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Artful Deception

Chapter Text

Miranda sat bolt upright as the siren ripped her from a deep sleep. Instinctively her biotic shield activated before her eyes had even had a chance to focus.

"Director Lawson, we have a security breach," came the voice through her room's intercom.

"What?" she said aloud, sleep still clouding her thoughts. Who could be attacking the facility? There was only a handful of people who weren't on the station that even knew the project existed, and only one of those knew where the space station was located. She grabbed her black and gold catsuit as she rushed past the chair to the intercom. "Activate all security mechs, and I want details of our attackers immediately," she commanded through the intercom while pulling on her clothes.

"The mechs are the attackers Ma'am," the voice replied sounding increasingly panicked.

"What?" The mechs were on a closed operating system to ensure it was impossible to hack them from the outside. That could only mean one thing, this was an inside job. "Where's Taylor?" she snapped over the com.

"Unknown Ma'am, there's communications interference all over the station, it took me five minutes just to get a connection to you. However I have managed to restore around half the station's video surveillance, but I haven't got eyes on Lieutenant Taylor yet."

Damn it, Jacob, you better not have got yourself killed already. "Good work. Deploy any security personnel you can get in contact with to the main lab. The subject's survival is the top priority, and I need those live video feeds routed to my Omni-tool immediately, I'm going to make my way there."

"Yes Ma'am, although there are two heavy mechs outside...I-I'm not sure how long this door is going to hold," the shaky voice replied.

"Operative, it is imperative that you get me a comm line to the lab before that door fails. Do you understand me?" Miranda said with a steely tone.

"Yes Director, I assure you it will be done." The operative's reply came through loud and clear, fear replaced by determination, the sign of a true Cerberus operative. "Surveillance feeds should be rerouted to your Omni-tool…now. Good luck Ma'am."

-o-

"Raaahhh." Miranda roared as she slammed the final two mechs to the ground with a satisfying double explosion. This was taking too long, she was never going to make it to the main lab in time. The operative had indeed succeeded to get her a comm line to the lab, but by then all security in that wing were already dead and Miranda had just watched the last lab technician fall defending the subject. She was out of options, the subject had to be woken.

Moving to the terminal beside her, she started up the mirroring software, giving her direct control of the life support system in the lab, which thankfully the lab technician had transferred minutes earlier. In an ideal situation, the waking up process would have been performed over a much longer period of time, giving the body time to naturally recover from the long-term sedation, but this situation was anything but ideal.

The Director slammed her hand on the desk. Damn it, Wilson, what the hell were you thinking? It didn't make any sense, he'd worked on this project as long as she had, why destroy it now? Even when she had seen it was his code used to hack the mechs, she'd assumed someone had stolen his access. Sure, Wilson was an arrogant arsehole, and insanely jealous that she was project lead and not him, but he'd put some of his best work into the Lazarus Project, she'd never have imagined that even he would be so stupid. But then she found the video footage proving her wrong.

Two years, two bloody years of work and four billion credits cannot go down the drain now. The subject is strong enough, she has to be. Opening her eyes she placed her fingers on the screen and slowly dialled down the propofol dose in the first tube until an alert flashed on the screen: [Sedation Discontinued]

Miranda pulled up the dial for the second tube. Pausing, she switched on her Omni-tool again. Sweeping through the camera feed once more she sighed. There was still an army of mechs and heavy mechs between her and the lab. It wasn't that Miranda doubted her own survival, but even she couldn't get through them all before the nearest ones got into the lab.

Placing her hands on the screen, the Director spun the dial to 100% and pressed the Accept button, the new alert read: [Adrenaline Administered]

Swiping her hand across her Omni-tool, she waited until the green light shone to indicate the comm line was open. "Wake up Commander." Zooming the camera in on the subject she stared intently for any signs of movement. Come on, wake up. "Shepard, do you hear me? Get out of that bed now, this facility is under attack."

-o-

As she approached the doorway, the gunshots grew louder and she could make out at least two male voices. Activating her cloak, Shepard opened the door to the next room and peered around the door frame just as a human caucasian male flew across the walkway, his head landing facing her, his eyes empty, lifeless.

"No, Marcus," a deep voice yelled desperately and a tall man slid into Shepard's line of sight, blocking her view of the body. As she studied the scene before her, a blue glow began to resonate from his hands, "You motherfuckers," he roared, his words dripping with anguish. He flew to his feet encasing his entire body in the glowing blue hue of a barrier and launched an orb at one of the mechs that stood on the balcony opposite.

It was pulled into the air and the biotic proceeded to unload an entire clip into its chest. With only seconds until her cloak wore off, Shepard took a step into the room and put two bullets directly into one of the remaining mech's head and ran to the biotic, dragging him to the walkway's glass barrier, ensuring to pin his hands to avoid being his next target.

His look of confusion turned to shock as her cloak dissipated. "Shepard?"

"You have me at a disadvantage."

"Jacob, Jacob Taylor Ma'am." The biotic had to shout to be heard over a new round of gunshots blasting from the remaining mechs.

"Let's get these finished off." She nodded her head in the direction of the balcony.

"I'm with you. I'll pull the one on the far right," Jacob said as his dark brown skin took on a blue hue again.

Shepard activated her cloak and stood, taking a breath and steadily exhaling, she took down the other two mechs, placing her shots with perfect precision. When the last mech was down Jacob slid down the glass barrier and stared at the body across the walkway, grief etched on his face.

Shepard placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Jacob nodded and met her eyes. "Thank you, Commander," he said shaking his head, "Thing's must be worse than I thought if Miranda's got you running around."

Shepard frowned. "I don't suppose you can explain exactly where I'm running around and why?"

"Right, sorry about that. What's the last thing you remember, before waking up?"

Shepard thought for a moment. "The Normandy, we were under attack by an unknown assailant." Closing her eyes the memories came flooding back to her. "I was thrown by the blast towards the planet, my suit had a rupture." Shepard flinched when she felt Jacob's hand on her shoulder, opening her eyes as she met his sympathetic gaze. "How did I survive?"

Jacob hesitated for a moment. "You didn't Shepard, you died that day."

-o-

"Shepard," Jacob said and she turned to look at him, "before we go any further, I think I should tell you who we work for."

"Not really the time or place for that Jacob," the pasty-skinned, bald scientist, Wilson, said shoving his way past them.

"If we're going to get out of this alive, we need to trust each other and have each other's backs. That can't happen if she is kept in the dark." Jacob turned back to face Shepard. "This project is run by Cerberus."

What? Shepard thought and took an involuntary step back. That's not possible, I'd know the Cerberus logo anywhere. "Cerberus?" Jacob nodded confirmation, and before she knew it, her weapon was in her hand, pointing at him. "Are you telling me I'm that fucking terrorist group's sick experiment?" She swallowed thickly, barely able to keep the contents of her stomach from making an exit.

"No, it's not like that." Jacob held his palms up to placate her. "They've poured billions of credits solely into bringing you back from the dead, the real you, as I said before, you're no clone, you're the real Commander Shepard." Despite having a gun pointing at his head, he didn't once break eye contact with her. "Listen, I know they've been involved with some shady shit in the past, and I'm not saying they're angels even now, but this, bringing you back, this is why I am here, if the galaxy was going to stand a chance against the Reapers, we needed Commander Shepard back."

Shepard shook her head in disbelief. "Shady shit? You clearly don't have any idea what an understatement that is. I uncovered secret research bases run by Cerberus that were experimenting on, torturing and ultimately murdering Alliance soldiers." She felt her eyes burn and gritted her teeth to fight back the grief that came with her next words. "And my brother...was killed after his N7 squadron was lured into a trap set by Cerberus." She was glad when Jacob's expression changed to a mix of shock and dismay. For some reason, she hoped he was simply misguided and easily deceived rather than a part of the web-spinning.

"I...shit Shepard, I'm so sorry, I had no idea. They…" Jacob rubbed his face with his hands and began to pace, seemingly forgetting about the weapon she was still pointing at him. "No one else was doing anything, the Alliance, the Council, they just discredited you and in the process the rumours of the Reapers. Cerberus was actually taking action, actually standing up and facing the threat instead of ignoring it and hoping it would never come to fruition." He stopped pacing and looked at her again. "Fuck."

Shepard lowered her gun, this wasn't a company man in front of her. This was an honourable man who was driven to serve and protect, being told to ignore the biggest danger the galaxy was facing. She knew how that felt, she'd faced it non-stop since her first dealings with the Council. Hell, she'd died on a pointless assignment hunting out geth, when she knew geth weren't the ones they needed to be worried about.

She took a deep breath. "I get it, Jacob, I was stonewalled enough times by the Brass and the Council. But Cerberus...some of the shit they've done, it's inhumane and inexcusable." She caught movement to her left and remembered Wilson. What about him? Was he a company man? Somehow she didn't feel he was, although she also didn't trust him.

"Are the two of you staying here or are we going to get to the shuttles?" he said but averted his gaze when he saw her studying him.

They ploughed their way through a small army of mechs occupying the next room and up a ramp. "The shuttlebay is just through that door," Jacob said pointing at a door at the far end of the walkway they were on.

"Hang on, I just want to finish this." Shepard unpaused the final video log and the Australian voice began speaking:

"Our orders were clear: make Commander Shepard who she was before the explosion - the same mind, the same morals, the same personality. If we somehow alter her identity in any way, if she's somehow not the woman she used to be, the Lazarus Project will have failed. I refuse to let that happen."

"Well, that's a little reassuring I guess," Shepard muttered and walked out of the small office. "Ok, let's get the hell out of this place."

-o-

Miranda closed the camera feed on her Omni-tool and drew her weapon. She was going to get answers from Wilson one way or another.

The look of shock on the scientist's face when the door between them slid open, was exactly what the Director had been hoping for.

"Miranda, but you were…" Wilson's words were cut short by the appearance of her gun pointing at his face.

"Dead?" Miranda tilted her head studying the scientist.

"What the hell's going on Miranda?" She heard Jacob question.

"He's the traitor." The Commander stated matter of factly.

"Why Wilson? I don't understand why? You've given two years of your best work to this project, why sabotage it now?"

Wilson shook his head. "Well, of course, you wouldn't understand, you're in too deep to see the truth. Which is a shame, because, much as I hate to say it, you are brilliant and this project probably wouldn't have succeeded without you at the helm."

For a moment Miranda was speechless, although she hadn't been able to imagine what he would say, she certainly hadn't expected him to say anything like that. "What the hell are you talking about Wilson? What truth?"

Wilson gave a humourless laugh. "The truth behind the puppe-"

Miranda jumped as Wilson's chest exploded and blood splattered across her uniform as his body crumpled to the floor. Looking up, Miranda saw the Commander place three shots in the culprit's head and the mech dropped where it stood on the walkway.

Miranda turned her attention back to the body at her feet and knelt to feel for a pulse. "He's dead." The Director said flatly. Feeling a growing frustration, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, but it didn't help. Damn it, she yelled internally and stood. This was unacceptable, she needed bloody answers, instead, she got gibberish.

"Miranda…" Jacob's voice cut through her racing thoughts and she slid the cold, calm mask in place.

She turned to Jacob and the Commander. "The station is still crawling with those things, we need to leave, now."

"If you think I'm leaving with you, you can think again. I'll take one shuttle you two can take the other." The Commander locked eyes with Miranda and it was clear she already knew who they worked for.

Sighing, Miranda looked at Jacob. "Ahh Jacob, I should've known your conscience would get the better of you." She met the other woman's eyes. "I'm sorry Commander, but there is only one functional shuttle, I checked before you arrived and one has been sabotaged."

Miranda was not someone who was easily intimidated, in fact, intimidation was something she herself was somewhat of an expert at. But maintaining eye contact with someone whose every molecule radiated disgust and rage, was proving quite the test, even for her.

She knew from Cerberus' own reports that the Commander had unearthed some decidedly unethical projects that had originally been funded by Cerberus, which had unfairly earned them a 'terrorist group' label. Miranda had read their records and due to the extremism of the project leaders, Cerberus had abandoned those projects long before the Commander discovered them. The Director had researched everything she possibly could about the Commander and had read about her strong moral compass, but what Miranda saw in those chestnut brown eyes right now, was nothing short of hate. This was more than morals, somehow, this was personal for the Commander. What else have you missed, Lawson?

"Right now we are your only option. Come and speak to our boss, listen to what he has to say, and then if you still don't feel that working with Cerberus is what it will take to save the galaxy, then so be it."

"Fine," the Commander shot back, "I'll speak with him, but only because, short of killing you both, it's the only way I'm getting off the hell hole. And unlike Cerberus, I avoid unnecessary deaths whenever possible."

Miranda bite back a retort. Now was not the time, and this was most definitely not the person to be goading. Instead, she nodded once and strode past the Commander to the last remaining shuttle, the one she hadn't sabotaged.

Chapter Text

Powering up her console, the doctor placed a mug of freshly made English tea on her desk, slumped into her comfy chair and stared out her window at Mars's arid landscape. She sighed, was this what her life had become? A beautiful office, regular hours, and a comfy bed - this mundane life was driving her insane.

She waved her hand over the VI's interface, "Voice recognition login, Doctor Karin Chakwas."

"Good morning Doctor Chakwas, you are now logged in." the VI reported.

Karin opened up her mail, and seeing only the usual boring night shift reports in her inbox, she clicked her junk folder, because no matter how many times she marked Hannah's mail as a safe address it was still highlighted as junk mail. Karin frowned at the only mail in the folder.

[Sender: Unknown]

[Subject: FAO Dr Karin Chakwas - Urgent.]

If her name hadn't been in the headline she would have assumed it was yet another phishing scam, but they never included her full name.

Unable to curb her curiosity, she clicked on the mail and read,

[Dr Chakwas,

I have vital information regarding "Bright light". Please study the attached files, and when you decide you want to know more, contact the below terminal sequence and ask for Norman Dy.

04J8-50B4-5278-0P7X

Regards]

Karin reread the mail, it couldn't be referring to what she thought. When the VI reported that the attached file was safe to open, the Doctor hesitated, finding herself anxious about what she would see.

When Karin finished her third read through of the document, she opened a comm line and input the sequence.

-o-

Karin closed her eyes as she breathed in the crisp British spring air, she was a born and bred spacer, but that didn't mean she couldn't appreciate Earth's fresh air. At the sound of a vehicle pulling to a stop, she opened her eyes again and saw a black stretch limousine in front of her.

A tall man stepped out of the driver's side and walking around the vehicle and opened the rear door for her. Karin hesitated, what the hell was she thinking coming alone, she hadn't even told anyone of her meeting with this anonymous person or persons. Bright light, she reminded herself, that was why she followed their instructions to a tee.

Taking a deep breath she gave the driver a slight smile and nod of thanks and climbed into the vehicle, which was empty save for one human female> a beautiful young woman with charcoal hair, pale skin and an icy cold stare.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me Doctor," the woman said in an Australian accent. "I apologise for the mystery and anonymity, but it is an unfortunate necessity with my employer."

"And who would that be?" Karin asked.

"My name is Miranda Lawson, I am an operative working for Cerberus."

Karin recoiled slightly, "And what exactly does a xenophobic terrorist group want with me?" she said, annoyed to hear the nerves in her voice.

"You read the document I sent you?" the operative asked, completely unphased by the less than flattering description.

"I did. From a scientific point of view, it's a fascinating theory, but I'm a medical doctor, not a scientist, what does this have to do with me?" And Bright light she didn't add.

The Cerberus operative slid a datapad across the seat between them, "It's not just theory Doctor."

Karin stared at the datapad on the seat next to her, "What you're suggesting is impossible, and even if it wasn#t, it would take years and a preposterous amount of credits for such an undertaking."

"Indeed, a little over two years and four billion credits," the woman said motioning to the datapad, "please, Doctor."

Taking a deep breath Karin picked up the datapad, apprehensive of what she might see. Her eyes grew wide as she absorbed the information and photos in her hand. Locking eyes with the operative she said, "Is this…"

"Genuine records," the operative answered, "Commander Shepard is alive."

-o-

Karin sat in her office and sipped at the mug of tea she clasped with both hands. Leni was alive, she'd seen her via a live camera feed. It should be impossible, but it seemed there was no such thing as impossible to Cerberus. She thought back on the Cerberus research facility and her meeting with Ms Lawson.

--

"We think you should be the first person Shepard sees when she wakes up. It will be disorienting enough and a friendly face should help make her reintegration  easier."

"I agree. From a medical standpoint waking from an induced coma can be a terrifying experience in the best of situations," Karin paused and weighted her next words, "and with all due respect Ms Lawson, a Cerberus facility is most definitely not what Leni would consider a best situation. But why me and not her mother?"

"The Commander will need a physician on her ship, she won't need a second Captain, and it is much easier for you to take a leave of absence than it is for a ship's Captain to do so." the operative replied.

Karin nodded slowly, hearing what the operative had avoided saying."You need someone that will stay and work with her so that she doesn't just walk away from Cerberus immediately after waking."

The woman met Karin's gaze and opened her mouth to speak but hesitated. "We aren't oblivious to the Commander's unfortunate past experiences with Cerberus. Working with us will not be something she will do easily. But you of all people should be able to see that no one else is addressing the threat the galaxy faces."

Taking a deep breath the Doctor turned back to stare at the screen showing the live feed of the lab where Leni lay in a medically induced coma. Annoyingly the operative wasn't wrong, both the Council and the Alliance had stuck their heads in the sand since Harbinger's attack on the Citadel.

The other woman interrupted her thoughts, "Also, it has to be you, because the Commander's pilot has very specific medical needs, which I understand you have in-depth experience managing."

Karin couldn't keep the surprise from her face, "Jeff?"

"Who better to fly the Commander's new ship than the pilot most experienced in flying her predecessor?" The woman swiped her hand across a screen and a small holoprojection popped up between them: slowly rotating before her was the Normandy. "Meet the Normandy SR2."

Karin looked up at the charcoal haired woman in front of her and saw a glimmer of pride in her eyes. "If I do this, I'm not signing a contract with Cerberus, I would be working for Shepard. If you expect anything else…"

"We don't. Both you and Mr Moreau are here for the Commander. There will be no contracts. No official documentation of employment to...blemish your service records."

Karin studied the operative, Cerberus certainly wasn't delusional about what attitudes the Alliance crew would have towards them. Looking back at the live feed Karin furrowed her brows, how could she say no? She couldn't. Locking eyes with the Cerberus operative she gave a curt nod. "Very well, I'm in for as long as Shepard is."

--

Sitting back behind her desk Karin activated her VI. "Open a new mail, recipient: the Alliance Medical Board, subject title: leave of extended absence request."

-o-

He stared out of the window, desperation etched on his face as he watched his best friend's body be flung out into space by the blastwave. It was horrific to watch the desperate Commander flailing around, trying to reach the leak in her suit, but the pilot never took his eyes off the body that grew smaller and smaller by the minute.

Eventually the escape pod rotated leaving him unable to see Shepard from it's only viewing port, instead, a field of debris and escape pods was all he could see. Then it came into view, a colossal ship like nothing he had ever seen before, their attackers. As he saw the ship's gun turn his way and begin to charge one last time, he closed his eyes, ready to accept his fate.

A noise behind him caught his attention and turning, he stumbled back at the sight of the charred corpse, almost indistinguishable except for those chestnut brown eyes that boar an accusatory stare into his soul. "It's your fault I died!" she screamed.

--

Jeff sat bolt upright, dripping in sweat as the nightmare faded from his mind and tried to get his breathing under control. Usually, his nightmares ended with his escape pod exploding, which it hadn't of course, but that didn't stop his nightmares from manifesting his guilt of surviving, or at least that's what his PTSD counsellor told him. But this was the second night his dream had finished differently, ever since he found out Leni was alive again.

He sighed and grabbing the support bar, he pulled himself up and round to a sitting position, "Lights on," he ordered, and a gentle glow appeared, gradually increasing in strength. "Stop ambient sounds space vessel playlist," he said, and the comforting engine sounds that helped him fall asleep ceased.

After pulling on sweatpants and a hoodie, he reached for his leg braces and slid into them before pulling himself to a standing position. The floor was cold under his bare feet as he made his way through the apartment in which he'd grown up. When he reached the kitchen, a note on the worktop caught his eye,

[Needed to go into work, we'll have to reschedule our lunch date, sorry! Leftovers in the fridge and don't forget your meds, love you, Mom! x]

Opening the fridge he inspected the various different leftover boxes, "Ooo mom's lasagne. Hands down winner." While he waited for the food to heat up, Jeff walked to his terminal, waved his hand over the VI controls and the wine bottle sized projection of a beautiful asari popped up on his desk. "Voice recognition login Jeff Moreau."

"Good afternoon, Jeff," the VI said in its bedroom voice, "you are now logged in, is there any other service I can provide you with?"

"If only," he sighed and waved his hand to dismiss the asari consort VI. His desktop background flashed onto the screen, and the sight of the Normandy lifted his mood a little. The old Normandy, he reminded himself. A genuine smile broke out on his face, he was going to fly again, and not just any old ship, but the Normandy SR2. Ever since the fucking Alliance grounded him for being medically unfit to fly, he'd been going slowly crazy.

He'd been determined to get his wings back as soon as possible, so he'd diligently attended every therapy session and even signed up to a support group for extra brownie points. The claustrophobia when in crowds was gone, the extreme fight or flight reaction to loud noises had eased, but the nightmares? They appeared to be here to stay, and thanks to the sleep monitoring device the therapist had insisted he wore if he ever wanted to fly again, he couldn't even lie about it and say they were gone.

"Well screw you Alliance," Jeff said as he made his way back to his desk, lasagne in hand.

"Excuse me, Jeff," the consort's bedroom voice interrupted, practically purring his name, "You have an incoming video call from Karin Chakwas."

"What?" Jeff exclaimed in surprise, "On screen...Doc, damn it's been a while, how you doing?"

The friendly face on his screen smiled at him warmly. "Hello Jeff, I'm good thank you, how are you?"

"Ah you know Doc, all's good with me."

"Mmhmm," the woman looked sceptical, "have you been taking your meds as you should?"

"I live with my mom again Karin, do you really think she'd let me forget them?" he replied while subtly sliding his hand into his desk drawer and retrieving today's dose of meds, he hadn't exactly forgotten them, he just hadn't remembered to take them yet. "Anyway, how's life on Mars?"

"Yes, your mum told me you were back there, she was so pleased. I'm actually on Arcturus Station right now, I heard you recently got a new job offer and was hoping we could meet up and chat through some things."

"Oh, err yeah sure, gimme half an hour and I can meet you at the usual spot?"

"Miso Hungry in half an hour, that's perfect."

The screen went dark and Jeff looked longingly at his warm, uneaten lasagne as he took his meds. Miso it was.

-o-

"It's unreal, right? I mean, I know it's real, I saw her on the feed, but it's totally crazy." The pilot paused for the first time since they had sat down. He'd been babbling non-stop and Karin was certain it was in an attempt to mask his anxiety.

"Jeff," she said gently, placing a hand over his, which had been relentlessly tapping the table, "you've been best friends since nursery, she loves you, she won't blame you."

For the first time since meeting up, he looked her in the eyes. "She should, it was my fault. If I hadn't been so fucking stubborn she would have made it into the pod with me."

"Maybe, maybe not. Either way, her priority was always everyone else. I knew Leni her entire life, and she would give her life a thousand times over to save you. And we're getting her back Jeff, we're getting a second chance, something that should be impossible."

The sides of the pilot's mouth twitched and his dull eyes lightened a little. "So, you're certain it's really her? Not just some clone they're trying to pass off as her? I wouldn't put it passed Cerberus."

"I've studied all the research, two years worth of records, readings and scans. As out there as it is, with the right resources and time, it really does seem plausible. I'm as certain as I can be without seeing her, that it really is our Leni."

When someone approached their table, they both sat back to make room for the food. "Doctor Chakwas, Mr Moreau," a baritone voice said. Karin looked up to see a tall, stocky man in a pressed black suit. "Would you mind coming with me, I have important and sensitive information relating to your new mission."

"Did you tell anyone we were meeting?" Jeff asked Karin, ignoring the man beside them.

"Absolutely not," Karin replied, concern growing.

"Look, dude, I've seen the movies and leaving with some stranger who somehow knew where you were without being told, generally doesn't end well. You can say what you have to say here, in this nice, safe, public place." Karin shot a look at Jeff, but despite his almost jovial attitude, she could see he was all business, locked in a defiant staring match with the man.

The man bent forward, resting his hands on the table and for a terrifying second Karin expected him to headbutt Jeff, but instead, the man said so quietly she almost didn't hear over the bustle of the busy restaurant, "Due to an...unforeseen problem, the subject had to be woken ahead of schedule. You are needed immediately."

Karin looked at Jeff, who stared back at her, the look on his face mirroring her own shock. "She's awake?" Jeff eventually managed. The man simply gave a sharp nod, "I-I need to pack, and let my mom know I'm leaving earlier than planned," Jeff stammered.

