”

“And you assume that the other races will be willing to overlook this period of deliberate warmongering and simply welcome humanity back into the fold. Without consequences?”

Liara inclined her head. “That is up to you and the rest of the Council.”

“You’ll have to understand, I can guarantee nothing at this stage,” Tevos replied. “Although I cannot stress how favourable it would be if we were to avoid any conflict.”

“Then our thinking is aligned,” Liara said with a nod. “We are considering timings for Shepard to reveal herself, but beyond that you’ll understand that we must act with secrecy. The lives of our friends operating a resistance movement on Earth depend on it. Shepard is however willing to meet with the rest of the Council soon.”

“I am?” That was news to Shepard. At Liara’s pointed glare, she quickly nodded. “Of course I am.”

This is just the start, Shepard warned herself. They’re going to make you into a politician, whether you like it or not. She was going to have to get used to wearing this damn suit – even if she was much more at home in ceramic plating. Although with the manner in which Tevos kept staring at her, Shepard wished she had a few ceramic plates under her shirt. 

“I have to say, I am impressed and grateful that you have placed your trust in me. I suspect your journey to this point has been difficult for both of you.”

“Understatement of the century,” Shepard agreed, even if everything that had happened to her in Alberta now seemed like a nightmare. “But I’ve had enough of secrecy and lies.”

“In a similar vein…now that the opportunity presents itself, there is another, important matter of which I must speak,” Tevos intoned gravely. “I have a question to ask of you both. A question to which I suspect I will not receive the truth in response.” 

“Councillor Tevos,” Liara interjected smoothly, clearly unnerved by the possibility of leaving Shepard to respond. “If it is within our capacity to answer, then we shall.”   

Although Liara did not risk a glance in her direction, Shepard recognised her bondmate’s guarded tone. And the note of caution it carried.   

“There are rumours that a well-known Alliance vessel has been conducting a covert vendetta throughout the Terminus Systems,” Tevos began. “Short, brutal raids on pirate outposts where no survivor is left behind – or at least none that are willing to speak of what they have seen.”   

“There is no need to be deliberately cryptic with us,” Liara replied quickly. “You speak of the Normandy. It is no longer an Alliance vessel.”  

If Tevos was surprised by Liara’s honesty, she revealed nothing. “It is not that I dispute the nature of their actions. If it is the Normandy, then they have saved the lives, or at least the freedom, of countless colonists. We are grateful for their efforts in these dark times. My motives are more personal. I have reason to believe that my goddaughter is on that ship.”   

“Could you be a little more specific, Councillor? Do you not have several goddaughters?”   

“Stop playing the part of the demure maiden, Liara T’Soni,” Tevos admonished sternly. “It doesn’t become you. My favourite goddaughter, Tasha Kurin. The daughter of Matriarch Lidanya Kurin. She was given command of company of commandos that was despatched to aid a SpecTRe mission led by Captain Williams. When her ship, the Pserimos, returned to Thessia, Tasha was not on board. Nothing has been heard from her or Spectre Williams for months.” 

“Ashley was killed trying to rescue colonists on Chasca almost a year ago,” Shepard answered before Liara could say anything. 

Tevos failed to hide her honest shock – lips parting in disbelief. “SpecTRe Williams...is dead? Despite the fractured relationship with the Alliance, we surely would have heard such news?”

“The Alliance has covered up her death,” Liara replied succinctly. “Their motives behind this decision are unclear. We…Shepard and I, suspect that they were averse to losing another of their heroes-”

“Not that Ash ever claimed to be such.” Shepard wanted to say it, even though it wasn’t necessary.

“- so soon after the War,” Liara continued. “But given that it is the Alliance, we have not ruled out more sinister motives. I have devoted a considerable amount of time and resource to uncovering further information through my old networks. Unfortunately without success.”

“Then please accept my condolences for your loss. Despite the fact that Spectre…Ashley did not always believe in her own abilities, I did.” Tevos paused, clearly reluctant to ask her next question. “Does this mean that Tasha is also…dead?”

There was an obvious pause, as Shepard waited for Liara to respond. Given the awkward question, she couldn’t trust herself to respond diplomatically. Kurin was effectively AWOL. Although she had no idea of the internal structures of the asari military, if it was anything like the SA then Kurin was in significant trouble.

“As far as I am aware, your goddaughter is unharmed. Her whereabouts or her motives however, of that I am unsure,” Liara replied.

They weren’t lies exactly. Neither of them knew exactly where the Normandy was. And while Shepard had never doubted Kurin’s loyalty, she could not fathom the commando’s motives for remaining on board. She suspected that Kurin felt compelled to continue Ashley’s work, but it could just as easily be a desire to remain close to what remained of the human woman she had loved. Shepard wasn’t willing to divulge any such speculations, not even to Liara.

“If I am able,” Liara continued. “I will let her know that her family are…concerned about her.”

Tevos’ earlier apprehension had disappeared. “Concerned? If what you say is true, then my concern is swiftly giving way to fury. The nerve of that child, turning her back on her family and her duty! When her mother finds out...hmmm, perhaps I will hold off informing Lidanya for the time being. The least I can do is give Tasha the opportunity to come home and explain herself. Thank you for allaying my fears.”   

For all Shepard’s earlier apprehension, the meeting both proceeded and ended on a positive note. They left the way they entered, via the back door, but Shepard felt more visible – more alive. She’d previously loathed Tevos, but now realised that beneath the politician’s frosty exterior, lay understanding and even compassion. And the mechanisms that Liara had started turning, were speeding up. She reached for Liara’s hand – and found it warm to the touch when their fingers entwined, a sure sign that Liara had been nervous throughout the meeting. Liara gave her a fleeting smile, one of definite relief.

“You have the makings of an outstanding politician, my love.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Li, the meeting went better than expected but there is a lot of work to be done. Although I wouldn’t want to be Kurin right now. Way to throw her under the bus,” Shepard said pointedly.

Liara frowned in response. “What is a bus - actually, no not answer that. I do not need to know. If you are implying that I have somehow betrayed her, then that is unfair. She is part of one of Armali’s – even Thessia’s - most powerful families, they will not simply allow her to disappear.”  

Shepard was quite content to allow Liara to believe that a ‘bus’ was somehow an offensive term. “I’ll get in touch with Miranda as soon as possible, we’re overdue a conversation.”

“You just want to find out how their latest raid went,” Liara said as she squeezed Shepard’s hand.

“Guilty.” Shepard grinned. She drew Liara closer and wrapped an arm around the small of her back. “Let’s go find Samara and Myke so we can get home. I want to enjoy my anonymity – and my peace and quiet - while it lasts.” 


Blackheath, Australia

Although a layer of glass was between them, Oriana Lawson could very clear hear her creation’s fists slamming into the practice dummy. Sharp, brutal strikes that would have set the dummy flying across the room if it hadn’t been anchored to the floor. Hard enough to rupture the internal organs of an unarmoured opponent. Even though she’d lost track of the number of times she had watched Williams in action, it was still mesmerising.

