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.
Blood had never bothered her before.
She shed it, she washed it off, and she kept moving. It never gave her pause until right at that moment, when she found herself wrist-deep in Miranda Lawson's blood.
For the first time, it freaked her the fuck out.
It was a typical day for the crew of the Normandy: Wander the Terminus, land someplace new, piss somebody off, duck the resulting projectiles. But even with all their skill, armor, biotics, and shielding, sometimes they were victim to ordinary enemies like gravity. And sometimes gravity had help from things that were heavy and sharp.
While tucked behind cover to wait out the heat and dust from a mercenary grenade, Jack saw an aged beam of the ruined structure above them fracture under stress and tumble downward, right over Miranda's head. She saw Miranda raise her hands to fire off biotic protection, just a second too late. She heard the strangled cry of alarm as the other woman fell under the large chunk of twisted metal.
Jack skipped out from her shelter and tossed a concentrated biotic charge that launched the beam away, but was unprepared for the damage it left behind. Miranda was crumpled and dirty, with a jagged hole torn into her side that was already seeping a considerable amount of blood. Jack bent beside her to administer medi-gel by rote routine, then Miranda emitted a faint noise of gurgling misery that jolted Jack with panic somewhat out of proportion to the injury itself.
"Shepard!" Jack screamed, high and hoarse. She pressed her hands to the wound in Miranda's abdomen, wondering if she could use her biotics to simply force the blood back where it belonged. Another groan drew her eyes to Miranda's face, to the expression drawn with pain, fear, and a fair bit of trepidation that her welfare at that moment was left in Jack's hands.
Within seconds, Shepard's booted footsteps clattered to a halt beside them, and with a few terse orders, they hauled Miranda away from the firefight, back into the Kodiak, and en route to the Normandy.
Chakwas met the shuttle upon docking, and directed fellow crewmembers to help her as she worked to stabilize Miranda on their way to sickbay. When they arrived, Jack extricated herself from the medical activity and took up a spot on the steps to the sleeper deck, looking into the observation windows. Miranda disappeared behind a privacy field, but not before Jack saw her arch against the stretcher in sharp agony.
Jack felt queasy and disconnected as all of Cerberus' expensive technology bent to the task of undoing the damage of their latest adventure. It all seemed too slow, too little, too late, and she didn't even notice Miranda's blood congealing on her hands and torso.
Time lost meaning as she waited. The gleaming white lights of sickbay seemed to throb before her, fuzzing in her vision while her usually anxious and jittery brain slowed, focused only on the memory of Miranda's desperate, trusting expression while Jack tried to hold her guts together in the dirt.
Eventually Shepard ended up on the step beside Jack, folding her arms as they both looked into the observation windows. "Doctor Chakwas says Miranda's going to be okay," Jane murmured, so only Jack could hear. "Though if you're not careful, somebody might start to think you don't actually hate her."
Jack looked at her with a blank lack of comprehension, not really seeing her CO's faint, understanding smile.
"C'mon. Let's get you cleaned up." She took Jack by the elbow and guided her away from the large windows lining sickbay, past Sergeant Gardner and a few wide-eyed crewmen in the mess. Jack merely followed, dull and pliant as they entered the communal restroom.
"You might not have noticed, but you look a little scarier than usual," Jane said by way of countering the awkwardness while she stripped off Jack's clothing and led her to the shower stall. "And in retrospect, putting the mess right next to sickbay probably wasn't the best plan," the commander continued with a thoughtful look. She loosed a stream of very cold water and leaned out of the way. "Maybe we'll fix that on the next Normandy."
"Gah!" Jack yelled, startled by the frigid blast of liquid. She tossed her head, throwing water out of her face. "What the fuck are you babbling about?"
Jane chuckled and pushed her back under the shower stream with some soap. "Welcome back."
She knocked Shepard's hands away with a snarl, though it lacked her usual vehemence. "Get away from me. I can take care of myself."
Jane shrugged and stepped back, then waited while Jack scrubbed at her skin and rinsed, taking the last traces of their teammate's blood down the drain. When the water stopped she tossed Jack a towel, and leaned against the opposite wall while the other woman dripped and shivered. "You okay?" she asked.
"Fine. I'm not the one who got a hole punched through her."
"Not what I meant," Jane said. "Even biotic badasses go into shock once in a while."
"Screw you," Jack fired back, sounding more plaintive than angry. She scrubbed her bare head with the towel, then left it draped low over her eyes like a hood. After a shaky sigh, she leaned against the shower wall and slid down to sit on the floor, heedless of her nudity. "So the Cheerleader's gonna make it?" she asked, with poorly affected indifference.
"Yeah," Jane said, smiling. "And why do you call her 'Cheerleader,' anyway?"
"Big tits, big hair. It fits," Jack replied.
Jane made a choked noise of amusement, trying to stifle a laugh that came out more like a cough. She managed to school her face back to her customary professionalism, even though Jack wasn't likely to notice either way.
She could tell that Jack had not yet regained her equilibrium, and that something still weighed on the troubled young woman's mind. Jane settled in to wait her out, getting as comfortable as possible against the cold tile of the bathroom wall.
After a bit, Jack blew out a noisy breath. "How old were you when you first killed somebody?" she asked.
Jack blinked, and tilted her towel-covered head to peer up at Shepard. She hadn't expected that. "Well, shit," she blurted.
"My childhood wasn't anything like yours, but there was some rough stuff here and there," Jane said with a shrug. She folded her arms and returned Jack's piercing gaze with an even expression.
"That back when you ran with the Reds?" Jack asked.
Jane nodded, not even surprised Jack had somehow managed to uncover those records. "There was this guy..." She sighed. "A real bad guy. Did real bad things," she said, using the vagueness to distance herself from the cold fury she still felt over the rival gang leader's tendencies toward rape and brutalization. "One day I decided I had to stop him. Nearly got myself killed in the process."
"Instead, you took the bastard out and took over his gang," Jack concluded.
"That's the short version," Jane said in agreement. "Eventually I caught the eye of an Alliance recruiter, who decided my past was worth overlooking." She squinted, considering her words again. "Or maybe worth exploiting."
"And now you're here," Jack said. "A galactic do-gooder locked in a bathroom with a crazy naked chick."
"It's a living," she replied dryly.
Jack smirked and tilted her head back against the shower wall. "You are seriously fucked up, Shepard."
"Another thing we have in common," Jane tossed back. She watched Jack carefully, waiting for the expected retort, but none was forthcoming. Instead they sat in the damp stillness, and Jane silently counted the staccato drips from the shower.
"Do you ever still see that guy?" came Jack's voice sometime later, muffled and small from under the sodden towel. "The bad one?"
"No," Jane answered, knowing exactly what she meant. Even in the jumble of transplanted Prothean memories, two years of stasis and sedation, and a lifetime of protracted violence, some nightmares still stayed fresh. "I only see the people he hurt."
Jack's head dipped in a nod. "Smart choice."
"Exactly. Your past is part of you, and you can't avoid it," Jane said. "But you can choose the terms by which it defines you."
At that, Jack finally pulled the towel off her head, looking up at Shepard with an uneasy expression. "I guess so," she said.
"Okay then," Jane agreed, pushing herself away from the wall as she sensed they'd reached the limit of reasonable progress for the moment. "You saved your teammate's life today," she said, and held out a hand to Jack. "How does that feel?"
Jack took the proffered hand and allowed herself to be tugged to her feet. "Maybe I didn't hate it," she admitted.
Jane snorted. "Good. The anger you have towards Cerberus... it's not about Miranda."
"Yeah, I know."
"How about you tell her that, sometime?" Jane said. It was an order disguised as a polite suggestion.
Now that they were eye to eye, Jack gave the other woman a hard look. "I'm not your 'project,' Shepard. You can't fix me."
"Nope," Jane conceded with an amiable shrug. "But I can give you the chance to fix yourself." She turned toward the door, but paused before leaving. "Besides," she tossed over her shoulder. "You couldn't fix Miranda today, either. Didn't stop you from trying."
Jack glared at the door as it closed behind the commander, then slipped back into her clothes and wandered out of the restroom. She meant to walk straight to the elevator and go back into hiding in the bowels of engineering, but found herself headed toward sickbay instead. Through the windows she could see that the frenetic activity had waned, and Doctor Chakwas was disengaging the privacy fields so Shepard could check on her 2IC.
Miranda lay stretched out on one of the beds, looking fragile and more pale than usual, but alive. She gave Shepard a wan look and a salute before the commander left her to her recovery. Then her eyes wandered and found Jack's, watching her from outside.
Jack froze for a long moment before she dropped her gaze and slunk back to the elevator to head below deck.
Had she looked back, Jack might have noticed those gray eyes following her, and the small smile that lit Miranda's face as she settled against her pillows to rest.
In the middle of the night, Jack liked to prowl the ship. She wandered around the CIC, entertained herself with Jacob's new toys in the armory, then made her way to the crew deck. The few people still awake left her alone, and Gardner tended to set aside some leftovers for her in the mess. She had not yet figured out why he bothered, but she didn't mind taking advantage of it.
This time, when the elevator opened on the crew deck, she was practically assaulted by the unexpected sound of laughter and jovial chatter. The crew - alien and human alike - had gathered in the mess for some kind of impromptu celebration. The reek of cheap batarian booze and Joker's colorful storytelling was thick in the air, as they all relived some glorious tale of unlikely survival by the grace of Jane Shepard's cunning.
Irked at the disruption in her routine, Jack paused behind a bulkhead and peeked out to observe the crowd, as if she were scouting enemies on a battlefield. From what she could see, the only ones missing from the little party were Shepard, Jack herself and... Miranda.
Reflexively, her eyes snapped across the deck, where she spotted Miranda standing outside her door. The operative was tucked behind a bulkhead much like Jack was, but she wasn't hiding. She was simply removed, set apart from the crew's camaraderie even as she smiled at Joker's antics, and the low raspy chuckle from Garrus that underscored the increasingly outlandish story. After a moment she ducked away and disappeared back into her office.
Jack scowled and found herself leaning further away from her cover to track the other woman's departure, before thumping back against the bulkhead in annoyance. She argued in her own head for a full minute before creeping out along the deck's perimeter, around the throng of people in the mess toward Miranda's office.
She wasn't sure why she was even bothering, but then, Miranda made her unsure of a lot of things she did.