"I'm sorry Sir, but this is a critical, time-sensitive situation. You shall both be given adequate preparation time once the current crisis is in hand. Please." The man motioned his hand to the door and after a moment's hesitation, Karin nodded at Jeff.

-o-

After the bumpy ride through the first relay, Jeff unbuckled his belt and moved to the front of the small vessel, "You accelerated too soon into the jump," he stated matter-of-factly to the ship's pilot who turned and gave him a 'did I ask for your opinion' glare. "I can take over if you want?" he said, desperately hoping the pilot would oblige.

"Oh yeah absolutely, here you go…or maybe not," the pilot said sarcastically.

"What's-a-matter, afraid the cripple might show you up?" he goaded with a smirk.

"Heh, as if," the pilot retorted.

The baritone voice of the Cerberus muscle came from the rear of the vessel, "This I'd pay to see, give him the helm Grant."

"You gotta be kiddin' me, Hernandez?" The pilot huffed and unbuckled his belt glaring at Jeff. "Come on then cripple boy, show me what you got."

Jeff smirked and climbed into the seat, the hairs on his neck standing on end as he took control of the small vessel. He hadn't realised just how apprehensive he'd been about flying again until this very moment, it felt like the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders, dispersing around him. This ship certainly wasn't build for manoeuvring, but that didn't matter for him, once he had a feel for a ship, he'd get the best performance possible from it. As they approached the next Mass Relay Jeff turned and grinned at the Cerberus pilot who sat in the co-pilot seat, "Pay close attention now."

-o-

Stepping off the small vessel onto the large space station, Jeff's apprehension began to rise again. After Hernandez had shown him and Karin to their respective locker rooms, Jeff had been handed a fresh Cerberus uniform and offered the opportunity to shower, which he gladly accepted given that he hadn't had time before meeting Karin that morning and the day hadn't exactly gone as planned.

It had been exhilarating to fly again, navigating the relays with practically zero turbulence in a way only he could. He was buzzing, if flying that brick had been exhilarating...he got goosebumps at the thought of flying the new Normandy.

He took time to properly clean himself up, neatening the facial hair he'd let get out of control since being grounded. Looking in the full-length mirror, it was like looking at a memory of the person he used to be, only this time in yellow, grey and white. Lifting his head, he opened the door and stepped out.

"Well don't you clean up well," he heard Karin before he saw her standing a little further down the hallway. "It seems we have a tour to take."

Jeff frowned, "A tour? I thought they said this was a time-sensitive situation, where's Shepard?"

Hernandez rounded the corner at the far end of the hallway, "It is, however, we had less distance to travel and they were in a shuttle for the first half of their journey so considerably slower. We have a few hours until they arrive and I thought you might like a look around your new home?" he said raising one eyebrow, "But if you're not interested…"

Jeff's face lit up "Oh no you don't," he said walking as fast as his legs would let him, "you're gonna show me my new baby."

-o-

Standing in the cockpit of the SR2 Jeff was awestruck, he'd been told she was bigger and better, but whatever he had imagined, didn't even come close. The fastest ship in the galaxy had gotten faster, quieter and best of all, leather seats...real, leather seats. On top of that Cerberus had managed to make space for a bedroom and bathroom right next to the cockpit. Granted, the bedroom was literally that, a bed with just enough room between it and the wall for him to stand in. But he didn't need more than that. And no longer would he have to preempt bathroom breaks to make sure he got there in time. They had actually designed this cockpit with him as the pilot in mind, support railings and all. It was insane and amazing, Shame they're terrorists.

"Mr Moreau," a slightly mechanical, yet sultry voice said. Jeff looked around him and noticed a blue hologram, a sphere with a neck like a stand.

"Hello?" Jeff said cocking his head, the ship's VI?

"The Commander has just arrived, your presence is required in the main docking bay. And Mr Moreau, welcome to the Normandy SR2, I look forward to working with you."

Jeff furrowed his brow, "Since when does a VI look forward to anything?"

"They don't, however, I am an AI, you may call me EDI."

Jeff's head dropped forward, "What the shit?" he moaned.

-o-

As they stood in the elevator he turned to Karin, "Does Hannah know?" she sighed and looked away from him.

"The Kilimanjaro is currently on a deep space mission, I wanted to tell her face-to-face so we had arranged to meet up next week when they return."

Jeff nodded understandingly. "It's not exactly the type of thing you just drop in a mail that's for sure." He rested a hand on her shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile which she returned and placed her own hand on top of his. He turned to face the elevator door again, taking a deep breath he let his hand drop as the door opened.

The room before him was as stark as the rest of the station, metal walls and floors, but as he stepped out of the elevator, he saw a wall of windows giving a panoramic view of the enormous hangar bay below. The only two other people in the room looked up from where they stood, studying a datapad. He recognised the female immediately, the Ice Queen that had recruited him. Something Lawson, Amanda was it?

The woman broke away from the muscled man she stood with and strode in their direction. She shook both their hands in turn, "Doctor Chakwas, Mr Moreau, thank you for coming at such short notice."

Jeff wanted to ask where Leni was, but Karin spoke up before him "We were told there were unforeseen complications and Leni was woken early, what happened? Is she-"

The Ice Queen held up a hand to halt the Doctor's torrent of questions. "The Commander is fine, granted, not as healed as we had aimed for her to be upon waking, and it certainly wasn't how we'd planned it, but she is fine." The Ice Queen paused, seemingly giving them a chance for that to sink in. Waving her hand towards a door at the other side of the room she continued, "She is currently in a holo-meeting with my boss, she shouldn't be long, until then you might as well take a seat."

"Ok then, thank you." Karin said her eyes transfixed on the doorway.

There was a bleep and Jeff watched the Ice Queen raise her Omni-tool and accept the incoming call, "Well you're a nurse, can't you treat him?" After a moment's pause, the woman turned to Karin. "Doctor, there's been a minor accident during a test of the FTL couplings and one of our engineers has received burns to his face. The nurse claims that she can't treat them alone without leaving him with significant scarring."

Jeff saw the Doctor was torn, staring towards the doorway where Leni would soon appear from. The woman continued, "It's just a bit of scarring, I'll tell the nurse to handle it best she can. This has priority."

Wow, ice cold indeed. Jeff thought to himself and saw an expression of dismay form on Karin's face.

"No, no I'll go. You can greet her Jeff," Karin said turning to him, "and then bring her straight to me ok?"

A knot formed in Jeff's stomach at the thought of experiencing Leni's first reaction to seeing him alone, but tucking his anxiety away, Jeff put on his cocky smile "You can count on it, I mean, in truth, I'm more than enough of a greeting party."

As Karin walked past him she gently squeezed his arm and whispered, "She would never blame you, trust me, you'll be fine."

Chapter Text

It was lucky the Cerberus freighter rendezvoused with their shuttle when it did because Miranda was on the verge of blowing the newly awoken subject out of the airlock - four billion credits and two years of her life be damned. There was no way this was going to work, sure, she'd successfully recreated Commander bloody Shepard exactly as she had been, but that had also brought with it her hate of Cerberus, and good God that woman could hate.

Miranda took another sip of her wine while watching the stars sail by the window in her temporary quarters. Hearing her omni-tool chirrup, she sighed and put down her glass. Seeing the com ID she answered "Jacob?"

"Hey, you busy?" before she had time to reply he continued," I just raided the ship's bar but don't really fancy drinking alone."

Miranda thought a moment, she had wanted some peace and quiet, but then again socialising with Jacob was never a chore, and after the day they'd had, a bit of company wouldn't be so disagreeable. "Of course Jacob. " The words had barely left her mouth when her door chimed and the head of security entered carrying an array of bottles.

As she passed the minibar Miranda grabbed the bottle of wine and an extra glass. Sitting down on the sofa beside Jacob, she eyed the various bottles on the table. "Beer? Is that the best you could do? Sure you don't want some of this?" she said waving the bottle of her favourite Cabernet Shiraz, which, despite the urgency of the situation, Jack still made sure it was waiting in her quarters.

When she saw Jacob's melancholy smile, Miranda realised her mistake. She didn't often come across that many fellow Australians when away from Earth, so it was a novelty when Marcus Johnson, who was born and raised in Adelaide, joined the Lazarus project's security team. He also appreciated the Australian wine, a taste of home as he called it when the three of them hung out.

She wasn't usually one for socialising. She found other people tedious and small talk a pointless endeavour, but with Jacob and Marcus, it had never felt like that. It was never forced or demanding; with them, she had discovered that it was possible to be in the company of others and still relax, it just needed to be the right people.

Miranda poured a generous amount of the wine into the second glass and held it out to Jacob, when he met her eyes she said, "I-I'm sorry about Marcus."

The security officer took a large swig of the expensive wine, and then rested his head on the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. "He would have killed me for drinking this wine like that," Jacob chuckled, but his words were coated in sadness, and Miranda reached out to rest her hand on his shoulder but retracted it before making contact.

Give her a life and death situation and she would handle it without blinking. A crisis involving emotions, however, was something she was anything but an expert at handling.

"He really would have been appalled," Miranda said needing to break the silence and then rolled her eyes at herself, "Look, we both know I'm not great with emotional stuff, but I consider you a friend Jacob, and if there is anything I can do, just let me know."

Jacob chuckled again, this time she could hear it was genuine, "Yeah, you're not so great at the emotions thing, but I consider you a friend too Miranda and thank you, this is enough," he said motioning his hand between them. "Can we talk work or something?"

"Sure," Miranda said, relieved at having the opportunity to get back onto a subject she could handle. "How's our little ball of hate doing?" she asked unable to hide her sour tone as she studied the swirl patterns on her glass.

Hearing a sigh, she looked up at Jacob, "Miranda," he said and she heard the mild reprimand in his tone, "it's not like she doesn't have good reason to hate Cerberus. "

Miranda couldn't help but scoff, "So she has a few bad experiences with long abandoned projects and we're the devil? It's not like the Council or Alliance are squeaky clean with their above the law Spectres and Black Ops teams!" She stood, her annoyance from earlier renewed, "Two bloody years of my life I put into resurrecting that ungrateful brat," she heard the shake of frustration in her own voice and paced to try and regain control.

"Uhm, did you know Cerberus was responsible for her brother's death?" Jacob asked cautiously and she stopped dead in her tracks.

"What?" furrowing her brow she shook her head, "No, his squad was killed by a thresher maw attack."

"Yeah, on Akuze, while responding to a distress signal."

Miranda nodded, she'd read the Alliance's report, an unfortunate incident, but that had nothing to do with Cerberus.

"Shepard told me that in one of the Cerberus facilities-"

"Ex-Cerberus facilities," Miranda corrected.

"Ex-Cerberus facilities" Jacob repeated with an eye roll, "-she found a report documenting a planned test of a subterranean thresher maw hammer," the security officer paused studying her and she found herself fixed to the spot. "Akuze was one of the proposed locations, and the test was to be set up in the disguise of a distress signal."

Miranda swallowed, finding her mouth dry, this was it, this was what she had missed, why Shepard's hatred was so personal and raw. "That information has to be incorrect, Jack would have warned me of something this significant."

"Maybe, maybe not, but if Shepard believes it's true…"

"Then her hate towards us makes a lot more sense," Miranda finished. "Crap," she groaned as she dropped back down on the sofa in defeat and took a large, ungraceful swig of her wine. She paused before topping up her glass, it wasn't exactly professional to get drunk, even if she was 'off the clock'. Sod it, she thought and refilled her glass with an uncouth amount that her father would have been ashamed of. Her body processed alcohol so quickly she'd barely have time to even feel the effects anyway. Plus, they were still at least eight hours out from their destination.

"We've failed Jacob" she sighed in defeat, "she's never going to agree to work with us. She'll go back to the Alliance and human colonies will continue to be abducted, while the Alliance continues to blame an increase in slaver activity. Until it's too late and the Reapers return." She picked at a thread on the not so comfy sofa, "I should have ignored Jack's instructions and implanted a control chip anyway."

"Miranda…" she heard the harsh warning tone and met Jacob's gaze.

"Four billion credits Jacob, and two years of my best work! I bloody resurrected a human being, and it'll be for nothing!" she broke his gaze and stared angrily at her wine.

Jacob stretched his arm along the back of the sofa and rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Not for nothing," his voice was gentle and she felt her anger wane a little, "Shepard is alive, thanks in no small part to you, and there's a reason Mr Harper chose Shepard. With or without us, she'll do whatever it takes to defeat the Reapers. Which, at the end of the day, was the ultimate goal, was it not?"

She gave a singular nod, still staring at her glass. She was perfectly aware she was acting like an insolent teen, but couldn't shake it off. Ok, so maybe she was a little affected by the wine after all.

"I wanted to work with her Jacob," she confessed before she could think better of it.

"I know," she heard him say with the hint of a smile in his voice. "Me too, and maybe we still will. Maybe when she sees no one else is willing to admit the truth and do anything, Shepard will be the bigger person and put her own differences aside for the mission."

Miranda felt a glimmer of hope, Shepard did know the truth, and before she died had gone as far as to disobey orders and in doing so stole the first Normandy to save the galaxy. Which for a dedicated soldier was a drastic step to take.

Raising her head she locked eyes with Jacob, "You're right, there's still hope, we just need to show her Cerberus isn't the evil group she believes it is."

-o-

As the heavenly hot water ran over her aching body, Leni rested her head on the equally heavenly cool cubicle wall. Everything hurt, both inside and out, something wasn't right. She needed a doctor but one she could trust. Anyone she could trust right now would be nice.

She studied the pattern on the tiles, following the chaotic path it took without rhyme or reason. One of them resembled the freaky orange glowing scar that ran from her left ear, across her cheek and down under her chin. She looked like some sort of futuristic recreation of Frankenstein's monster. She felt like it too, like not all the parts were fully connected. Yet other things, like her speed, strength and aim were better than they'd ever been, and they'd been her strengths before...before she died.

Letting her head drop back she allowed the water to massage her aching face. She'd died, been dead for two years, yet it felt like only hours for her. She thought of her mom, of her having to go through another funeral, of what she must have gone through the last two years after burying her second child. She squeezed her eyes tight, her tears mingling with water, washing away before they were ever noticed.

She felt so broken, so weak, and was surrounded by her enemies, with no one to trust, no one to support her. And that woman, that fucking woman, acted like she was supposed to be grateful. Grateful for this? She didn't know who, hell, what she was anymore. The Lazarus Project? The damn hubris of Cerberus was astonishing, even for them, to compare themselves to a God, whether you were religious or not was just…

She let out a sigh, she needed to get away from Cerberus as soon as possible, find her mom, her crew, anyone but these fucking monsters. But would they let her go? Could she even leave? Had they put some sort of tracking device on her or something that would make her deactivate when out of range? She chuckled at the bizarre thoughts, not because they were really funny, or even impossible, but if she didn't laugh, she might cry again, and she wasn't sure she'd be able to stop if she started again.

-o-

"Good morning Commander, did you manage to get some sleep?" Miranda asked as the Commander joined them at the docking bay.

The icy stare the Commander gave her was one to rival her own, but Miranda refrained from returning it with her trademark stare. She didn't care what Shepard thought of her personally, but Cerberus weren't the demons Shepard believed them to be, and she was going to prove that.

Forcing a slight smile on her face she continued, "The Illusive Man is ready for our arrival, so you will be able to have a meeting with him immediately."

"In person?" was all the Commander said, turning away from her to face the loading doors.

"No, for security reasons it will be a holo-meeting," Miranda replied, sure that would be a bone of contention.

The Commander scoffed, "What a shock."

While they waited for the docking procedure to complete the Director subtly studied the Commander. Her scarring was terrible, her implants shining through, breaking up her otherwise flawless brown skin. The Commander's body was still not fully healed and it had to be painful, but she certainly didn't let it show. Miranda let her gaze trail the scars until jaw met ear and she noticed that the cornrows taming the Commander's previously frizzy hair were immaculately done.

Thinking back, Miranda remembered a conversation she had had with one of the scientists on the project. He had argued that they should keep Shepard's hair short instead of allowing it to grow to the same length she kept it before she died. The idiot had argued it was an impractical length for a soldier and purely a cosmetic frivolity.

Miranda reminded him that the Commander had already managed to defeat a Reaper and repel the geth from the Citadel with long hair, and in fact successfully conducted her entire military career without letting her long hair be a handicap, so she was sure it wouldn't be a problem.

She also reminded him that he, in fact, had no right to tell anyone how they could or couldn't present themselves and that if he didn't want to be removed from the project early, to keep his archaic opinions to himself in future. This threat was generally very effective due to the fact that the project was so top secret, that being removed from it before completion meant you left the station via the airlock, without a suit. If the Commander had been male would he have passed comment on the practicality of the length of his beard? Likely not. It astonished her that even in 2185CE, there were idiots that held on to such ridiculous attitudes.

"Can I help you?" the Commander's cool tone interrupted her thoughts and Miranda realised that she had gone from subtly studying to obviously staring.

Clearing her throat she said, "The implant scars, we'll have to have a look at those, find a way of speeding up the healin-"

"You've done enough," the curt tone cut through her sentence.

This time Miranda couldn't keep her retort to herself, "If by enough, you mean spending two years of my life bringing you back from the dead, then yes, I suppose I have." She turned away from the Commander and pulled up her omni-tool to give her something to distract her annoyance.

"Attention all hands," the ship's VI began "prepare for docking procedure to begin."

-o-

Walking down the dark hallway Leni slowed as she saw the glowing circle on the floor in the room ahead of her. "Step onto the Quantum Entanglement Communicator and you'll be connected to the Illusive Man," the Operative's words from a moment ago rang in her head. She took a deep breath, she wasn't ready to face the man responsible for her brother's death. But this meeting was an unavoidable next step, they had made clear if she wanted out, she had to take this call.

Cautiously she continued and walked forward to stand inside the circle. As the device came to life beams began scanning her from head to toe, and a holo recreation of a man appeared before her. "Commander Shepard, welcome back to the land of the living," the voice rang out crystal clear.

Shepard crossed her arms instinctively, she wasn't sure what she had expected, but this greying man, sat smoking a cigarette in his loafers, was not it. "The Illusive Man I presume?"

"I apologise that I cannot meet you in person, but this is a-"

"Necessary precaution, yeah your Barbie Doll already gave me your excuses."

"That, Barbie Doll as you call her, is one of the main reasons the Lazarus Project was successful, and the only reason you survived the attack. She is also incredibly intelligent and a formidable biotic. You might show her a little more respect than unwarranted name-calling."

Leni narrowed her eyes, he dared lecture her about respect? "Well, now you mention it, care to explain to me why you poured so much money into bringing one person back from the dead, especially when that person hates your organisation."

"Humanity is in danger Shepard, it needs you."

"I'm one woman, you could have built an entire army with what you spent on me, that doesn't seem like good business."

"I have an army, they can't do what you can. If the galaxy is to overcome the threat we both know is coming, it needs the hero that has already shown herself capable of winning. That is you, Commander."

"Ok, so say I believe you've done this for the good of the galaxy, when I leave this room am I free to walk away from Cerberus? Or have you stuck me with some sort of electric shock device?" Leni had to fight to keep her voice steady, there was no way she was going to show this man how anxious she was of what his answer would be.

The man in front of her began to laugh, which quickly turned into a cough and a puff of smoke billowed out of his nose and mouth. "No, there's no shock device. However, I don't think you're going to choose to walk away from us."

Now it was Leni's turn to laugh, "If you think I'm gonna want to work with you, you clearly have no idea of my history with your organisation."

"Actually I am completely aware your previous encounters with Cerberus projects, or should I say ex-Cerberus projects. I'll be straight with you Shepard, before Cerberus I was a mercenary who served in the First Contact War on Shanxi. Long story short, near the end of the war I came into contact with a strange device, a mind controlling device. At the time I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but having heard about the indoctrination ability that the Reaper Sovereign had, I now believe it has something to do with the Reapers." The man sighed, letting out another puff of smoke, "I lost some good friends to that device. It was after that, I wrote my manifesto warning of the dark times that were coming to test humanity. That's when I started Cerberus."

"Manifesto?" Leni scoffed, "You mean propaganda."

"Yes, well, I see now that it wasn't the most effective way to recruit. I had the best intentions, unfortunately, it drew in a lot of extremists rather than the enthusiasts I had hoped for. We expanded very quickly, too quickly, making it impossible to monitor all the research projects and experiments to an adequate level. As a result, a few of them slipped completely through the net for quite some time, and I discovered too late, how extreme their experiments had become." The man stubbed out his cigarette and stared at it for a moment, then took a deep breath, "In my desperation to distance Cerberus from the rogue projects, I immediately cut the funding and all contact with them, destroyed any paper trail and rebranded Cerberus. What I should have done was send people in to literally dismantle them, but I assumed they'd give up without funding. Unfortunately, I was wrong and some of them continued their horrific research for years. It was those research facilities you came across."

Leni shook her head, grinding her teeth, "So what? You're just an innocent bystander in this who got taken advantage of?"

"No, I am at fault through my negligence due to naivety and inexperience. I have learned a lot, but it has cost me greatly in regards to the greater perception of Cerberus. My goal was to create a pro-humanity group, Shepard, I did not put decades of my life into this company with the hope of it one day being labelled as a terrorist organisation."

Leni scratched the back of her neck, this was not how she had foreseen this meeting going. She'd expected an evil man with no care for right or wrong; someone who stood by the monstrosities she had discovered. But there was still one huge question, the most significant, "And what about Akuze, the 'test' that resulted in the death of my brother?"

"Ah, unfortunately, I cannot claim ignorance on that. It was, in fact, an active Cerberus project."

Leni laughed in disbelief, all this explaining and excusing and then he just outright admits to this.

"It was a trap set up to test a new undetectable, subterranean thresher maw hammer, however, the trap was intended for batarian slavers."

"Jesus," Leni hissed through her teeth, "so you were willing to risk sacrificing the colonists? Some pro-human attitude that is."

The Illusive man breathed heavily through his nose, "There were no official records of a new colony being built there, it was meant to be an abandoned planet. When the distress call was first activated, batarian slavers did respond, but the hammer malfunctioned and didn't activate as it should, and as a result of the batarians successfully took the newly arrived colonists. When your brother's N7 team went to investigate, it seems the hammer activated when they tried to deactivate the signal, and...well, you know the rest."

"So what? My brother's death was an unfortunate fucking accident." Leni heard herself shouting and curled her fists into a ball to stop her from shaking, "You killed my brother! Why the fuck would I work with you?"

"Because nobody else will admit the truth about the Reapers. Cerberus is your only choice."

"No, it's not. I am a Commander in the Alliance military and a Council Spectre. I will never work with Cerberus." Leni stormed out of the room, fury pulsing through her body, one day she was going to put a bullet between that mother fucker's eyes.

She burst through the doors at the top of the dark hallway and squinted at the bright light. It took her a moment to refocus on the room, and when she did, she thought she must be dreaming. "Jeff?"

"Leni" her best friend whispered her name, "holy shit, they weren't bullshiting. You're really alive, they really brought you back from the dead."

The sight of her best friend standing before her turned her fury into an overwhelming relief before she had time to think she was closing the distance between them and carefully wrapped her arms around him. They stood there like that for a minute, at the moment when she had felt completely lost and alone, her best friend had appeared in front of her. "Shit I've missed you," she heard him whisper, and pulled back to look at him, "Leni, I'm so sorry."

She furrowed her brow in confusion, "Sorry for what?"

"It's my fault you didn't make it into the pod, it's my fault you died," Jeff shook his head.

Laying both hands on his shoulders Leni stared into her best friend's eyes, "No, it was not your fault. It was the fault of whoever it was that attacked us. It's as simple as that. Do you hear me?" When he simply broke eye contact with her, she gave him a gentle shake, "Hey, It was Not. Your. Fault. Do you hear me?" she said emphasising every word.

The edges of Jeff's mouth turned up a little and a quiet chuckle slipped across his lips, "Sir, yes Sir," he said looking back at her again. "Shit Leni, it's good to see you."

Leni smiled back at him, "You too, I've needed a friendly face." Then her smile fell, replaced with confusion, "But come to think of it, why is your face here? In a station run by Cerberus," she took a small step back to take in his full appearance, "and why is your ass wearing that uniform? Did they threaten you?"

"No Shepard, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse: getting you back."

Leni's frown deepened "What so, they just approached you and told you they were resurrecting me and you just believed them?" Jeff wasn't stupid, but that didn't seem like the actions of a sensible man.

Jeff shrugged, "They showed me reports and photos and a live video feed of you in the lab. I couldn't just ignore the possibility that it was true, and then Karin confirmed that the reports all seemed genuine and the theory was plausible with enough time and money."

"Wait, Karin? Karin knows?"

"Yeah, she's here, they recruited her too."

"Where, where is she, are you sure she's ok?" panic started to rise in Leni. Her eyes darted around the room, she was almost certain Jeff was being truthful with her, but what if it was an act, put on to protect Karin who was being held somewhere.