The first exploratory tests already seemed an eternity ago. Williams hadn’t even been a soldier then, just a subject. Barely off the operating table, still lacking the necessary physical conditioning. The subject’s movements against easy opponents – ones instructed not to damage her - had been clumsy and ineffective. However, underlying everything, Williams had an innate desire to be better. To be both stronger and faster. Not to simply regain what had been lost, but to be more. As the days and weeks passed, the soldier’s strength and reflexes had returned at an exponential rate. Even as Williams’ opponents received new orders not to hold anything back, they couldn’t get close enough to touch her. 

Now, Williams was a marvel. Undeniably stronger and faster in every way. And Oriana was justified in taking sole credit.

“All the money the Alliance has spent on Blackheath, and that’s all you’ve got to show for it? One resurrected marine.”

Oriana had been so caught up in her own success, that she had missed the approaching footsteps. She didn’t need to look around to know that it was Cristiane Alves. There had never been any love lost between her and Alves. She didn’t hate the other woman, they were simply from different worlds.

“One resurrected hero,” Oriana replied patiently. “Minus all of the irritating baggage.”

“Freewill? A conscience?”

Oriana scowled, her patience already eroded by having to deal with such puerile doubts. “She has both, and more. They’ve simply been moulded to what we would expect…to what is needed in times like these.”

“Point proven,” Alves murmured, just loudly enough for Oriana to hear.

Oriana didn’t bother to argue. She’d long since realised that arguing with Alves was a pointless exercise. The marine had high opinions of herself and her role in political machinations. Oriana had always seen Alves for what she was – a violent, surly grunt. Nothing more.

“What’s she like against real opposition?”

“Brutal and efficient,” Oriana replied quickly.

Alves snorted. “I meant real opposition. Not those second rate FNGs you insist on throwing in there. I’ll go a couple of rounds with her, give her a real test for once.”

She turned to stare at Alves. There was an anticipatory grin on the woman’s face. “Oh, you’re serious?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Oriana shook her head. “Williams would kill you.”

“You haven’t-”

“I don’t need to have seen you in action, Alves,” she interrupted. “You may think you’re a hardarse, or whatever you marines like to call yourselves, but Williams is in another league altogether. You’d end up dead, or seriously injured. End of discussion.”

“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take.” Alves shrugged. The smirk broadened. “Who knows, Williams might decide she wants to wrestle in an entirely different way.”

Oriana’s resulting glare was glacial. “That is not happening.”

“Why not? I met Williams before her untimely death, there was definitely a moment.” Alves narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “Don’t tell me you did something to make her straight?”

Oriana wasn’t going to be drawn into Alves’ line of questioning. “Williams will procreate when she’s told to. In the meantime, she has more important priorities than forming romantic attachments.”

Procreate when she’s told to?” Alves shook her head in disbelief. “You are one sick fuck, Lawson. I mean, I always knew you were but this is another level altogether.”

“Was there an actual purpose for this conversation, or are we done here?” Oriana snapped.

Alves shrugged again, clearly pleased to have earned a rise. Oriana was annoyed that she’d risen to take the bait. However, she was grateful that Alves didn’t press the point further. She wasn’t willing to discuss the more delicate aspects of her work with such a cretin. This whole exchange had suggested to her that she did hate Alves. The sooner they were out of each other’s presence, the better. 

Oblivious to – or perhaps revelling in – Oriana’s foul mood, Alves remained standing at her side. She was seemingly quite content to observe Williams’ sparring session – or perhaps ogle what she couldn’t have. Oriana wondered what more she could do to hint that she wanted to be left alone.

A few moments later, the sound of approaching footsteps solved the problem for her. Alves had obviously turned to see who it was and responded with a few expletives under her breath. With her patience for unscheduled interruptions wearing thin, Oriana prepared herself to tell whoever it was that she was not to be disturbed. She turned to find Fleet Admiral Kessler himself, beaming almost eagerly as he approached.

“I guess that’s my cue to leave,” Alves said, loudly enough for her voice to carry.

Oriana had already turned her back to Kessler, but she heard the brief exchange between the Admiral and the Captain. It was stunted and formal – accompanied by a clear trace of petulance in Alves’ voice. Although Oriana had no official knowledge, it was impossible to miss the close familial resemblance between the two. She’d long since put the pieces together. Clearly there was no love lost between father and daughter.

Kessler stopped beside her at the viewing window. The Admiral had ended up standing uncomfortably close. She immediately resented his presence – his pompous, quasi-masculine bulk taking up an inordinate amount of room. It also served to remind her how indebted she was to his vision. Following her father’s downfall, Kessler had been instrumental in ensuring funding for her work. It didn’t make her like or respect the man - or his obsolete misogyny.

“How is our star pupil today?”

Star Pupil? He spoke as though her marvellous creation was merely a child. She ignored the question. “Surely Captain Alves’ talents are being wasted here with us? Wouldn’t she be suited to a more active posting?”

“You might as well just come out and say you want her gone, Dr Lawson,” Kessler replied.

She discreetly shifted further away as she turned to face him. “Fine. Captain Alves is bored and therefore becoming problematic. I have more than enough to do dealing with the bored, impatient marine who is actually in my care.”

Kessler grunted in annoyance, clearly unused to being ordered around by a civilian – and a woman at that. “Alves will be leaving Blackheath in due course, I trust the two of you can co-exist without any problems for a few more weeks.”

Oriana felt like rolling her eyes, but such a reaction had long since been schooled out of her. She simply nodded, her expression a mask that betrayed nothing. She had a great deal of experience with men like Kessler. After all, she’d been raised by one. It was a simply a matter of ensuring that they believed they were in charge of the situation. As a problem, Alves was next to insignificant. Her prime concern, as always, was Williams. 

“You mentioned that Williams is impatient?” Kessler said eventually. “Is she ready to return to active duty?”

“She’s exceeded expectations with every test – her strength and stamina exceed our best predictions by almost fifteen per cent. The soldier she was before would not be able to touch her now. No one can.”

“What about her psych evaluations?” Kessler probed. “The goal posts have moved beyond simply creating super soldiers…mindless grunts.  We need someone who can function at high levels. A leader.”

“We’ve run almost a hundred hours of simulations and a dozen live fire exercises. Captain Williams has passed each one with flying colours. She’s demonstrated composure and adaptability under pressure. She’s creative. That’s before getting started on what she herself can do in combat. I’ve documented everything in my reports.” Which you clearly haven’t read. “Do you need me to continue?”

“Then she’s ready,” Kessler replied succinctly.

“Well…I mean, there are a few more tests I have to run-”

As Oriana spoke she realised that her reluctance didn’t lie in the fact that Williams wasn’t ready. She didn’t want to lose control over her creation. As long as she was at Blackheath, Williams was her responsibility. She made the decisions on everything from who Williams interacted with, to the food she ate. Once the testing was over, their relationship would change. That was before getting started on the fact that her work would be on display for all of humanity. If anything went wrong, if Williams failed…then she too would fail. And Oriana hated failure. She hoped that Kessler didn’t pick up on her unease.

“You have one month, Dr Lawson,” Kessler instructed. He wasn’t even looking in her direction. “Then I want the two of you in Vancouver. Captain Williams will get her wish to see her sisters, and you’ll ensure that they don’t cause any trouble.”