She opened the office door and saw Miranda seated at her desk behind a stack of OSDs and half a dozen holoprojected computer screens. "Hey," she said.
"Hello," Miranda replied, with a friendly, if curious, expression.
Jack took that as an invitation to step inside and let the door close behind her, thankfully sealing out the noise from the mess. "So you're not indulging in the ancient soldier rite of making shit up?" she asked, with a toss of her head that indicated the confab without.
Miranda chuckled. "It didn't seem appropriate to participate. Although, with Shepard, it's hard to say just how much they're exaggerating."
"Hm," Jack grunted in vague agreement, as she eyed the information scrolling across the computer screens. "What are you working on?"
"A project for the Commander. I'm tracking the Shadow Broker's assets. I think that if we can disrupt the financial..."
Jack waved off the lengthier explanation, uninterested in the details. "Whatever. Need help?"
Miranda paused, then looked up at Jack in some surprise. The moment dragged out as they each measured the profundity of the threshold they'd reached. Even though their relationship had defrosted a bit since they defeated the Collectors, they were not exactly collegial. Most days, they were barely polite enough to overcome the prickle of ill-defined tension that always seemed to inhabit the air between them.
Finally Jack sighed. "Look, I'm bored and I'm good at hacking shit."
"All right," Miranda drawled. "I could use some help. Thank you." She smiled when Jack sat across from her, looking expectant and uncomfortable.
It took some jockeying before they found a complementary approach to their task. Jack preferred brute force, and had infinite patience for attacking the same network in different ways over and over again until its defenses gave way. Miranda was naturally more circumspect, but used Jack's approach as a cover for her own more surgical strikes. It was not unlike the style they'd cultivated in battle, and it quickly became a comfortable rapport.
Before long they were mapping the groundwork of a complicated organization of business fronts and hidden accounts that looked a great deal like Cerberus' own financial structure. Miranda found it fascinating, while Jack was enjoying the chance to undermine yet another powerful galactic entity that she didn't trust.
After a couple hours Jack stood and stretched, then crossed over to the door to key it open. She was relieved when only the normal low frequency whoosh of life support systems greeted her, indicating the crew had dispersed to sleep off their revelry. "Looks like the party's over," she said. "And I'm starving. Gonna go raid Gardner's stash."
"Oh, I wouldn't," Miranda called after the other woman, as she stood and followed her out to the mess. "Sergeant Gardner was 'experimenting' last night. Some sort of salarian sushi. From what I heard, it was rather... objectionable."
Jack was already shoulders-deep in the refrigerated storage, where she uncovered the noxious leftovers in question. She winced and careened away, propelled by the potent stink. "Ah, fuck. Would it kill him to make something humans could actually digest?!"
Miranda swept past her with a chuckle, then started digging through Gardner's obscure storage system and plunking ingredients on the counter. Within minutes she had a passable stir-fry simmering on the range.
"You're kidding, right?" Jack asked. She folded her arms and watched Miranda with a dubious look.
The operative only smiled, which did little to reassure Jack the meal would be in any way edible. When it was done Miranda doled out two portions and set them on the counter. "Would you like some tea?" she asked.
What Jack actually wanted was some of that batarian rotgut the crew had been passing around earlier. It might counteract the dizzy disbelief she was feeling as Miranda Lawson served her dinner, for fuck's sake. "Nah," she muttered, then sat and dug into her meal, which was surprisingly tasty. "Hey, not bad, Cheerleader," Jack said, though she couldn't resist the urge to snark. "So Daddy engineered you to cook, too?"
"No," Miranda replied. "But it seemed like an important skill to learn, once." She carried her tea over to the table with a frown, while her enhanced memory offered the unblemished recollection of endless hours of toil in the kitchen, trying to perfect her father's favorite meals, followed by his inevitable dissatisfaction.
Jack scowled, reading the other woman's wistful expression. "Hope the bastard starves to death," she grunted out as she chewed.
Miranda raised her mug in a toast of wry agreement, and they ate their meal in hospitable quiet.
In contrast to the crew's earlier gathering in that very spot, the two women had little to say. They had no need to swap soldier bluster or spin yarns of certain doom. At Shepard's side they had saved the galaxy itself, earning each a mutual, if grudging, respect from the other.
On the other hand, Jack found herself wrestling with things she wanted to say, but couldn't. After their return from Pragia, she'd gone to Miranda's office seeking... something. Understanding, comfort - she still wasn't sure. In the end she'd lacked the vocabulary to even ask for the resolution she sought, got frustrated, and threw some things. It was a fairly standard tantrum as far as she was concerned, but some nagging corner of her brain insisted that Miranda hadn't deserved to bear the brunt of it. Shepard agreed, and had nudged her to explain, to absolve Miranda of the anger she felt at Cerberus as a whole.
So she sat there and ate her dinner, while the things she couldn't quite express itched inside her brain.
When she'd cleaned her plate and she couldn't avoid talking any longer, Jack took a deep breath and dove in. "So. Thank you. For dinner."
The words tripped out of her mouth with an awkward cadence that made Miranda wonder if she'd ever spoken them before. "You're welcome," she replied. "Thank you for your help earlier."
Jack nodded, glad to have the damned niceties out of the way. By then Shepard's admonition was knocking around loudly in her head, and it was pissing her off. She heaved a frustrated sigh before leaning forward. "Yeah. Listen. You..." She stopped, and eyed Miranda closely. "You're not wearing Cerberus' insignia anymore," she blurted in realization.
The other woman immediately pressed her fingers to the spot above her heart where the emblem used to reside. "No," she said, looking a bit flustered. "I did resign, after all."
"I thought you believed in all their 'galactic good by human dominance' bullshit."
"I may have believed it, once," Miranda replied. "I'd like to think I've learned a few things since then." She watched Jack with an even, calm expression that belied the wash of profound doubt and righteous anger she'd first encountered in the overgrown ruins on Pragia. In an vague way, she'd long been aware of the atrocities Cerberus had committed in the name of human superiority, but walking those hallways had turned abstraction to abhorrent reality.
"Well, as long as you didn't quit on my account," Jack said.
"Why not? It's as good a reason as any." Miranda stood and collected their dishes, using the motion to vent her sudden nervousness. "The facility on Pragia might have gone rogue, but Cerberus enabled the research in the first place. They're responsible." She crossed the mess to clean up, and tossed a hesitant glance over her shoulder. "I want you to know I know that, and that I'm sorry."
Jack stood up so fast she nearly knocked over her chair. "Well, it's done, right?" she said. "And none of that was your fault."
"Wasn't it?" Miranda asked softly. "I turned a blind eye to the worst things Cerberus did, because it served me well to do so."
At any other time she might have agreed, but right then Jack couldn't muster the spite to say it aloud. "But not anymore," she said instead.
"No," Miranda said, turning back to look at her with a stormy, intense gaze. "Not anymore."
And there it was - exactly what Jack had been seeking from Miranda in her office that first time, when everything had turned angry and broken. She'd only wanted Miranda to give a shit. Now that it was quite apparent she did, Jack wasn't prepared for how much that mattered.
"Okay then," Jack said. "Later." She turned and stalked toward the elevator, almost tripping when she heard the soft words behind her:
"Good night, Jack."
Inside the confined safety of the elevator, Jack paced in small circles, trying to sort out what the hell had just happened. Something about Miranda alternately agitated her and soothed her, abrading her nerves in a way that was not altogether unpleasant, even if it was confusing as hell. Something about Miranda prodded her to do things she normally wouldn't, say things she definitely shouldn't, and feel things she promised herself she'd never feel. She cared, much as she wanted to pretend otherwise. She wanted. And she was pretty sure Miranda did, too.
"Fuck it," she muttered, as she spun on her heel, left the elevator, and barged back into the operative's office.
Miranda was standing by the window, looking out at the panorama of the nebula beyond. She barely reacted to Jack's entrance, though her breath caught when the other woman took hold of her wrist and spun her so they faced each other.
Jack's eyes were wide and wild, searching Miranda's for something she couldn't name. She could feel Miranda's breath against her skin, could feel the strain in taut muscles that weren't sure whether to push her away or pull her closer. She realized that they had always been like this - the constant tug between resistance and capitulation, the constant argument that their bodies perpetuated even when language abandoned them.
The kiss started out clumsy; they collided somewhere in the middle, all teeth and noses and bad angles. In a moment it gentled, and a moment after that Jack lurched away, unprepared for the rush of sweet heat the contact had provoked.
"Jack," Miranda whispered, as she shuffled closer.
At that, Jack let go of Miranda's wrist and fled.
Miranda watched her go, then turned back to the window and wrapped her arms around herself with a sigh.
"Ow!" Ken yelled, when Gabby jogged into engineering and punched him in the shoulder. "What was that for?"
"I was on the elevator with Miranda," she hissed. "She just headed below deck. To see Jack."
His eyes widened, and he stepped out onto the gangway to look down the steps to the core access compartment. Gabby sidled up next to him, and for a long moment they waited for the inevitable racket of yelling and biotic destruction.
When nothing happened, Ken shrugged. "Maybe they need a mud pit and a cheering section," he mused, wincing when Gabby punched him again.
They shuffled back to their stations, and let the door close behind them. Ken scratched at his chin with a reflective frown, willing to concede that maybe they were overreacting a little. "How much damage could they really do, anyway?" he thought aloud, before calling to the quarian across the deck. "Hey Tali, what do you think?"
"I think I'm glad to be in an environmental suit," Tali said with a shrug. "Just in case they puncture the hull."
It was enough to make Gabby panic. She hit the comm to summon Shepard, right that goddamn second.
"Just how long are you planning to avoid me?"
Jack dropped from the coolant pipe she was using as a chin-up bar, landing lightly on the deck. She cast anxious eyes at Miranda, but didn't answer.
"I have to admit, I wasn't expecting you to go into hiding. It seems contrary to your nature." Miranda said, as she sauntered nearer.
"Well, you don't know me very well, do you?" Jack asked with a snide curl of her lip.
Miranda smiled, and leaned against one of the ducts that made up the "walls" of Jack's abode. "It was a kiss, Jack. Not a fistfight."
"Yeah. Fistfights hurt less," the other woman fired back. She stood beside her cot for a moment before bending to tear at the covers, snatching her various firearms and favorite improvised weapons from their hiding spots. She smacked them each down on the nearby counter, then dug under the cot for her bag.