"Hey," Jeff's voice came and she felt both his hands now on her shoulders, "Leni, she's fine, there was a minor medical emergency on the N-the ship Cerberus have provided for us, she had to go deal with it. But I can take you there, it's just a quick elevator ride away."

-o-

Karin saw the moment - as if in slow motion - when the realisation hit the Commander that the Illusive Man's words were true; Cerberus really was her only option of stopping more colonies from vanishing.

She had stood in Anderson's office before the holo-images of the other Council members while they disregarded her warnings, essentially telling her she was being dramatic. Karin had seen it had been a bitter pill for Leni to swallow: to thank them for not stripping her of her Spectre status. To take the accusations that she had been AWOL for two years, and possibly even switched sides and had been working for Cerberus.

Karin watched over the sleeping Commander where she lay on the hotel bed. When they'd left the Cerberus space station for the three-day journey to the Citadel, Leni had been so positive, relieved to be away from Cerberus and so confident that the Alliance and Council would see the truth and help her.

The woman that lay before her now was not the same as before she died. Not that Karin doubted this was the real Leni Shepard, she could feel she was; but the fire, strength and determination that made Leni the unstoppable Commander - hero of the Citadel - was seemingly gone. She had tried to talk her round, but Karin had a feeling there was only one person that could relight the fire.

The message she had received earlier that day could not have come at a better time. Karin checked the message again to be sure she didn't get the wrong time, and then set a wake-up alarm. They couldn't be late tomorrow: Leni had a blind date.

-o-

"Leni," she heard the gentle voice and felt a hand on her shoulder. "It's time to wake up darling, we've got someone to meet."

Leni cracked an eye and squinted at the brightening light as Karin slowly came into focus beside her bed. "Someone to meet?" Leni croaked, "who?"

"Come on, go get a shower, you'll see soon," Karin said standing.

-o-

"So, where's this person I need to meet?" she said turning to Karin who was fiddling with her omni-tool again.

"She'll be here in a minute," was all Karin said with a grin.

Leni squinted at her in suspicion, this mysterious behaviour was not like Karin at all. Leni turned and stared out over the Citadel; they'd certainly done a good job of restoring the Presidium to its previous glory, although no doubt the Wards hadn't been given nearly as much priority.

Realising that she was in fact really hungry, Leni turned to ask Karin if Apollo's Cafe still existed. She froze in shock at the sight of the person practically running towards her, "Mom?"

"Oh my baby!" her mother gasped as she reached Leni and wrapped her arms around her, "You're really here, my little bright light."

-o-

Hannah's mind reeled as she sat in Apollo's cafe watching her daughter, her beautiful, alive daughter eating just like she used to: with the appetite of ten men. She was here, it was impossible, and yet clearly it wasn't.

Hannah took a sip of her coffee and gave Leni's hand a gentle squeeze. She had no doubt whether or not this was her daughter, but there was something different. When she looked in her daughter's eyes, she saw fear and uncertainty. Leni sat back looking satisfied as she took the last bite of her huge meal.

"Damn that was good," Leni drawled.

"Well you definitely came back with the same appetite as before," Hannah said smiling at her. Leni tried to return the smile, but it never reached her eyes. "So, are you going to tell me about it?"

Leni's eyes dropped to her empty plate, "You don't want to hear it, Mom," she finally murmured.

Hannah reached forward and hooked a finger under her daughter's chin and pulled up until she met her gaze again, "Don't want to hear it? I never thought I'd hear your voice again, I want to hear it all," she said firmly.

-o-

Leni took a pull on her beer and picked at the bottle's label, "What if I'm not me, I could be a clone and not even know it. I mean, what they claim to have done mom, it's impossible."

"Well, that's not what Karin said. She's studied the documentation and yes it's advanced, genius in fact, but she said, with enough time and credits, it was all perfectly plausible."

"I feel broken, like, they forgot something."

"Oh my girl," her mom said leaning forward and wrapping both her hands around Leni's free hand, "You are the real you, I see it and feel it when I look at you and hold you, but you're right, something isn't the same. I don't think it's that they have forgotten anything though. You learned the hard way that you aren't invincible, that as strong and brave as you are, you're not immune to death, and that's a scary thing to face."

Leni gave a short nod, "I'm scared of everything. I've been gone so long, everything has changed, yet I'm expected to still be Commander Shepard and save the galaxy. And then there's the fucking politics, which is pretty much the only thing that hasn't changed. How am I supposed to save the galaxy on my own."

"Well by the sounds of it you don't have to. The people that brought you back certainly seem to have the resources and drive to do something about it."

Leni's mouth dropped open, "Mom, did you not listen to anything I told you? Cerberus was responsible for John's death. That man admitted to my face that it was one of their sanctioned experiments."

"Leni, John isn't coming back, he won't get a second chance. But you have, you've got a second chance, something that should be impossible, and something that would never have happened without Cerberus. Don't lose sight of that in your anger towards them. However you feel about the things Cerberus has done in the past - be them through neglect, ignorance or arrogance - you have to put all of that aside because they are the only ones right now willing to give you the resources to do what you need to. Even your brother would see that if he was here"

"So I just sell my soul to the devil?"

"No of course not. You tell the devil that you'll work with him, but that you run things your way. You use them for the resources you need to save the galaxy, but work by your own morals and never compromise who you are and what you believe is right."

"But-"

"I know it's terrifying, putting yourself back on the line, putting that armour back on but, as your father would have said, fears don't go away just because you ignore them. Out of sight is not out of mind, and they will continue to grow and grow until they consume you. You have to face your fears Leni, face them, accept them, and then get past them."

"And what if I can't?" she said

"Do you know what your brother used to say about you? He'd boast you were the most formidable N7 marine he'd ever seen. He was so damn proud of you, he knew you'd do incredible things in your career, and he was right, you've already done so much, and you're not finished yet. You can do this, but you have to put your pride and preconceptions aside, face your fears, and then do your brother, father and myself proud."

-o-

Miranda stepped onto the Quantum Entanglement Communicator platform and Jack's holo-image appeared before her, "It seems you were right. According to the reports we're receiving from the device, the vessel left the Citadel a few hours ago and their destination is set to these coordinates. They're coming back."

Jack's mouth turned up slightly as he blew out a puff of holographic smoke in her face, "Good, but hardly surprising. The Commander isn't stupid, it didn't take long for her to realise we really are her only option."

"Also, one of our Citadel based agents got in touch and reported seeing the Commander with her mother."

"Hmm, interesting, I wonder what influence that will have had on her."

Miranda took a deep breath before asking her question, "Why didn't you tell me about her brother?"

Jack cocked his head to the side, "Miranda, you know transparency isn't the way I run my business. I told you what I felt you needed to know at that time."

Miranda ground her teeth, "This was my project and that was vital information I needed to know Jack."

Jack scoffed, "You may be one of my most trusted employees, but don't get above your station, Ms Lawson. am the one in charge here. I'd hate for you to go down the same path as Rasa."

Miranda swallowed hard at the mention of Rasa and worked to keep her cool mask on, never letting him see the flutter of panic she felt at his words. "Of course Mr Harper. I apologise."

"It's forgotten, " he said with a wave of his hand as if he hadn't just threatened her. "The reason I didn't tell you is that you were already sceptical about Shepard's willingness to work with us. If I'd told you that, you would have disregarded my order to not put a chip in her head, and then the Commander would have been useless to me. If I could lead the galaxy to safety myself, I wouldn't have invested so much bringing Shepard back, only she can do this."

Miranda thought through her next words carefully, "It was just such a huge risk -trusting her- I just wanted to protect your investments," she said making sure to emphasise your.

"I know, but now you know why it had to be this way." Jack took a moment to flick the long trail of ash off his cigarette and then looked up at her, "Now, go make sure the Normandy is ready for the Commander's return."

"Yes, Sir."

-o-

Leni had felt like a caged tiger in the small vessel during the three-day journey back to the Cerberus space station, but as they closed in on their destination, she looked at her reflection in the mirror, she felt a sense of calm and control that she hadn't felt since before she died. The N7 armour Anderson had kindly acquired for her fit as perfectly as her old one.

"Well look at you," she heard Karin say from the doorway, "anyone would think it had been tailor-made for you."

Leni felt herself smiling and turned, "Or maybe I was just born to wear this uniform." She realised that she was excited: excited at the prospect of, putting together a new crew, maybe recruiting some of her old crew and of exploring the new Normandy; sure she'd seen it when Jeff took her to see Karin, but that memory was fuzzy, as if she hadn't really been there, maybe because she hadn't wanted to be.

But that was over now, pity party Shepard was gone. She knew she still had a lot of stuff to work through, but she also had a job to do, a galaxy to save...again.

Chapter Text

The holo-emitters scanned Shepard again, and just like the first time, the Illusive Man appeared in front of her. The space around them became so dense in holographic smoke that she had to stop herself from instinctually wafting the smoke away. "Welcome back Commander. I trust you had a pleasant trip?"

"Wonderful, thank you." Shepard said dryly, "Got to see the sights, catch up with the family, the usual dressing down from the Council, oh and I even got this souvenir," she said pulling on her N7 light armour.

"And it still suits you," the Illusive Man said the edges of his mouth twitching slightly.

Shepard took a slow breath out, "To say I don't like you would be an understatement of epic proportions. I don't know if there is such a thing as God, but if there is, I don't think there would ever be enough good deeds in the galaxy to grant you redemption for the atrocities you have inflicted on this world."

She studied the man, who just flicked his cigarette and stared at her indifferently. "Unfortunately, I cannot deny that when you set your mind to something, it gets done. Bringing me back, building the SR2, it shows a commitment I clearly won't find anywhere else right now, so I will work with you. But, I am in charge of my ship, of my crew, and my missions. I can't have a back seat driver undermining me; from here on out this operation is run by my rules, are we agreed on that?"

"I'd expect nothing less."

"And I get to pick my own squad."

"Ms. Lawson and Mr. Taylor are mandatory, but other than them, yes, you have free reign."

Shepard ground her teeth, "Jacob I can take, but why do I have to have her?"

"Without Miranda in charge of the Lazarus project, it would have failed, irrelevant of how much money I'd have thrown at it. She doesn't do failure. Whatever you think of her right now, I promise you she will be one of your greatest assets if you give her the chance. She'll count as the senior Cerberus operative, and your second in command."

Shepard rubbed her neck absently while she thought, "Fine, but she follows my orders. I don't wanna be hearing 'the Illusive Man wouldn't have done that' every five minutes, and I certainly won't stand for her second-guessing me in front of the crew."

"You won't have a problem with her Commander. The squad you choose is your call, but we have put together a selection of dossiers for some of the best people out there. They are entirely neutral and have no previous affiliation with Cerberus. Well except for one who has a rough history with us; she'll be a challenge to get on board, but if you succeed, she'll be a formidable ally."

"OK, I'll take a look at them later. I read the files about the vanishing colonists that your Director Lawson gave me. It's definitely more than slavers, I just don't know what. Sovereign wasn't this discreet, so if it's still the Reapers at work, they've gone for an entirely new approach."

"Indeed, but we're in luck; another colony, Freedom's Progress, went dark an hour before you docked."

Shepard frowned, "What about that is lucky?"

"We've picked up on it before the Alliance this time, which means there might actually be some evidence left to give us an idea of what is going on before the Alliance covers it up again."

Shepard nodded but looked away, talking about the Alliance as if they were the enemy was more than a little uncomfortable for her, but then again they'd left her with little choice but to work with Cerberus. She sighed and refocused, "Freedom's Progress you said? If I'm not mistaken that's not too far from our current location."

"Correct," he said simultaneously puffing out another holo cloud of smoke in her face, "so we're doubly lucky. I made sure the Normandy was fully prepared for your return and Director Lawson should have informed Mr. Moreau of your destination by now."

Shepard huffed at the pure arrogance of the man for having assumed even before their talk she'd agree to work with them. But then again, why else would she have come back. "OK, I should go."

"Good luck Commander."

-o-

"Welcome to the Normandy SR2, Commander," Jacob said coming to a stop on Miranda's right.

"Thank you, Jacob," the Commander said giving him a nod.

"Would you like a tour of the ship, Commander?" Miranda offered,

"I'm sure I'll figure it out," the Commander replied with a cool tone not even bothering to look at her.

"There are quite a few design and layout changes from the SR1, I can-"

"No, thank you, Director Lawson," the Commander said putting emphasis on the word Director as if it was some sort of insult.

Miranda lifted her chin and gave the Commander her trademark stare. "Very well, Mr. Moreau said we'll reach Freedom's Progress in around four hours. Until then, if you need me I'll be in my office. If you can find it that is," she added as she marched past.

-o-

Leni glared at the woman's back as she headed to, what Leni assumed, was an elevator.

"So err, would you like to see the armoury Commander?" she heard the soldier say and she looked back at him, "it's just over there. They've got some pretty cool toys," he said giving her a slight smile.

"Sure, why not," she said taking one last look at the charcoal haired woman who continued to pierce her with a chilling glare until the elevator doors closed.

As the armoury doors closed behind them, Jacob turned to her, "Permission to speak freely Ma'am?"

Leni narrowed her eyes at him, she had an idea what his topic would be, but she'd always had a speak freely policy when in command and didn't see why it should be any different while with Cerberus. "Permission granted."

Jacob leaned on the weapons bench behind him and crossed his sturdy arms, "Look, I know she's cold and abrupt, brash and unapologetic, and dedicated to Cerberus, but under all that hides a good, well-meaning, driven and determined woman. When she sets her mind to something she's-"

"Unstoppable?" Leni finished for him, "yeah I've heard the Illusive Man's promo of her already."

"Screw the Illusive Man, I've never trusted him and never hidden that fact." Shepard cocked her head with interest at the soldier's tone of disgust when mentioning his employer, "I'm speaking from my own personal experience, working with her for two years. She went through hell trying to get your body back from the Shadow Broker. Dedicated years of her life to bring you back because she believed you're the galaxy's only hope against the Reapers. Her intentions are good, even if her methods have been warped by the Illusive Man's way of doing things. But I think she'll eventually see that your way of doing things is better. She wants to work with you Shepard, she wants to help you save the galaxy. And after all she's put into getting you here, no one will have your back better than her."

Shepard considered the soldier for a moment, she could hear the sincerity in his voice, see him willing her to see whatever it was he saw in the Director.

"Commander, joining Cerberus was not something I did lightly. All I wanted to do was serve and protect, but after you died the Council put a fucking leash on the Alliance, and the Brass just fell in line. You saved their lives, and they just disrespected your memory, and those of us that spoke out about it got reassigned or retired. When Miranda told me what they planned to do - to bring you back - how could I not be on board?"

Jacob pushed off from the bench and drew up to his full height before continuing, "I waited two years to meet the woman that saved the Citadel, the woman that, by all accounts, believed in giving anyone a chance to prove their worth without prejudice." Jacob broke eye contact with her momentarily, "and honestly Ma'am, I'm still waiting to meet her."

Her mother's words rang in her head, chiding her for being so stubborn. "You've got a second chance, something that would never have happened without Cerberus. Don't lose sight of that in your anger towards them. Put your pride and preconceptions aside."

If she was going to succeed, she had to have a close-knit crew like on the SR1, maybe even closer, and that would never happen if she couldn't put her preconceptions of the Director aside and give her a chance. Taking a deep breath Leni looked at Jacob, nodding, "Thank you for your candour Lieutenant, you're right, and I will do my best to try and keep an open mind in regards to Director Lawson."

The soldier smiled, "I'm not really a Lieutenant anymore Ma'am,"

"Once a soldier always a soldier." She said and gave him a nod before heading to the door.

-o-

Miranda punched the bag that hung in the makeshift gym the crew had put together in the shuttle bay. She threw another punch, and another, growling with frustration. That woman was so damn infuriating. So judgemental, looking down on anyone that was with Cerberus, because the bloody Alliance was so damn perfect. If they were so perfect, where were they now?

"God. Damn. Hero. Complex," she grunted in time to each jab she landed. Her fist glowed blue and the biotic-assisted punch sent the bag flying from its stand. She watched it sail through the air, landing on the metal floor with a loud thud. Sliding all the way across the shuttle bay, it came to a stop at a pair of boots. Miranda didn't need to look up to know who those boots belonged to, she turned and picked up her towel wiping her face on it. Not that she really needed to, but she needed a distraction until the other woman - who clearly hated her - had made her exit. Then she heard footsteps echoing across the metal floor, heading towards her, not away. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, Crap, she thought, she didn't need a confrontation right now.

"You dropped something," the other woman said from close behind her and Miranda heard the sound of the punching bag slapping down on the mat.

Turning to look at it, she slowly dragged her eyes up to meet the Commander's.

When she didn't reply, the Commander spoke again, "Maybe I'm lost, but this doesn't look much like an office."

"Yes, well I had some...pent up frustration I needed to get out, and decided it was better to do it here than take it out on my terminal."

"Yeah, that sounds like a wise decision," the Commander replied while poking around at the different gym equipment. Miranda could have sworn she heard something resembling a jovial tone, but the Director wasn't stupid, she wasn't about to let her guard down, and her glare stayed in place when the Commander looked up at her.

Shepard's face dropped when she saw the Director's glare and she breathed out heavily through her nose, "Look, we seem to have gotten off on the wrong-," then she stopped, "-no. I. have gotten us off on the wrong foot. I've let my previous experiences with Cerberus taint my perception of you personally, without actually giving you a chance to prove yourself."

Miranda crossed her arms and looked at her sceptically through narrowed eyes, was this a trick? To what avail?

The Commander sat on the bench press, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, "Jacob reminded me of something my mother said when we met on the Citadel. A meeting I'm sure you already know about from the agent you had watching me."

Miranda raised a brow at the accusation, the accurate accusation, "Impressive, she's one of my best."

The edges of the Commander's lips twitched and the Director saw a gleam in her eye, "Don't worry, she was good, I almost missed her."

Miranda was wary, but also curious at the change in the Commander's attitude, "So what did she say? Your mother?"

The Commander gave a slight smile, and Miranda saw how it softened the marine's previously stony jawline, "She said to put aside my pride and preconceptions of Cerberus. But for some reason, I haven't for you, so, I'm sorry." The Commander stood, picking up the punching bag and the hanging it back on its makeshift stand. "I'll leave you to finish letting out your frustrations, Director Lawson."

Miranda watched the Commander leave without saying a word. She had no idea what to say. An apology was the last thing she'd expected to hear. Was it genuine? Was this a trick to make her let her guard down? Well, whatever it was, her guard would stay firmly in place, that was for sure.

-o-

Shepard had been apprehensive of the mission to Freedom's Progress, sure she'd been in situations before where she'd had to rely on strangers to have her back, but never strangers that her natural instincts told her she couldn't trust. But as things stood, she'd been left with little choice; they needed to scout the colony immediately and she had no other squad members.

Where she stood in the armoury, dismantling and cleaning her M-97 Viper, Shepard let her mind wander back to the mission. When they ran into Tali and her team it had been a cyclone of emotions. The relief of seeing a squadmate she could trust, the reality that her death had pulled her old crew and squad apart, and then hearing the caution in Tali's tone when she realised who Shepard was working with.

Looking back Shepard couldn't deny the skills of the two squad members she'd been stuck with. The Illusive Man had described Director Lawson as a formidable biotic, and much as she hated to say it, he was right. Her barriers held strong, and she made every bullet, every overload and biotic slam count. Not once did Shepard see the Director make a mistake.

And she hadn't been the solo player Shepard had suspected her to be, displaying an astute combat awareness. In the same way, Shepard was always aware of her squadmates' locations and when they needed support, the Director had seemed to always know where she and Jacob were and had in fact saved both of their asses with a well-timed Overload when a cloaked assault drone flanked them.

Shepard chuckled and shook her head in disbelief when she thought back to their exchange with the shellshocked quarian Veetor. "We need to get this data to the Illusive Man. Grab the quarian and call the shuttle to come pick us up." The Director might be a master on the battlefield, but good Lord did her skills of diplomacy need some work.

Shepard hoped Jacob had been right earlier when he said he thought the Director would come round to her way of doing things. They had, after all, got the data they needed from Tali, without needing to kidnap an already traumatised victim.

She knew she needed to give the other woman a chance to prove herself, but if that was how she was used to conducting herself, this was truly going to be a struggle of wills.

Leni refocused on her weapon that was now spotless, and reassembled it, making it the final piece of her gear ready for their next mission. They weren't due to arrive at Omega for twelve hours, and although she knew she needed to get rest, she was also far too pumped up on adrenaline to sleep.

"Edi, is Jacob awake?" A sparring session would likely do the trick.

"Negative Commander, would you like me to wake him?"

"No no no, was just wondering if he was up for a sparring match."

"Director Lawson is currently working out in the shuttle bay, maybe she would be 'up for a sparring match'."

Leni considered the AI's suggestion; in truth, the Director would likely jump at the chance to kick her ass, and it was an opportunity to get to break the ice without there being too many awkward silences. "Good suggestion Edi."

-o-

The punching bag had done nothing to expel the adrenaline, so Miranda had moved on to the bench press in hopes that would help. "Want me to spot you?" The familiar voice came just before she lifted the barbell and seconds later, the upside-down face of the Commander came into her view.

"Not really," she replied coldly and sat up.

The Commander let out a long sigh behind her, "Well, how about a chance to kick my ass?"

The Director paused at this and turned to look at the Commander who raised an eyebrow in question, "Thought that might peak your interest. I'm far too pumped to sleep right now and Jacob's asleep already soooo, I'm in need of a sparring partner."

Tilting her head Miranda studied the woman in front of her, getting to kick her arse would certainly be more cathartic than hitting a bag, "OK. With or without powers?"

"No powers, just a plain old ass kicking."

She nodded and moved to the middle of the mat, taking a combat-ready stance and the Commander came to face her with a similar pose.

The Commander threw the first punch, that Miranda deftly dodged and then stepped in with a quick upper cup that the Commander hopped back to avoid bouncing on her toes. The women continued exchanging and avoiding blows for several seconds before the Commander came in faking a jab and dropping into a leg sweep. Miranda saw it just in time and hopped clear following through with a back kick to the Commander's head, just as Miranda thought her kick would make contact, the Commander caught her foot and held it firmly in place, studying her with a piercing gaze.

"You need to work on your diplomacy skills, " the Commander said before releasing her foot.

Miranda scoffed while trying to retain her stride, "Do I now?" she said throwing an uppercut the Commander's way.

"Grab the quarian?" the Commander said quoting her words from earlier with a disapproving expression.

"We needed the information," Miranda said defensively while continuing to bounce on the balls of her feet.

"And we got it, without kidnapping anyone. "

"The quarian-"

"Tali," the Commander corrected.

"-Tali, would have never given us the information if you hadn't been there."

The Commander laughed, "Because no one trusts an organisation that uses methods like kidnapping people instead of building positive relations."

Miranda faked a kick, sending the Commander to the left and then jumped in with three jabs to the torso, the last two of which hit their target, "We would have returned him to the flotilla when we had the information we needed."

The Commander rubbed her chest, "Nice move," she said grabbing her towel and wiping her face. "And what if he hadn't made it? He was sick and clearly in shock. Are you trying to tell me your people would have prioritised treatment over interrogation?"

Miranda searched for a reply but found herself struggling to find anything satisfactory.

"Look, both the Illusive Man and Jacob sing your praises, and from what I observed today it's totally warranted."

Miranda turned to grab her own towel, hiding her confusing at the situation. First an apology, now a compliment.

The Commander continued, "I know my methods are very different from how you are used to operating, but if we're going to get through this successfully, we can't be working against each other." Miranda turned and looked at the Commander, there was sincerity in her eyes. "The crew and squad need a united leadership, not divided, but I won't compromise my morals."

"So it's your way or the highway?" Miranda said cooly.

The Commander chuckled, "Well I'd rather look at it more as you expanding your horizons and trying something new. And in return, I will do my best to compromise where possible."

Miranda eyed the Commander, "So I just fall in line, 'Yes Ma'am, No Ma'am?'"

The Commander crossed her arms, "If I wanted people to follow me blindly, I'd recruit vorcha. I expect you, all my crew in fact, to have their own opinions, and I encourage them to express them in a professional manner. One thing I won't stand for is to be undermined in front of the crew. If you disagree with something you take it up with me in private. Does that sound like something we could try?"

Miranda took a deep breath. The Commander was here, working with them and the Illusive Man had wanted Shepard back exactly as she was before, morals and all, and she had indeed saved the galaxy once already. "Yes, we can try."

"You finished kicking my ass, or would you like another swing?"

Miranda couldn't keep the smirk off her face, "I won't say no to another round."

The Commander raised her guard and both women circled the mat never taking their eyes off each other. Miranda went in with a palm-heel strike that the Commander blocked and countered with a front elbow strike that Miranda ducked away from. They carried on that way for several minutes, neither getting the upper hand, until Shepard deflected the Director's roundhouse kick, setting her off balance and following through with a perfectly executed behind the knee, arm sweep combo.