First real test, Oriana thought, unnerved by the variables she couldn’t control. “And if they do?”

Kessler made an expansive gesture with his hands. “You’ve got this facility, doctor. Use it.”

“They’re civilians,” she protested.

“The treatment worked with the Park woman, she was close enough to a civilian. There’s no reason it won’t work on…” he waved his hand dismissively. “Whatever their names are.”

“Abby and Lynn Williams,” Oriana supplied quietly.

Kessler ignored her. “One month, Oriana. There are larger plans in motion, and we need the particular asset in play. Do I have your assurance that Williams will be ready?”

Oriana turned her head, he was finally looking her in the eye – or at least he was staring at her. She gave him a curt nod in response. Endeavouring, as always, to keep herself aloof in his presence. It was necessary to dissuade even the smallest notion that she might be interested in fucking him. It wasn’t an act, but she’d learned a long time ago that disinterest alone wasn’t enough for men like Kessler. 

“Marvellous.”

His hand went to her shoulder, lingering with a gentle squeeze. Her skin crawled. Only when he turned and walked away did she physically shiver. Oriana closed her eyes for a moment, wondering how long it would be before all of this would be over. The Alliance would have secured their place as the dominant force in the Galaxy, with humanity’s safety assured. The other races would take their places as obedient vassals.

And she could finally say goodbye to bureaucratic bullshit. She’d have the resources to build the facility of her dreams, and absolutely no oversight, no one to answer to. Hopefully, her demons wouldn’t be able to follow her.

Oriana opened her eyes. She was grateful to have her solitude back. It was just her and her creation, still separated by the glass between them. Throughout everything, her conversations with Alves and Kessler, Williams hadn’t paused for a moment. Even though it was a two-way surface, the soldier had remained oblivious to everything that was on the other side of the glass. Her sole focus was pushing her body, striving for the perfect combination of movement. Her efforts had left her covered in rich sheen of sweat that had soaked through much of the tank top she wore and plastered her hair to her head. Sweat dripped from the smooth planes of her face.

Two sharp raps on the glass were all it took to halt Williams’ movement and draw her attention to the glass. Oriana made a ceasing movement with her hand and Williams nodded, obediently padding towards the window. Although sexuality was irrelevant – Oriana saw Williams as her creation – she could appreciate what her sister had fallen for.

Oriana pressed the intercom. “Hit the showers, Captain Williams. We will resume with some psych tests after lunch.”

There was a brief flicker of displeasure on Williams’ face. The repetitive tests bored her. The expression was gone, and she nodded in acquiescence. “Understood, Dr Lawson. Why was Admiral Kessler here? Did he have my mobilisation orders?”

She should have known that Williams was only feigning inattention. No doubt she’d be acutely aware of the whole interaction.

“I told him you were ready, but the Admiral requested that you undergo another month of testing.” Williams’ expression showed only disappointment as Oriana continued, “I promise you that the wait is almost over. Now shower, lunch and report to my office at one thirty.”

“Yes, Dr Lawson.”

Oriana watched Williams exit the room. She had always known that the time would come when she had to release her creation into the world. While fears of failure hung over her head, she could feel the first stirrings of anticipation. Williams was one person, but she had the capability to create huge shockwaves across the Galaxy.

She’s not yours any longer, Miranda, Oriana inwardly addressed the sister she had never met. A smirk crept onto her face. She desperately wanted a front row seat for the inevitable reveal – and the cruel end to any potential hope that Miranda might feel. She’s mine. 

Chapter Text

Vancouver, Earth

An aggressive gust of wind drove Lynn Williams to wrap her arms tightly around in body as she tried to retain warmth. The weather was bitter, heralding the dreaded approach of winter. Abby had warned her about the forecast that morning as she ran out the door, but she’d been running late and the sun had been shining. If only she’d grabbed her coat. It wasn’t just the fact that she was freezing her tits off, it was anticipating the irritating ‘I told you so’ from her sister.

The cold wasn’t the only reason for her haste. She loathed being under the scrutiny of the overzealous Alliance soldiers patrolling the streets. Curfew was hours away, but that didn’t stop them from asking inane questions if they so wished.

Who are you? Where are you going? Identification please.

Lynn was already in a foul mood. It wouldn’t be helped by losing her temper with one of the baby-faced military goons. Barely out of school, most were stuffed full of their own self-importance and quick to use their considerable powers of detention. Some playful teasing over her coat was one thing, calling Abby to explain she’d been detained was another matter altogether.

So, Lynn tried to walk quickly and purposefully. She only had to get home, then she could collapse into tears or launch into a flurry of expletives. At that moment, she was leaning toward the latter. She’d never thought of herself as an angry person, but it was her default setting these days. And she had a lot of anger to go around - for the stifling bureaucracy, the xenophobia that had a stranglehold over their civilisation, and the whole damn Systems Alliance. Not to mention their constant stream of lies.

Illustrating her point, she had to pass a squad of soldiers. They were trying to tear down a series of posters affixed to a wall. Lynn had seen the posters, or ones similar, before. She stole a glance as she passed, smirking at the idiots struggling to scrape them off, and paying attention to the message. It wasn’t discreet. It was an image of a nondescript middle-aged man, albeit with an intense gaze. Lynn recognised him as the outspoken Senator Ephraim Hale. News reports had claimed that Senator Hale had died of a heart attack over a year ago. The poster’s message claimed otherwise.

Murdered by the SA!

It was boldly emblazoned in red across the image of the Senator. Lynn had never paid much attention to politics, but even she remembered seeing news reports of the Senator’s impassioned pleas for democratic elections to be reinstated. It wasn’t a stretch to think the Senator might as well have painted a target on his forehead.

A mirrored visor suddenly turned in her direction. Even though she couldn’t see a face, she felt an intense scrutiny. Lynn swiftly ducked her head. Inwardly she revelled in the fact that there were others speaking out – even if it was just through posters that were rapidly being torn down.

As Lynn continued towards her apartment complex, she found that the posters weren’t isolated. They were wantonly and liberally plastered on flat surfaces everywhere. In every direction, the Senator’s piercing gaze met hers, along with the accusation.

Murdered. Murdered. Murdered.

Sirens suddenly pierced the air, growing closer by the second. Lynn quickened her pace, eventually breaking into a run. By the time she reached her building, the streets were filled with vehicles disgorging Alliance soldiers. She dared to observe them for a moment, marvelling at the fact that posters warranted an emergency armed response.

“Fuckheads.” It felt good to say it aloud, even if she wished she could say it to their faces.

Upstairs in the apartment she shared with Abby, with the door locked behind her, Lynn could finally relax. She found her sister peering out of the window at the commotion down below.

“Anyone would think they didn’t have anything better to do,” she commented, dumping her bag on the floor before she flopped onto the couch.

She closed her eyes but couldn’t block out the sounds of the sirens outside. Her anger was fast giving way to misery. At the first sign of her eyes burning, she opened them to try and find something to focus on. Unfortunately, she found only reminders in the form of images sitting on a shelf opposite. Seeing Sarah’s beaming smile only intensified the sensation. Her baby sister somehow managed to wear an Alliance uniform better than anyone. A posthumous medal was clipped to the frame. More frames were carefully arranged on the shelf – the last one taken of their whole family before their mother had passed away; one of their parents together; all four sisters taken during a rare moment together. There was one of Ash as well – also wearing her uniform with pride. Staring at her big sister’s face gave Lynn the strength to banish her tears.