"What are you doing?" Miranda asked with a frown, even as she was privately impressed by the arsenal Jack had managed to tuck away.
"Packing. I need to get the fuck off this ship."
"Why?" Miranda challenged. "Because of a kiss?" The question made Jack twitch, so she pressed on. "Or because you like it here? And don't bother pretending otherwise."
"Don't you tell me how I feel," Jack barked.
The operative pushed away from the wall and stepped even closer, daring to inhabit Jack's personal space. "If you didn't want to be here, you'd have left already," she said reasonably. She counted it as a victory when Jack halted her frantic motion and went back to giving her that uneasy look. "But I think you feel like you belong here," Miranda continued. "You feel like you're doing something important and worthy of your skills."
Jack was pretty sure she still wanted to go somewhere else, but found herself bound within an uncomfortable radius from the other woman as they circled the small compartment.
"You like being a hero," Miranda continued. "You like saving the galaxy. You like that Sergeant Gardner leaves you leftovers and that Jacob lets you play with his guns."
"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Jack said, struggling to summon her usual defiance.
"You like the crew." Miranda hesitated, then tilted her head a bit in concession. "At least, you don't actively hate them. You certainly like Commander Shepard. You even like me," she concluded, a bit smug.
"I do not!" Jack roared. "You and Shepard can take your little band of girl scouts and go fly into a goddamned sun for all I care!"
In a moment they were practically nose to nose, panting their frustration at each other. A politely cleared throat sounding from the gangway drew their attention, and they each swung their eyes over to the intruder.
"What?!" both women demanded in concert.
Jane Shepard folded her arms and gave them her best scolding expression. "This is the second time my crew has panicked and called me in to break up a fight between you two," she said. "It will not happen again."
Miranda shrunk just a bit under her CO's glare. "Aye, Commander," she said, contrite.
"Mmhmm," Jane grunted. She eyed the stack of weaponry amassed on the counter, but decided there were things she simply didn't need to know. "I'll tell Daniels and Donnelly not to jump to conclusions next time. Just keep it down."
Jack scowled as the commander left. "'Next time?' What the fuck does that me-" She trailed off as Miranda grabbed her face with both hands and planted a scorching kiss on her lips.
Time stuttered while Jack tried to decide how to react. Her hands rose to hover in the air near Miranda's waist, where she hesitated. Usually by then she would have grabbed the other woman, reasserting her dominance and taking aggressive control. Usually she would have pushed Miranda away and gone on the offensive, taking what pleasure she wanted on her own terms.
After all, sex and seduction were usually just other battles to be won.
Eventually Miranda broke away, and let her gloved fingertips glide down the contours of Jack's torso. "You belong here," she said again.
Jack's eyes were screwed shut, as she tried not to shake. "I can't," she said, her voice strangled. "I have to go."
Miranda pressed her cheek to Jack's to whisper in her ear. "I think you have more reason to stay." Then she stepped away.
Jack felt the warmth of Miranda's proximity dissipate as the other woman turned to leave. She forced her eyes open and held her hands out in disbelief. "You're just gonna kiss me like that and walk away?" she complained.
Miranda spun on her heel to face her. "It's rather maddening, isn't it?" she asked with a smile. "But when you decide to stop hiding, you know where to find me." She winked, then turned again and ascended the steps to the deck above.
Jack slumped, and fell backwards onto her wrecked cot. "Fucking hell," she breathed, ignoring the receding chuckle from the gangway.
Two days later, Kelly arrived early for her appointment in the comm room. She set up a couple chairs and some coffee, then spent the remaining minutes studying her notes. She had not expected the request for this meeting, but after spending hours in meticulous preparation the night before she was definitely looking forward to it.
Right on time, Jack burst into the room, then threw herself into the seat across from Kelly. "Hey. So can you make me not crazy?" she demanded without preamble.
Kelly set aside her notes and folded her hands on the table in a slow, deliberate motion. "Good morning, Jack. I'm pleased you've requested this opportunity for us to chat. But no. I can't make you 'not crazy.'"
"Why the fuck not?"
"The short answer is because you're not crazy." She smiled when Jack's eyebrows rose in patent disbelief. "Look. I am aware that you carry a great deal of psychological pain over the events of your past. Terrible things were done to you, and you in turn have done other terrible things. You're troubled and deeply, deeply conflicted, but you're not crazy."
Jack leaned away, tossing one arm over the back of her chair in a bid to look relaxed. "You sound disappointed," she said, dissecting the other woman's tone.
"Quite the contrary - I'm relieved. From your dossier, I was expecting a sociopath or a narcissist," Kelly replied. "I was expecting someone 'crazy.'" She shrugged. "But crazy people don't know they're sick, and they don't want to get better. They don't want to heal."
Rather than acknowledge the accuracy of Kelly's observation, Jack pushed herself off the chair with an explosive sigh, rocking on the balls of her feet as she tried to figure out just how this "healing" thing was supposed to work.
Kelly studied her fingernails and feigned merely casual interest. "So. How are things going with Miranda?"
Jack reared and jabbed her finger toward the yeoman. "Oh, no. Screw you," she snarled.
"I admit I had my doubts about your relationship, at first. But she's brilliant, she's beautiful... and she's strong enough to protect herself, so maybe you're not so afraid of losing her. Or hurting her."
Jack wound up with a biotic charge that would have decimated the furniture in the room and spun to deliver it, only to see the barrel a very large pistol looming right in front of her face.
"Please don't," Kelly said calmly. She released the weapon's safety and held the sight with steady aim on Jack's forehead.
Jack blinked, too stunned to stay mad. She hadn't even seen the yeoman stand, much less draw a weapon from... somewhere. She flicked the biotic charge away, and watched Kelly with unmasked trepidation.
Kelly set the pistol on the table with a pleasant smile and settled back into her seat. "All right, then."
"Fuck," Jack exhaled, somehow drawing the word into multiple syllables. "Suddenly I don't think I'm the crazy one, here."
"The Illusive Man asked Commander Shepard to recruit the most singularly deadly and resourceful people in the Terminus. Do you really think he'd select support staff that couldn't handle themselves in a fight?"
"I guess not," Jack said, still wide-eyed.
Kelly gestured to Jack's empty chair, and waited for the other woman to sit. "I apologize for provoking you," she said, her blandly conversational tone at odds with the bloodbath they'd just narrowly averted. "But I think you'll agree that we'll be much more productive if we simply get to the heart of why you're here."
With a quick look at the pistol on the table, Jack shifted and tucked her hands under her legs. "'Kay."
"As I said before, I can't make you 'not crazy.' But I can help you if you want." She watched Jack bob her head in a slow nod before continuing. "Why does the mention of Miranda bother you? It's quite obvious that you care for her."
Jack clenched her jaw and looked away. "Because it's stupid, and I should know better."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because caring just gets you hurt."
"Why do you say that?"
Jack stared at her in angry disbelief. "Seriously? Doesn't your little shrink script have any other lines?"
Kelly merely gazed back at her with a kind of immutable tranquility which Jack found herself envying. "You have been through a great deal of trauma in your life, Jack. While I can guess at why that would make you distrustful of getting close to others, you are clearly referring to a specific precipitating event." She watched as Jack's nostrils flared, then pitched her voice just a little softer, just a little more coaxing. "What was her name?"
"His name," Jack snapped. "I'm not that picky."
Kelly waited, while Jack slowly realized she'd just played right into the yeoman's strategy, revealing more than she ever meant to.
"Shit," Jack muttered.
"Tell me what happened," Kelly pressed. By then her voice was impossibly gentle, and for once Jack didn't find that demeaning.
She took a deep breath to fight off the tears of old pain and began to talk.
Miranda wasn't at all surprised when her office door chimed in the middle of the night. She smiled a greeting at Jack, who trudged in with her hands buried in her pockets.
"Hey," Jack said, with the customary lift of her chin.
The operative was already on her feet and around the desk, alarmed by Jack's pallor and slumped posture. "Are you all right?" she asked. She drew nearer, until they were close but not quite touching.
"Long day," Jack muttered. "Long, shitty day." She looked at Miranda through thick lashes and tear-streaked makeup. "But I wanted to see you."
Miranda finally surged closer, reaching out and taking gentle hold of the other woman's arms. "I'm glad you came," she murmured, as she tilted her forehead against Jack's and sighed.
Jack shut her eyes. "You fuck me up, you know?" she asked.
"The feeling's mutual," Miranda said with a smile.
They stayed that way for a long time, with the scant contact somehow too much and not enough all at once. When they eventually kissed good night, it was neither an impulse or a tease.
It felt a lot more like a promise.
She hadn't meant to spy on Shepard. She just had the poor luck to choose the corner of Eternity directly opposite from where Shepard was snuggling with that asari.
It might have been a bit sickening, except for the look of utter contentment on Shepard's face.
Jack scowled and assumed her usual air of disinterest, but couldn't quite look away. She'd watched Jane Shepard save the galaxy and earn the fealty of a band of professional misfits and murderers, but she'd never seen the commander look happy before. It was kinda fascinating.
The bartender brought her another drink and Jack spread out, flinging her long legs haphazardly across the furniture to take up as much space as possible. If that didn't dissuade people from wandering too close in search of a seat, a growl would suffice.
So she sprawled in the corner, and she waited like Miranda asked her to, and she tried not to be too obvious about watching Jane Shepard smile.
Eternity was totally not her kind of place. It was too quiet, and aside from the occasional dancer, far too antiseptic. At least Afterlife had crappy lighting and loud music that offered plenty of ways to hide. Here she felt exposed, put on display for Nos Astra's snotty tourist trade.
It was all a sham anyway. She'd spent her share of time in places like Chora's Den and the lower decks of Omega, and she'd seen how asari really behaved. They might like to put on the guise of worldly elegance and sophistication, but when it came down to it, they could seriously party.
Knowing that, she was starting to wonder why Shepard and her girlfriend weren't off somewhere making up for lost time in a more vigorous fashion.
When Miranda finally walked in sometime later, Jack pretended not to notice. When the operative crossed the lounge and exchanged pleasantries with Liara T'soni, Jack pretended she wasn't curious.
When Miranda slid into the booth next to Jack and pointedly stole a sip of her drink, Jack pretended to be outraged.
