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It was rainy season on Zorya.

They'd gone back to the merc-infested world to do some trading with the Blue Suns, who were far more agreeable once they found out Shepard had personally screwed over the Illusive Man. This time, her favorite information broker dropped word that the mercs had intercepted some weapon mods Cerberus had in turn stolen from the Alliance, so Shepard struck a deal to acquire the tech for herself.

She left Miranda and Jack behind in the Kodiak, reasoning that everyone would be less inclined toward anxious weapons fire if she made the deal solo.

Ten minutes later, Jack was already twitching with impatience. She opened the shuttle's cargo doors and paced beneath them, scowling at the pouring rain that drowned out pretty much everything else.

"They could be shooting at her and we wouldn't even hear it," she muttered.

"She has her radio if she needs us," Miranda said calmly, even as she checked her pistol for the fifth time.

After taking one last small, surly lap, Jack threw herself across a bench of seats with a grunt. She stared at the other woman with her typical unsubtle curiosity, wondering when exactly she'd stopped actively wanting to strangle her.

She smirked when she caught the fleeting sidelong glance from Miranda's gray eyes. This would be fun. "So just ask already. You know you want to."

Miranda's gaze darted away, as she tried to pretend she hadn't just been caught.

"You wanna know about the ink," Jack continued. "'What do your tattoos mean?' 'Where did you get them?' Blah blah."

"Actually, I figured you use them to cover the scars," Miranda said casually, missing the sudden flaring of Jack's nostrils. "Like that one." She reached out to trace a particularly nasty jagged mark across Jack's forearm, and jumped when the other woman tensed and reared away.

"Fuck off, Cheerleader. Don't touch me," she growled.

"Sorry," Miranda replied, meaning it. She held up her hands in a placating gesture and leaned back, out of Jack's space, taking her oddly appealing scent with her.

Jack fidgeted, her momentary anger already fading away. "So how long is Shepard going to keep playing nice with the rejects?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, how long does she need this 'team' thing? Eventually she's going to turn me back in, right?"

"We haven't defeated the Reapers yet," Miranda said. "We could still use your help. However, you have fulfilled our original bargain, and Cerberus expunged your criminal record before we severed ties with them. You're free to go."

She actually flinched at the word. "Free?" Jack repeated.

"That was the deal," Miranda said. "Though I suspect most of us didn't anticipate living through the mission to take advantage of it."

"I don't think I've ever been free before," Jack said. "Not really." Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure I like it." Ignoring the other woman's bemused look, she rambled onward. "I mean, what would I do? Go back to gun running? Go back to the gangs? Find another cult?"

"You could simply stay."

"Why the fuck would I do that? I don't belong with you - on a Cerberus ship, with Cerberus personnel. Cerberus took away my life." She shook her head and cast troubled eyes toward the relentless rain. "And then they gave it back. Shit."

It was a perverse twist of fate, Miranda thought, though she tread lightly on the topic of Jack's experiences on Pragia. The last time she'd brought it up, her office had undergone forceful biotic redecoration. "Your ambivalence is understandable. I can't imagine how difficult your childhood was," she said carefully.

"Sure you could," Jack spat. "I saw your records. You weren't much better off."

Miranda bristled, annoyed at her blatant disregard for Cerberus regulations, much less personal privacy. "That was different."

"Not really," Jack said. "We're both products of someone else's 'Build a Better Human' project, and neither of us made the grade. We're both damaged goods," she concluded with a shrug.

"Damaged goods that saved the galaxy," Miranda pointed out dryly.

"Yeah. I guess that was pretty cool." Jack could vividly recall the odd mix of triumph and terror as she'd sprinted her way out of the doomed Collector base, stride for stride with this damned Cerberus operative. In an abstract way she had realized they'd just done something amazing, and she wanted them both to get out of it alive.

With a scowl, Jack shoved off the vague feeling of concern she had about the other woman's welfare. It was practically civilized or friendly or some shit. How annoying.

Giving into her own impatience, Miranda pushed to her feet and stalked out under the open cargo door. "I do wish the Commander would expedite this little arrangement," she said.

"You like her," Jack declared abruptly.

"Who, Shepard?" Miranda asked, casting a surprised look over her shoulder. "I respect her," she said, automatically deflecting the question. "I spent two years learning all about her, and when she woke up she was somehow even more than I anticipated."

Jack snorted. "No. You like her. Practically crushing all over her."

With a faint laugh, Miranda only shrugged. "It wouldn't matter if I were. Jane Shepard's affections are firmly fixed elsewhere."

"What, that asari chick?"

"Doctor T'soni," Miranda confirmed.

Jack snickered. "Never figured Shepard to be into that kinky shit. Those asari dancers are..." She caught Miranda's curious glance and hurriedly skipped ahead. "Still. That's gotta be a jab in the eye for Cerberus - humanity's great hero, getting all sexed up by some alien."

"I thought so, at first," the other woman agreed. "The Illusive Man even wanted me to find a way to somehow... discourage those feelings, in her restoration process."

"You could do that?" Jack asked, curious despite herself.

"He ordered Project Lazarus to research a kind of selective memory inhibition," Miranda explained. "To see if we could limit her recall of certain events or associations. Ultimately, I argued against it. If he wanted Jane Shepard, the human who saved the Citadel, he also had to have Jane Shepard, the human in love with an asari."