Lynn pushed herself forward to the edge of the sofa, feeling her anger return with gusto. “Hey, Ab, did you have time to go to Alliance headquarters today?”

Abby finally stepped back from her perch by the window. She offered up a nod. “For all the good it did. Some back-office paper-pusher fobbed me off with the same information. The long-range covert mission bullshit.”

“There’s no way Ash would have gone for over a year without sending word.” Lynn shook her head. “Why can’t they just admit the truth. That she was killed on Chasca?”

Abby sighed and joined Lynn on the sofa. “All that time I spent hoping Miranda had been wrong-”

“Miranda wouldn’t have been wrong. Not about something like this,” Lynn interrupted.

“Yeah, I know. It just gave me a little bit of hope to wonder what if…if there’d been some sort of mistake, or she was MIA. Instead there’s this awful nightmare of knowing she’s dead and being lied to about it. Not knowing how it happened.” Abby looked wistful for a moment. “I like to think that she died close to Sarah.”

“I hope that wasn’t how it happened,” Lynn replied gently. “Sarah’s death would have broken Ash.”

“Yeah. Maybe…” Abby’s voice trailed off.

They both knew such musings were pointless. Regardless of what had happened on Chasca, their sisters were both dead. Sarah’s body had been cremated and returned to them in a small Alliance ceremony. Neither of them knew what to do with her ashes, they were currently nestled in a drawer - out of sight but not out of mind. Lynn wanted to take Sarah’s ashes back to Sirona, to bury them next to their mother. Abby preferred not to answer the question.

With the Alliance’s duplicity, they had nothing of Ash – not even her tags.

With the morbid discussion lingering in the air, Lynn invited herself to nestle close to Abby. Her older sister wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her in close.

“I can’t wait until the weekend.” Abby tried to steer the conversation back to safer territory. “It felt like everyone in Vancouver had a toothache this week. If I didn’t see the inside of another mouth for a year, it would be too soon.”

“Seems like a good sign to me. People going to the dentist, things getting back to normal.”

“It would be a good thing, except for the whole not having been to the dentist in the past two years bit,” Abby replied.

“Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame. Who’d ever want to be a dentist?”

Abby shrugged, well-used to hearing this argument. “How about you? Any horror stories about the youth of today to share?”

You’re going to have to tell her. “Yeah…about the youth of today…” Lynn began with a sigh. “They’re going to have to do without their favourite teacher.”

Her support was suddenly gone as Abby sat up, turning to look at her. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“I may have been fired for going off the prescribed lesson plans,” Lynn admitted, she too sat up, searching Abby’s face for any trace of disappointment. She continued quickly, “And before you get mad, hear me out. There was no way in hell that I was going to start peddling that sorry-excuse for a curriculum to my kids. Completely fabricated atrocities from the First Contact War? That the asari are waging a covert conquest of the Galaxy by simply trying to make everyone asari? You teach that shit to ten-year olds and they’re going to believe it’s true!”

Abby exhaled in frustration. “I’m not mad, Lynn. Well, I mean I am mad, but not at you. I’m mad at those flunkies out there-” she nodded toward the window, indicating the soldiers stripping posters “-and the bureaucracy that locks down the streets at 9pm. The same people who won’t tell us the truth about what happened to our sister.”

Silence descended after her sister’s outburst. While Lynn was grateful that Abby wasn’t mad at her, it didn’t make losing her job any easier. She had genuinely loved teaching her kids and it saddened her that the school would simply find someone else who was willing to teach the new curriculum.

“Have you ever thought about going back to Sirona?” Abby suddenly announced.

Lynn stared at her sister for a long moment, wondering if Abby was trying to usurp her role as the family joker. “You’re serious?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? We’ve got no ties to Earth. They’ll still have jobs for dentists and teachers on Sirona…and hopefully a curriculum that’s lagging behind here.”

As a kid, Sirona had felt like the most backwards and remote place in the Galaxy. Now, a decade after they’d left, Lynn realised that the prospect of going back was an appealing one. They’d revisit their past, to make a fresh start.   

“I never thought I’d say this, but how do we make that happen?”

Abby shrugged. “I guess we’d have to apply for a travel Visa. Can you make yourself useful with your newfound unemployment and do some research?”

“You’re making fun of me now?”

“Absolutely not.” Abby even managed a small smile, which quickly disappeared. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Can you leave a coded message for Miranda on the forum? We’ve not heard anything for months. I’m worried about her.”

“You’ve met Miranda Lawson. And you know that she is more than capable of taking care of herself,” Lynn pointed out.

“I know,” Abby replied softly. “But it must be impossible to come back from losing the love of your life – even for someone as strong as Miranda. It changes a person.” 

Abby beckoned, and Lynn gratefully returned to her previous position nestling against her sister’s side. She closed her eyes again and managed to keep the tears at bay.


Normandy

Her internal alarm clock told her that it was time to get up. Insistently so. But removing herself from the delicious warmth of her bed was something Miranda did not want to contemplate. Instead she stubbornly ignored decades of conditioning and burrowed further into the warmth. Everything wasn’t going to fall apart if she indulged in a few minutes of idleness.

There was a sudden unpleasant sensation as freezing skin met the warmth of her own – cold toes brushing against her calf. A murmured expletive was all the intruder earned, as she stubbornly clung to the last vestiges of torpor.  

“M?”

Although the voice was gentle, it carried with it a hint of disapproval. Miranda wasn’t interested in being scolded and she drew the covers up over her head. Within the cocoon she created, she could momentarily ignore who and where she was. She could imagine another life for herself, one free of complications.

“M?”

There it was again. How was it possible to say so much with just one syllable?

“Five more minutes,” Miranda implored in a quiet murmur. “Surely the Galaxy will be okay for an hour or two?”

“Maybe…but if it all goes to shit, you’re going to blame yourself.”

“Probably,” Miranda replied, the corners of her mouth tugging upwards. “But you could make it worth my while?”

She opened her eyes. In the dark space, she could barely see the outline of Ashley’s face and the shine on her eyes. Her heart swelled. She felt a gentle movement, and moments later a warm palm pressed against her cheek. Miranda smiled, knowing Ash could feel rather than see her lips, and pressed into the touch.

“I love it when you nuzzle,” Ashley whispered, pleasure and mirth evident in her voice.

“I don’t nuzzle,” Miranda protested weakly, still nuzzling, feeling the calluses on Ashley’s palms brush against her skin.

Everything was so warm and comfortable. She was safe. An hour or two was never going to be enough. Miranda wanted a lifetime of moments like these, although without the nagging thought that there was something else she ought to have been doing.

“Did I do something to choose this life?” Miranda asked quietly.

“That’s far too serious a question this early.” Miranda could practically hear the pout in Ashley’s voice. “Why don’t you ask me something I can actually answer? Like what should we have for breakfast?”

Ash was right, as she often was. Regardless of whether the Galaxy would be okay for the next hour, there were better things to think about.