Miranda grinned at her and set an OSD on the table. "Payment for services rendered," she announced.
"Mmhmm. I cleaned her office of surveillance devices." She pulled out a small packet of tiny appropriated electronic bugs and sorted through them with a practiced eye. "Several of them are quite advanced. I'm actually impressed." She sounded just a bit smug as she continued. "But now with the interference fields I set up, that office is probably the most secure place on Illium."
Jack looked back across the bar and saw that Shepard and T'soni had already bolted, no doubt off to enjoy their newfound privacy. She snorted. "So tomorrow would be a good time to ask Shepard for shit. Got it." She enjoyed the other woman's chuckle before tilting her chin toward the OSD. "What's on that thing?"
At that Miranda hesitated, looking just a bit nervous. "You, actually."
"I commissioned Doctor T'soni to locate records of your life prior to your arrival on Pragia," Miranda explained, searching Jack's face as her tone grew more cautious. "Cerberus maintained meticulous accounting at the facility itself, but not so much before or after. I thought you might want to know more."
"So you hired an information broker to dig up my childhood?" Jack asked in a strained voice. "What'd she find?"
Miranda continued watching her with an uncertain look. "I don't know. It's for you," she said, pushing the OSD across the table toward Jack. "If you ever need it."
Jack couldn't quite decide how she felt at that moment, but her default reliance on irrational, destructive anger seemed like a safe bet. She grit her teeth and tried not to shatter the glass in her hand. The odd chats she'd been having with Kelly Chambers for the past few weeks hadn't really prepared her for the surge of anxiety provoked by a physical manifestation of her past, all wrapped in tidy digital encryption. In a heartbeat, everything was too close - the other bar patrons, the ubiquitous threat of violence from her childhood, the worried understanding of Miranda's gaze. She was convinced she would choke on it, and felt the sudden need to run.
"Let's get out of here," Miranda said, spotting the caged panic brewing behind Jack's eyes. She scooped up the OSD, then grabbed Jack's hand and led her out of the lounge.
They headed down the steps, across the port, then down, and down further still, through hallways and alleys, into spaces deeper and darker as they retreated from the polished sterility of Nos Astra's public facade.
They ended up in a far more dingy, far more authentic asari club, populated by the far less reputable kind of people the port attracted. Jack recognized the name of the place as a reference to asari fertility rituals, which was fitting considering the perpetual, wanton group grind transpiring on its dance floor.
It was perfect.
Miranda lead her through the throng of dancers, then tugged her close while she found her way into the pulsing rhythm of bass and sensory enhancements pumped through the air. It was a wicked thrill, pressing their bodies together with a shared gasp, followed by a mutual tremor of awareness. Jack let the thumping music get in her head and push out the clamor of anxiety, willing herself to stop thinking and just feel. At the same time the prickle of biotic charge from Miranda's hands on the exposed skin at her waist anchored her, pulling her in as they moved against each other. Jack pressed her face to Miranda's neck, savoring the scent and heat and the softness of that dark hair against her cheeks.
Slowly, the twitchy anger and fear receded.
The two women had explored each other rather thoroughly in recent weeks, but they had not yet danced together. Their bodies were practically made for it. Before long they were attracting appreciative glances from all around the club, including the leer of a particularly drunk krogan.
"And I thought the asari dancers were hot," the krogan belted out, belching rancid breath right into Jack's face. "You humans should come dance for us," he said, indicating his equally inebriated mates.
"Fuck off," Jack growled, as she closed her eyes to enjoy the feeling of Miranda's fingertips slipping under the waistband of her pants.
Even in the throbbing din of the club, the telltale mechanical noise of the cocked shotgun drew a great deal of attention. The krogan hefted his weapon and shuffled closer as the crowd on the dance floor around them skittered away. "It wasn't a request, human," he rumbled.
Finally, the two women pulled apart, just enough to share a knowing smirk. The implants in Miranda's fingers flared briefly as she extended her hand to toss a biotic lift at the hefty krogan, knocking him off his feet. Half a second later Jack lashed out with a throw that blasted him across the room and into a wall. He seemed to hang there suspended for a moment before sliding down and crumpling to the floor, unconscious.
Even minor violence was inordinately satisfying, and Jack was sporting a wild grin when she noticed the anxious looks from the club patrons as they all stared at her. "What?" she called with a careless shrug. "He fell."
Miranda swung them around in a twirl and laughed, and Jack couldn't help but kiss her. She felt Miranda's smile under her lips, and for a tantalizing moment the knot of feeling in her chest swelled and broke over in joy so raw it actually hurt.
In that instant she understood she was no longer the scared, angry kid who fought because she didn't know what else to do. She was no longer the psychotic reject Shepard dug out of cold storage to exploit for a suicidal bid to save the galaxy. And she certainly wasn't defined by whatever T'soni had unearthed and put on that damned OSD.
She had friends, she had purpose, and she had a breathtakingly beautiful woman who could do amazing things with that perfect, engineered tongue. What else did she need?
When they came up for air the club had returned to its previous controlled frenzy, and the dancers were twisting around them again in euphoric rhythm. Off to the side the krogan's comrades prodded at him with their feet. He was still out cold, but no one could muster much concern.
Jack was shaky from the emotional turbulence of the previous hour, but still felt like celebrating. She wove her way through the dance floor to the bar, ordered a bottle of something outrageously expensive and blue, then found a booth in a dim alcove to sit and share the drink with her companion.
They had to lean close to hear each other, which was a convenient excuse to sustain the contact that was making Jack's blood burn. "How'd you find this place?" she asked, directly into Miranda's ear.
"Shepard recommended it. She seemed to think you weren't comfortable in Eternity."
With a faint grin, Jack raised a glass to their absent commander and knocked it back, savoring the blaze of alien booze as it settled in her gut. She slammed the glass to the table and made a beckoning gesture, which Miranda eventually interpreted to refer to the OSD. She retrieved it and handed it over to Jack, who toyed with it, watching the club's lights refract in the holographic media.
"You don't have to keep trying to make up for what Cerberus did," Jack said. "That's not up to you."
"It wasn't about Cerberus," Miranda countered. "It's about you."
She ducked her head, fighting tears and the immediate impulse to distrust Miranda's claim. As a "couple" or whatever, they were still figuring each other out, and she hadn't really gotten Chambers to decode the complicated tangle of crap Miranda made her feel. The strain of carnal competition at least made some kind of sense; the desire to curl against the operative's shoulder and just listen to her breathe for hours on end did not.
After a moment Jack felt Miranda's fingers covering hers atop the OSD. "I'll wipe it," the operative promised.
"Nah," Jack said. "I might need it, someday." She looked up again with a sigh. "Thank you."
For that she was rewarded with a sweet smile. They settled against each other and enjoyed the rare cozy normality as they "chatted," shouting over the music into each other's ears. They talked about their teammates, their mission, and their commander, trading observation and wit that for once wasn't spiked with the edgy strain they usually flung at each other.
Booze helped, Jack decided, even though neither of them had had much to drink. Or maybe she was just too tired to put up her usual fight. It couldn't possibly be that she felt normal alongside this least-normal of humans.
At some point the bothersome krogan awoke and began harassing the other patrons again. In the outer edges of her attention, Jack noticed he was at the bar griping about some human female who wouldn't properly entertain him. When she turned to tell him to go fuck himself, she saw he was standing next to Jane Shepard, who was downing batarian ale with alacrity that made the bartender wince, looking just the slightest bit unsteady on her feet.
"Shit," she muttered, as she climbed out of her seat. Miranda echoed the imprecation and followed, and they moved to flank Shepard just as they had dozens of times in battle.
"Commander, is there a problem?" Miranda asked, as she leaned in closer. Jack busied herself with flicking rude biotic gestures at the krogan until he recognized her and ambled off in search of more amenable aliens.
"Only an empty glass," Jane announced, oblivious to any thwarted krogan vulgarities as she motioned to the bartender for a refill.
Jack propped an elbow on the bar next to Shepard. "Thought you and T'soni were... reuniting," she drawled, with a twitch of her fingers to indicate the expected nature of that liaison. "So why are you here looking like your hamster just died, instead of screwing her blind?" She shrugged at Miranda's exasperated look. "What? You know I don't do 'tact,'" she said.
Jane snorted and threw back her noxious drink. "I didn't save the galaxy for the damned hamster," she said, her voice low and dangerous. When she stepped away from the bar and reeled, the two women beside her moved in concert to grab her elbows and guide her discreetly back to their shadowy refuge.
Once there, the commander clenched her fists on the table and stared across the bar at the mass undulation of dancing bodies. Eventually she noticed the half-empty bottle of blue liquid on the table before her. "That stuff any good?"
Jack pushed the bottle out of easy reach. "Stop fucking around, Shepard. Is this about that asshole Shadow Broker?"
"How did you know that?"
"I was there," Jack reminded her, uncharacteristically patient with her impaired CO. "When T'soni threatened to grind the guy into dust. And you had Cheerleader here hacking his financial network..."
Jane swung startled eyes over at Miranda. "You did what?!"
"I suspected the effort might eventually prove useful," Miranda said, with a prim shrug that was not at all apologetic.
Jack barked out a laugh. "Nice," she muttered. "Next time tell me when we're doing shit behind Shepard's back."
With a frustrated sigh, Jane rubbed her eyes. "Liara has unfinished business with him."
Jack was rather familiar with that kind of burning, personal vendetta. "So she wants to take him down," she said. "But she won't let you help because you're way too visible and tend to leave a trail of blown up shit wherever you go." Jane stuttered in protest at the accusation, but Jack only rolled her eyes. "I don't do 'tact,' you don't do 'subtle.' Whatever. Let us do it."
"Us?" Miranda perked up, intrigued by the notion.
Jane was shaking her head. "No. I can't ask you to do that."
"You're not asking," Jack countered. "Fuck, Shepard. You wandered all over the damned galaxy to help all of us with our pissant little problems. Why can't we help you for once?"
"I'm not the mission," the commander said, unwilling to give up her brooding.
"You were, once," Miranda said. "To me, and to Liara."
At that they lapsed into silence until Jack relented and pushed the bottle back across the table toward Shepard, who gave her a faint scowl. "You just want to wander off and be a pirate," Jane said.