Miranda felt the air forced out of her lungs as she landed with her back flat on the mat. As she took a moment to refill her lungs, the Commander came into view to stand beside her, "How's it going down there?" she said a smug look on her face.

Miranda trapped the Commander's legs between her own and twisted her body, instantly pulling the Commander's legs out from under her. De-tangling her legs from the Commander, Miranda performed a backward roll to put some distance between them, then she flipped up to a standing position a safe distance from the floored Commander. "You tell me."

The Commander didn't attempt to get up, instead, Miranda heard laughter coming from the body that lay on the mat. Lifting her head to look at Miranda with a glint in her eye, the Commander said, "Very nicely played Director, using my arrogance against me. Serves me right."

When the Commander had gotten to her feet she held out a hand to the Director, when Miranda took it, the Commander pulled her near, too near. They were so close Miranda could detect scents of coconut oil and shea butter from the other woman, and the Director swallowed hard, unable to break the Commander's gaze.

A grin broke out on the Commander's face and she spoke softly, in Miranda's ear, "It's been a pleasure Ms. Lawson, we'll have to do it again sometime."

 

Chapter Text

We'll have to do it again sometime? Really Leni? One minute your hating on the woman the next you're practically flirting? Leni stared at her reflection in the mirror, the scar on her cheek glowed in the bathroom's dim light, Damn freaky. Shaking her head, she put her toothbrush back, dried her face and undressed.

She needed sleep so that she was fresh for whatever came their way on Omega, but now her mind was buzzing more than ever. What the fuck had she been thinking? She hadn't been thinking with her brain that was for sure, "Ugh, I need to get laid."

"Would you like me to arrange something for you when we arrive at Omega Commander?" the AI's voice came, startling Leni.

"Holy shit EDI! You're not meant to listen to everything I say!"

"I apologise Commander, but shall I arrange something?"

"No, thank you. I'm perfectly capable of making my own…arrangements. Now, can you please not listen to everything I say while in my private quarters."

"Yes Commander, I apologise again. Goodnight."

-o-

Miranda looked up from her datapad as the elevator doors opened, "Commander," she said acknowledging the woman already in the elevator.

"Director Lawson, I hope you slept well?"

"I did. You?"

"Like a baby, that sparring match proved most effective."

Miranda kept a neutral face but smiled inwardly. The Commander wasn't wrong, taking her down a peg or two had been effective in relieving Miranda's frustrations, although she was still sceptical of the Commander's sudden change in attitude.

When the doors opened on the Combat Information Centre, Miranda felt a surge of excitement as the hum of the ship's day shift flooded the elevator.

"It's quite an experience isn't it, knowing you're part of this, commanding it. The buzz still gets me every time."

Miranda looked at the Commander who was focused on the room before them, there was a look of wonder and anticipation on her face. It was like looking at a totally different woman to the one that woke up on the Lazarus station.

"Yes, it is," Miranda replied.

The Commander turned to look at her, with a slight smile before saying, "Shall we?" and the two women stepped into the buzzing room.

EDI's voice sounded above them, "Commanding Officer on deck."

The room fell instantly silent and the Commander gave the room a quick scan, then nodded, "As you were."

Miranda followed while keeping some distance and observed as the Commander circled the room, taking a moment with each crew member, asking for and repeating each and every name, getting a brief update and then moving on.

The realisation hit Miranda that this, was the real Commander Shepard, the one Jack had been so certain would be the galaxy's only hope. The one that had put together an impressive team, guided them through an impossible mission and back again to save the galaxy.

When they completed their circuit of the room, the Commander held her arm out towards the armoury door, "After you Director Lawson."

-o-

Leni glanced over at the Director where she stood checking over her gear, "Okay, I've gotta ask, where the hell did you get hold of an N7 Hurricane?" she said eyeing the Director's back up weapon.

A sly smile flashed across the Director's face and Leni cocked her head to one side, "You're not the first N7 marine I've crossed paths with Commander." Leni's brows furrowed, not liking the implication of the Director's reply, catching her frown the Director turned to face her, crossing her arms and looking indignant, "He was a contact, despite what you may believe, I don't kill everyone I come across."

Shepard tried to hide her grin seeing the Director's blatant annoyance at her silent accusation, So you do care what people think. "Was?"

The Director broke eye contact and turned back to the weapon's bench, "He was stationed on the SSV Emden during the battle for the Citadel."

The grin dropped from Leni's face and she swallowed hard. The SSV Emden: one of the eight Alliance cruisers she sacrificed when she ordered the fleet to save the Destiny Ascension. "Oh," was all she could manage and turned back to stare at her weapons.

"Did you regret it?" the Director asked cautiously without looking at her.

Leni paused a moment, "I regret every sacrifice I'm forced to make. That doesn't mean I wouldn't make the same decision if I had a redo." She saw out of the corner of her eye that the Director nodded and then looked across at Leni's bench.

"Tempest, interesting choice. I wondered who had put in the request when I saw the requisition order go through," she said giving a nod to the weapon Leni was currently modding.

Leni shrugged. "As much as I love my rifle and heavy pistol, they can't deliver covering fire quite like an SMG. Plus, with the ultralight mod, you barely even notice you're carrying a third weapon. I missed having it on Freedom's Progress."

The armoury door hissed open and Jacob stood in the doorway, already geared up, "We ready?"

Leni looked over at the Director who gave a sharp nod of affirmation. "We're good."

-o-

"How's it going up here?" Leni asked resting a hand on the pilot's shoulder.

"Three words, real leather seats," the pilot replied.

Leni laughed, "Glad to see you have your priorities straight Jeff."

"Seriously, how's she fly?"

"Shepard, I gotta give it to Cerberus, they know how to build a ship; she's faster, quieter, and even more responsive than the SR1...but there's this cancer," he said, whispering the last part and nodding towards the AI's glowing interface.

Leni grinned. "She isn't that bad."

"Shepard, it's like having a drill sergeant hanging over your shoulder," Jeff whined.

Leni patted him gently on the arm chuckling, "Real leather seats Jeff, real leather seats."

-o-

"I wasn't aware you had met Aria T'Loak before," Miranda said as they stepped out of Afterlife club, the pulsing bass fading away as the doors closed behind them.

"Yeah, we're...familiar," the Commander replied not looking at her.

"It looked like you two were..." Miranda paused and quirked an eyebrow, "more than a little familiar."

At that the Commander turned to look at her with an impish grin, "I never kiss and tell Ms. Lawson."

Miranda heard Jacob chuckle from where he walked on the other side of Shepard, "Daaamn Shepard, the Pirate Queen? Really?"

"As I said, no comment," the Commander replied, but the grin on her face told the story well enough.

"Okay, it's game time," the Commander said as they neared the transport depot, her face and voice all business again.

-o-

Hopping over the blockade the trio moved carefully, felling the freelancers that made their way across the bridge in front of them. Unsurprisingly the freelancers made for easy pickings and combined with the help of the Archangel's snipes from above, they made short work of them. Heading into the base Jacob efficiently disarmed the charges that had been placed under the supporting walls of Archangel's base and they continued inside.

Shepard couldn't deny the fact that the more they fought together, the better a team the three of them were becoming. Her two squad members very quickly picked up her style of combat leadership and began anticipated her instructions without verbal commands.

As she carefully made her way up the stairs towards the sniper's nest, Shepard signalled to Jacob to cover their rear and the Director to follow her. When the door opened, Shepard could barely believe her eyes, "Garrus?!"

"Shepard! Is it really you? I thought I must have been hallucinating you on the bridge," the turian said in shock, "how? You were dead, I...I saw you get spaced."

Shepard could hear the pain in her friend's voice and she stepped forward and rested a hand on his shoulder, "It's a long story, my friend -" the piercing whistle from Jacob let her know that now was not the time for stories, "-one for another time, we have company."

-o-

Miranda stood in front of her office door and watched as the Commander paced restlessly outside the medbay, stopping only occasionally to peer through the slightly frosted windows. Taking a deep breath Miranda strode across the mess hall and stood beside Shepard where she was currently doing her window check, "Commander, how's he doing?"

"He took a fucking rocket to the face, how do you think he's doing?" the Commander snapped.

Miranda clenched her jaws, she'd known this was a stupid idea; this was precisely why she avoided emotionally delicate situations. She turned to walk back to her office when the Commander's hand took a gentle hold of her arm, "I'm sorry, that was…" the Commander let out a deep breath and slid down the wall. Leaning her head back, the woman looked up at her, "I just got one of my best friends back, and now he's laying in the medbay. I should have been paying more attention, moved quicker."

She blames herself? Miranda wondered how many other guilts the Commander carried with her, she remembered the Commander's words in the armoury, "I regret every sacrifice I'm forced to make." A great many no doubt.

"If you hadn't reacted as quickly as you did, he'd be dead. He's alive because of you Commander," Miranda said offering the other woman a hand.

A slight smile pulled on the Commander's exhausted face and she took her hand and stood again. "Thank you, Ms. Lawson," she said turning to look through the medbay window again. "You know, you don't have to call me Commander all the time, Shepard is fine."

Miranda gave the Commander a sidelong glance, "Okay, Shepard, you don't have to always use Director or Ms. either; Lawson or even Miranda are both fine."

She saw the Commander nod, "Okay Lawson."

Miranda could see there was something else on Shepard's mind, something she wanted to say, "What?"

"What what? Shepard replied looking confused.

"What is it you're debating whether or not to say or ask?" Miranda replied, and the Commander turned her head slightly to look at her.

"Did you know? That Garrus was Archangel?"

"No, actually I didn't. It was sloppy research for that to have been missed."

The Commander raised an eyebrow and smirked, "Wasn't it you that did the dossiers?"

"If I'd have done them, we would have already known who he was. It was Raz-" Miranda caught herself, "-it was an old friend who was responsible for the dossiers." Seeing the surprised look on the Commander's face Miranda turned to face her crossing her arms, "It may be rare, but it's not unheard of for me to have friends you know."

A mischievous look flashed across Shepard's face, "I'm sure there are many people out there happy to call you friend Lawson."

Miranda wasn't accustomed to frivolous banter, but even she could tell the Commander was currently teasing her. Narrowing her eyes at the Commander, she said "Careful Shepard, I might forget to save you next time you forget to cover your flank," but she felt a telling smirk seep onto her face and turned to look into the medbay again to hide it.

In the corner of her eye, she saw Shepard move closer and then felt the Commander's shoulder gently bump her own. She forced her features into a mock glare and turned back to face Shepard.

The other woman's eyes twinkled with mischief and mirth before saying, "Thank you for today, I think we make a pretty badass team."

Miranda bit her lip to try and control the gratified smile working its way onto her face, "You might be right Shepard," then she turned serious again, "let me know if there is anything I can do."

Shepard looked at her, a real smile on her face, "Thank you, Miranda, I will."

Turning and walking back to her office, Miranda just managed to keep the stupid grin off her face long enough to be out of sight of the crew queuing for food. When the doors closed she walked through her office to her living quarters and flopped down on her bed. She was really tired after the day they'd had, but she couldn't help but smile, "I think we make a pretty badass team." Shepard's words rang in her head, they had, Maybe this can work after all.

-o-

"Damn Garrus it's good to see you," Leni said, hand resting on her friend's shoulder where he lay on the medbay bed.

"How Leni? I mean, did you really die? " his eyes burrowed into her, not letting his gaze drop, and Leni wondered if he thought she might disappear if he did.

"Yeah Gar, I was really dead. Woke up about...eleven? maybe twelve days ago on a fucking Cerberus research facility."

Garrus shook his head, "Of all the fucking people that would bring you back…Cerberus."

Leni laughed, "Since when did you say fucking?"

"It seems I spent too much time with you," Garrus replied with a chuckle that broke off with a pained wince and Garrus raised his hand gently to the bandaged side of his face, "Damn it, Shepard, don't make me laugh."

He studied her for a moment, his face growing serious, "Why are you still with them Leni? After all they've done?" he paused a moment and Leni could see he was weighing whether or not to say his next thoughts. "Can you leave?"

"Yeah, I can, they brought me back exactly as I was, well with a few upgrades, but those I'm not complaining about." She said taking a seat on the edge of the bed, "I left first chance I got, went straight to the Citadel to speak to Anderson and the other Counselors about the colonies that are going missing," she looked up at her friend.

"Let me guess, they don't wanna know," he filled in.

She nodded slowly, "They're just happily using it as a cautionary tale of 'Well we told you it was dangerous to set up colonies in the Terminus System'." She clenched her fists, "Much as I hate to admit it, Cerberus are the only ones doing anything, they left me with no choice."

Garrus nodded slowly, "Well, I'm with you all the way Shepard."

Leni smiled, "Wouldn't want it any other way Gar. I mean, what's Shepard without Vakarian?"

"Damn straight. So what's the next mission Commander?"

"We're heading back into Omega, we have a salarian scientist to pick up." Leni paused, knowing what she said next wouldn't go down well, "But your next mission is recovering."

"Aww come on Shep, don't bench me before I've even begun," Garrus whined.

Crossing her arms Leni put on her Commander's face, "This is non-negotiable Vakarian, you are benched until you have a clean bill of health from the Doc."

"And that certainly isn't going to happen today," the doctor's crisp British voice rang out from where she sat writing medical notes at her desk.

Garrus let out a disappointed sigh, but Leni could see he knew he'd lost this fight before it even began. "Yes, Commander."

"It won't be long Gar. The better a patient you are, the quicker you'll be up. Focus on recovering and you'll be out there sniping in no time. I'm gonna get some sleep, I'll come visit you again when we get back with the scientist."

"Goodnight Leni, it's good to be back, even on the bench," her friend said, a smile showing on the non-bandaged side of his face.

-o-

"Damn Shepard, that new dude you recruited talks crazy fast. What was his name again? Morvin? Marlin?"

"Mordin, Jeff, his name's Mordin," Shepard said correcting the pilot and shaking her head at her friend, he'd always been awful with names. "Yeah, it's almost like he just speaks his thoughts as he thinks them. He seems like a genius though, so I'm not gonna complain."

Jeff turned in his seat to look at her with a serious expression, "So Shepard, we have you, me, Karin and Vakarian, and from what I've heard both Daniels and Donnelly like a game of cards. We gonna resurrect the poker club?"

"Hmm, we've got a bar, so why not. I'll ask Jacob and Miranda if they want in too."

"Miranda?" Jeff said pulling a face, "Since when were you on first-name basis with the Ice Queen? And why the shit would you risk spoiling our fun?"

Leni gave him a stern stare, "Don't be an asshole, she's not as bad as she first comes off. I think she'll be a tough nut to crack, but I don't think she's uncrackable."

Jeff rolled his eyes and turned back to his screens, "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you when she sucks out all the fun."

-o-

"Come in," Miranda said in response to her office door chiming.

The door hissed open, and when she looked up from her terminal, she saw Shepard striding towards the chair on the other side of her desk. "Hello Commander, is everything okay?" she said a little wary of the suspicious grin on Shepard's face.

"What are you doing tonight?"

Miranda gave Shepard a quizzical look, "Errm, eating at some point, maybe train a bit and then try get these reports finished."

"Wrong!" Shepard said slapping her hand on her leg.

The Commander's theatrics were confusing Miranda, "Has another mission come up on Omega?"

"No Lawson, tonight you join the SR2 Poker Club," the Commander said with a gleam in her eye.

"Club?"

"Yup, we had one on the SR1, it's a great way to raise morale and encourage crew bonding. So far it's me, Jeff, Karin, Garrus, Daniels, Donnelly, and Jacob…and now you."

"Nooo," Miranda said slowly, "that doesn't sound like a very good idea."

"Sure it is, I told you it worked really well on the SR1. It's just a ten credit buy-in and the winner takes the pot."

"I don't mean the club, I mean…me being part of it," Miranda said feeling a little awkward.

The Commander frowned, "Why not? We can teach you if you don't know how to play poker."

Miranda broke eye contact and pretended to look at something on her terminal. "I know how to play Shepard, I just...I don't particularly enjoy it."

"Ah but you've never played it with us, trust me, you'll find a whole new appreciation for the game."

"Shepard, I-" she began but paused when Shepard leaned forward in her seat, a vehement expression on her face.

"Miranda, we need a close-knit team if we're going to beat the Collectors. This isn't a research lab, you can't hold yourself apart from the team. They have to know you, trust you, because when they do, they will follow you into the mouth of hell if you ask them to."

Miranda hesitated, she didn't want to give someone ammunition they could use against her later, but she needed to make the Commander understand. She stood and began to pace.

"Commander, I am genetically designed to be a perfect human being. But…one thing I am not perfect at is social situations, so I generally avoid them," the words came out in a rush and she took a breath before continuing, "I'll probably end up spoiling everyone's fun, and that's not going to make them want to follow me into hell; push me maybe, but not follow me."

Shepard chuckled, but Miranda could see it wasn't at her expense, "Or maybe you'll enjoy yourself, get to know some of the crew a little better and can work on those social skills at the same time. Nobody is an expert at everything Miranda, everyone has weaknesses, but if we forever avoid the things we aren't good at, they will always be weaknesses."

Miranda stared at the Commander, she couldn't deny the other woman's logic, but this poker club still sounded like a terrible idea. "Do I actually get a choice in this?"

"If your choice is yes, then absolutely, otherwise I can make it an order…" Shepard said eyebrow raised and grin on her face, "up to you how you want it to go down Lawson."

Miranda rolled her eyes and sighed, "Fine, yes, I will be at the SR2 Poker Club."

"Great," the Commander said standing, "19:00 hours in the bar. Don't be late!"

-o-

"18:59, right on time Lawson," Leni said when the bar doors hissed open and the Director walked through the door.

Leni could see the discomfort wash over the other woman as she took in the assortment of crew members that were already sat around the table. Karin was currently fussing over Garrus' bandages, Joker was sat between Garrus and Gabriella Daniels with Kenneth Donnelly to her left and three empty seats completed the circle.

Leni stopped prepping the drinks in front of her, and, grabbing two shots, walked from behind the bar towards the Director. Handing her one Leni said, "Traditional entry fee," and then clinked the other woman's glass, who, with an amused look on her face, downed the shot in sync with Leni. "Is that your drink of the night?" Leni asked eyeing the wine bottle in Miranda's hand.

"Yes," Miranda replied biting the right side of her lip, which Leni had noticed she seemed to do when stressed, or some emotion similar to that, "it's a favourite, from Australia."

"Nice, there are glasses behind the bar." It wasn't until she saw the Director looking at her arm, that Leni realised she had her hand on the Director's back at waist level, she had simply intended to guide her to the bar so she wasn't awkwardly standing in the doorway, but now Shepard realised how it could be interpreted as inappropriate. She withdrew her hand immediately, "Sorry, I…" she could feel her cheeks warm and carried on towards the bar to grab a wine glass.

Without looking up, Leni took the wine bottle, opened it and then poured some into the wine glass she'd found. The Director sat down on the bar stool directly across from her and Leni could feel she was being watched as she continued to make the cocktails she had started when the Director first arrived.

"I'll be honest Shepard, I didn't have you down as the cocktail making type," she heard Lawson say with an amused tone in her voice and when Leni looked up at her, she saw a slight grin on the other woman's face.

"Yeah" Leni laughed, "my dad taught me when I was a kid, it was kinda our thing."

Miranda's eyes narrowed in confusion as she took a sip of her wine, "Wait, I'm sorry, your father taught you how to make cocktails? When you were a kid?" The incredulous tone in the Director's voice made Leni burst into laughter.

"Well, when you say it like that it sounds less like father, daughter bonding and more like child labour." Leni thought back to the night's they'd spend perfecting the layering so all the drinks would be as impressive visually as they were tasty. Smiling at the woman opposite her she continued, "Every time he was on a long haul deployment, he'd make sure to learn a new cocktail that he'd teach me when he got back."

Lawson opened her mouth to say something when the door hissed open and Jacob walked through.

"Miranda?" the soldier said stopping in the doorway, surprise in his tone, "wow Shepard, you really can work miracles," coming up to stand beside Miranda he grinned at her. Miranda glared at the soldier but Leni could see the Director's lips twitch. "Ooo, cocktails, put me down for that blue, green and purple one Shepard," Jacob said pointing to the cocktail she had just finished layering.

"Oh that's a good choice dear, it's my favourite," Karin's voice came from the far side of the poker table "Leni used to make it for me when Hannah, Jenny - Leni and Jeff's mothers - and I had our monthly cards night. It's called Shepard's Delight."

"Ye named a bevvy efter yerself?" Donnelly piped up chuckling.

"Nooo" Leni replied slowly sending a mocking glare at the smart-mouthed engineer, "my dad named it after me."

Leni handed the tray full of cocktails to Jacob "Get to work soldier!" She ordered with a wink. Watching him head to the poker table, Leni caught Miranda staring at her with a fascinated expression, "Yeah, yeah, when saying it out loud, I hear that naming an alcoholic drink after your child and then letting her make them on a monthly basis could also be seen as weird, or even inappropriate."

"Actually, I think it's quite nice," Miranda said quietly and then broke eye contact and took a sip of her wine. Leni stared in surprise at the Director; that hadn't at all been what she had expected her to say. "Wait a minute," the Director said a suspicious look crossing her face "what happened to Jacob's traditional entry fee?"

A sheepish grin crept onto Leni's face, "Ok, sooo, that might have been a white lie to help you relax," she said. The Director narrowed her eyes, and for a moment Leni wondered if she'd really be pissed off about it, but Leni saw the corners of the Director's lips twitch as she shook her head and rolled her eyes.

"Are we playing cards or are you just gonna play bartender all night Shep?" Leni heard Jeff shout over to them.

Grabbing her own drink Leni grinned at Miranda, "You ready to lose your credits, Lawson?"

The Director stood, giving Leni a sly smile, "You can dream, but don't say I didn't warn you, Shepard."

-o-

Miranda stared at the three cards in the centre of the table, waiting in anticipation for the fourth card, or the turn as it was officially called, to come down. The three cards that made up the flop had already been generous to her, giving her a two pair hand of aces and tens, and as Joker set down the turn card, she did an inward somersault as the second ace appeared, turning her two pairs into aces over tens full house.

Watching the Commander, she couldn't deny that Shepard had a good poker face, but so did she, and there was no way she was giving her game away. Miranda checked and when Shepard raised, she calmly called.

The final community card revealed a king; Miranda had a strong hand, but with the ace, king and ten that were on the table all being clubs, there was still the chance that Shepard had a winning straight flush.

Miranda studied her opponent, despite how good the Commander's poker face was, Miranda had seen a flash of excitement in her eyes when she saw the king. The muscle under the N7 tattoo on the Commander's neck, which was a few inches below her left ear bulged as the Commander stared intensely at the cards, considering her next play.

Miranda traced the muscle with her eyes, up to the Commander's defined jawline, then continued up and along the pronounced cheekbones to the hairline where the cornrows began, confining the woman's full head of hair and continuing all the way down to below shoulder length braids, which currently hung loosely around the Commander's shoulders. Miranda had never noticed quite how beautiful the other woman was, possibly because when she was in the persona of 'Commander Shepard', her face changed: hard and stony, serious and determined.

"Hellooooo," the voice knocked Miranda out of her daze and she realised Shepard had already made her play: all in. "Come on Lawson, you know you wanna see me," the Commander was goading her, but a hot fire sparked in her at the Commander's words for a very different reason. Shepard cocked her head to one side and raised a brow with an intrigued expression.

"Call," she finally replied, never breaking eye contact with the other woman.

They both turned their cards over at the same time, "Fuuuuuck, no waaaay!" the Commander moaned dropping her head in her hands as Miranda's full house beat her flush. Miranda couldn't hide the smile when everyone around the table began buzzing about her awesome poker face and how cooly she'd played such a good hand.

"I did warn you, Commander," she said, and when Shepard raised her head to look at her, Miranda gave her a playful wink.

Shepard chuckled and sighed saying, "Well played Ms. Lawson, well played."

-o-

The bar's door closed behind Karin and Garrus as they headed back to the medbay, which ended up being by Doctor's orders much to Garrus' dismay. Leni saw Jeff stand and make his way around the table clapping her on the shoulder as he went by, "That was a tough break buddy, but that's a seriously good poker face, Lawson," the pilot said giving the Director a nod of appreciation. "Goodnight people, see ya on the day shift."

"Goodnight Jeff." "Goodnight Joker." Leni and the Director said simultaneously. Leni smiled at Miranda's used of Jeff's nickname, it hadn't taken her too long to drop the Mr. Moreau and Doctor Chakwas that she'd used at the start of the evening. The other two conscious people in the room mumbled their own goodnights.

"Well, I suppose I should get this sod to bed so he's fit for his morning shift," Daniels said pointing to her drunk partner in crime, who was currently snoring away with his head on the table, whiskey glass still gripped tightly.

"Looks like you're gonna need a hand with that," Jacob's deep voice said from the other side of Miranda.

When the glass was finally prized from Donnelly's vice-like grip, the pair of them hoisted him up between them and began dragging him towards the door. When the doors closed, Leni looked at the Director who had just emptied her wine glass.