“There’s only one answer to that,” Miranda replied, reaching out for the warm, naked body next to her. She felt a thrill travel down her spin as her fingers trailed the length of Ashley’s flank. She then tugged Ashley closer, making her intent clear as her own stomach swooped in excitement. “You.”

“Mhmm, now you’re talking.”

Shrill, repetitive tones interrupted the precious moment. Miranda jerked upwards, tearing the cloying covers away from her face.

“End alarm!” she hissed. The room immediately descended into silence. 

In those first moments of consciousness, Miranda remained in the dark trying to hold onto the memory of the dream. The feel of Ash’s hands on her face. Ash’s smell. It was bittersweet. In reality, it was a cruel taunt of a life that had once been. A life that could have been. She didn’t have time for such frivolous fancies.

“Lights. Dim.”

A soft glow bathed the Nest, chasing the shadows into the corners. Miranda allowed herself the luxury of a sigh. Time to face another day…duty shift…whatever the hell it was called. She simply viewed it as that period between oblivion. The time when she was supposedly awake but felt like she was living someone else’s nightmare.   

What was the prescribed time period for mourning someone you loved? Most days, Miranda felt as though a lifetime wouldn't be long enough. Yet Ashley had been dead for longer than they had been lovers, causing her to question her own sanity. Surely someone of her intelligence knew when it was time to stop mourning? Wistful dreams and longing were the refuge of weak minds, not the strong.

Yet regardless of how many times Miranda reminded herself of that, she still mourned Ashley with even fibre of her being. A weaker mind indeed.

“Lights. Full.”

The room was brought into stark relief as the shadows were banished altogether. Miranda rose swiftly and headed for the shower, hoping to chase away the fog of sleep and dreams with ice cold water. 

The water hit her like a thousand tiny knives, setting her nerves on fire. The shock alone was enough to drive disruptive thoughts from her mind, leaving her to focus on what needed to be done.  

As blasts of air dried her chilled skin, Miranda mentally ran through the list of tasks she had planned for herself. With most of the crew enjoying shore leave on Omega, the list was extensive. That was her antidote – keeping her mind and body as busy as possible. All day, every day. It was a schedule that left little time for reflection. Sometimes, she cursed the fact that a similar regime couldn’t be implemented for her subconscious mind. Her longings were left to run rampant in her dreams.   

Miranda paused in front of the mirror to attend to her ‘beauty regime.’ This usually consisted simply of dragging her fingers through her damp hair, then twisting it up into a haphazard knot atop her head to keep it out of her way. She couldn’t help but take stock of her reflection – her eyes were dull and listless, her cheeks almost gaunt. It wasn’t an appealing picture.

She paused for a moment, then on a whim she picked up a pot of cream that hadn’t been touched for some months. She dolloped a generous spot on each cheek and rubbed it into her skin with several vigorous swipes of her hands. Once finished, she didn’t feel any different. The act had little impact, other than to have consumed time.

{Good morning, Miranda,} EDI’s voice intruded into her space as she was methodically dressing. {You have an incoming call via QEC from Shepard. How would you like me to respond?}

Miranda let out a huff of irritation. The call was unscheduled of course. Unlike Liara, Shepard never bothered to schedule anything. It was as though the damned woman thought she would just drop everything and come running.

“Tell her I’ll be five minutes.”

{Understood.}

At another time, Miranda might have tried to make her interactions with EDI less curt, less business-like. But she had barely known the AI as a physical platform, so her rudeness didn’t register. At the back of her mind, she knew that Shepard would be quite content ‘chatting’ with EDI for those five minutes, as though the AI was an old friend.

Her mind had already moved on – mentally revising the unexpected call into her schedule. She’d simply skip Chakwas’ recommended thirty minutes for breakfast. On her way out of the Nest, she compromised by grabbing a protein bar to sate her morning hunger.

She swallowed the last mouthful as she reached the QEC, jamming the wrapper into her pocket before Shepard could notice. Her ex-CO was standing in a relaxed pose, arms folded across her chest. When she saw Miranda, her smile was genuine, but her expression was also tinged with concern. Miranda gritted her teeth at the knowledge that her appearance was being assessed. If Shepard possessed a modicum of common sense, she wouldn’t comment.

“Hello Shepard.”

“Hey yourself. No offence, Miranda, but you look like utter shit,” Shepard observed.

Miranda ought to have known better than to expect common sense where Shepard was concerned. However, the assessment was no more brutal than her own had been just minutes earlier. In comparison, aside from what looked like a black eye as a result of a recent sparring session, Shepard looked healthier than ever. It seemed like a decade ago that she’d helped to rescue the emaciated woman from the Alliance facility in Alberta.

Miranda refused to take the bait. “What can I do for you, Shepard?”

“Ouch,” Shepard winced visibly. “I expected a scolding for being so blunt, but is it straight to business?”

“Presuming you actually have business to discuss as this call wasn’t scheduled, then yes.”

“So, there’s no room in the schedule for chit-chat then?” Shepard asked with an arched eyebrow. “How are you?”

“You’ve already said I look like shit, so clearly that’s all the answer you need – or were you looking to make some other unhelpful observation as to my state of being?”

“Do you enjoy being this obtuse, or did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning?” It was Shepard’s turn to be grumpy.

“Sorry, Shepard. Yes, I slept…badly. That doesn’t exactly do wonders for my complexion.” She stopped short of saying she never slept well, knowing that she wasn’t ready to have that kind of conversation. “Apart from the sleep, I’m fine. Everything is fine. You on the other hand look as though you’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s fist.”

“You should see the other guy,” Shepard quipped. She pressed her fingers beneath her eye, as though reminding herself that it was actually bruised. “Shiala has something against medigel. Knowing her, she probably thinks it makes you soft. I’ll sneak a tiny bit after this call. Speaking of altercations, how was the raid on the asteroid in the Nemean Abyss?”

“Did you not read my report-” Miranda caught herself before she continued. This was Shepard, who was of the opinion that reports were written for the express purpose of not being read. “In terms of knocking out another of Kor’Amon’s cells, it was a success. However, in terms of catching up to the bastard himself, it was another failure. At every turn, he seems to be light years ahead of us.”  

“You know he’ll eventually run out of places to hide – and when he does, you’ll be there.”

“I don’t care if it’s me or not.” Liar. Yes you do. “I just want someone to bring him to justice.”

The word left a sour taste on her lips. It wasn’t justice that made her throw a handful of bottom-feeding mercs from the landing platform. That was vengeance. Others would rightly call it murder. Even if Shepard had read her report, that part had been omitted. Nevertheless, she felt the stain on her conscience. Despite her denial of the truth, Jack’s words had cut to the core. Everything she did, the way she was acting, was pissing on Ashley’s memory.

The need to talk about what she was feeling was tearing her apart. Shepard was the perfect sounding board. Someone she trusted beyond doubt, someone who would understand exactly what she was feeling.

But the words never quite came, and Shepard never brought Ashley up. Miranda didn’t know whether her friend was worried about upsetting her, or if her own pain was still too raw. It meant they constantly skirted around the subject of Ashley. It solved everything…and nothing.

“Just promise me that you’re looking after yourself in all of this.”