Most of her time at the Lazarus Project blurred together in a haze of barely-changing vital statistics, in minute victories over the finality of death, but one day stood out with particular clarity. Shepard had woken up, her body instinctively fighting even in its brokenness. Jane's eyes had fluttered open, her hand had reached for the shadowy human forms hovering nearby, and she had uttered one single word, so soft and weak that only Miranda's enhanced hearing could catch it:


After she and Wilson had stabilized their patient and returned her to drugged oblivion, Miranda had fumed about that moment, doubting for the first time the Illusive Man's judgment, his unquestioning regard for their subject.

For months she'd deconstructed Jane Shepard from records and memory: reports of her heroism on Elysium, transcripts of her arguments with the Council, accounts of the Normandy's surviving crew. For months, Shepard had lived in Miranda's head as a myth more than a person. After Shepard had woken up, all that changed. Suddenly she was a mere mortal, a fallible human exhibiting the ultimate frailty. Untold credits had been poured into reviving her, the Reapers were at their doorstep, the entire galactic-political machine had practically ground to a halt in her absence, and the first thing on Shepard's mind was some alien.

It felt like betrayal and justification all at once. If the Illusive Man thought this woman could accomplish something Miranda herself could not, then he'd get what he asked for. Every last bit of it.

Miranda shook her head. "I thought it made her weak."

"And for once you were right," Jack muttered.

"No," Miranda countered, as she moved back to her seat. "I wasn't."

She didn't elaborate, even though Jack found herself kinda wishing she would. "So, what? It's some poetic 'love conquers all' bullshit?" she asked. "'We could all be heroes if we just opened our hearts?' 'Cause if that's what you're saying, I'll save you the trouble and just puke on your shiny boots right now."

"Hardly," Miranda said, twisting her face in a way that conveyed exactly what she thought of that notion. "But there are different ways to be strong, I suppose. Shepard knows that, and she knows how to exploit that in the people around her. That's why she succeeds." Her hands wandered in the air as she explained. "Before Shepard, Liara T'soni was merely a competent biotic and a middling scientist. But now?" She canted her head to one side in consideration. "I wouldn't want to get in her way. Shepard is a catalyst for remarkable things."

Jack eyed her for a long moment. "You sound jealous," she said.

"I am, in a way," Miranda admitted. "All the money my father spent creating me, and he couldn't give me that which she possesses naturally. Despite all my gifts, I could never have accomplished what she has." Her lips twisted in a wry smile. "Because as you've noticed, people aren't easily convinced to follow my orders."

It wasn't what Jack had meant, and they both knew it. This time she didn't bother pushing.

"Besides," Miranda said, with a sideways look. "You like her too."

"Not even," Jack barked. "She's too damned noble and self-sacrificing and shit."

Miranda smiled and cast her eyes toward the rain outside.

"What the hell are you smirking at, Cheerleader?"

"Nothing," Miranda insisted, even as her smile widened.

"Yeah, right. You've got that look on your face. That patronizing 'there's a human beneath the psychotic bitch after all' look that Shepard gets when she talks to me. Like I'm some sort of fucking pet to be trained not to bite. Well, fuck you."

She nodded, almost as if she'd expected Jack to lash out in exactly that way. They lapsed into silence, lost in thoughts punctuated by the the roar of the rainfall.

After a few minutes Jack grit her teeth in acute frustration. Whether she knew it or not, Miranda shared one particular trait with Jane Shepard - the ability to get under Jack's skin, pushing her to think and feel in ways she never had before. She didn't understand it, and she was quite sure she didn't like it, but for some reason she thought maybe it mattered.

Which was why she found herself blurting a half-assed apology instead of brooding in the tense, bitter silence.

"I didn't mean that," she muttered.

Miranda dipped her head. "And I didn't mean to patronize you," she said, half-apologizing back. "It's just that I believe I said much the same to Shepard when she first awoke. In slightly less profane terms." She cast a speculative look at the other woman. "Before this mission, I used to think I was entirely unique in the galaxy. I didn't see many similarities between myself and other humans."

"And then you met the great Commander Shepard," Jack said, in an annoyed singsong.

"Among others," Miranda fired back. "Like yourself. And it turns out that you're all right, for a psychotic bitch."

Jack froze, as she tried with all her considerable will not to react. She thought she might smile, maybe even laugh, but she wasn't about to give the other woman the satisfaction. Miranda's eyes saw the latent struggle, and her own expression was understanding, even gentle.

The entire interaction was absolutely infuriating in a way Jack couldn't categorize. She expected pity, but got none. She expected fear, and got none. Instead, Miranda Lawson simply recognized her, and made sure she knew it.

"Whatever," she muttered finally, without her usual venom. She folded her arms against the cool breeze carried through the rain, and settled into her uncomfortable seat. Miranda stood once more, and Jack entertained herself by watching that lithe, engineered silhouette against the light of the open door.

Sometime later, Shepard trudged up the muddy path back to the Kodiak with two Blue Suns operatives trailing her. She directed them to stow their cargo, paid them off, then stepped into the shuttle's bay and shook the water from her hair. "Sorry that took so long." She stopped and looked over both women in turn, nonplussed. "But you haven't killed each other, so that's positive."

Miranda scowled and put her hands on her hips. "We are perfectly capable of behaving like civil adults, Commander," she said with a huff.

"Yeah, what the fuck?" Jack complained.

"Right. What was I thinking?" Jane muttered, as she took her seat and strapped in. "Let's go home."

When they returned to the Normandy and Miranda offered Jack assistance with unloading their cargo, Jack didn't growl at her. Nor did she tell Shepard to screw herself and hightail it away from her "team."

It was a start.