"I want the chick in charge of saving the galaxy not to be moping in a seedy bar over some dipshit love affair," Jack snapped, losing her patience. "Our job is to make sure you can do your job. It's what we do," she insisted. She twirled T'soni's OSD idly around her fingers and looked over to Miranda for confirmation. "Right?"
Miranda smiled at her in a slow, amazed kind of way. "Right," she murmured, before turning back to Shepard. "It's what we do, Commander."
Jane considered it for a moment longer, then gave her 2IC a stern look. "It's all unofficial. We don't have the Alliance or Cerberus or the Council to back us up."
"So much the better," Miranda said with a smirk.
"And it's Liara's op," Jane insisted. "She calls the shots."
"We're her eyes and ears," the operative promised. "Nothing more."
Jane sighed, then dipped her head once. "All right. You ship off on her order."
Jack and Miranda shared a conspiratorial look. This was gonna be fun. Dangerous, tricky, potentially deadly fun.
"I'll begin the necessary preparations," Miranda announced, before nodding to her CO and slipping out of the booth.
Jack hesitated before following, having spotted Liara striding anxiously into the club. "Looks like you've got company, Shepard," she muttered. She might have been envying the commander earlier, but this time she was definitely not planning to stick around to watch the reunion. "You okay?"
Jane nodded, and gave her a shrug. "Cybernetic enhancements don't let you stay drunk for long," she said, sounding like she regretted it.
"Yeah." Jack frowned, and leaned closer. "Did you really save the galaxy for her?"
"Twice now. And counting," Jane replied with a sad little smile.
"That's really fucking pathetic," Jack concluded, grinning back. She gave the commander a friendly clap on the shoulder and headed after Miranda with a distinct strut in her step.
Considering how stupidly happy she was to see the worried, annoyed look on Liara's face when she approached the table, Jane couldn't help but agree.
Under other circumstances, her language might have been more colorful, and certainly louder. Instead, in deference to the unconscious woman on the bed behind her, Jack bit back the stream of panicked cursing that wanted to claw its way out of her throat.
She paced in front of the enormous window, kept her eyes on the stars, fought the desire to check Miranda's vitals with her omnitool for the eighth time, and tried to wait.
A few hours earlier...
Miranda woke early, indulged in a lazy stretch under crisp hotel sheets, then undertook the usual task of locating her bedmate. Jack was by nature a restless soul who had trouble staying still, even in a hotel bed as comfortable as this one, with a naked former Cerberus operative as added incentive.
Miranda was learning not to take it personally.
She spotted Jack perched on the corner of the bed, with her knees drawn under her chin as she stared out the window that dominated the bedroom wall. Miranda had chosen this particular hotel on Omega for just this particular view, and she spent a moment enjoying the sight of Jack's deceptively delicate frame against the stars.
Slowly, making just enough noise so Jack could tell she was coming, Miranda shifted across the bed and settled behind her companion, dragging a sheet along with her to ward off the early morning chill.
"How can you sleep with all that out there?" Jack asked.
Miranda frowned as she tried to decode the question. "You mean the stars?"
Jack nodded and drew her legs just a little tighter against herself.
"Well, I've always liked looking out at the sky," Miranda said. "When I was a little girl, I would lie in bed under my big bedroom window and dream of escaping to wander the stars on my own."
"That why your quarters have windows on the Normandy?"
"Exactly," Miranda said with a smile. "I intercepted the ship's early designs to include them." For a moment she let herself wonder why the Illusive Man had allowed the frivolous addition.
"Windows bug me," Jack declared. "You see too much. Not enough. Something."
With that prompt, Miranda's enhanced memory flashed back to their mission on Pragia, where she had hung back a few paces while Jack took Shepard on a tour through the facility as remembered by a scared, angry little girl. There was the desk Jack would hide under. There was the bed with the restraints she'd practice escaping. There was the window, the two-way mirror she'd pounded on for hours on end, screaming for help, hoping for anyone to notice or care.
Not for the first time, her heart hurt for the child Jack had been, for the torture she'd endured and basic affection she'd been denied. Miranda sighed, then reached out and gingerly enfolded Jack into a hug, tucking the bunched sheet around them both in a safe, warm cocoon. Jack stiffened at first, not sure how to share this kind of embrace. Eventually she relaxed against the other woman with a shaky breath.
As different as they sometimes seemed, they had surprising things in common. They had both grown up in prisons of a sort, each with one window, one portal to the outside world. From her perspective, Jack had seen people who would only ignore and betray her; Miranda had seen endless freedom and possibility.
"I can turn up the opacity on the window," Miranda offered. "If that would help you sleep."
"Nah," Jack replied. "Sleep sucks. Dreams suck." She thought for a moment and shrugged. "Besides - might be nice to try to see it another way."
Miranda smiled, feeling the triumph of that particular breakthrough. She turned her head and planted a kiss just behind Jack's ear.
Jack scowled and kept her eyes on the window, fighting the urge to look back at the other woman. This kind of closeness felt nice and all, but it still seemed weird. It was antithetical to her mental insistence on defining their relationship as "convenient colleagues that fuck," and reminded her that she actually, truly, deeply cared. As a result she spent most of her time around Miranda teetering between some kind of bullshit happiness and unbridled terror.
"Bet Daddy would kick himself if he knew about that window," Jack said, seeking a distraction. "Maybe if he hadn't given you a room with a view you would've stuck around."
"Maybe," Miranda said. She propped her chin on Jack's shoulder and cast a pensive look out at the stars.
"'Course, the galaxy would be completely screwed right about now. That'd show him," Jack mused with a smirk. "When we're done helping Shepard with her love life, we should pay him a visit." For a moment she enjoyed the mental picture of his head exploding when Miranda introduced her heavily-tattooed ex-convict girlfriend, and didn't notice that Miranda had gone silent and very, very still against her.
Eventually, she threw a glance over her shoulder, spotting the other woman's preoccupation. "Hey," Jack said. "Why the hell do you still let him get to you?"
Miranda managed a faint smile, not needing to explain the burden of childhood inadequacy. "Sometimes I imagine trying to tell him about what I've done, who I've helped. Then all I can hear is his litany of disappointment and betrayal."
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Jack snarled. "You saved the goddamned galaxy, and survived shit no other human could have. He couldn't make you do any of that. You're brave and smart and tough all on your own." Agitated, she untucked her legs and turned within Miranda's embrace, then grabbed at her with an intense look. "He doesn't deserve that part of you. Don't give that to him."
"Sorry," Miranda replied, ducking her head. "Old habit."
Jack held herself still and tried not to lose her temper. While she considered it a sign of personal growth that she hadn't yet stomped around the room and broken something, that only left her with a lot of frustration and no obvious way to vent it...
... except for the part where they were both already naked and in bed together. That certainly had possibilities.
She yanked the tangled sheet away from their bodies and lunged, knocking Miranda backwards onto the mattress. Miranda panted out a surprised chuckle and looked up at Jack as the other woman arched over her, pinning her arms down.
From that vantage point, Jack paused for a moment to study her. The operative's dark hair splayed against the bright white bedding, and her pale, unblemished skin stood out in stark relief against Jack's own mottled tattoos. Most striking - and most beautiful - was the expression on Miranda's face, which contained equal parts amusement, arousal, and trust.
Miranda took advantage of Jack's momentary distraction, loosing a tiny biotic burst to overcome the grip on her wrists and flip them both over, rolling into the middle of the bed so that she was stretched out on top. "She who hesitates is lost," Miranda purred, with a predatory gaze.
"Yeah, sounds right," Jack agreed, without a hint of protest. A sick feeling of helplessness knotted in her gut, but not from the position she was in, and not because she felt threatened by Miranda seizing control. Instead, she had the distinct notion that this depth of emotional attachment was stupid and dangerous, especially because she found herself craving it more each day. She looked up at Miranda and waited, half expecting to be used and tossed aside, again.
As if recognizing the rare moment of vulnerability, Miranda gave her a gentle smile, then dipped her head to claim a proper good morning kiss. Eventually her body relaxed and pressed into Jack's with soft weight, and all dread of emotional weakness fled Jack's mind. Besides, she thought, as Miranda's hands roamed her bare skin, if Jane Shepard could be the biggest badass this side of the galactic core and still spare the time to moon over some asari, maybe the whole "relationship" thing wasn't so pathetic after all.
Somewhere in the midst of overheated skin and slick friction, Miranda realized they would be late for their planned rendezvous with yet another agent of the Shadow Broker. She mentioned as much in a breathless gasp, prompting Jack to pause and give her a wicked look before resuming the activity that had made Miranda breathless in the first place. Spurred by Miranda's groan of approval, Jack redoubled her efforts and drove them both harder and faster, all in the interests of obliging the schedule.
Oh well. The bad guys weren't likely to notice a few extra bruises, anyway.
In the shuttlecab, Jack stretched out with a satisfied grin and propped her booted feet on the dash as the spires of Omega's most expensive hotel receded behind them. Miranda steered the vehicle away from the station's high-end district and toward the tangled remnants of mining infrastructure that protruded out the bottom end of the asteroid.
Their mission for the day was to crash a data drop, a trade set up between Miranda's old colleague Ish and a mercenary rumored to be high on the Shadow Broker's payroll. It was the latest step in their investigation, each tiny bit of progress bringing them closer to pinpointing the man himself.
If he was a man at all. Jack wasn't convinced.
"So T'soni thinks the Shadow Broker is just some guy, like the Illusive Man," Jack said, speculative.
"She's not the only one. Cerberus intelligence also concluded that the Shadow Broker was most likely a single individual," Miranda replied. "If instead there were a cell of information traders sharing the designation, they would have been far more easily exposed."
"Yeah, but I don't buy it. The money trail stretches back to dummy corporations established two hundred years ago. Who just hides out and meddles in galactic politics for that long?" Jack scowled. "Maybe he's not a 'he' but like some series of people who pass on the title when they find a worthy successor."
Miranda cast an amused look her way. "Perhaps. Do you want to be the next to inherit a vast information-dealing empire?"
"Only if I could change the name," Jack replied, with a disdainful sniff. "'Shadow Broker' sounds like a pussy."
"And I suspect you wouldn't take well to a life of meddling anonymity," Miranda said with a chuckle.
"I could," Jack protested. "Hell, that's what we're doing now, and it's pretty okay. Right?" She glanced sidelong at Miranda, hating herself for the insecurity that prompted her to ask.