Miranda inclined her head. “The Normandy will be enjoying the delights of Omega for another forty-eight hours. Not exactly the vacation spot I would have chosen, but I haven’t heard any complaints from the crew.”    

Shepard didn’t buy it. “I’m talking about you, not the crew.”

As if on cue, Miranda’s stomach rumbled in protest at her pathetic excuse for breakfast. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done something for pleasure or relaxation. Those kinds of words no longer registered. That was not something she was going to admit to Shepard.

“Someone has to keep the ship running while it’s crew are letting off steam,” Miranda pointed out. “And since I have no interest in pissing away credits in Afterlife, shopping for black market goods or developing food poisoning, I’m the most logical choice.”

“You should give it a chance. If there’s one thing Omega has to offer, it’s plenty of surprises.”

Miranda just shook her head. She could already guarantee that she was not interested in any of Omega’s so-called surprises. Shepard’s teasing though, she didn’t mind. It felt like something that normal people were supposed to engage in.  

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Shepard announced. “The Councillor has a vested interest in the whereabouts of your asari crewmember. It seems that Kurin is Tevos’ goddaughter.”

“Of course she is,” Miranda said with a sigh.

Shepard continued, “Her family aren’t exactly thrilled that she didn’t return to Thessia with her crew.”  

Another problem to add to Miranda’s list, although far too minor to warrant any in depth attention. “I’ll inform her, but I won’t be ordering her off the ship. Kurin made the decision to abandon her duty to help us, she can choose whether she returns.”

“I agree, but you might change your mind if you start getting squads of commandos scouring the Galaxy for her.”

Miranda raised her eyebrows. “I would hardly think that the asari government has the resources to waste on one individual.”

“I wouldn’t put it past Tevos, or Kurin’s family for that matter, but it’s up to you,” Shepard said with a shrug. “I’ll let you get back to running your ship. If it helps, I’ll schedule my next call…and promise to stick to it.”

“It’s fine…really, Shepard,” Miranda replied. In all honesty, although the initial interruption was irritating, talking to Shepard always helped. Her friend was like a balm, not taking away the sting but making her forget about it momentarily. “You have a free pass to call anytime.”

“Careful, I might just take you at your word. Stay safe. Shepard out.”

Miranda remained staring at the empty QEC even after Shepard’s likeness had blinked out. Not for the first time in recent memory, she felt a little nostalgic. She wished Shepard was back in the Crow’s Nest and she was simply the XO. Granted, she had never been a ‘simple’ XO, but there had never been any doubt that Shepard was the one in command. Despite all the times they hadn’t seen eye to eye, Miranda had always admired Shepard’s leadership.

Before she could lose herself in thoughts of ‘what if’, Miranda left the QEC. She was determined to make herself as busy as possible. There were mountains of emails to be sorted, systems to be calibrated and stores to be ordered. If she didn’t dwell on just how mind-numbingly boring it all was, then she could lose herself in her tasks.


 

Omega

Jack usually drank alone – content to lose herself to a bottle of whatever. As long as it burned her throat and brought about an oblivion where her nightmares couldn’t follow her. She didn’t understand why some people found enjoyment in drinking together. The last thing she wanted when she was drunk, were witnesses. Not to mention the galling custom of having to buy drinks for other people. Not only was she pissing away her own credits, others were too.

With all of this in mind, Jack had to wonder why the fuck she found herself in a booth at Afterlife. She was sandwiched between Cortez and Traynor. The latter whined constantly about how much she missed her girlfriend. Cortez and Fleeting were too fucking schmaltzy, holding hands on the table and absently stroking one another’s arms, as they reminisced about the War with Petrova. Jack had no desire to chime in. The memories of watching her kids die were hers alone. One of the reasons she drank to forget.

When Fleeting returned to the table, cradling another round of drinks in his arms, Jack realised why she hadn’t bothered to haul herself off to a dark corner alone. It required minimal effort to sit and make appropriately sympathetic grunts at various points during her ‘conversation’ with Traynor. All the while a steady stream of drinks were brought to her. For some reason, no one nagged her to buy a round. The music in Afterlife was rhythmic and primal, just the way she liked it. Here she could almost lose herself in the moment, forgetting who or where she was. It was almost as though she had – Jack hated even thinking about the word – friends.

Fleeting slid a glass over to her with a broad grin. “Asked the bartender for something special. Wouldn’t tell me what it was, just said that humans probably shouldn’t drink it.”

Jack stared happily at the cloudy purple drink. “Fuck yeah.”

There was no such thing as a ‘sip’ in Jack’s vocabulary, she lifted the glass to her lips and threw it back. If she thought ryncol burned, then the mystery drink was on another level entirely. It scorched her throat as stars burst in front of her eyes. She could barely reach for the chaser, struggling to wrap her fingers around the beer bottle. She drained half the bottle in several deep glugs before slamming in back down on the table.

The stars and the burning were still there, but it was a pleasant feeling watching the pinpricks of light dance across her field of vision. Cortez and Fleeting were holding hands again, Petrova was still trading war stories, and Traynor wouldn’t shut up, but Jack was blissfully content as she sat cradling her beer.

“You’ve met Myke right?” Traynor was saying, oblivious to Jack’s alcoholic adventure. “You’ve seen how fit she is? What I still don’t understand, is why she’d want me. I mean, I was her first…do you think she’s just waiting for someone more attractive to come along?”

“Mhmm,” Jack added what she hoped was an appropriate noise at the appropriate time. She lifted her arm to take another swig of beer.

Traynor suddenly grabbed her arm, fingers digging in desperately. “You think she is?”

“Fuck!” Jack hissed as beer dribbled down her chin. She wiped it away and scowled at Traynor, realising her approach to the conversation wasn’t working anymore. “What?”

“Myke! You think she’s going to leave me for someone else because I’m just…well, plain and she’s…gorgeous!”

Jack fought against her urge tell Traynor to fuck off and get some self-respect. “Not in a million years. That one’s head over heels.”

“You’re sure?” Traynor asked anxiously.

Long since bored of the conversation, Jack sought to put the matter to rest altogether. “She’s so in love with you, it makes me want to vomit.” 

“Brilliant!” Traynor replied, beaming.

With her good deed done for the night, Jack turned her attention back to her beer. She made short work of it in a few more gulps. Part of her wanted more of the purple stuff, but even in her inebriated state she knew better than to get completely shit-faced in public. What she was going to do however, was shake out her legs a little.

“Outta the way, princess.” Jack motioned to Traynor to let her out of the booth. “The dance floor is calling.”

Traynor’s response was far too enthusiastic for Jack. “Oh yeah, I’m-”

“No,” Jack interrupted curtly. Drinking with people was one thing, dancing with them was something else entirely. “Just no.”

Leaving behind a pouting Traynor, Jack made her way to Afterlife’s ‘dance floor.’ It was little more than a dark corner where individuals congregated to move their limbs in time with the beat reverberating in the club, but it suited Jack. She made it clear with both her expression and her body language that she was there to dance alone. One salarian, who clearly didn’t value his body parts, took a chance. The split second his hand grabbed her ass, Jack snatched it up and jerked one of his digits back – not enough to snap bone, just enough to let him know that she wasn’t just playing hard to get. As her aspiring paramour slinked into the shadows, Jack turned her attention to the serious business of losing herself in the music. It wasn’t hard. The beat was primal and raw, suiting the way she liked to move. Her energetic limb movements soon caused others to give her a wide berth, although she barely noticed.