"I should probably get moving too," the Director said looking up at her. But Leni saw something in her eyes, it had been more of a question than a statement, and to her surprise, Leni realised she didn't want to Director to go.

"Actually, I think you owe me at least one commiserative slash celebratory drink before we go," Leni said, answering Miranda's disguised question.

"Do I now?" the Director replied, in a tone that made Leni's stomach flip, similar to how the look that flashed across the Director's face earlier had done.

"Well it seems kicking my ass is becoming a bad habit of yours, so the least you can do compensate me," Leni said with a smirk remembering getting floored by the Director a few days earlier.

Pushing her chair back, Leni got up and headed over towards the bar; when she turned, Lawson was right on her heels. "So, more wine? Or can I interest you in something else?" Leni asked, walking backwards, expecting the Director to take the bar stool as before, but instead, she followed her around the bar.

"Actually, you're right, I should compensate you, and I'm more interested in Shepard's Delight," the Director said in an unmistakable sultry tone, her blue eyes hooded as she closed in on Leni.

"Is that so?" Leni asked, hearing the suggestive tone in her own voice, and before she knew it, her hands were on the Director's hips, her fingertips gripping the other woman, pulling her closer. The Director's arms snaked around her neck, one hand sliding up to grip her head, firmly pulling Leni towards her.

"Commander," the AI's voice sounded above them, making both of them freeze, their lips a mere fraction of an inch apart.

-o-

"This had better be important EDI," Shepard growled, her words dripping with annoyance, frustration burning in her eyes as she stared at Miranda.

Miranda knew she should be embarrassed, that she should remove her arms from around the Commander's neck, but the fact was, she didn't want to. She didn't want the Commander's hands to leave her hips, she wanted the Commander's lips on her body, wanted her own lips on Shepard's neck.

"You have received a message from the Illusive Man," the AI replied.

Twisting her hand Miranda grabbed a handful of braids and tugged lightly, pulling the Commander's head back, exposing the other woman's neck, and then trailed her lips down the soft light brown skin, eliciting a low growl from the Commander.

Breathing heavily the Commander replied, "What does it say?"

"He has tracked down the krogan warlord Dr. Okeer, he is on Korlus."

Shepard pulled Miranda even closer, pressing their hips together and Miranda felt a heat growing inside her, letting out a quiet moan when the Commander's lips made their way down her neck.

"Great EDI, set a course for Korlus, and then lock the bar doors and turn off all communications and surveillance in this room," Shepard said, into Miranda's neck, each breath sending a shiver up her spine.

"The Illusive Man has requested an immediate reply."

"Then send him one," the Commander replied through gritted teeth.

"I apologise Commander, but he has specifically requested the communication come from you and that it includes a report of the events on Omega." Miranda felt a rush of air coat her neck as Shepard breathed out a long sigh of frustration.

"Fine, I'm on my way." The Commander pulled back and stared intensely into Miranda's eyes, "Rain check?" Shepard whispered in quiet question.

"Definitely," Miranda whispered in reply before reluctantly pulling away from the Commander's warm body.

"On my way EDI," the Commander said to the ceiling, finally prying her hands from Miranda's waist and giving her head a shake.

-o-

As the door closed behind the Commander, Miranda stared at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, she barely recognised the woman staring back at her. Not that she had never seduced someone in a bar before, but they were always strangers, people she'd never met before and would never meet again. This woman, that had just seduced not only a colleague but her Commanding Officer, was a total stranger to her.

Yet, she didn't regret it, she didn't even want to take back having agreed to the Commander's question of a rain check. She still felt the warm trail the Commanders lips left on her neck, in truth she wanted that rain check, right now.

-o-

"Commander?" the AI sounded above her head where Leni sat at her terminal in her room.

"Yes EDI?" Leni hissed, still frustrated from the AI's earlier interruption, not that it was her fault, but that didn't stop Leni's annoyance being directed towards the AI.

"May I ask you a question regarding what you consider appropriate procedure should a similar situation happen again?"

Shepard paused her typing and looked up at the ceiling, "What...situation would that be."

"Interrupting sexual activities or similar compromising scenarios between two crew members."

Leni instantly regretted taking a drink of her coffee when she found herself choking on it in response to the AI's blunt query. When she finally finished choking she took a few deep breaths, "Errm, well, that's...erm, an interesting question," Shepard stalled, trying to come up with a satisfactory reply. In truth, it was a fair question and an interesting one for an AI to even consider.

"I suppose it depends on the situation. If the crew is supposed to be on shift, then that's not acceptable behaviour. But if it is in their free time, unless it is an emergency situation, just give them their privacy and contact them about whatever it was later."

"I see, and would giving them their privacy also include locking a door and turning off communications?" The AI asked, clearing having taken in Shepard's request earlier.

"Errm, no I don't think so, not unless requested at least. Listen EDI, what happened earlier, that is between myself and Director Lawson. Under no circumstances are you to share such private information with anyone, am I clear?"

"I understand Commander. Your secret is safe with me," the AI replied and Leni could have sworn she heard a hint of a smile in the voice.

"Great. Well, that's my report and reply sent. Errm, EDI, is the Director still awake?" Leni asked, wondering if that rain check could come sooner rather than later.

"One moment please," the AI replied and there were a few seconds of silence, "negative Commander, her life signs suggest a state of deep sleep."

Hardly surprising, it had been three hours since she had reluctantly left Miranda in the bar. Leni sighed, Thanks, Mom. She knew her inability to do anything but a thorough report, had come from her mother's deep-seated disdain of sloppy report writing. Growing up, Leni had witnessed many a marine get a dressing down from Captain Hannah Shepard for lazy half-assed reports.

Leni thought back to the Director, how she pulled her hair and traced her lips down her neck, the feeling of their bodies so close. "Ugh," Leni groaned dropping her head back and dragging her hands down her face, "I need a shower…"

Chapter Text

He stared at the couple on the vidscreen in front of him in disbelief, "What do you mean, 'it isn't all that interested in training its biotics'? At what point did I ask what it was interested in? I'm pretty certain I didn't. Your orders were to get it trained up."

The man on the screen looked at his 'wife' and then back at the programmer, "Yes, we know but, we have to let the subject come round of its own accord Harry, it would be a complete contradiction to how it's been raised to do it any other way."

Harry's jaw bulged at the stupidity of what he was hearing, "You do realise that you were employed as trainers not to simply play house all these years. This one was meant to be an improvement on the original model."

"And in many ways, it far surpasses the original model Harry," the woman said in a soothing voice, "and the biotics will come with time. The boss says we still have several years before it needs to be recruited."

The programmer stared at the pretty face of his ex-lover where she stood next to her 'husband'. He'd almost had it all. He'd had an almost perfect pretend life for over a decade. Having met Sophie, he'd been on the verge of completing his own pretend family.

That was of course until the original model's shackles started to disintegrate and ruined everything. He'd gone from playing the leading role to being part of the backstage crew; his leading lady whisked out of his arms in the blink of an eye.

"See to it that it is done." He said coldly, pushing away the memories of what they almost had, "I want to hear of considerably more progress at our next quarterly vid-call, I don't care how you do it, just get it done. Do I make myself clear?"

He saw something in the woman's eyes, a flash of hurt at his cold demeanor towards her, but what else did she expect? While she'd been playing happy families with another man, he'd been stuck in a research facility in the middle of nowhere.

As quickly as he had seen the pain in her eyes, it was gone, replaced by a detached, professional expression, "Perfectly Harry. See you in three months."

-o-

Leni stood and watched as Garrus, Jacob, and Zaeed strained to push the huge breeding tank - fully loaded with Okeer's perfect krogan - off the shuttle and into the shuttlebay hangar. Turning her head to look at Lawson who stood beside her she said, "Sometimes it pays to be the boss."

Miranda snorted, "Indeed it does." Then she turned to face Leni, arms crossed over her chest, "What are we going to do with him? I mean, you saw how insane Okeer's other krogans were, who's to say this one won't go the same way?"

Leni sighed and shook her head, "Honestly, I'm not sure. But there was no point letting it go to waste when we'd already lost Okeer," Leni saw the Director give a nod.

Catching a whiff of herself Leni scrunched up her nose, "Jesus I need a shower."

Miranda laughed, "That planet is quite vile, isn't it? Did you know an ex-council member once referred to Korlus as 'a garbage scow with a climate.'"

"Seems a pretty accurate description," Leni replied and then looked back at the tank, "EDI, start in-depth scans and diagnostics of that tank and its occupant, and send the bio-scans to Karin for review. I want to know everything we possibly can about it before we decide what to do with him."

"Yes, Commander."

Leni looked at the Director and nodded, "Well, I'll see ya later Lawson."

-o-

As Miranda stepped out of the shower she heard the door to her quarters chime, Marvelous, she thought to herself, "EDI, who's at my door?"

"The Commander, would you like me to tell her you are not available?" the AI said above her head.

Miranda thought for a moment, "No it's fine, show her in and tell her I'll be out in a minute."

Drying herself off, she heard a muffled conversation between the AI and the Commander coming from the other side of the bathroom door.

As she dragged a brush through her thick hair, Miranda realised she hasn't taken any clothes into the bathroom, she sighed, thankful that she at least had her bathrobe hanging on the back of the door.

Wrapping the robe around her, Miranda opened the door and stepped into the bedroom part of her quarters.

She saw the Commander had her back to her when she began speaking, "Sorry to…" Shepard's sentence was cut off when she turned and caught sight of Miranda's current state of undress.

Miranda skillfully hid a smirk at the sight of the Commander's inability to stop her jaw from falling open, while she fought against dropping her eyes to Miranda's long legs. Her robe was short, to say the least.

"Disturb you," the Commander finally stuttered the rest of her sentence. "I…umm was wondering if you had time to," the Commander paused and shook her head as if trying to wake herself.

Miranda bit her lip and moved closer to the Commander, the Commander's eyes darkened in response to her approach and her breathing deepened.

As soon as Miranda was within arms reach of the Commander, she felt Shepard's hands grip her waist firmly and pull her the rest of the way until their bodies were pressed up against each other.

Miranda felt a hot fire burn inside her and wrapped her arms around the Commander's neck until they were in a similar position as in the bar two nights earlier.

As their lips met, Shepard kissed her roughly, exploring her mouth with her tongue. Grabbing Shepard's head Miranda deepened the kiss as she felt the Commander's hand leave her hip and trail up her body to grasp her breast over the robe. Miranda let out a moan, desperately wanting her robe gone.

As if reading her mind the Commander's other hand dropped to the single knotted belt and yanked it open, pushing the robe over Miranda's shoulders, leaving Miranda shamelessly naked in front of the Commander.

Without a second's hesitation, Shepard grabbed Miranda and pushed her up against the wall. The fire in the Commander's eyes alone made Miranda's knees go weak, and she was thankful the Commander had her firmly in her grasp.

The Commander's soft, full lips made their way down her neck, intermittently nipping, sending waves of goosebumps rippling over her skin. Shepard's hand slid from where it rested on her waist and slowly, teasingly made its way down her body.

Miranda could barely restrain herself from grabbing Shepard's hand to speed up it's decent. Obviously seeing the frustration and desire in Miranda's face, Shepard grinned and whispered, "Something you want?"

Miranda growled and bucked her hips, and as she did the Commander's fingers slide over her wet heat. Miranda let out a moan and pushed down onto Shepard's hand as it rhythmically massaged her.

"Shepard," she managed to gasp, begging for more. Shepard took her cue, sliding her hand further back, fingers reaching for their target. Miranda wrapped a leg around the Commander, and Shepard supported her firmly with her free hand.

"Commander," the tinny voice of the AI said above their heads.

"No!" Miranda gasped in dismay, her head dropping forward onto Shepard's shoulder as they stood there, frozen on the spot.

-o-

"EDI," Leni said with a fearsome growl, "I swear to god, if the ship isn't on fire or being boarded by slavers, I will disconnect your core."

"Mr. Taylor is on his way to the Director's quarters to ask if you two would like to join him and the rest of the squad for a debriefing dinner."

Miranda's head shot up, and looked at Shepard, eyes wide with panic, "Shit."

The pair of them ripped apart, Miranda's knees almost buckling at the loss of contact and Leni had to steady her.

Miranda then dashed to her wardrobe frantically gathering clothes and dashed into the bathroom, saying before closing the door, "Make it look like we were having a meeting."

"EDI, where is Jacob now?" Leni asked while grabbing several datapads and scattering them on the desk to make it look used.

"He just entered the elevator in the CIC, I estimate he will reach the door in one minute and twenty-four seconds," the AI helpfully replied.

"Crap," Leni cursed.

"I tried to subtly dissuade him, but he was persistent. I deduced that this situation was comparable to being boarded by slavers."

Leni chuckled and shook her head at the situation, "You weren't wrong EDI, thank you. And…sorry for saying I'd disconnect you, I hope you realise I didn't really mean it."

"Don't worry Commander, I assessed that it was what you humans call, an empty threat."

-o-

Miranda heard muffled voices through the bathroom door and prayed it was Shepard and EDI again, and not Jacob having already arrived.

She needed a moment to physically recover from what had just happened. One day she would kill Jacob for this.

Dashing around, she freshened herself up again and pulled on her clothes. Checking herself in the mirror she grimaced, somehow she'd managed to get the infamous 'just screwed' hairstyle without even having got the reward.

Sighing, Miranda dragged the brush through her hair in an attempt to rectify the look. She froze at the sound of her door chime, then burst back into action, giving up on her hair and fixing her makeup instead. The Director raised a brow at the finished product in the mirror, it'd have to do. She just hoped Jacob wasn't in an observant mood.

Just as she was about to exit, Miranda turned and flushed the toilet, then ran the tap to give the impression of just having popped to the loo. Opening the door, the muffled voices became clear, "So yeah, I thought it might be nice to debrief over dinner."

"I'm pretty beat, to be honest," the Commander replied to Jacob's offer.

"Aww c'mon Shep, you have to eat before you sleep," Jacob pushed, "how 'bout you Miranda?"

Miranda knew how persistent Jacob could be when he had his mindset. She decided it was easier to concede and just have the meal than it would be to battle it out him.

"Sure, why not."

Shepard's brows were raised in surprise when she looked at her. Miranda simply shrugged and said, "I need to eat."

Shepard opened her mouth possibly to argue, but clearly came to the same conclusion and with a sigh said, "Yeah OK."

-o-

"I just need to check one last thing with you Miranda before we go," Leni said casually and looked at Jacob, "jump in the queue so we don't have to wait too long?"

Jacob winked as he turned to leave, "Queue jumping, I like your style, Shepard."

As the door slid shut, Leni collapsed into the chair and saw Miranda slump against her desk.

"That was too fucking close," Leni said shaking her head, not quite able to believe they'd got away with it.

"God, I was certain he'd pick up on something," Miranda said looking up at her.

"Listen, Miranda, I…" Leni paused, thinking about how to phrase what she needed to say. "I wanna check we're on the same page about what this thing is," she said motioning her hand between the two of them. "I mean, I don't do strings."

Miranda scoffed, "Shepard, do I come across as the relationship type?"

"If I was to make an assumption, I'd say no, but I've learned the hard way that it's not always wise to go with assumptions," Leni said with a sheepish grin.

"Don't worry Commander, I'm interested in nothing more than your body," Miranda said with a smirk.

Leni grinned, "Perfect."

-o-

Leni looked at the datapad, "How did he come by this information again?" she asked the Director, who sat across from her at the mess hall table.

"Mr. Harper has his ways," the Director replied vaguely.

"Wow, thank you for such deep insight Lawson," Leni said shaking her head.

"It's not my place to ask Mr. Harper how he does his job Shepard," the Director replied curtly.

In other words, you're not privy to such information, Leni thought. She didn't like the idea of one man having so much power and influence that he could get hold of the details of a top secret quarian mission.

"Fine." She turned to look down the table at the pilot, "Jeff, after dinner our next destination is Haestrom."

"Ay Ay Captain," the pilot replied, "it'll be good to see Tali again, right Gar?" Jeff said winking at the turian, and Leni could have sworn she saw a blush on the turian's pale face.

"How would you like to handle the mission Commander?" The Director said, ignoring the banter.

"Well, obviously we'll need to see what the situation looks like when we reach the planet. But I think considering how deep in geth space Haestrom is, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume we may encounter them."

Several agreeing grunts came from the various squad members sat at the table, and the Director nodded.

"In which case, I think for safety's sake, we roll with two squads. Alpha squad being me, Lawson and Mordin; Beta squad, Garrus, Jacob, and Zaeed."

Leni saw a flash of something, maybe annoyance, across the Director's face, "Problem Lawson?"

"Wouldn't it be prudent to split up the two senior officers, having us lead a team each." Leni could hear the Director was trying to keep her tone level, but Leni had seen the flash of irritation in the Director's eyes. She was taking this decision as a reflection on her capabilities, or maybe Leni's trust in her.

"Because we need to spread out our snipers, which, as usual, separates me and Garrus. Considering we'll be facing geth, we need an overload in each team too, and seen as Garrus is already in Beta squad, that puts you in Alpha." Leni saw the Director's posture relax slightly as she saw the reasoning behind the decision.

"A logical strategy," the Director simply said.

"Good, any other questions?" Leni said addressing the whole table as she stood and picked up her empty food tray.

"I have one," Jacob said from where he sat beside Leni, "what's the plan with our tank baby?"

Leni sat back down, "Right now, we're conducting extensive scans on both the tank and the krogan, I want those results back and reviewed before we make any decisions. He could be a great asset, but he could also end up being a hull breaching catastrophe, so until we know more, he remains in the tank."

A lot of heads around the table nodded in concurrence and Leni stood once more, "EDI, roughly how long to get to Haestrom from our current location?"

"If we set off immediately it will take two days, twenty hours and three minutes," the AI said.

There was a snort from Jeff, "Couldn't you have gotten a little more specific?" he said with an ironic tone.

"I could start counting down and include seconds if you would like me to be more accurate Mr. Moreau," the AI offered.

"Nooo, no, that won't be necessary, thank you EDI," Leni said, glaring at Jeff.

Taking her tray over to the ship's kitchen, Leni smiled at the surly man who played the roles of both chef and janitor on the ship, "Thank you for dinner Rupert."

The mess hall food wasn't great, but she got a hot meal morning, noon and night without ever having to cook, so she wasn't going to complain. Plus, it was way better than the MREs they had in the field.

"No problem Commander. Sorry it's not gourmet, but I'm limited to what I have to work with," the chef replied with an apologetic shrug.

"If you put a list together I'll try and make sure we get whatever you need next time we stop for supplies."

The smile that replaced the chef's default scowl looked out of place on his usually grumpy face, but Leni had no doubt it was genuine, "Wow Commander that would be great, thank you."

"No problem Rupert. Have a good night," Leni replied, giving him a short nod.

Walking back over to the table Leni waited until the chatter quietened down again, "We've got a few days until we reach Haestrom, so take some time to relax and recover from our krogan friends, I want everyone fresh for this next one."

"Well in that case, I think this calls for another poker night," Jeff said with a grin, "tomorrow night? Give everyone chance to recover and still be fresh before the mission?"

Leni grinned, "You're on Jeff, I'll happily kick your ass again."

Miranda cleared her throat and when Leni looked at her, she saw an amused smirk on the Director's face, "And I'll happily kick yours again Commander."

There came a chorus of oooo's from around the table and Leni shook her head, grinning back at the Director, "Oh it's on Lawson."

 

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

"Thank you for my winnings one and all." Karin picked up the pot and pushed off from the table. "Don't stay up too long," she said over her shoulder with a motherly tone as the doors closed behind her.

"Thaat wooman is a feckin hussler," Donnelly said, slurring each word.

Miranda turned to the Scotsman who was already half-cut; ignoring how much he irritated her, she had to agree with his statement. "I'm impressed how quickly she cleared the table tonight."

"So, what now? Do we just...finish early?" Miranda heard Jacob ask.

"I have never!" shouted the pilot.

Shepard's head fell forward onto the table. "Noooo."

-o-

"I have never…" Jeff paused and studied Leni. He'd already gone through most of the mildly embarrassing things he knew his best friend would have to drink for, and she had done similar in return. He figured now was the time to bring out the big guns. "Slept with more than fifteen fellow marines in the same training program."

Most of the people sat at the table looked at him in confusion, Leni, however, gave him a glare that might actually stop his heart.

"Thank you for reminding me why I refused to play this game with you in my previous life," Leni said knocking back a shot.

The cries that erupted from the rest of the people around the table, made it totally worth whatever revenge she would think up later.

"I hate you!" Leni laughed, shaking her head.

-o-

"Okay, okay, we need some context here." Leni tried to calm the rowdy table. "This was during N-school, which, if you make it to N7 level, takes just over six months."

"Still...that's more than two a month Shepard," Daniels piped up, brows raised.

"Well, not everyone made it to the next level," Leni defended, "and anyway, everyone knew what the deal was; no-strings arrangements, no one was hurt." Leni sent a glare Jeff's way.

"Ahh yes, the famous 'Shepard no-strings arrangement'." Garrus jumped in, making finger quotes.

"Ah I've heard of that, I wasn't sure if it was real or just fiction," Jacob interjected.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"I read about it," the Director joined in, and Leni stared at her, mouth agape.

"You read about it? How? Where?"

A huge smirk coated Miranda's face, "Well more specifically I read about the hearts that were broken by the 'uncatchable heart'."

"The what? Where in God's name did you read that?"

"On the Commander Shepard memorial forums." Miranda's smirk was still fixed in place.

Leni's brows lowered in confusion, "That's a thing?"

"Oh yeah, it was huge for quite a while after…" Jeff trailed off and a sombre look darkened his features and Leni could see him slipping to a dark place that still haunted him.

"Well I totally object to the heartbreaking accusations," she said in an attempt to get things back to the jovial state they were in a few seconds ago. "Everyone knew and agreed to the arrangement beforehand."

When Jeff met her gaze she was glad to see his cocky grin had returned. "Really? Because I'm pretty sure Denise, Jamila and...oh yeah, Ashley, would dispute that."

Leni's brows deepened into a frown, those had indeed been unfortunate situations. "Okay, but they had agreed to no-strings, I can't control their feelings."

"Yeaahhh," Garrus said drawing out the word, "but you gotta admit Shep, Ash was a bad call."

"Really Gar?" Leni heard the annoyance in her voice, but at the look on her friend's face, she sighed. "Okay fine, but she's a marine, how I was supposed to know she'd been so...emotional."

"Errm, maybe cos she's a religious, family oriented, poetry reading marine?" Jeff said with a mocking tone.

At that, laughter erupted all around the table and Jacob choked on his drink. Even Leni couldn't maintain her unimpressed face at the sight of green drink running out of Jacob's nose.

When they finally regained some composure, Leni announced, "Okay, I think this game is well and truly exhausted for the night." At the concord of objections from the crew, she added, "and I can make that an order if necessary."

Jeff mumbled "Abuse of power," and she launched a handful of peanuts at him in response.

-o-

Miranda stood as the door closed on Jacob and Daniels, who were once again dragging a wasted Donnelly in a replay of the last poker night.

"Leaving already?" the Commander said lazily.

"No." Miranda walked over to the twentieth-century style jukebox that hung on the wall beside the huge window. She cycled through several pages of songs before coming to one of her favourites and pressed select.

"You like music?" She heard Shepard say and turned to see the other woman had moved to stand behind the bar and was beginning to make two cocktails.

"I do." Miranda closed her eyes as the tune began to play.

"Oh wow, old school Earth, nice choice."

Miranda took a seat on the sofa, slipping off her shoes and curling her feet under her.

"Actually, I love music," she said closing her eyes again, soaking up the piano chords of Jar of Hearts. "It was one of the many forbidden pleasures when I was growing up, so when I finally left, it kind of became an obsession."

Miranda felt the sofa dip and opened her eyes to see Shepard next to her, studying her with an intense stare. Miranda suddenly became aware of how much alcohol she must have consumed to have given away something so private.

Just as she was about to flee, Shepard said, "Music being forbidden, that alone sounds like a valid enough reason to leave." Hearing her light tone, Miranda looked back up at the Commander, the intense stare had been replaced by a grin.

"More than enough," Miranda replied, forcing herself to try and relax. "It's actually my jukebox from home. It was supposed to be installed in my cabin, but the message didn't get through and it ended up here."

"Oh, why not have it moved?"

"No, it's fine." Miranda shrugged and then smiled. "In truth, I'd never get any work done if it was in my cabin."

Shepard laughed. "I know what you mean, I considered requesting a vidscreen and console for in my cabin, but then I realised we'd never get any missions done if I did."

Miranda cocked her head to the side. "I wouldn't have pegged you as a gamer."

Shepard grinned. "My guilty pleasure." The grin dropped from her face, and Miranda saw the sparkle in her eyes dim. "Or it was the old Shepard's guilty pleasure, this me has never played, so I guess I can't really claim that anymore." The airy tone in her voice was gone, replaced by something darker, distant.