"Better than I expected it to be," Miranda admitted. "Considering we haven't tried to kill each other yet."
"Well fuck, now you've jinxed it."
With the expected snort, Miranda focused her attention on locating their landing zone, off a seldom-used dock near the ore processing plant. They disembarked and headed down a twisting corridor to a dank, cavernous warehouse filled with large pieces of machinery in various states of disrepair. Some bits still groaned along in their appointed tasks, sorting chunks of rock to be refined and processed elsewhere in Omega. The fitful emergency lighting only made the air seem hotter and more stagnant.
The two women snuck in unnoticed, took cover behind a pile of abandoned industrial equipment, and settled in to wait. After weeks spent on this little hunting trip, the whole setup was so routine that Jack actually yawned.
This latest rendezvous came about like a dozen had before: They found someone who knew someone else who had traded information once or twice, and eventually Liara T'soni could link that contact to a vast network of agents all employed by the mysterious Shadow Broker. Their current target was some batarian referenced in a number of recent high-end deals, a merc who specialized in intelligence about Alliance fleet movements. Miranda had manufactured a bit of convincing data for Ish to sell, and upon purchase the batarian in turn would be forced to confirm its authenticity. Once the embedded data flag made its way to his source and phoned home to Miranda's logs, they'd have a new target, presumably even higher up the food chain.
Even better, once the batarian had performed his prescribed task, they could detain him and "induce" him to share any other information he knew. That was Jack's favorite part.
The whole investigative process was fairly tedious, and Jack was surprised to find she enjoyed it. There was undeniable satisfaction in reading Miranda's daily progress reports as they uncovered more and more of the Shadow Broker's organization. Plus, she got to beat up criminals and their asshole associates on a regular basis. All new do-gooding impulses aside, a bit of violence still made her guts warm in a way few other things could.
From around the rusting edge of their cover, she spotted movement on the far end of the warehouse, and signaled as much to Miranda.
"That's Ish," Miranda confirmed under her breath.
They watched as Ish made his way across the room. He looked nervous, which was not at all unusual for a salarian, but it put Jack on edge.
"Easy," Miranda whispered. "He knows what he's doing."
"Then where's the batarian?" Jack whispered back. She scowled and drew her pistol, unsurprised when Miranda did the same.
"Over there," Miranda said, pointing to movement in distant shadows. A moment later, they heard the distinct sound of large metal doors sliding shut, as all the exits from the warehouse sealed in unison.
For perhaps the first time in her life, Jack decided profanity was actually gratuitous. She only sighed and waited to see what was going to go wrong next.
Ish made a valiant attempt to proceed with the deal as planned. "Hello?" he called, peering into the jagged darkness. After several seconds the scurrying in the shadows resolved into a dozen vorcha, who took up defensive positions across the far end of the warehouse.
"Shadow Broker not stupid, salarian," hissed the vorcha leader. "Know you're working for humans. Place bounty on humans."
Miranda scowled. "Well, at least we've finally got his attention," she said. "We can use that to our advantage."
"Sure, right after those vorcha slaughter your friend," Jack muttered.
They watched while Ish spread his hands wide and professed complete ignorance, then dove for cover. Several of the vorcha charged, moving right into Jack and Miranda's line of fire.
What followed was the standard, by-the-numbers merc assault, loud and explosive as biotics and more conventional weaponry clashed in the enclosed space. At one point Jack slid behind a massive storage container and stopped to watch Miranda fire off a precision shot that ignited one of the vorcha's pyro tanks. She couldn't help but admire Miranda's deadly efficiency; the operative had a brutal kind of intensity that Jack found almost elegant. Miranda took the violence Jack herself was conditioned to enjoy and turned it beautiful, like some kind of twisted, savage art.
Miranda noticed Jack's attention and grinned back, tilting her eyebrows in a suggestive way that stirred memories of how they'd spent their morning.
It was ultimately that moment of distraction that cost them the battle. Even as the last of the vorcha fell, another shadow rose unnoticed behind Miranda, then suddenly the batarian mercenary emerged with a roar, smashing the butt of his rifle into the operative's jaw when she spun to face him.
Miranda crashed to the ground with a sickening thud, as Jack cursed the dirty haze of battle that obscured her line of sight. She scrambled behind her cover to find a better angle.
The batarian was enormous even for his species, bristling with armor and bad attitude. He kicked at the fragile-looking human sprawled before him, flipping Miranda over and taking feral satisfaction from her dazed moan. Convinced that she could not possibly be a threat, he snarled and grabbed her by the neck, pulling her tightly against his own body as a living shield. He peered into the charred, smoking remnants of the recent battle. "So where's your friend?" he asked conversationally.
"All those eyes and you can't see a bloody thing," Miranda grunted, as she clawed at the massive forearm pinned across her throat. "She's already gone."
In her hiding spot, Jack restrained a growl of frustration. She'd been expecting a coded plan of attack, but not that one. Miranda was telling her to escape while she could.
The batarian's many eyes narrowed, and he fired a few indiscriminate rounds into the smoke. "I don't believe you."
"You idiot. She has no reason to stay," Miranda said as loud as she could, fighting for breath and willing Jack to get the hell out. "Besides, she knows the bounty is worthless if you only capture one of us."
Jack heard her loud and clear, and understood the subtext of unspoken orders as well: Find Ish. Find an exit. Get the shuttlecab. I'll get the information we need and meet you later.
It was their standard fallback plan, and it was a good one. If they got separated, one would try to complete the given mission, and the other would make sure an escape route was clear. It made enough sense that Jack had never argued about it, despite her natural tendencies to argue about everything.
Except now that she was faced with the reality of walking away from Miranda Lawson and leaving her in the hands of a violent mercenary, she just couldn't go. She shut her eyes and let her head loll against the crate. Fuck, Kelly Chambers was going to get a kick out of this. Emotionally-stunted Subject Zero had actually found someone she couldn't leave behind. And what a glorious time to have that particular revelation.
Rather than dwell on it further, Jack grit her teeth and swung away from her cover, pointing her pistol at the batarian's enormous head. "Let her go, you son of a bitch," she growled. "Or I paint the wall with your brains."
He actually laughed. "Oh, look. There's the rest of my bounty," he said with gleeful menace. He tightened his chokehold on Miranda, pulling her even tighter across his body. "You humans are so predictable."
Annoyance with Jack's inability to follow orders warred with the effects of dwindling oxygen in her brain, and Miranda summoned the last of her strength to act. She curled against the batarian's grip and drew up her legs before rearing to deliver a hard heel to the anatomical equivalent of his kneecap, hoping other bipedal species had the same general vulnerabilities humans did.
He yowled at the unexpected pain and hurled Miranda away. She collided against a nearby crate and crumpled to the ground, while he promptly lost most of his cranium courtesy of Jack's pistol.
Jack shot him a few more times for good measure, then jogged over to check on Miranda. A quick scan with her omnitool found nothing life threatening, so she stepped back over to the batarian and hacked his hardsuit, extracting volumes of encrypted information they could pore through later.
She knelt at Miranda's side just as the operative stirred and tried to get moving under her own power. Jack pulled Miranda's arm across her shoulders and hauled her upright, then steered them both toward the exit. Miranda uttered an incoherent protest that might have had something to do with the mission taking priority, but Jack didn't feel like sticking around to address that and possibly meet any of the batarian's friends. She headed out the way they came in, ran into a panicked Ish along the way, then bullied him into helping her get Miranda back to their vehicle.
Once back at the hotel, Jack decided they were reasonably safe. No one had pursued them through normal station traffic, and none of the hotel staff seemed overly bothered by the battered pair limping along to their room. On Omega, a scruffy, barely-dressed ex-con dragging along a barely-conscious beauty queen hardly warranted notice.
She muscled Miranda onto the bed, activated some aggressive medigel treatments, then backed away, skittering into the shadows in the corner of the room while Miranda dozed into a healing sleep.
An hour later, Jack was starting to get twitchy.
Under other circumstances, her language might have been more colorful, and certainly louder. Instead, in deference to the unconscious woman on the bed behind her, Jack bit back the stream of panicked cursing that wanted to claw its way out of her throat.
She paced in front of the enormous window, kept her eyes on the stars, fought the desire to check Miranda's vitals with her omnitool for the eighth time, and tried to wait.
Sometime later Miranda woke and sat up, though Jack made no move to help her. They simply eyed each other and weighed the building tension in the distance between them.
"So, that could have gone better," Miranda said dryly, as she swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood, the stiffness of her motions belying the remaining pain of her injuries. "Did you forget our fallback plan?"
"No," Jack said.
"I didn't think so. Listen, I am aware that you don't appreciate concepts like 'chain of command' or 'following orders from the Cheerleader,' but for this mission I thought we had agreed I would take the lead." She flung out a hand in frustration. "Which is why it went to hell when you didn't bother doing what I told you."
She was tempted to point out that it had gone to hell when they'd been distracted by each other. Instead Jack only nodded, trying to keep her composure. She crossed her arms and huddled a little more deeply into the corner.
It was far from the reaction Miranda had expected, but the dull throb from blows she'd taken during the fight sidetracked further consideration. She shut her eyes and worked her jaw gingerly, then pressed a few fingers to the spot where the merc had caught her with the butt of his rifle. "Well, that will be a lovely bruise," she muttered, as she queued up medigel on her omnitool to take care of the worst of it. She sat back on the corner of the bed with a sigh, and braced the palm of one hand against her aching ribcage. "I almost prefer being shot," she said, annoyed.
Jack stepped out of the corner and knelt at the side of the bed, gently pulling Miranda's hand away. In its place, she pressed her own fingers, flaring with a low level biotic field that penetrated Miranda's skin and sent a warmth deep into bruised tissue. Miranda shuddered a bit before slowly relaxing against the touch.
"Why aren't you arguing with me?" Miranda asked, canting her head to one side with a wince.
"Because you're right," Jack answered, surprising them both. "I fucked up. You're in command." She stared determinedly at a distant spot on the floor, avoiding Miranda's curious gaze. "I knew this was a bad idea," she announced.
"May I remind you, this entire mission was your idea," Miranda countered.
"Not the mission. This," Jack snapped, pointing between them with her free hand. "This was a bad idea."