Dancing wasn’t about other people, it was about losing herself to something simple. In those precious moments, Jack was able to let go of the mantle of leadership and the obligations that came with it. She could stop worrying about whether the Cheerleader was about to fall apart completely. She didn’t have to give a shit that they might be poised on the brink of another war. For a few minutes, she was just another uncoordinated loser dancing alone. Drunk enough to not care that people she knew might be watching. Sober enough to know that she wasn’t about to make an ass of herself. It was a happy medium – especially with no further wandering hands.

She’d worked up a light sheen of sweat when her eyes wandered to the eyrie that hovered above Afterlife. Aria’s domain was usually none of her concern. She’d tagged along up there with Shepard a couple of times and Aria had dismissively ignored her. That suited Jack just fine. Although the figure that stood at the balcony was in shadow, Jack knew it was Aria. Everything about that bitch was instantly recognisable, down to the arrogant tilt of her head. She scowled – annoyed at herself that she’d bothered to stare - when a second asari joined Aria. Jack was surprised to find that she recognised Kurin immediately. While Aria stood impassively, she could clearly see Kurin’s gestures growing increasingly emphatic. For a view that had initially warranted a split-second glance, Jack now found herself blatantly staring as she danced. Her state of peace was replaced by an uncharacteristic curiosity. She was still asking herself why the fuck she cared when Kurin suddenly flared. The glow of the mass effect field threw Aria’s nest into sharp relief. Jack could just make out the anger on Kurin’s face, and the corresponding mirth on Aria’s – more obvious when Aria threw back her head and laughed. It wasn’t until Jack took stock of her own response, that she realised she had stopped dancing altogether and taken several steps towards the arguing pair. The response had been unconscious, born out of the certainty that Kurin would be reduced to a purple paste on the floor if she attacked Aria. Kurin extinguished her field, rendering the pair in shadow once more. Jack then watched her disappear from view. Seconds later, Aria returned to her characteristic pose, surveying the beating heart of her kingdom as though nothing had happened.

The dancing altogether forgotten, Jack made a beeline for the bottom of the stairs in time to catch Kurin descending. Her asari crewmate looked visibly shaken, but the anger was still there in the way she stormed down the stairs. When Kurin caught sight of Jack, she schooled her expression into an impassive mask.

“Enjoying shore leave?” The asari asked, there was a slight catch to her voice.

“Clearly more than you.” Jack jerked her chin upwards. “What was all that about?”

Kurin’s expression faltered. “What did you see?”

“The Queen Bitch herself getting you so riled up you flared.” Jack shrugged. “I dunno where you were going with that shit, she’d turn you into a pile of sticky purple goop before you could even think about dropping a singularity on her head. And she let you get away with it.”

“It’s none of your business,” Kurin muttered.

The asari’s tone was sullen. Jack was reminded that although Kurin was decades older, she was still essentially a young adult.

“It is my business if one of my crew has been compromised.” Jack lowered her voice. “Don’t tell me you’re fucking her?”  

With Afterlife’s dim lighting, Jack couldn’t see the dark flush to Kurin’s cheeks. Judging body language however, she could tell the asari was even more uncomfortable.

“I’m not doing this here…I’m not used to having my personal life on display like this,” Kurin replied awkwardly. “And I can still feel her eyes on me.”

“Easily solved. Afterlife’s not the only joint that sells booze on this rock. Let’s get outta here,” Jack suggested.

Kurin looked panicked. “You’re ordering me to divulge my person life?”

Jack snorted. “This isn’t an order, it’s an offer. You wanna talk about it, great. You don’t wanna talk about it, also great. What I don’t want, is any sort of scene. Laying waste to Afterlife is a sure-fire way to cancel our open invitation. And it’s gonna piss Miranda off.”

“Fine,” Kurin muttered. “I need a drink anyway.”

They didn’t have to walk far before finding more drinking establishments. Although they wisely passed on the first one they found after walking into the aftermath of a particularly brutal fight between a gang of vorcha and remnants of the old Blue Suns merc gang. By the looks of things, the mercs had lost.

The second was little more than a cobbled together stack of empty shipping crates, but it was clean, the booze was reasonably priced and the only music was coming from a group of drunk Salarians singing in surprisingly decent voices. As the evening stretched on towards early morning, Jack was grateful to find a comfortable seat where she could kick her feet up on the table and relax. Kurin, on the other hand, looked as though she wanted to be anywhere else. The asari sat hunched over, staring at her drink.

Jack took a swig of her beer. It was Hanar craft beer, the good shit that left you properly drunk after a few bottles. And since Jack had already been properly drunk, she was now well on her way to the state of not giving a fuck.

She stared across the table at Kurin. “So, you and Aria huh?”

That got Kurin’s attention. She jerked her head up, glaring at Jack. “I thought you said I didn’t have to talk about it?”

Jack shrugged. “I lied. Now spill. Did you or did you not?”  

“Once. It happened once.”

Kurin was finally able to look Jack in the eye. Her gaze was direct and challenging, daring Jack to think less of her.

“You in love with her?” Jack said, proving she could be just as direct.

“No!” Kurin’s voice was emphatic. However, she then swiped a hand back over her crest – a nervous habit of hers. “There was a time where I was…infatuated with her. You’ve seen Aria. She’s…magnetic.”

Jack was unsympathetic. “She’s a fucking viper.”

“I knew what I was getting into, and I don’t have any regrets.”

As Jack cocked an eyebrow, Kurin lifted her beer to her lips and drained most of the bottle. She set it down with a heavy thud. “Okay, there are some regrets. But I’m done with her.”

“Like I said, I need to know if you’re a danger to my ship. What were the two of you arguing about?”

“She wanted information. The Normandy’s movements, our operations. Anything. She’s concerned we’re looking for the missing Reaper – Catalyst, whatever you want to call it. Her people haven’t found any trace of it.” Kurin’s hand tightened around the bottle in front of her. “Look, I know what you’re thinking – I refused to tell her anything. Hence the argument you saw. My loyalty is to the Normandy.”

“How do I know you’re not bullshitting me?”

Kurin suddenly looked deflated. “After everything I’ve given up to join your crew, you really think I’d sell you out?”

Jack shrugged. People had given up more for less. “Depends if this bitch’s cunt is as magnetic as you say it is.”

“Goddess, what am I doing?” Kurin slumped forward into her hands, scrubbing at her forehead as though everything was a bad dream she could erase. “My family are searching for me. Miranda told me a few hours ago.”

“Fuck ‘em,” Jack replied, she downed the remainder of her beer and wished she thought to buy multiple bottles at once.

Kurin shook her head. “It’s not that easy. You don’t just walk away from a family like mine. My grandmother is the Matriarch Lidanya, Captain of the Destiny Ascension and Admiral of the Citadel Fleet. My godmother is Councillor Tevos herself.”