Before she could think better of it, Miranda laid a hand on Shepard's arm, trying to pull her back from whatever dark hole she was currently lost down.

"You really are you, you know?" Miranda saw The Commander's jaw bulge as she swallowed hard. "Shepard, I swear, you're not just some expensive copy with someone else's memories. The Lazarus Project genuinely put your body, your brain, back together. It was you that played video games, you that saved the Citadel. I give you my word, for what it's worth."

As if waking from a nightmare, the Commander refocused back on Miranda and gave a nod, the edges of her lips twitching, "Thanks Lawson," she said quietly.

When Shepard's eyes momentarily flicked down, Miranda realised, she still had her hand on the Commander's arm, and she instantly retracted it.

"Just so you know, it's worth a lot," Miranda met Shepard's gaze again and saw a tender smile on her face.

As the last chords of the song trailed off, Miranda looked up at the clock, "I should get to bed," she said standing.

"Yeah, me too," she heard the Commander say. "I'm glad you joined the poker club Lawson."

"Well, you didn't exactly give me a choice." Miranda raised a brow at Shepard. "But so am I," she said with a slight smile.

-o-

"Now." She burst into a sprint at the marine's signal.

As she ducked behind the half-wall just in front of the huge door, Tali heard Kal'Reegar giving more orders over the comms, but not to her, to his men. They'd stayed behind instead of running with her.

"Reegar, what are you doing?" Tali asking and had to raise her voice over the incessant sounds of gunfire.

"My job Ma'am," the marine replied in his usual straight to the point manner.

"You'll be slaughtered out here, come in with me," Tali urged.

"No can do Ma'am, it's probably a dead end in there, which means we'll be trapped, and sitting ducks when we need to exit. It's better we hunker down and keep them busy."

"This wasn't the plan Reegar."

"It rarely is Ma'am, now get in there and make this worth it."

Tali closed her eyes and took a deep breath, Keelah, forgive me, she thought just before sprinting to the door's control panel. She heard an increase in the gunfire as the marines provided her with more covering fire.

Pressing herself flat against the door frame she tapped frantically on the door panel "Come on, come on you bosh'te-" Before she could finish her curse, there was an angry grinding noise and the door slowly began to retract into the ground. As she waited for the door to be low enough, Tali tapped once more on the control panel. Waiting for another break in fire, she prepared herself to run. When the break came, she pressed confirm on the panel and the door began to close. Bursting forward, she sprinted to the opening.

Diving over the door into the stone-walled room, Tali hurriedly stood and stared in horror at the sight before her. As the door closed she had just enough time to see a rocket flying towards the squad of marines, and behind it, a geth colossus which hadn't been there a minute earlier.

"No!" she heard herself shout as the door slammed shut. "Reegar? Kal'Reegar, report," she said into the radio, hearing the anxiety her voice increase with every word. As she waited for a reply, she became aware of the terrifying silence that had befallen the other side of the door; no gunfire, no shouts, no explosions.

Tali took several deep breaths, desperately trying to reign in the rising panic. She couldn't lose it now, someone had to have survived, she couldn't be the only one left. "You have a mission, you're in here for a reason, now get on with it," she ordered herself, hearing her voice echo off the rock walls.

A noise behind her caught her attention and Tali realised that she'd been so distracted with the events going on outside, she hadn't checked if the room she was in was clear.

Turning, Tali skittered behind a junction box on her left at the sight of two geth. How could you be so careless? she chided herself as she drew her shotgun and activated her combat drone, Chiktikka.

Enabling Chiktikka's battlecam, Tali instructed it to go further into the room as she activated the video feed on her Omni-tool. The two geth came back into view, both were on the floor, one appeared to be completely inactive, the second, however, was moving, although it seemed more like a twitch than conscious movement, possibly some sort of feedback loop.

As Chiktikka moved further round the junction box, another body came into sight, "Keelah," Tali gasped. Ordering the drone to get closer to the third body, Tali activated the larger virtual screen projection on her omni-tool, giving her a clear view of the third body: a quarian body, "it can't be," she whispered in disbelief.

Tali readied her shotgun and shuffled closer to the edge of the junction box. Peering around the cover she saw the first geth unit: a juggernaut model, easily recognisable by its bright red armour. It showed no signs of activity, and when Chiktikka scanned the juggernaut and confirmed no signs of operation, she peeked further round. The second unit: a standard shock trooper model, was far more unsettling, with its constant twitching head; but Chiktikka's scan confirmed that this was indeed a simple short circuit causing the repetitive head twitch, and the unit itself was inoperative.

Tali stood and stepped out into the room, shotgun still at the ready, and kicked the juggernaut, just to be sure, as she walked past it towards the quarian body. Coming to a kneeling position beside the quarian, Tali began as in-depth a scan as her omni-tool could manage. She knew it certainly wasn't a member of her team and wasn't shocked to see the scan's estimate the date of death roughly ten years ago.

So her team wasn't the first to be sent here. As the next lot of scan results came back, Tali stared aghast at the message on her omni-tool,

[Suspected cause of death: malnourishment and dehydration.]

This quarian hadn't died at the hand of one of these geth as Tali had assumed, he was trapped in here. Looking up at the door control panel, it was dangling precariously by a few wires. Tali swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat, at the prospect of facing a similar fate. No, she was going to get out of here.

"Keelah, why did you ever take this fool's errand of a mission?" Tali stood and walked towards the console at the back of the room. "You could have been flying around with Leni right now, but noooo," Tali said waving her arms around dramatically, "you had to fall for the empty flattery of being offered to lead your own top-secret mission, and now look at you."

After just a few taps, it was clear the console was going to need some attention before it would be showing her anything but blank screens. Crouching down Tali yanked off the back-panel of the huge console and pulled out her engineer's field kit.

Every quarian carried an emergency kit of some sort, but it wasn't simply something you were handed; each kit was unique, each varying according to its owner's expertise and personal preferences.

Tali's kit, however, was far more substantial than most emergency kits; most of the items in her kit were homemade gadgets. Combine one with another and you suddenly had a third tool you wouldn't have imagined you'd be able to carry around with you.

In truth, her kit was so substantial, she didn't need any other tool. Not once had she needed to borrow a tool from Adams or any of his team on the Normandy. Adams had even asked if she'd be willing to make one of her multi-tools for him; he'd been delighted when she gave it to him on his birthday.

She smiled at the memories of her Normandy family, and they were family or had been. Tali thought back to her encounter with Shepard on Freedom's Progress and cringed as she remembered the look on Leni's face when Tali refused to join her. The disappointment and sadness had been plain to see on the face of the human she considered a big sister.

"She certainly wouldn't have let you get yourself into this mess," she scorned. After a few more minutes of fiddling, tweaking, and rewiring, there was a small spark, "Gotcha!" she cried as the console above her head lit up.

Tali began ciphering through the reams of information on the database, there was so much of it, a lot of it useless information from a time forgotten. But some of it was fascinating, long-lost history of her people.

She inserted a blank data disc into the console and began selecting files she wanted to take with her, it was then she registered the blinking light at the far side of the console which was covered up by a couple of datapads. Getting up, she moved the datapads aside and gave an internal jump for joy at the sight of a communications workstation.

After recording her distress message and setting it to loop, she silently prayed there really was someone left to hear her call. Tali knew that the distress signal would only be planetary wide, due to the radiation from the sun causing interference. Now all she could do was focus on the only thing she did have control over, collating the data.

-o-

Tali jumped at the crackle that came from the radio's speaker, and then looked on in bewilderment at the holo-projected face that appeared above the comm radio, "Tali, its Shepard."

Tali flew up from her stool knocking it over in the process and ran to the radio, "Shepard? What are you doing here?"

A familiar smile spread across her friend's face, "Well don't sound too pleased to see me."

Tali chuckled. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. But you show up at the strangest times."

-o-

Tali studied the engine readings and then looked up at the massive swirling ball that was the Normandy's engine, "Wow."

"So she gets the Tali seal of approval then?" Leni said with a wide grin, letting her know she already knew the answer.

"Well, there'd be more approval if there wasn't a certain ugly yellow and black logo plastered on the side of her." Tali gave Shepard a disapproving frown.

Leni sighed. "I know, trust me, I know. But what was I supposed to do Tali? Sit on my ass with the Council and ignore the vanishing colonies until it was too late?" Tali heard the weary tone and got the feeling she wasn't the first person Shepard had had this discussion with.

Smiling, Tali looped her arm through Leni's. "No, of course not. I'm sorry, I know you had little in the way of choices. I'm also sorry I didn't join you on Freedom's Progress, I should have."

"I'm just glad you're here now." When she looked up at her friend there was a mischievous grin on Leni's face. "I'm pretty sure Garrus is glad you're here too," Leni said giving her a theatrical wink.

She felt her cheeks heat up and Tali was grateful for the tinted glass on her suit's helmet. "His face, what happened? I asked him but he just gave me his typical, oh it's just a scratch brush off."

"Of course he did. He took a rocket to the face, the idiot's lucky to be alive."

"Only Garrus could take a rocket to the face and come out with only a flesh wound, " Tali said attempting to cover the shake in her voice.

Leni stopped suddenly, and turning to look at her she rested a hand on Tali's shoulder. "He's okay, and he's here. Don't let fear get in the way of how you feel."

Tali laughed feeling awkward with the direction the conversation was going. "Because you're such an expert on feelings, Miss No-strings for life."

Leni guffawed, then linked their arms again and pulled Tali towards the lift. "Damn I missed you, little sister."

A warm glow fluttered in Tali's chest on hearing those precious words. "Not nearly as much as I missed you, big sister." She rested her head on Leni's shoulder. "No more dying ok? I don't think I could take losing you a second time."

Leni gave her a squeeze. "Gonna do my best."

-o-

Miranda watched the Commander and the quarian walk through the mess hall with fascination. Lost in conversation and linked arm in arm, they were totally oblivious to the stares they were receiving from the crew. Or maybe they weren't oblivious, maybe they simply didn't care.

From what Miranda had been able to piece together, there had never been anything even slightly romantic between the pair, but clearly, they'd had a very close relationship of some sort.

Miranda was surprised to feel a tug of jealousy and longing for such close bonds. She scoffed at the stupidity of it, she wasn't the type to make bonds; relationships were nothing but a complication waiting to mess everything up.

She'd seen it time and time again, and she'd almost made that mistake herself with Raza. Trusting that someone's feelings for you will mean they will always do right by you, it was a fantasy.

-o-

Leni put down her cutlery and sat back in her chair, smiling at her friend who sat across her from. "We have an SR2 poker club,"

"Yes, I heard. I won't be joining."

Leni frowned. "What? But you loved SR1's poker club."

"SR1's poker club didn't require socialising with Cerberus," Tali said with a pointed tone.

Leni let out a sigh. "Tali, they're no worse than us, just people fed up of being fobbed off and stonewalled by the Alliance. Cerberus was a way to do something about it."

"And if it was just them, I wouldn't mind. But I am not socialising with the Ice Queen."

Leni ground her teeth together. "I see you've been talking to Jeff. Please don't call her that. You know she's not as bad as you think."

"Not as bad? Have you forgotten 'grab the quarian'?"

Leni chuckled at Tali's awful attempt at an Australian accent. "Yeah, ok that wasn't one of her finest moments, but we're working on her diplomacy skills. If you give her a chance-"

"Not going to happen Shepard."

"I can make it an order."

Tali's head tilted to the side and she folded her arms. "You can try."

-o-

Jeff turned at the sound of the medbay doors opening. "Hey Shepard, how's…" He paused as he took in Leni's body posture and the expression on her face. "Everything alright?"

"Could you give us a moment Doctor?" With that one sentence, Jeff realised that this wasn't Leni, this was the Commander.

"Certainly Commander, although he needs to stay where he is until his treatment is complete."

"Not a problem, this will only take a minute."

When the doors closed Jeff met Shepard's steely gaze. "How can I help you, Commander?"

"I hear you've been talking to Tali."

"Yeah." Jeff frowned confused as to why that would be a problem. "It's good to have her back on board."

"It is. Interestingly she referred to Miranda as the Ice Queen."

Jeff snorted, but the grin was wiped off his face by the glare from the Commander. "It's just a nickname."

"No Jeff, it's not just a nickname. It reinforces preconceptions and strengthens distrust. The situation we are in is already difficult enough, without you adding fuel to the fire."

Jeff stared at his friend - no - at his commanding officer. He'd always quipped and made smartass - bordering on subordinate - comments. Never once had Leni ever called him out on it. "It wasn't meant-"

"Tali is refusing to join the poker club because she already knows Miranda is in it." Shepard crossed her arms and leaned against the bed behind her. "I didn't create the poker club just to get drunk and lose some credits. The whole point of it was to offer the opportunity to get to know each other in a relaxed environment. So that unlikely squadmates could create and develop bonds, friendships and ultimately trust. Because trust is imperative when you are relying on people to have your back and keep you alive. We need it more now on the SR2 than we ever did on the SR1, and you are completely undermining it and reinforcing distrust towards the Cerberus employed crew. At least Miranda's trying. She's coming to poker club and making an effort, despite being totally out of her comfort zone. Like it or not, she is my second in command and therefore your senior officer. I don't wanna hear the nickname Ice Queen again, or the encouragement of negative attitudes towards the Cerberus crew. Are we clear?"

Jeff opened his mouth and then closed it again, stunned by the dressing-down from his friend. During his service in the Alliance, he'd had many a reprimand as a result of his smart mouth, none of which he'd thought twice about. But hearing and seeing such disapproval, and worse, disappointment from someone who truly mattered to him, sent a wave of shame washing over him.

"That wasn't a rhetorical question Mr Moreau. Are we clear?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

-o-

"Commander."

Leni jumped and looked around for the Director, "Jesus Lawson, you scared the crap out of me."

"It's so reassuring that the saviour of the galaxy is so easily startled. Can I have a word?"

Leni walked over to where the Director stood in the doorway of her cabin. "Sure, everything okay?" she asked as the door slid shut behind her.

"I don't need your protection, Shepard."

Leni frowned at the sharp tone in the Director's voice. "I'm not following."

"If people want to call me the Ice Queen, let them."

"Wha- how the hell did you hear that conversation?"

"I have extensive genetic enhancements, one is to my hearing. I was making tea in the galley." Miranda pointed to the steaming cup on her desk.

Shepard crossed her arms. "Well if you'd listened to the whole conversation, you'd have heard it wasn't simply about you, and more about antagonising an already delicate situation between the Cerberus and non-Cerberus crew."

"But your main focus of the conversation was his attitude towards me. Which was unnecessary. I'd rather people thought of me as a bitch and follow my orders than take me for granted because they see me as a friend."

"Jack Harper may have taught you that leadership through fear is the only way to go about things, but I managed to save the galaxy just fine by leading through respect, trust and friendship."

"Now who's the judgmental one?"

Leni gritted her teeth, this woman was so damn infuriating at times. "I'm not going to apologise for pulling a crew member up for fanning the flames of disrespect towards a senior officer."

"Are you telling me you've never bitched about a senior officer to fellow marines?" Miranda challenged.

"Not to new crew members who haven't had time to form their own opinions, and certainly not when it would put the mission at risk by destabilizing relations. If I had an issue I'd take it directly to that S.O."

Miranda took a seat in her desk chair and started up her terminal. "Well, in any case, you can tell the quarian-"

"Tali."

"You can tell Tali that it's safe to join the poker club, I won't be attending any more of them."

"Seriously? Come on Miranda, don't be like that."

"I'm not being like anything Shepard, I didn't plan on attending any more of them anyway."

"Bullshit. Two nights ago you said you were glad you'd joined."

Miranda looked up at Leni with indifference. "The two I was ordered to attend were pleasant enough. But there's only so many times you can repeat the same thing before it gets boring. I'm at my limit."

Leni turned and walked towards the door, ignoring the feeling of disappointment. "Fine, do whatever you want Director."

-o-

Miranda slumped back in her chair staring despondently through her terminal screen. It had been weeks since Shepard had called her Director with such a cold, detached tone, and she hadn't expected it to sting quite so much.

"Come in," Miranda said when her door chimed. "Oh...Jacob. Can I help?"

"Just wondering if everything's okay?"

"Of course, why wouldn't it be?"

"Well, I saw the Commander storm out of here and I swear she muttered something about, a stubborn and pig-headed woman."

Miranda narrowed her eyes at Jacob who was failing to hide a smirk. "Oh, that's rich coming from her." Pushing up off her seat Miranda began to pace her office. "Why can't she just let things be, instead of always pushing?"

"Wanna talk about it?"

"She's throwing a tantrum because I'm done with the stupid poker club."

"What? Why?"

"I don't know, she sees it as some sort of team building exercise."

Jacob folded his arms. "I meant why are you done with the poker club?"

Miranda stopped pacing and stared at him. "Don't you start."

"Well, in the two years we were on the Lazarus station, I never saw you genuinely enjoy yourself like you have at the poker nights. Why would you stop?"

"It's...getting boring."

"Mmhmm," Jacob hummed sceptically, "and the real reason is?"

Miranda turned and looked out of the window at the blur of stars. "I have no interest in being somewhere I'm not wanted."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jacob come to stand beside her and stare at the same stars. "I didn't get vibes of anyone not wanting you there the other night."

"The quarian-"

"Tali."

Miranda huffed in annoyance. "-Tali, is refusing to join the poker club, which she apparently loved on the SR1 because I'm there."

"Ahhh, and you think the others will blame you for her not joining."

"I don't care what they think."

"You clearly do, seen as you don't want to be somewhere you're not wanted."

Miranda turned and gave Jacob an icy glare, he was right, and that in itself annoyed her. But most of all it annoyed her that she actually didn't want these people to hate her.

"So let me get this straight," Jacob continued, ignoring her glare, "Shepard left here pissed because you said you're not coming to poker nights anymore?"

Miranda said nothing, keeping her ineffective glare in place.

"Even though that would mean her friend - who's basically like a little sister to her - would join."

Jacob's words hung in the air and Miranda broke eye contact with him. "Don't you have a gun to shine or something?"

Jacob chuckled and shook his head. "Okay, I'll leave you be."

When she heard the door close, Miranda walked back over to her desk and pulled up her half-finished report on Haestrom. She read and reread the last paragraph she'd written, but couldn't focus on what the words actually said. There was no way she'd be finishing the report tonight. She needed to clear her head.

-o-

"Shuttlebay," Leni instructed the elevator as the doors shut. She pulled her loose braids back and quickly confined them to a simple plait. As the doors opened, music flooded the elevator.

The chords of the electric guitar and the screech of Axl Rose singing those legendary lines 'sweet child of mine' carried Leni through the shuttlebay towards the gym area. The closer she got, the clearer she could hear the thuds of fists connecting with a punching bag and as the song faded out, both the bag and the Director came into view behind the crates that formed the gym walls.

Leni stood and watched the Director dance around the bag, ducking and weaving to avoid the bag's invisible retaliations.

"You know where I come from it's pretty creepy to go to a gym and just stare at people working out."

Leni laughed at the Director's quip. "I was deciding if I dared risk my life by getting too close."

Miranda steadied the bag and looked up at Leni. Her black hair had been thrown up into a messy ponytail and her usual immaculately made-up face was free of all makeup, because, despite what celebrities would have you believe, doing a heavy workout with mascara running down your face really isn't all that appealing.

"Well, is it?"

Leni's brow furrowed in question.

"Worth the risk," Miranda clarified.

Leni grinned. "It might just be." Walking into the gym area she put her water bottle and towel beside the bench press. "Training to music, I like it. These are from your jukebox right?"

Miranda nodded as she drank from her own water bottle. "I asked EDI to upload the collection so I can access it without being in the bar."

After checking the weight on the barbell, Leni laid down on the bench press and lifted the bar. An upside down Miranda came into view as the next song began to play, "I'll spot you."

Leni had never heard the song before, but it was a perfect tempo to maintain a steady press rhythm and Leni reached twenty reps before she knew it.

Sitting up, Leni caught the towel Miranda threw at her. "Thanks. This is a good playlist."

"I used to train to it at home."

Leni looked at the Director for a second, contemplating whether to ask her question.

"What?" The Director said, not having missed Leni's scrutiny.

"Can I ask you a personal question, Lawson?"

The Director folded her arms across her chest. "That depends what it is."

"In your office, you mentioned having genetic enhancements. I'm just curious how that came about."

Miranda gave an understanding nod and took a seat on the bench beside Leni. "I wasn't exactly...born. I guess I'm what people would call a test tube baby, although that's an oversimplification considering how much gene manipulation was involved in my creation."

"Okay, so your parents-"

"I don't have parents. Well, I don't have a mother. My father, if that's what you can call him, created me using purely his own DNA. The hubris of the man."

Leni heard the disgust dripping off every word and remembered their earlier conversation at the poker night. Miranda had been forbidden from listening to music and by the sounds of it many other things of enjoyment growing up.

"Where is he now?" she asked cautiously.

"Last I checked he was back on Earth. I ran away when I was sixteen, so his whereabouts aren't exactly my top priority."

Leni gave a slow nod and considered asking more, but when she looked the Director, Leni saw a silent plea, begging her not to push further. "Fair enough."

Standing, Leni looked down at the Director. "You up for some sparring?"

"I'm always up for kicking your arse, Shepard."

Moving into the centre of the gym, they both danced around the mat, blocking and countering, each using their strengths to their advantage. Where Miranda was more agile, Leni was stronger.

"You done being stubborn yet?" Leni said after several minutes.

Miranda ducked her attack and followed with a flurry of annoyance-fueled jabs.

Leni took advantage of the unfocused attack from the Director and tripped her, sending the charcoal haired woman flying forward.

-o-

Miranda twisted her body and angled herself into a shoulder roll, landing in a crouching position at the far side of the mat.

She glared at Shepard, although couldn't blame her for taking advantage of her mistake.

"So, me not enjoying something that you want me to enjoy, is being stubborn?"

"You do enjoy it."

"I think I'm the one that gets to decide that, not you Commander."

"Oh come on Miranda," Shepard said relaxing her stance, "you told me you were glad you joined. Don't let this thing with Tali push you out. She'll come round."

Miranda could feel her irritation rising with every word out of the Commander's mouth. "You don't know me, Shepard. We're not friends, so stop pretending we are."

The Commander scoffed and turned in the direction of her water bottle. "God, you can be childish when you wanna be."

Miranda's rage flared and her biotics along with it. She launched into a biotic fueled sprint that took her from one side of the mat to the other in a blink of an eye, barely giving the Commander time to turn her head, let alone prepare for the takedown.

Hooking her arm around the back of the Commander's neck, Miranda launched herself towards the mat, taking the Commander down with her.

Miranda flipped the winded Commander over and straddled her, using her legs to pin the Commander's arms at her sides.

"Biotics...cheating," Shepard wheezed. A thin trail of blood trickled from a fresh cut above her left eyebrow.

"You don't get to control everything you know."

"Did you ever consider that I might not want to?" Shepard murmured.

Miranda leant forward, her arms either side of Shepard's head, there faces inches apart. Shepard's eyes darkened with the desire Miranda had seen in her cabin a few days earlier.

When the Commander lifted her head in an attempt to kiss her, Miranda pulled up, just out of reach and shook her head. "You just can't help but try and take control. Whatever the situation."

Shepard gave a quiet growl of frustration. "It's what everyone expects."

Miranda pushed Shepard's head to the side and leant down to whisper in the Commander's ear, "I'm not everyone."

Shudders rippled through the Commander's body as Miranda's teeth lightly grazed her earlobe.

"Keep your arms where they are, or I walk away. Do you understand?" Miranda murmured the command in Shepard's ear, smiling at the waves of goosebumps that washed over Shepard's light brown skin with every breath.

"Yes, Ma'am." Shepard nodded, her breaths deepening.

Miranda released the Commander's pinned arms, but as ordered, the Commander kept her arms in place, body tensed in anticipation.

Moving one of her legs between Shepard's, Miranda slid her thigh up. Shepard began rocking her hips, pressing against Miranda's thigh. Miranda pulled her leg away, eliciting a whine of protest from the Commander.

The burning desire she saw when she looked the Commander in the eye, almost made Miranda lose her stride. "You, are not in control here."

The Commander bit her lip and tensed her body, battling her instincts. Miranda slid her leg back up and tensed her thigh muscles, eliciting a sharp exhalation from the Commander. She began a rocking motion, clenching her thigh muscles with every upward stroke and increasing the pressure each time.

As the Commander's breaths deepened, Miranda felt the heat swirling in her, the need to touch the woman beneath her growing with each thrust. When she removed her leg Shepard whimpered in objection and Miranda grinned wickedly.

She slipped her hands under the white vest, pushing it up to expose the Commander's rippling abs and Miranda was impressed by how quickly the Commander had regained her muscle tone.

Dragging her nails lightly down the well-formed abs, Miranda slid her fingers under the waistband of the Commander's shorts and tugged them down to reveal tight boxer briefs that hugged the Commander's curves perfectly.