Miranda sucked in a slow, measured breath, fighting pain and impatience. "Only because you don't follow orders," she said, her voice strained.
"It was a stupid order," Jack argued, forgetting that she hadn't meant to argue at all. "I wasn't going to leave you behind."
The operative shook her head with faint annoyance. "You know I can take care of myself."
"Not my goddamn point." Jack shifted to sit on the edge of the bed beside the other woman, keeping her hand in place against Miranda's side. She'd reached the limit of her communicativeness for the moment, and knew if she was pushed she'd just get pissed off and say something stupid. She silently willed Miranda to drop it and move on. Otherwise she might have to explain the life-altering conclusion that was busy roaring through her brain, that she'd actually found a person she couldn't just abandon.
Speaking was painful, so Miranda was happy to sit in silence for a while and let the medigel and Jack's gentle, awkward touch take the edge off her injuries. After a few minutes she cast a look over her shoulder. "The mission is more important than either of us," she murmured.
"No. It's not."
Miranda exhaled a faint laugh. "Then you're right. Maybe this was a bad idea." She stared out the window at the stars, remembering how they'd looked just that morning. "I wouldn't have left you behind, either," she admitted in a soft voice.
Jack fought off the angry wash of instinctive denial. Other people had made claims like that over the years - men and women, friends and lovers. Hell, even Shepard had made a couple overblown speeches with the same general notion. It had always been bullshit, and Jack knew better than to hope it was sincere.
This was so stupid. This was the risk she never needed to take, with the absolute last person she should ever trust. It was time to bolt, time to cut ties before she got hurt. She could run, she could ditch Miranda and Shepard and this idiotic mission, she could disappear into the underbelly of the galaxy, and no one would even be surprised. She could fend for herself and be alone and free.
All she needed to do was pull her hand away from Miranda's soft skin, stand up, and walk away. All the stars were still out there, outside that huge fucking window, and she'd just pick one and hide there Miranda would never find her... presuming she even bothered to look.
Jack fought in her own head for a long moment, but ultimately remembered that running was always a miserable, shitty plan, and it never went the way she hoped it would. Maybe it really was time to try seeing things another way.
She reached up with her free hand, ran her fingertips through Miranda's hair, and took a chance on something even scarier than Shepard's suicide mission. "Yeah, I know," she said.
She even believed it.
The encrypted message was short and to the point. A string of coordinates on Zanethu, and two words:
Jane stared at her terminal so long Yeoman Chambers eventually stepped over to check on her.
"Commander?" Kelly asked quietly. "Are you all right?"
With a slow smile, Jane closed the message and straightened. "Yeah," she said, as she strode toward the cockpit to order Joker to take the ship to Illium. "For the first time in two and a half years."
Mid-morning on Zanethu, under a bland yellow sky, Liara T'soni got her first good look at the Shadow Broker in person.
Then she looked over her shoulder, at where Jack and Miranda stood, waiting.
"This cannot be true," she said.
"I assure you, it is," Miranda replied. "We've thoroughly verified the intel."
Jane pulled out her sniper rifle to get a better look through the scope. "That building is the Shadow Broker?"
"The artificial intelligence housed within it - aye, Commander," the operative said.
Next to her, Jack huffed with impatience. "It's a computer, Shepard. A fucking computer." She threw a hand out toward the small structure nestled in the valley hundreds of meters below. "It wanted to sell you out to get in good with the Reapers."
"It sees organic beings only as bits of data to manipulate for its own purposes," Miranda added.
Jane stowed her rifle and looked around at the charred bits of mech and crumpled defensive turrets that littered the valley around them. "So I guess it already knows we're here," she said idly.
"It's cut off," Miranda said. "The quantum entanglement arrays were our first target, then the sensors. After that, it was simply a matter of taking down the defenses."
"If it were human, it'd be shitting itself by now," Jack said with a satisfied smirk.
"Something that advanced can't just be an isolated node," Jane said. "Wouldn't it have redundancies?"
"It did. On Alingon. I destroyed it," Liara said. Her voice sounded faint and far away, even over the comm systems in their helmets. "This structure was built by a turian information dealer two hundred years ago, with offshoots of geth technology stolen from the quarians. He thought he was constructing an assistant that would help him sift through volumes of intercepted data from around the galaxy. Instead, it saw its creator as an impediment to its purpose and had him eliminated by his rivals."
"You knew?" Miranda asked.
"I suspected," Liara admitted. "But until now my suspicions were mere conjecture based on patterns and coincidence, not fact."
Jane only shook her head, remembering the young asari scientist who had pieced together the true story of the Prothean extinction in much the same way.
"I did know this structure existed, somewhere," Liara mused aloud. "I thought it might be one of the Shadow Broker's ancillary facilities, like Alingon. But..." She turned and looked to Jack and Miranda. "How did you locate it?"
The two women shared a glance. "We had some help," Miranda replied. "Your friend Feron said to say hello."
Liara exhaled a weak laugh of disbelief. Two and a half years of heartbreak and loss came crashing to halt, leaving her dizzy. She felt Jane step to her side and put a supportive hand to her back.
"What do you want to do?" Jane asked in a low voice.
The asari forced herself to rely upon decades of scientific training and consider the question in an academic, abstract way. "In its current state, it has no means of replicating or repairing itself. Its core infrastructure is aging badly, and will fail without external intervention. It likely saw the Reapers as its only hope for long-term survival." She looked back to Shepard. "If you think about it, it is an amazing discovery," she continued, with a philosophical tone. "That AI likely knows more about galactic history than all the Council races combined. It may have gathered countless scraps of information about the Protheans, about the geth..."
"Not to mention that big pile of cash at its disposal," Jack said.
"Which we've redirected, Commander," Miranda added.
Jane nodded, and stepped even closer to Liara, lightly thunking their helmets together. "We can take it apart and study it, if you want," Jane said gently. "It's your call."
Gazing into the eyes of her bondmate after so long apart, Liara could no longer summon the veneer of scholarly detachment. That thing had taken her love and then taunted her, breaking her over and over again for two long years. It would have them all killed without a moment's remorse, and would help the Reapers overrun the galaxy if given the chance. "I want it gone," she said, her voice shaking with mounting fury. "I want it obliterated. I want it erased from the face of the galaxy."
Jane gave her a sad, understanding smile. "We can do that."
Jack flexed her arms with a grin. "Fuck yeah."
A couple hours later they had the explosives loaded into Jack and Miranda's shuttle, which would serve as a delivery mechanism for what Jack called "the Shepard Special." The charges on board were only enough to inflict cursory damage on the target structure, but when they detonated the shuttle's mass effect generator, Zanethu would have a new crater visible from orbit.
Miranda sat at the Kodiak's controls, remotely steering the other vessel into place as they hovered a few dozen kilometers away.
Out the viewport in the Kodiak's cargo area, Jack eyed the shuttle's engine exhaust as it disappeared into the valley, and felt a faint pang of regret that the vessel would meet its end in such an abrupt way. It had been barely serviceable for the extent of their mission to find the Shadow Broker, but she'd grown oddly fond of the temperamental bucket of bolts. She and Miranda had spent long days cooped up inside while hunting down new leads, yawing between extremes of amiable camaraderie and snarling tension, generally unable to keep their hands off each other. In some corner of her brain she had harbored a tiny fantasy of the two of them riding that shuttle off to face new adventures, wandering the galaxy together. She scowled at her own annoying lapse into sentimental bullshit, then noticed Liara standing next to her at the viewport with an anxious look on her face.
When Miranda announced that both ships were in position, Jack held out a detonator switch to the asari, waiting as preoccupied eyes swung over to focus on her. "It helps," Jack said simply.
Liara took the detonator with a dazed murmur of gratitude. Jack shuffled away to join Miranda in the cockpit, nodding to Shepard on the way. Jane stood and moved behind Liara, aching uncertainty evident in every awkward movement.
"You okay?" Jane whispered.
The other woman did not answer. Instead she looked down at the detonator switch in her hand, and flicked open the safety with her thumb. With a decisive click, she depressed the trigger and fired a signal at the waiting explosives.
They were already moving away, but the shockwave caught them and tossed the Kodiak like a leaf in the wind, knocking the occupants off-balance. Jane clutched at Liara and struggled to remain on her feet, while Liara stood impassive, watching the catastrophic destruction until it blurred behind them in the cloudy atmosphere.
Only then did Liara discard the switch and turn to Jane, pulling her into an embrace so tight it would have hurt a human who wasn't cybernetically enhanced. The commander exhaled a sigh of relief and hugged her back, then reached over and tapped the comm. "Take us home," Jane ordered, in a tired voice.
"Come see me later," Miranda requested softly, as she headed toward the elevator from Normandy's docking bay.
Jack nodded and watched the door close behind her, then slipped into the stairwell. She heard the familiar chatter of Ken and Gabby's bickering, then headed down the steps toward her old space in the guts of the ship. She was surprised to see the area had gone untouched, and was even more surprised at how much that mattered. She paced a few laps around the small hold, set her weapons on the counter, sat on her cot, then hopped up again and fidgeted with restless energy.
"I made sure it stayed exactly how you left it," came Kelly's voice behind her.
Jack spun to face the yeoman. "Oh. Thanks, I guess," she said, hesitant.
"I'm so glad you and Miranda have returned," Kelly said, beaming at her in that surreal, perky way. "There have been so many changes on board since you left."
"Yeah?" Jack asked. "Who bailed?"
"Jacob decided to report back to the Illusive Man. Thane left to spend time with his son. Kasumi just... disappeared, one day, while we were at port on Omega. Professor Solus, Zaeed, and Samara all had obligations elsewhere. But Commander Shepard just plows ahead, undaunted." She shrugged, and looked a little sad. "I hope you and I will have the chance to resume our sessions. I get the feeling you had an eventful trip."
"You just want new shit to gossip about," Jack grumbled, without any real rancor. She kicked at the frame of her cot, settling it more closely to the bulkhead. "But yeah, it was 'eventful.'"
"Good," Kelly chirped. "I look forward to finding out more. The next phase of our mission should be very exciting. Doctor T'soni will be a fascinating addition to the crew."
"I'm flattered that you think so," came an amused voice from the stairs. Liara emerged with a smile, and nodded a greeting to the yeoman.