Jack leaned forward, purposefully trying to look sober – or at least capable of saying something worthwhile. The old Jack might have rolled her eyes and gone to fetch an armful of beers. The new Jack, however, she was pretty damn good at pep talks. “That’s exactly what you did, you walked away from them. Hell, I was raised by Cerberus and I walked away from those fuckers. Tell you what, you buy me another beer – or three – and I’ll personally kick the ass of anyone that comes looking for you.”

Kurin frowned. “You’re not worried I’m Aria’s shill?”

“Nah, you had the balls to flare in front of that bitch. You looked ready to go a round even though your blue ass would’ve been smeared across Afterlife’s shit excuse for a dance floor.”

“Hardly a noble way to go out,” Kurin said, her despair finally giving way as she offered up a small grin. 

“I can think of worse ways to go,” Jack replied.

Kurin responded with a deep belly-laugh. It was tinged with desperation, as though the only thing she had left was to laugh at herself. She stood emphatically, brandishing her credit chit. “We are going to need a lot of beer.”

Jack winked at her. “I knew I liked you for a reason, Kurin.”


 

As her eight-hour shift drew to a close, Miranda moved about her remaining duties methodically and efficiently – everything made easier by the fact that there were few interruptions. She contemplated pulling a double shift. With her stamina, it would be effortless. She’d gone twenty-four hours in the past, at the height of their mission to stop the Collectors. It wouldn’t have taken much to push herself further before her performance began to suffer.

But the urgency wasn’t there. With no solid leads on their next raid against Kor’Amon and the Normandy in perfect condition from stem to stern, there was very little for her to do. After spending an hour developing a new filing system for her emails, she was going stir-crazy. There was nothing left but to finish her shift and find something to do with her time. Her thoughts immediately went to a workout. The kind of punishing workout that left her feeing completely drained. She could spar. Grenier was a decent enough opponent, and she’d seen him return from shore leave an hour earlier, still sober.

Decision made. Miranda logged off her terminal. She was heading to the elevator when she heard the airlock open, followed closely by a very loud, very slurred voice.

“They can all go fuck themselves. Every one of them. My goddess-damned mother and my grandmother. I don’t give a fuck if she’s Admiral of the fucking Fleet. And Tevos too – especially Tevos.”

Miranda paused, watching with something akin to fascination, as Jack and Kurin practically fell through the airlock. The latter was stumbling as though her legs wouldn’t work properly. Only the fact that Jack was practically carrying her meant that she could walk at all.

“Who wants to spend the next century kissing their superior’s azure just so they can captain their own dreadnought?” Kurin was saying in an indignant voice, wildly gesticulating with her hand. “My mother wants me to captain a dreadnought, not me. I just want to be left alone. So what if I deserted? What we’re doing here, this is important. We owe it to Ashley…I owe it to Ashley.”

“Yeah, we all get it, your family are a bunch of jackasses,” Jack said almost patiently – her words were nearly as slurred as Kurin’s.

Miranda cleared her throat. The last thing she wanted was anyone to launch into a drunken lament for their late CO. Her shift had helped her put her dream behind her, but it was only ever a brief thought away.

Jack glanced up, unconcerned enough to smirk. “Oh, hey Cheerleader. Good shift?”

“Clearly not as…interesting as your shore leave,” Miranda replied in an arched voice, arms folded across her chest for effect.

There was a part of her that envied the drunk pair and their ability to escape from reality, even for a few hours.

Kurin groaned. “Athame’s blessed cunt. I think I’m drunk.”

On second thoughts, Miranda definitely didn’t envy Kurin. The asari was going to have the mother of all headaches in the morning. Plus she fully suspected that her demons would run havoc with her drunken self.

“Ha! No shit,” Jack laughed merrily, needing to pause as Kurin almost slipped out of her grasp.

“Jack? If Kurin vomits on my deck, you’re going to be the one cleaning it up,” Miranda announced.

“Jeez, Lawson,” Jack pouted. “You’re a fucking buzzkill. What don’t you take that stick out of your ass and help me get this one into her rack?”

“You got her into this mess, you get her out of it,” Miranda said calmly as she crossed the short distance to the elevator. For some reason the sight of Jack looking decidedly worse for wear had improved her mood. The doors swished open and she stood, hand on hip watching the drunken charade play out in front of her. “I’m holding the doors open while the two of you get in here, and that’s the extent of my help. Hurry up, she’s starting to turn white.”


 

London, Earth

With her back aching and her legs restless, Captain Susannah Whitehead pushed her chair away from her desk with a savage finality. She rose, arching into a glorious stretch that was almost painful. Her bones creaked audibly in protest at sitting for so long.

Months of flying a desk had only confirmed what she had already suspected – that she would hate flying a desk. She longed to be confined to a chair of a different kind – her harness keeping her secure as she guided her fighter through the infinite depths of space. Gloriously alone save for the stars and the graceful machine responding to her touch.

“Hey Rav, I’m signing off.” Her colleague and friend, Ravi Sharma glanced up from the desk opposite hers as she continued, “I’ve just about finished that procurement tender, but I’m waiting on figures from Finance. They’ve promised to get them to me first thing tomorrow.”

“Isn’t that what Finance always promises?” Ravi quipped in response.

“I’ve got those guys wrapped around my finger. It’ll be tomorrow,” Susannah replied confidently as she tugged her jacket on. “Have a good evening.”

Ravi suddenly stood up and snatched his coat from the back of his chair. “Didn’t you say Lucy was out of town? Sayani has taken Arjun up to Sheffield to stay with her parents for the weekend which means I’m a free man! What do you say to a pint? Or three? I bet Gabe and Helen will be up for it.”

The announcement took her by surprise. Ravi’s wife was notorious for never letting him anywhere near the pub. On any given day Susannah would have leapt at the chance. She quickly fixed a disappointed expression on her face.

“Shit, Rav. You had to choose today of all days?” Even as the lie formed in her head, Susannah knew it was a terrible one. “I’ve got physical therapy tonight.”

He frowned. “I thought your appointments were on Tuesdays?”

“Usually. Had to swap this week as my therapist was sick.” Way to make the hole even bigger, she thought, feeling her palms start to go clammy. She edged away from the desk. “Rain check for tomorrow?”

Ravi nodded in response. “Sure thing. Hope you don’t mind if I hit Gabe and Helen up to go out tonight. I plan on making the most of my temporary freedom.”

“No way, you deserve it.” Susannah was half way to the door, she turned and grinned. “Have a pint for me.”

“You could join us after your session?”

“These sessions always wipe me out. I’ll probably just head home and scrounge some leftovers before collapsing onto the sofa.”

“Gotcha. Laters, Wildcat.”

Ravi was already turning, calling out across the office in search of other willing participants for his evening plans. Susannah allowed herself to let out the breath she’d been holding, even as inwardly she berated herself for being so terrible at this. She was so far down the Alliance chain of command, her work so mind-numbingly boring, that there was very little security or anything to unravel her carefully laid plans. But she’d still managed to concoct an excuse so flimsy that it would have been picked apart in minutes.

With each step she took on the way to the exit, each casual farewell she nodded to a passing colleague, she felt the microdrive burning a hole through the lining of her jacket.