Miranda continued to drag her nails down the Commander's legs, enjoying every shudder that pulsed through the Commander's body until her shorts were removed.

Miranda ran her fingertips lightly back up the Commander's legs much quicker than she had descended, her own desire to touch the Commander increasing. There was no slow teasing when she removed the Commander's boxers.

As her tongue slid over the Commander's swollen clitoris, she was rewarded with a lusty moan from the other woman, whose body shuddered with pleasure.

Miranda slid her hands under the Commander firm butt, pulling her closer, increasing the pressure as the Commander's moans grew louder and more intense.

"Fuck me, please." The Commander begged, and Miranda slid inside her without hesitation.

Miranda's own need grew, and she replaced her tongue with her thumb, moving up while maintaining a steady rhythm, curling her fingers inside the Commander. She straddled the other woman's thigh and began to rock.

Shepard opened her eyes, the mix of desire and pleasure was evident on her face, and Miranda ground hard against her thigh.

She saw the Commander's arm move, just before Shepard stuttered, "May I?"

Miranda nodded, desperate to have the Commander touch her again.

The Commander's hand slide down her shorts and Miranda gasped as the Commander's fingers ran over her throbbing clit and continued round to slide inside her.

It took all Miranda's focus to maintain the rhythm of pleasing the woman below her while swimming in ecstasy herself.

The Commander's body convulsed as Miranda pushed her over the edge to climax. Miranda came seconds later, collapsing on top of the other woman, both panting deeply.

"Holy fuck," Shepard said with a shaky voice.

Miranda laughed. "You can say that again."

They pulled apart and Miranda slumped onto the mat beside Shepard, staring up at the shuttlebay ceiling.

After a minute she heard Shepard say, "I have to say, I have no objection to you being in control." Miranda grinned and turned her head to look at Shepard who had rolled on her side to face her, head propped up by her hand. "Please come to poker club."

Miranda rolled her eyes and sat up. "Jesus, why can't you just let this go."

"Because I like your company."

Miranda turned to look at the Commander in surprise. That hadn't been the answer she was expecting. After a moment she asked, "And you don't enjoy Tali's company?"

"Of course I do, but Tali's already my friend, I can socialise with her whenever. As you so bluntly pointed out, we aren't friends...yet."

There was a cheeky grin on Shepard's face when she said yet, but Miranda cringed internally at the reminder of what she'd said earlier. It had been a mean way to say it, although was it not true? They were colleagues, not friends. And as for this, this was nothing more than sex, they'd both agreed on that. Could you really mix friendship and still keep things string-free?

"Won't friends make, this, complicated." She motioned her hand between them to clarify what she meant by this.

Shepard shrugged. "I've never slept with anyone I didn't like, and it's rarely been a problem."

Miranda thought for a moment. She couldn't deny she had enjoyed the poker nights. "Fine, I'm not sure about this friends thing. But...I'll try another poker night. Although if there's an atmosphere, I'm done. Okay?"

"Okay." Shepard nodded. "So, before you're allowed to come to another-"

"Allowed? Were you not just begging me a moment ago?"

Shepard smirked and raised a brow. "Yes, I was, although I don't see what that has to do with this."

Miranda couldn't help but laugh.

"So, before you're allowed to come back, you have to make us an awesome poker night playlist."

"Poker night playlist?"

Shepard reached for her shorts and boxers and began to pull on her clothes. "Yeah, you know, some chill background music. You've got some awesome tunes that you simply don't find outside the Sol system."

Miranda rolled her eyes. "Okay, it's a deal. Although I'm pretty sure you got the better end of this."

There was a grin on Shepard's face when she offered her hand and pulled Miranda to her feet. "Well, I know you didn't really wanna quit, so you kinda also got what you wanted."

Miranda grabbed her towel and water bottle and gave the Commander a sultry smile as she passed her. "Well, thank you for the...workout, Shepard. I look forward to our next one."

Chapter Text

Leni hit the door release button on the shuttle that sat parallel to the gym and dragged it closed as the Director ducked in after her, shorts in hand. They stared at each other wide-eyed and panting.

“Shit, that was close,” Leni whispered.

“Do you think he heard the door shut?” Miranda asked looking worried.

“I don’t know, I closed it as quietly as possible.” Leni gave Miranda a once over and chuckled. “Maybe put your shorts back on just in case.”

After a minute of waiting, Leni heard the sound of fists hitting the punching bag. “Jacob’s got a bad habit of showing up at the most inopportune moments. Any idea how long he usually trains for?”

“Half an hour maybe. I suppose if it’s any longer we can use EDI to call him away,” Miranda said taking a seat on one of the benches.

Leni took a seat on the bench opposite. “Sneaky. I like the way you think, Lawson.”

EDI .”

Leni looked at the other woman and saw panic in her eyes. “What?”

It only took a second for Leni to catch on to the Director’s meaning. Activating her Omni-tool Leni turned the volume down to it’s minimum without muting. “EDI.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“If anyone asks after either myself or the Director, you must not tell them where we are.”

“Where should I tell them you are, Commander?”

Leni looked up at Miranda for help.

“Tell them we are in a meeting in my quarters,” the Director instructed, “and are not to be disturbed.”

“Affirmative, would you like me to inform you when Mr. Taylor has left the gym?”

“Yes,” Miranda replied, “and if any other crew try to come down, tell them there is a malfunction with the doors.”

“You’re worryingly good at this deception thing, Lawson,” Leni said with a grin.

Miranda gave a quiet laugh. “I’ve had my fair share of sticky situations to wriggle out of.”

“Oh really?”

“Not these types of situations,” Miranda said throwing a mocking glare her way.

-o-

“So, you know any fun, quiet games we can entertain ourselves with?” Shepard asked.

I can think of a few things to keep you entertained. Miranda thought, giving the Commander a sultry smile. “I have a few ideas, although it depends how quiet you can be.”

Shepard locked eyes with her. “I’ve had ten years of bunking in dorms and tents surrounded by other marines, and never went without. I’m an expert at being silent when I need to be.”

Miranda slid off the bench and crawled across the short space to where Shepard sat.

Wasting no time, she pulled the Commander’s vest off and Shepard helped her with the tight sports bra.

Pushing the Commander onto her back, Miranda straddled her and leant forward, her lips hovering a breath away from Shepard’s, revelling in the Commander’s hungry gaze as she licked her lips. But despite her obvious desire, Shepard didn’t move, having learnt over their previous three engagements, that the best rewards came from obedience and patience.

Miranda nibbled the Commander’s bottom lip and the other woman parted her lips, her breaths quickening in anticipation. The Commander’s tongue hungrily met her own and Miranda slowly rolled her hips against Leni.

Breaking the kiss, Miranda received a grunt of disapproval from the Commander, until she pulled off her own vest and bra. Placing the Commander’s hands on her waist, Miranda allowed her to explore her body, relishing the sensation of the Commander’s light touch travelling over every inch of her skin. She gasped as fingertips were replaced by nails, then and  Shepard’s fingers hooked the top of her shorts waistband, silently asking permission, eyes expressive and hooded.

As her shorts and underwear hit the floor, Miranda adjusted her position so she was straddling one of Shepard’s thighs and began to rock her hips, feeling the Commander’s firm thigh tense in perfect synchronisation. Miranda took the other woman’s hand and pushed it between her thighs and found herself unable to withhold a quiet moan of pleasure when Shepard’s fingers skillfully played with her already swollen nub.

Dropping forward, Miranda kissed the Commander roughly, grinding harder as Shepard continued to expertly tantalize her throbbing bud. Feeling how wet she already was, she gave Shepard her cue, and the other woman slid inside her. Miranda sat upright, encouraging Shepard deeper inside her, feeling the other woman’s fingers curl, hitting that exquisite spot she’d found on their second engagement.

Miranda gasped as the Commander’s other hand grasped one of her breasts, trapping her nipple between her fingers.

She felt Shepard adjust her hand and a third finger slid inside her, eliciting a moan of approval, which Miranda was barely able to keep at a low volume.

As she felt herself reaching the point of no return, Miranda covered her mouth with her forearm and bit down.

The Commander was sitting up now, free arm wrapped around her, supporting her as her body convulsed from the waves of overwhelming ecstasy. Her fingers still curling inside her, inducing even more euphoric shockwaves.

When she could take no more, Miranda dropped her head onto Shepard’s shoulder and begged, “ No more .”

The Commander responded instantly, and slowly pulled out of her, sending yet more waves wracking through her body.

She felt Shepard tighten her grip around her and Miranda allowed her body to completely give in.

“It seems I’m not the only expert in being quiet.” Miranda heard Shepard whisper through the haze of her recovery. But she was unable to respond, barely able to think.

-o-

Leni held tightly to the limp body in her arms. It was the first time they had both been completely naked during one of their sessions, and it felt good having the other woman’s warm, wet skin against her own.

Her body was perfect, there was no doubting that. But that wasn’t what had drawn Leni to the Director.

She was strong, intelligent, independent, and, despite having been mentored by Jack Harper for years, was still a good, well-intentioned person at heart.

“You still alive?”

Leni felt a puff of air on her neck as Miranda laughed. “Barely.”

Leni twisted them both and relaxed back against the shuttle wall, sucking in air through her teeth when her skin met the cold metal.

After a few minutes, Miranda lifted her head. Smiling at her, Leni asked, “You okay?”

A smirk spread across the Director’s face. “More than. That was…Jesus, I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Leni grinned at her. “Careful Lawson, my head might not fit back through the shuttle door.”

“I’m pretty sure I was in charge there, so don't think you get all the credit.”

“You're always in charge.” Leni chuckled. “You know, you really should give me a turn at being in charge some time.”

Miranda broke eye contact and began to move away, but gave up when her body clearly refused to obey.

Leni gently guided Miranda’s chin until she was looking at her again. “Hey, it's okay if you're not comfortable with that. That’s fine by me.”

Miranda opened her mouth to speak but paused momentarily before saying, “I've spent my entire life in the shadow of powerful, controlling men. And don't get me wrong, Jack has always been good to me, but at the end of the day he's still the one in charge, and makes that abundantly clear. My sex life is one of the few things I've always had full control over...”

Leni studied the Director’s icy blue eyes, there was a vulnerability in them she’d never seen before. They were the eyes of a woman who had spent her entire life fighting for the respect she deserved. “I get it,” she eventually whispered, “and it's not a problem. Okay?”

The growing anxiety in Miranda’s eyes subsided and Leni felt her body relax in her arms. Then the Director’s lips were on hers, and Leni pulled her body closer, taking pleasure at the feeling of how wet the Director still was. The kiss that had started gently with a light brush quickly intensified, their tongues melding together.

Leni felt Miranda’s nails drag up her back, sending a wave of goosebumps washing over her arms and Leni panted into her mouth breathlessly. The look of brazen fervour on the Director’s face when she momentarily pulled back, sent a surge of heat to Leni’s core as a hand continued up her spine until Miranda’s fingers interlaced the cornrows in her hair and drew her forward, locking their lips once more.

Sensing a hand slip between their bodies, Leni slid her legs apart and gasped as fingertips lightly brushed over her mound. Instinctively, Leni bucked her hips longing for more and realising her mistake too late, she waited in anticipation to be punished for such insubordination.

When Miranda’s fingers left her unattended, Leni whimpered quietly, but the Director climbed off Leni’s lap and knelt on the floor, appraising Leni’s centre with hungry eyes.

Leni let out a silent moan when the Director’s tongue ascended, trailing her folds, up to her throbbing nub. Miranda continued to send waves of pleasure through her, and just as Leni was about to beg for more, Miranda anticipated what she needed and slid inside her.

At the feeling of the Director thrusting deeper inside her, Leni lost all restraint and grasped Miranda's head. This time, instead of punishment, she was rewarded with teeth lightly grazing her bud, sending a pulse of ecstasy through her and begged for more.

Leni found herself in a state of euphoria as wave after wave of pleasure pulsed through her body. When she began to writhe uncontrollably, she felt Miranda’s arm’s wrap around her, allowing her to be entirely lost in her temporary paradise.

-o-

“Well, that certainly wasn’t boring.”

Miranda looked over at Shepard where she stood pulling on her clothes. “I’m glad you approve of my style of entertainment.”

“Oh, God Lord Ms. Lawson, do I ever.”

Miranda sat on the clean bench and then shuffled over when Shepard joined her. Waving a hand at the bench opposite Miranda said, “You’re going to have to clean that you know.”

“Why am I the one that gets to clean it?”

“Because I had to clean my desk last week,” Miranda said giving Shepard a pointed look.

Shepard rolled her eyes but smiled. “Fine, fine, you win.”

“It’s the only time I do.”

Miranda caught Shepard’s side glance at her. “Meaning?”

“Why did you give Subject Zer-“

“Jack.” Shepard corrected.

“Why did you give Jack the files she demanded?”

Shepard sighed and then moved to sit on the floor facing her. “Because I’ve been where she is. Having only crumbs of information, half-truths and rumours, but nothing substantial to truly get your head around. She’s enough of a loose cannon as it is, if she’s going to work with us successfully, she has to work through the issues she has with Cerberus to some degree.”

Miranda looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry. About your brother. I didn’t know until Jacob told me.”

“I know, and please don’t apologise for him .” Shepard paused. “I’m sorry too.”

Miranda frowned. “What do you have to apologise for?”

“For being a bitch to you before even getting to know you. I guess I used you as a proxy for him. Which wasn’t fair.”

Miranda stared at Shepard stunned. Apologies were not something she was used to receiving. “Umm, you don’t-”

“Yes, I do. I should have been grateful to you, and instead, I was mean.”

Miranda looked away feeling unsure how to handle this situation that was completely alien to her.

“Jacob was right.” Shepard continued. “I’m glad he’s the type of person who doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind.”

“Jacob?”

“Yeah, he gave me a talking to. Told me to give you a chance, ‘cause the cold-hearted persona was just an act, and he was right,” Shepard said smiling.

Miranda felt her cheeks burn up and prayed it didn’t show.

“May I ask you something personal?”

Miranda looked up at Shepard suspiciously. “You and your personal questions. You can ask, but I might not answer.”

Shepard laughed. “Cerberus, how and when did you come to work for them?”

Miranda nodded, it was a fair question. “You already know I ran away from home when I was sixteen. Well, I ran to Cerberus for help in hiding from my father.”

“But why Cerberus? I mean, it's not exactly a household name for a sixteen-year-old to latch on to.”

“I’d heard of them because my father had made considerable donations to them over the years.”

Shepard frowned. “Wait, you went to the people your father gave money to for them to hide you from him? Surely that's a conflict of interests.”

“I overheard a phone call he was having with his contact at Cerberus. He was yelling because he didn’t like the direction Cerberus was starting to go down and he was telling them what they should be doing with his money. He always was an arrogant prick, assuming anyone would listen to what he had to say.” Miranda stared at a scuff mark on the floor. “In the end, he cancelled his future donations and cut all contact with them.”

“Making them number one candidate for people that might help you get away from him.” Shepard finished.

Miranda took her eyes off the scuff mark and locked eyes with Shepard. “Precisely.”

“So you basically grew up here. With Harper . Why’d you stay? When everything about him screams bad guy.”

Miranda cringed at the Commander’s sour tone. “He’s not as bad as you think.”

Shepard scoffed. “Yeah sure, he funds sick experiments on fellow humans and then has the gall to wave a pro-humanity banner. He deserves a medal.”

Miranda opened her mouth to reply but the Commander cut her off before she had the chance.

“Please, don’t defend him. This isn’t something you’ll change my perspective on, and I don’t want to argue with you over him.”

Despite her unease at Shepard’s argument, Miranda felt a warmth spread in her chest to hear that Shepard didn’t want to argue with her over it.

“Okay, so do I get to ask you something now?”

Shepard grinned. “I can’t really say no when you’ve answered mine. Hit me with it.”

Miranda thought for a moment, despite all the research she’d done on the Commander, there were so many things you could never find out by researching. “What accomplishment are you most proud of?”

“Hmm...it has to be getting in the N7 program.”

Miranda tilted her head in surprise. “Really? Not becoming the first human Spectre, or saving the galaxy?”

Shepard chuckled. “Honestly? No. I mean, of course, those are significant accomplishments, but neither would have come about if I hadn’t made N7 rank. And I’m telling you, making it was no small task. The N-course is just brutal.”

Miranda nodded,  she’d heard all about the intensity of the N-School’s course from Kai Lang, and she’d read up plenty more during the Lazarus project.

No more than a hundred marines were invited to join the training program each year, and according to records, the highest number of marines to pass the N7 rank in one year was eight, and that had only happened once. In Shepard’s year, she was one of only three to make it, and the only female. It was one of the most elite task forces in the galaxy, equal only to the Salarian’s Special Task Group and the Asari’s Commandos.  And it was only surpassed by the Spectres.

“You lose good comrades in that final test,” Shepard continued in a pensive tone. “We’d gone through all six training levels together, and then you go from twelve to three in one mission, and once you reach that stage, if you fail, it’s ‘cause you’re dead. Fucking brutal. I mean, it’s not like you don’t know that’s how it’s going to be when you get dropped in the hostile zone, but, as a marine, you’re trained to always watch out for your squad. That’s also drummed into you all the way through the N-course, but at that final stage, they also make very clear that if you want to get out of the N7 mission alive, you have to be your top priority.”

Miranda could see Shepard was lost in her own nightmare, reliving that mission and all the guilt that came with it. Slipping down off the bench to the floor, she placed a hand on Shepard’s arm.

The Commander’s eyes refocused, meeting Miranda’s gaze she smiled, but the sadness never left her eyes.

“From what I read, one of the other two marines that made it your year, only made it out because of you.”

Shepard shrugged. “And nine others didn’t.”

Miranda withdrew her hand and the Commander said, “So, the same question to you.”

“Hang on, you’ve already asked a question.”

“You can ask another after,” Shepard said with a grin.

Miranda thought a moment. She couldn’t tell the truth, that wasn’t something she could risk revealing. So, she settled for her second proudest accomplishment. “That has to be resurrecting a human being.”

Shepard nodded. “I can see how accomplishing something that has only previously been accredited to a God would feel pretty good.” The Commander looked down and Miranda could see she was debating whether or not to say something.

“What?”

“Jacob said you went through hell to get my body back. What happened?”

Miranda silently cursed Jacob. “It’s not important. The worst part was I didn’t even succeed.”

Shepard frowned. “Then how did come to have my body?”

Miranda paused, debating how wise it was to tell the truth. But Shepard would find out sooner or later. “Doctor T’Soni.”

“I’m sorry, Liara gave you my body?”

“Yes. We came across each other, both searching for your body. Although we had very different motives.”

Shepard stared at Miranda, shock coating her face and Miranda began to wonder if the truth had been a bad idea.

“Why? If she was the one that retrieved my body, why would she give me to Cerberus when she knew how I felt about them?” There was pain in Shepard’s words, a trace of betrayal.

“When I ran into her, she was low on funds and as a result, her search was about to hit a dead end. She was onto a good lead, so Mr. Harper decided to fund her search. I suppose the prospect of getting you back was too tempting for her to pass up.”

Shepard’s head bobbed as she processed Miranda’s words.

“Was there anything…” Miranda considered her next words, how to phrase her question. “Her determination to get your body back seemed...limitless. It felt like it was fueled by more than friendship.”

Shepard looked up at her. “You know I don’t do romance, Lawson. But...yeah, she developed feelings for me. She was a good friend, and I cared for her deeply, but for me, that’s where it stopped. And I made that very clear when she tried to push for more. I was wise enough not to even risk a no-strings thing there.”

“The uncatchable heart,” Miranda said without thinking, and then looked up at Shepard, concerned this was not the right moment to make a quip. But the Commander cracked a smile.

“Yeah, I guess I got a little sloppy in advertising the ‘unobtainable’ status while on the SR1. It was just so intense, the situation we were in, how tight-knit the team had to be. The lines got blurred before I even realised it. Plus, I was so used to working with marines that had a similar mindset, it had rarely been something I’d had to put much effort into.”

“Commander,” the AI’s voice came from Shepard’s Omni-tool making the pair of them jump.

“Yes, EDI?”

“Mr. Taylor has just exited the gym and there are no other crew members in the vicinity.”

“Great, thanks EDI.” Shepard gave Miranda a smile. “Well, looks like question time is over.”

“You still owe me a question.” Miranda pointed out.

“Do not.”

“Errm, yes you do.”

“Nope, you asked about my relationship with Liara.”

Miranda narrowed her eyes at the Commander. “Well, you asked how I got your body back.”

“Because you refused to answer my question about what you went through.”

“Still counts as a question, even if I didn’t answer.”

Shepard barked a laugh as she stood. “That’s cheating Lawson. But I’ll give you that. I guess we’ll continue another time.”

As the elevator began to move, Shepard turned to Miranda, “You haven’t forgotten the briefing dinner?”

“You’re really going to make those a regular thing?”

“Well, there isn’t enough space in the bar for the whole squad to attend the poker club. Plus, it’s much harder to order people to do stuff in their free time than during work hours. So yes, it is now a mandatory weekly thing.”

-o-

Tali sat between Garrus and Karin glaring at the charcoal haired woman across from her, who the newest member of the team -  Jack, had dubbed ‘the Cerberus cheerleader’. So far she’d been able to avoid the woman, but this meal had been non-optional, and considering it was during her shift, there was no refusing like she had with the poker club.

The murmurs around the table fell silent at the sound of the elevator door opening and boots clomping towards the long mess hall table that had been pulled apart, extending to almost double its usual length. “Good evening everyone. I apologise for my tardiness, it took me awhile to find my hoodie.”

Tali stared aghast at the hoodie Leni wore, black, white and orange. It was the first time since joining the team Tali had seen Leni fashion anything from the Cerberus range, and it made her stomach churn with unease.

“Before we go get food, I want to address something I consider to be a top priority. Cerberus.”

-o-

Leni saw various crew members exchange glances. The hoodie had had the desired effect. “My brother died at the hands of a Cerberus experiment.”

There were a few gasps from those that didn’t know and nods from those that did. Miranda locked eyes with Leni, a mix of anxiety and betrayal flashing across her face, but Leni put it aside. The shock factor was necessary for this to work, even at the risk of offending.

“I’d found evidence that pointed to that fact, back before I died. But I had it confirmed by The Illusive Man himself before I even agreed to work with Cerberus.”

Standing at the head of the table she took in all the faces, a mixture of emotions, from horror to sympathy, to guilt and anger. But the Director’s face had become impassive, her Ice Queen persona now in place.

“And yet here I am, working with Cerberus. I didn’t want to. It went against every fibre of my being, but I had to, because, hate him or not, The Illusive Man was the only one doing anything about the missing colonies. I was childish and petulant when I first agreed to work with them. Directing my hate at people who weren’t to blame.” Leni saw Miranda’s eyes drop to the table, her persona faltering slightly. “People that had had nothing to do with what happened to my brother, or any of the barbarous experiments we discovered while chasing Saren. The blame for all of that lays firmly at The Illusive Man’s feet. And he is not a member of this crew.”

“‘Put your pride and preconceptions aside.’ Those are the words my mother said to me when I met up with her, three days after my resurrection. My own mother, whose son was killed by a Cerberus experiment, told me to get over myself and do whatever it takes to save the galaxy.”

The atmosphere in the room was palpable, and you could have heard a pin drop. One thing Leni had always been expert at was holding a room’s attention.

“I have a feeling the mission we are facing, is going to make the battle of the Citadel look like child’s play. You are all here because I need to put together the best team the galaxy has ever seen. But simply being here does not make you a part of that team, and there is only so much I  can do to make you a team.”

Leni studied the faces before her, each one was hooked on her words. Her gaze stopped on Jack, the tattooed woman glared back at her, but never once dropped eye contact.

“I know I’m not the only one here who has issues with Cerberus, some more personal than others. But I’m here to pass on my mother’s words and to ask you to give the members of the crew that work for Cerberus a chance before you judge them based on the logo they wear.”

Leni took a breath, preparing herself for her next statement. “Because if you can’t function as a team, you’re no use to me, and we’re not here to carry deadweight.” Shock dominoed across the faces of almost everyone at the table, Cerberus and non-Cerberus crew alike.

“I’m telling you this because lives are at risk, your own lives. I need to be able to set up teams according to mission requirements, in order to ensure success and minimise the risk of casualties. I do not have time to dance around sorting out who is capable of working together and who might end up killing each other.”

Leni leaned forward resting her palms on the table. “So, I am asking you, can you put your pride and preconceptions aside? If there is anyone whose answer is no, please make your way to the elevator now.” Leni braced herself, not daring to look at Tali, willing her little sister to stay seated.

She let a whole minute pass before she dared relax, and a smile spread across her face. Not a single person had moved. “Thank you.”

-o-

Miranda stared in wonder at the woman at the head of the long table. When she’d first started her speech, Miranda had wanted to biotic slam the Commander for her betrayal. But in hindsight, it was an impressive show. The Cerberus hoodie was a particularly smart play Miranda noted, but it annoyed her that Shepard hadn’t given her any warning of what was to come.