Kelly flushed a bit, but her good natured expression didn't falter. "Doctor, it's good to see you again. Jack, please feel free to set up an appointment to see me later." She hesitated for a moment before stepping forward and wrapping her arms around Jack's shoulders in a quick hug.
Jack only blinked, unable to muster any other reaction beyond utter shock while Kelly pulled away, grinned, and bounced up the stairs away from the hold.
"I apologize for interrupting," Liara was saying when Jack had recovered enough to pay attention. "And for disturbing you. Jane mentioned that you do not generally care for company." She watched as Jack held her hands out, nonplussed, and took that as an invitation to continue. "I wanted to properly introduce myself, and to thank you for your assistance in tracking the Shadow Broker."
"Oh, that." Jack shook her head to coax her brain into cooperating again. "Yeah, it was no big deal. Kinda fun, actually."
"It is a 'big deal' to me," Liara countered. "And to the Commander, though like yourself she will be reluctant to admit it."
Jack smirked. "Well, she's got that whole stoic soldier routine down to an artform."
"Indeed." Liara cocked her head with a faint smile. "I suspect that is one of many traits the two of you share," she said.
Jack scoffed, exhaling a surprised noise that might have been a laugh. Were people just coming down here to fuck with her?
"Just as you share much the same history," the asari said, disregarding Jack's outburst. Her eyes traveled across Jack's bare arm, as she noted the long, uneven markings not quite concealed by the vivid tattoos. "You even carry similar scars," Liara said, soft with regret.
Jack jerked as if stung, and fought the urge to hide from the other woman's penetrating gaze. "What do you mean, we 'share history?'"
Liara frowned. "Have you not read the dossier I compiled for Ms. Lawson?" she asked.
Reflexively, Jack found the OSD in her pocket and curled her fingers around it. She had carried it for weeks almost like a good luck charm, and had started to feel like it would be unlucky to actually read the damned thing. In answer to Liara's question, she could only shake her head.
"I see," Liara said. She folded her hands in front of her, looking every bit the wise, ancient being asari were renowned to be. "I think you would find it informative," she concluded, then bowed her head and turned to leave. "In any case, thank you again. I will not forget what you and Miranda have done for me, and for Jane."
"Hey," Jack called to stop her. She cast about for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. "The scars mean she's healing, you know?" she said at last.
At that, Liara paused and gave her a faint smile. "I hope you are correct," she said, then nodded and left Jack to her preferred solitude.
Jack put the OSD on the counter with her weapons and started to pace. Four steps toward the bulkhead that split into the two stairwells. Four steps back, with her eyes on that OSD the whole time. Then four steps away again, cursing silently and repeating the cycle as the minutes dragged by.
"Fuck it," she announced, then grabbed the OSD, downloaded its contents to her omnitool, and sat down to read.
When Shepard stopped by a few hours later, Jack was studying a holographic projection from Pre-Sec, the citizen ID record of her mother. She spared a moment to turn dark eyes at the commander. "T'soni told you," she guessed, spotting the tentative look on the commander's face.
"She told me," Jane agreed.
Jack looked back at the photo and indicated it with a jerk of her chin. "So did you know her?" she asked.
"No," Jane replied. "I'm sorry."
"Not your fault," Jack said, with a slow shake of her head.
With meticulous detail, Liara T'soni had compiled a record of Jack's birth and early childhood on Earth, in the ghettos of the Blight. Her mother had been little more than a troubled kid, a red sand addict who had tried to get clean for the sake of her own unexpected child. She was even successful, for a while, until falling on the bad side of a local pusher who in turn handed her over to a brutal gang leader.
The gang leader had little use for a strung out young mother, but saw some value to her offspring. He killed Jack's mother and turned Jack herself over to slavers for a tidy profit.
A few weeks later, a young, angry Jane Shepard stopped his reign of terror once and for all, and a younger, traumatized Jack arrived on Pragia.
"I was five," Jack said absently. "Five years old when he killed her and sold me for a few lousy creds."
Jane sighed, and sat next to her on the cot. "How much of that do you remember?"
"Not much," Jack answered, with a distracted shake of her head. "I keep thinking I should be mad about it, but it feels like it happened to someone else." She chuckled a bit, tilting just slightly toward hysteria. "I had a mom, Shepard. Can you believe that?"
Jane gave her a tight smile, unable to squelch the tiny flare of envy at even the tragic insight Jack had gained into her history. "Yeah. I can believe that," she said.
They sat together for a while, two products of the Blight who had taken radically different paths in life and yet somehow ended up in the same spot, working together to shape the same fateful bit of history.
Jack could feel Jane's solid presence beside her, and found herself remembering her first day on the Normandy, when the commander had flinched away from her, expecting the unstable Subject Zero to start attacking people at any second. She pressed her hands against her eyes to push back the threatening tears. "That guy... he's dead, right? You killed him?"
"He's dead," Jane said, without elaboration.
"Good." Jack nodded once, then turned off the holographic projection, closing the file. The atmosphere in the compartment immediately felt a little brighter, a little less oppressive.
With a deep breath, Jane tried to shake off the pall of their now-shared past. "So how did it go out there with Miranda? You seem slightly less homicidal than usual."
Jack barked out a surprised laugh that clashed with the sobs building in her throat. "Did you just make fun of me?"
The commander shrugged, and leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, utterly unconcerned. "Sometimes you gotta live dangerously."
Jack scowled at her and thought for a bit. "It went okay, I guess," she said. "The Cheerleader's scrappier than I thought she'd be."
"Well, you're good for her."
She bristled. "Keep making fun of me, and I'll be just as fucking homicidal as I was before."
Jane only chuckled. "No, really. Miranda has a lot of burdens," she explained. "Just like the rest of us, I guess. But I think she carries them better because you expect her to."
Jack sat there and stared at her for a long moment, blinking in disbelief. "You are so full of shit, Shepard," she muttered.
"Then I won't bother pointing out that she's good for you, too," Jane said with a grin.
"Score one for the power of love," Jack muttered. "Whoop-dee-fucking-doo."
"Yeah." Jane opened her eyes and rolled her head to the side to look at the other woman. "I'm glad you both have found that."
Sarcasm and profanity actually failed her. "Thanks," Jack said.
Jane sat up and clapped her hands to her knees. "Listen, I'll give you the same deal I gave the rest of the crew: The Reapers are still out there, and I'm going to find a way to stop them for good. You can stay aboard and help me, or I can drop you off at the port of your choice, free and clear."
"Is T'soni gonna stay?" she asked, with her typical bluntness.
Jane's expression changed to one of muted happiness. "I think so," she replied. "I hope so."
Sharing of personal space and personal history aside, the honest longing evident in that simple answer made Jack realize that somewhere along the way, she had started considering Jane Shepard a real friend. "She better stay," she said. "The galaxy has a lot better odds if you're getting laid."
Jane rolled her eyes pushed herself up off the cot. "So what'll it be?"
"Let me think about it," Jack replied.
"Sure." Jane headed toward the stairwell, but paused before leaving. "Oh, Ashley Williams took over for Jacob in the armory," she said. "She's a little possessive about the hardware, so make sure you talk to her before messing around in there, okay?" With that, she headed above deck.
No one else came to visit Jack that day.
Indulging in an old habit, Jack dropped by Miranda's quarters in the middle of the night. After weeks spent exclusively in the operative's company, seeing Miranda after a long day apart was a relief. Jack rolled her eyes at herself even as she wandered in and basked in Miranda's smile. "Hey," she said.
"Hi," Miranda replied in a warm voice, as she emerged from behind her desk. "I'm glad you came by."
Jack stuffed her hands into her pockets and looked around Miranda's quarters, finding the space familiar and alien and welcoming all at once. "Yeah. Did you hear Chambers hugged me today?"
Miranda chuckled. "You didn't hurt her, did you?"
"I thought about it," Jack grumbled. She propped one shoulder against a bulkhead and looked out the window. "It's weird being back, you know? I kinda miss being out there... with you."
"Me too," Miranda said quietly. She stood nearby and waited, giving Jack the chance to sort through her thoughts.
"Shepard asked me... She asked if I wanted to stay."
Miranda nodded. "She gave me the same choice."
"So what are you gonna do?" Jack asked.
"I'll stay. The Commander wants me to remain her first officer, and with the resources we've appropriated from the Shadow Broker I believe we'll be unstoppable," Miranda replied. She grinned. It was a kind of dangerous, feral look that made Jack's insides itch. "It should be an adventure."
She'd figured Miranda would still be on board for the good fight, though it muddied her own decision. Jack sighed, and tried to figure out how to ask about their relationship without actually asking about their relationship, because damned if she was going to turn into one of those emotional cripples who depended on another person for constant validation. For fuck's sake, she'd been on her own her entire goddamned life, and she didn't need the approval of some Cerberus operative to...
"I hope you'll stay, too," Miranda said, quite derailing Jack's confused irritation.
"You do?" she blurted.
"Of course. You've been an invaluable asset to the mission. Shepard considers you a friend. And I..." Miranda hesitated, unsure of how to express her feelings in a way that wouldn't terrify them both. "You are... important to me," she concluded, with a self-conscious look.
Jack eyed her, then sniffled a bit, realizing that a little validation actually went a long way. "You know, I'm not exactly 'girlfriend' material. I'm never going to write you bad poetry or any shit like that," she said.
"Well, that's a relief," Miranda said wryly. She relaxed, taking the other woman's lack of panicked fleeing as a positive sign.
Jack pushed away from her perch near the window to face her directly. "I'm still totally fucked up, and I'm still finding out why," she said with a shrug.
To demonstrate how little that claim bothered her, Miranda shuffled nearer and looked expectant.
"And there's no such thing as 'happily ever after,' even if we don't die on Shepard's little crusade."
"Mmhmm," Miranda agreed. She reached out and let her hands rest on Jack's hips, stroking the bare skin just above the waistband of her pants.
As usual, Miranda's proximity did weird things to her nervous system, making her hot and shivery all over, just like a good fight. Jack's nostrils flared. "But I think maybe I belong here."
Rather than point out that she had asserted as much many weeks previous, Miranda lifted a hand to stroke gentle fingertips across Jack's temple, tracing the harsh edges of a dark tattoo. "Then you should stay," she murmured.
"I think... maybe I belong with you," Jack added with a shaky breath.
At that, Miranda leaned even closer. "Then you should definitely stay," she said, and kissed her.