Although there had initially been an awkward atmosphere as everyone went and got their food from the kitchen, things seemed to have settled as everyone began to eat and they worked their way through the agenda.

“What’s the last point on the list Lawson?” She heard the Commander say as she pushed her empty tray away from her.

Miranda looked at the datapad. “The krogan.”

Shepard clicked her fingers and pointed at Miranda. “That’s the one. What’s your opinion?”

“I still maintain it’s a risky gamble. The rest of those krogan on Korlus were insane, and if we are being honest, his creator wasn’t a great deal more stable than they were.”

Several heads around the table nodded in agreement, Shepard’s included. “Does anyone else have an opinion?”

“I think it’s too much of an opportunity to pass up,” Jacob said and Miranda turned and glared at him. The two of them had had this debate several times since bringing the krogan on board.

“I agree with you both.” Miranda frowned at the Commander who ignored her and continued. “It’s a big risk, but it’s also potentially a great opportunity, too great to pass up. So, suggestions as to how we minimise the risk?”

“Not cracking the seal while on a ship that he can blow a fucking hole in, would be a start.” Laughter erupted around the table at the tattooed woman’s blunt statement.

When the laughter subsided Miranda spoke up. “So why don’t we open the tank on Aeia, and after we’ve dealt with the situation pertaining Jacob’s father?”

“Hmm...that could work,” Shepard sipped thoughtfully on her Dr. Pete... “We can have the whole squad on standby in case he is insane, and there’s no chance of him busting a hole in the hull. See what happens when you work together.” Shepard winked at the bald-headed, tattooed woman.

Jack simply flipped her off and said, “Fuck you, Shepard.”

The Commander shook her head but had a huge grin on her face. “And on that note, class dismissed. Make sure you all get a good night’s sleep, we arrive at Aeia in...EDI?”

“Nine hours and eight seconds,” the AI replied.

“You heard the lady. We have no idea what we’re walking into on Aeia until we are within scanning range, so I want everyone ready to go.”

-o-

Leni watched as the majority of the crew filtered out of the mess hall. Garrus gave Leni a pat on the shoulder as he passed her on his way to the main battery. Tali was still stood at the table behind her seat, looking at Leni.

Making her way over to her friend Leni gave a sheepish smile. “Do you hate me?”

“It was an interesting tactic,” Tali said, and Leni heard the sour tone in her voice. “But I understand why you did it. I’m sorry if I haven’t exactly made your life easy since joining.”

“I want you here, Tali, more than anyone. But if you died because you couldn’t function in the team I put you in, I’d never forgive myself, I’d rather see you walk away alive than that.”

Tali moved towards Leni and wrapped her arms around her. “Well, neither of those things are going to happen. As you humans say I shall ‘put on my big girl pants’ and make this work.”

Leni gave the woman who was like a little sister to her a squeeze, anxiety easing at the knowledge she hadn’t damaged their friendship with her little display.

-o-

“Come in.” Miranda turned and saw the Commander enter her cabin.

“So, just how displeased with me are you right now?” Shepard said flashing a disarming smile at her.

Miranda ignored the Commander’s attempts to charm her way out of a confrontation. “I can’t say I was too happy to be the sacrificial Cerberus lamb in your game. But I can’t deny it was a smart play, especially with the hoodie. It suits you by the way.”

“Does it now? Too good on to be taken off?” Shepard said, closing the distance between them, turning up the wattage on her charming smile.

Miranda narrowed her eyes. “I’m not your girlfriend Shepard, you can’t just flirt your way out of trouble with me.”

“You sure about that?” Shepard asked as her hand slid around Miranda’s waist and pulled her close.

“Yes,” Miranda said pulling back and walking away.

Shepard had the good grace to look apologetic. “I’m sorry. But if you’d had forewarning it would have looked like a conspiracy, I needed your reaction to be as genuine as everyone else’s. I really am sorry.”

It dawned on Miranda, that that was precisely the sort of stunt Harper would pull, manipulating the situation to get the desired outcome. She wondered how Leni would feel if she knew that she and Harper weren’t as dissimilar as she’d like to think. But Miranda wasn’t stupid, that certainly wasn’t something she’d be pointing out. “Okay, I get why you did it, and why you didn’t tell me. It’s fine. Now go get some sleep.”

Walking backwards Shepard said, “Yes Ma’am, you too. You can sort the paperwork tomorrow when we get back from Aeia, okay?” The Commander pointed an accusatory finger at her. “I mean it, don’t think I don’t know the stupid hours you work until. Not tonight, you hear me?”

Miranda sighed in annoyance but conceded and dropped the datapad with the minutes of the meeting onto her desk. “Yes, Commander.”

-o-

“Commander, wake up.”

The urgent tone of the AI pierced through her subconscious and Leni was awake within seconds. “Report.”

“The krogan is awake.”

Leni shook her the remaining clouds of sleep from her mind as she stumbled out of bed reaching for her clothes. “What?”

“The krogan is out of his tank and loose in the shuttlebay.”

With over a decade of practice being mission ready in seconds, Leni was almost dressed before the AI had finished her sentence. She hopped into the elevator as she pulled on her boots. “You’ve woken Lawson?”

“Affirmative. Would you like me to wake anyone else?”

“Karin, in case he needs sedating, Garrus, Zaeed and Jack too. What is his current mental state?”

“He seems to be confused, which is translating as rage,” the AI replied as the elevator doors opened and the Director stepped in.

“Why the hell is he awake EDI? Did the tank malfunction?”

“Negative Director Lawson. It appears…”

The AI hesitated and Leni and Miranda frowned at each other. “Yes EDI? It appears what?” Leni pushed.

“It appears, I released him.”

“What?” Both women exclaimed simultaneously.

“What do you mean appears ?” The Director asked incredulously.

“It is what the logs show, but I have no recollection of doing so. I shall run a diagnostic.”

As the elevator pulled to a stop, both Leni and Miranda drew their pistols, a primal roar could be heard before the door even opened. Leni peered into the huge hangar, the krogan was indeed awake and currently pummeling the fibreglass tank.

Leni motioned to advance and the pair fell into a perfect formation that had already become second nature. “Stay where you are.”

-o-

Miranda looked at the Commander who was walking out of the medbay where the krogan now lay.

“Garrus, Zaeed, watch him,” Shepard ordered. “Doctor Chakwas is uncertain how his unique DNA might affect the sedative and she doesn’t want to risk overdosing him.” Turning to Mordin, Tali, Jack and Jacob she said, “You four, we have little over two hours until we get to Aeia, be ready. Lawson, in your office.”

When the door closed behind them the Commander barked. “Report EDI.”

“The records show that it was I, that released the krogan from the tank, yet I have no memory of this. I have run two in-depth self-diagnostics and I can detect no viruses or errors in my programming. However, I did discover a partial trace in my history log that suggests tampering.”

“Tampering?” Miranda said puzzled. “In the AI core?”

“Negative. It appears to be from an external source.”

“I’m sorry, are you telling me you were hacked?” The Commander asked with an incredulous tone.

“No, there was no hacking required Commander,” the AI replied. “Someone opened a hidden door. But I am unable to find it now that it’s been closed.”

The implications hit Miranda and she stared at Shepard in shock. “There’s a backdoor in your program?”

“So it appears Director,” the AI stated, sounding considerably less perturbed than Miranda felt.

“Well, I wonder who would have installed that.” The Commander’s voice was flat, emotionless, unlike her eyes that burned.

“He wouldn’t,” Miranda said bewildered. There has to be another explanation. He wouldn’t undermine the operation and put us at risk.

“Tell me straight Lawson-”

“I know nothing about this Shepard, I swear.” Miranda didn’t break eye contact for even a second, desperate to convey the truth in her words. It had taken time to earn the Commander’s trust, to lose it now…

The flames in Shepard’s eyes subsided a little as she gave a nod and Miranda let out the breath she’d been holding. She hadn’t realised until that moment, just how much she valued the trust and confidence the other woman had in her.

“EDI, call Harper. We need a chat.”

-o-

As they rode the elevator down to the CIC, Leni clenched her fists to steady the shake. Her implants were burning so hot she half expected Lawson to comment that they were glowing.

Not for the first time, Leni questioned her decision to let Miranda join her on the call to Jack Harper. It wasn’t that she doubted Lawson, Leni believed her when she said she knew nothing about this and considering Lawson had been arguing for not waking the krogan, it made little sense that she would be.

But as Miranda had said earlier, at the end of the day, he was her boss and made sure to regularly remind her of that. Leni trusted the Director, but not as much as she would have liked to. Leni was under no illusion, she knew that should Harper demand it, Miranda would fall back in line.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea you join me.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Leni saw the Director turn to face her. “What? No, I have to be there. I need to hear what he has to say.”

“I can’t be having a two vs one situation.”

“You think I’d turn on you?” Hearing the hurt in the Director’s voice, Leni looked at her.

“I think you will have to do whatever he tells you to do. He’s the boss remember. I’m pretty sure this will be one of those times he takes full advantage of it.”

The hurt in Miranda’s eyes turned to conflict, Leni could see the Director knew she was right. “I won’t. I’ll tell him I’m there to mediate. And if it’s true I’ll tell him how-”

“No, you won’t tell him how you feel about it. That wouldn’t be mediating. If you’re meditating you stay neutral.”

“So I can come?” The hopeful look on Miranda’s face made it impossible for Leni to refuse.

“Yes. Don’t make me regret it, Lawson.”

-o-

“Yes, I did.” The Illusive Man flicked ash off the cigarette in his hand, not even bothering to look Leni in the eyes when he admitted to using a backdoor in EDI’s program to release the krogan from his tank.

Leni clenched her fists tighter, the shake becoming almost uncontrollable. She hadn’t thought it possible for her implants to get any hotter than they had been in the elevator without her bursting into flames, but somehow they were managing it.

“How dare you. You said this was my operation. No backseat driving, no undermining my command.” Leni could hear the quake in her voice and caught Miranda giving her a concerned sidewards glance.

“I gave you my opinion on what to do with the krogan when you first picked him up, yet three weeks later, he was still asleep. Time is of the essence Shepard, we don’t have time for you to waste playing poker and drinking all day. If this is how you went about defeating Saren, it’s no wonder you didn’t get to Staff Lieutenant Alenko in time.”

The reminder of her failure to save her friend, coming from the man she hated most in the galaxy, formed a tornado of emotions: pain, fear, sorrow and strongest of all rage, an intense rage that flooded her body and mind.

Leni tried to swing her fist forward -momentarily forgetting the man in front of her was nothing but light and particles- but her body refused to respond. Her legs wouldn’t walk, her arms wouldn’t move, her fingers wouldn’t uncurl, even her jaw locked tight, refusing to let her form words. Powerless to stop it, Leni waited as the tornado of emotions overwhelmed her, tossing her useless body into unconsciousness.

-o-

“What exactly happened?” Karin asked the Director who was helping Garrus and Zaeed lift the Commander onto the bed.

“We were talking to the Illusive Man. She was furious even before we went in, she tried to hide it but I could see her hands shaking. The more he spoke, the more prominent the shake became. And...then he went too far, and she collapsed.” The Director said with an eerily cold, and professional tone. But when Karin looked up, she saw worry and concern coated the Director’s face, her expression belying her tone.

“Anything else?” Karin asked as she ushered the three bystanders out of her way. She activated the full-body scanner on the bed and attached six electrodes to various spots on Leni’s head. The area above the bed burst to life with holo-projected monitors that began to track the readings the scanner and electrodes were taking.

“Her scars, they were burning hot to the touch, particularly around her cybernetic implants. And when I say hot...I’m surprised she doesn’t have third-degree burns.”

Karin shook her head and let out a sigh. “So much for telling me if it happened again.”

“Again? This has happened before?” Karin heard the Director say.

“Not the seizure, but I picked up the overheating of her implants at one of her check-ups.” Karin paused. “Come to think of it that was also after a not so friendly conversation with The Illusive Man.” Could it be connected to her emotions?

“Why didn’t I know about this?” The sharp tone in the Director’s voice made Karin turn and look at her.

“You’ll have to ask the Commander when she wakes up, why she didn’t tell you.”

“I’m asking you, why you didn’t tell me.”

“Director,” Karin said taking a deliberate step forward, “I appreciate in your time playing doctor-scientist, you had no code of ethics to follow.” She paused and let her eyes lock with Miranda’s. “However, for those of us who follow the medical code of ethics, there is a thing called patient confidentiality that we must adhere to.”

Karin found the silence that followed deeply satisfying as the Director stared at her, lost for words. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw both Garrus and Zaeed suddenly finding the unconscious krogan fascinating.

Refocusing on the Director, Karin said, “Thank you for the information you have provided me with, Director Lawson. Now if that is all, this room is a little too crowded. I will contact you with any updates on the Commander’s status.”

Karin had expected the Director to put up a fight, to refuse to leave, but to her surprise, the younger woman turned and left without a word. Karin walked back to the screens and began to study the readings.

“Damn Karin, I never thought I’d see anyone other than the Commander silence that woman. That was impressive.” She heard Garrus say.

Chuckling Karin said, “She may be the second in command on this ship, but I’m the Chief Medical Officer, even the Captain knows she isn’t above my authority in this room.”

“Remind me to not get on your bad side Doc,” Zaeed’s gruff voice chimed in from the far side of the room.

Garrus appeared beside Karin, a concerned look on his face. “How is she?”

“To be quite honest Garrus, I’m at a loss. She will be fine when she wakes, but as to the cause of the seizure and what this means for the long term, I’m unclear. The equipment we have on the ship is advanced for being a ship’s medbay, but even so, it’s not near enough for a detailed brain scan, which is what we need.”

“So now what?”

Karin studied the readings for a moment, frustration growing. They needed specialist scanners. The brain was a complex thing, even now, in a time when they could fly through space and resurrect people with cybernetics, there was still so much they had to learn regarding the human brain.

She looked at the turian who was staring at his best friend. Placing a hand on his arm she said, “I have a friend who works at Huerta Memorial Hospital on the Citadel, he should be able to help us figure out what’s going on.”

-o-

By the time her door chimed, an hour after she had essentially been kicked out of the medbay, Miranda’s perfectly manicured nails had been bitten to oblivion, a habit she had kicked seventeen years ago.

When the Doctor entered her cabin, Miranda didn’t even bother to hide her concern. “How is she?”

The Doctor paused a moment, and Miranda felt self-conscious as the other woman appraised her, before a kind smile crossed her face, softening her features. “She’s fine, don’t worry.” The older woman guided her to the sofa and Miranda automatically took a seat, the Doctor taking a seat across from her. “But as far as diagnosis goes, the equipment we have aboard is inadequate. We need specialist equipment, and in truth, a neurologist. I know someone, but we need to head to the Citadel.”

Miranda thought for a moment, taking in the information and nodded. “Should we leave immediately? We’re almost Aeia, but if this is urg-”

“It can wait a few extra hours for you to deal with this thing regarding Jacob’s father. But after that I advise we head there.”

Miranda let out a sigh. “Okay. You know she’s going to insist on coming though.”

The Doctor gave a huff. “Yes, that had crossed my mind. Which is why I am going to keep her sedated until the mission is over and we are on our way to the Citadel.”

Miranda looked up at the Doctor, brows raised. “That is...a surprisingly devious plan Doctor.”

“Yes well, I know Leni all too well, and considering she will likely feel fine when she wakes, it’s the only way I’m going to keep her in the medbay. I assume you’re capable of leading this mission.”

“Doctor, I’ve been doing this even longer than the Commander. I can manage one mission without her.”

The Doctor smiled. “I’m sure you can Director Lawson, but might I give you a bit of advice?”

Miranda narrowed her eyes at the older woman, getting a distinct impression that she would be receiving this advise whether she wanted it or not.

“If faced with…moral decisions, try asking yourself what Shepard would do.”

Glaring at the Doctor, Miranda was seconds away from telling the Doctor that she was perfectly capable of making those types of decisions without consulting anyone else's conscience.

Holding up her hand the Doctor stopped her before she even began. “If only for the sake of not risking another seizure by angering the Commander when she wakes.”

Miranda raised a brow at that. “You think it's connected to her emotions?”

“It's a theory. I'm not sure how solid, but right now it's all I have.”

Miranda sighed and gave a nod. “I will take it into consideration.”

-o-

“Thirteen hours?” Leni croaked, frowning at Karin. “What do you mean I’ve been out for thirteen hours? What in Andraste’s hairy ass happened?”

“You had a seizure.”

“I did?” Leni said, her frown deepening. “Is it normal to be unconscious for that long after a seizure?”

An odd expression flashed across Karin’s face. “No. I sedated you.”

“You did what? Why?”

“For your own safety,” Karin said, in her ‘doctor knows best’ voice that Leni could never argue with.

Deciding it wasn’t worth arguing further, Leni sat up. “Well, that’s enough sleep. We’ve got a missi-”

“Actually you don’t.”

Leni froze where she sat, legs hanging over the edge of the bed and stared at the Doctor suspiciously. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“They got back from the Aeia mission half an hour ago and we are now on our way to the Citadel.”

“Excuse me?” Leni said, her voice taking on a commanding tone. “Is that why you sedated me?”

“Yes,” the Doctor replied, seemingly unphased by Leni’s change in demeanour. “And this is precisely why. Leni, I just told you that you had a seizure, a seizure for God sakes. That isn’t something that just sometimes happens, and yet you haven’t even asked the cause, let alone if you’re okay. It could be a brain tumour for all you know, and all you can think about is the mission.”

“Well, is it —a brain tumour?” Leni said offhandedly, already over this discussion.

“Honestly? I don’t know.”

Leni looked up at Karin and for the first time registered the genuine concern on her face.

“I have no idea what caused it, but it could be connected to the overheating of your implants. Which, by the way, I am so glad you made sure to tell me has been an ongoing problem since I first picked up on it four weeks ago.”

Leni looked away, feeling decidedly ashamed.

“So yes, we are on our way to the Citadel, where they have specialist equipment and a top neurologist, who has already made time in his fully booked calendar for the great Commander Shepard. Oh, and your mother will be meeting us there.”

Leni’s head shot up. “You contacted my mom ?”

Karin folded her arms across her chest. “Well, I knew the only way I’d get you to take all this seriously, would be to call the only person in the world who can still get you to do as you’re told.”

Leni huffed feigning indignance.

“Am I wrong?”

“No,” Leni chuckled before falling silent looking down at her feet. “Sorry.”

“Oh darling,” she heard Karin say, her strict doctor voice replaced with her usual tender tone. “I know you’re used to having to play the unstoppable Hero of the Citadel, but you aren’t unstoppable. You’ve been stopped once already, and if you don’t take care of yourself, it’ll happen again, sooner rather than later. You can’t point a gun at this one, so please , until we know what’s going on, give it the serious consideration it warrants.”

Leni let out a deep sigh and nodded. “Okay. Can I at least go to my cabin?”

Karin looked at her apologetically, “Sorry, but I want to keep monitoring your brainwaves for the next twenty-four hours.”

Leni dropped her head back in defeat. “Wonderful.”

“However, the electrodes are wireless, they have a limited range, but as long as you stay on this deck, you can leave for a while.”

“I’ll take it,” Leni said grinning at the Doctor. “EDI, where’s the Director?”

“In her cabin Commander. Are you feeling better?”

Leni smiled at the AI’s question. “Yes thank you, EDI.”

“We still need to talk about the details regarding your seizure,” Karin interjected, “but that can wait until you’ve stretched your legs.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Leni said, hopping off the bed and saluting before she strode towards the door. She paused as she walked past the unconscious krogan. “He not given you any problems?”

Karin shook her head. “No, the standard doses for krogans are working just fine on him. Although we’re going to have to wake him at some point.”

“Yeah, I know. One thing at a time. See you in a bit.” Leni exited the medbay and was glad to see the mess hall was deserted, she wasn’t really feeling like dealing with ‘oh how are you Commander’ from every crew member right now.

Pressing the call button on the Director’s door Leni waited for a response. When none came she said to the ceiling, “EDI, is Lawson awake?”

“No, Commander.”

“Ugh, you couldn’t have told me that earlier?”

“I apologise, Commander, you did not ask. In the future, I will be sure to include any additional information that may be relevant, even if not directly requested.”

Sighing Leni turned and was parallel with the kitchen when she heard the door behind her open.

“Shepard?” a sleepy voice croaked from Miranda’s doorway.

Taking a few steps backwards Leni leaned her head around the doorframe and smiled apologetically at the exhausted looking woman in front of her. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were asleep.”

“No it’s fine, come in.”

“Hang on two minutes.”

Leni popped back round into the kitchen and grabbed two mugs filling one with herbal tea and the other with coffee. When she entered the Director’s cabin, Leni saw Miranda was on the sofa, now wearing sweatpants and a hoodie in place of the robe she’d had on a minute ago. Putting the tea down on the table beside Miranda, Leni made herself comfortable.

“So, I hear you’ve been having fun without me.”

“Yes, it was quite refreshing, not having to always watch your flank,” Miranda said reaching for her tea.

Leni laughed but stopped when she saw a gash on the Director’s temple. Sitting forward she said, “What happened to your head.”

“Hmm? Oh, that. Turns out you're quite good at watching my flank too, and that mad woman isn’t.”

“That’s quite deep Miranda,” she said leaning forward to get a better look. “Has Karin seen it?”

“Yes,” Miranda said with irritation and swatted Leni away. “Not all of us are morons that don’t go to the doctor when needed. Why the hell didn’t you tell me about your implants overheating?” the Director said, her tone rising from irritation to anger.

Leni smiled at the display of concern from Miranda, even if it was dressed up as anger. “Aww Lawson, you do care. Don't worry, I’m fine.”

“You don’t know that Shepard. We won’t know anything until you’ve seen the specialist. And yes I care, I care that four billion credits and two years of my life’s work might go to waste, simply because you're so pig-headed and proud, you go around ignoring potentially life-threatening symptoms.”

Leni shook her head in annoyance, of course, it was concern for her science project. “What life-threatening symptoms? I occasionally have a hot flush, everybody gets them.”

Everybody doesn't have cybernetic implants holding their body together.” Miranda snapped back. “And anyway, the Doctor had already picked up on it and told you to tell her if it happened again. And you didn't, did you? No, because the god damn Hero of the Citadel is too proud to admit she isn't invulnerable, despite having died once already.”

Leni stared at Miranda, unsure how to interpret her outburst. In the end, she gave up, not having the energy to argue, she decided to change the subject. “So what happened on Aeia?”

“It’s all in the report which I’ve already mailed to you. It’s very detailed, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to read in the medbay. I’m tired, so if there’s nothing pressing you want to talk about?”

Looking at the Director now, Leni felt as if she’d travelled back in time and was talking with the woman she met on the Lazarus station, cold, detached, all business. “Fine. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

-o-

Miranda watched as the Commander stalked out of her cabin. She’d spent the last thirteen hours worrying about the woman, and as the doors closed behind her, Miranda realised she hadn’t even asked how she was.

She took a sip of her tea and then glared at it, it was her favourite blend, the perfect strength with just the right amount of honey. It was the physical representation of everything that was wrong with this situation.

The Commander had never made her tea before, she'd never told her how she drank it, and yet somehow she got it just right.

From the moment the Commander walked into her cabin, Miranda had had the strongest urge to reach out and stroke Shepard’s temple where the electrodes sat, still monitoring that pig-headed woman’s brain. She knew it was an idiotic notion and had ignored it, but that didn't stop it nagging at her.

Miranda Lawson didn’t do caring. No, she didn’t care, it was simply the desire to not have two years worth of work be for nothing.

Sighing, Miranda stood and walking to the bathroom, tipped the tea down the drain. She didn’t care.

 

To Be Continued.

Chapter Text

Karin pinched the bridge of her nose. Two hours after Leni had come round, and she'd still only managed to collate and summarise a quarter of the scan results. “I’m just-” she paused when she looked up at the Commander and saw she had finally succumbed to sleep. Walking over to her, Karin carefully removed the datapad from Leni's hand. -going to take a break. She thought to herself.

When she reached the kitchen, Karin made herself a cup of English tea exactly as she liked it - a dash of milk and two sugars to sate her sweet tooth. She relaxed into the seat that gave her the best view of the medbay door - just in case Leni woke and tried to make her escape. Closing her eyes, she tried her best to empty her mind, but all she could see was scan result after scan result behind her closed lids.

At the sound of a door hissing open, she opened her eyes, but the medbay door was still closed. Moments later, movement in the kitchen caught her eye, it seemed the Director had the same idea as her.

Karin decided against making her presence know, the Director looked exhausted and likely wouldn’t want to bump into crew wearing sweatpants, a hoodie and completely free of makeup. Although Karin had to admit, makeup or not, the Director was still a striking young woman, and the natural look softened the Director’s features, making her look younger, more innocent.

To Karin’s surprise, when the other woman had finished making her drink, she stayed where she was, Cerberus emblemed mug in hand, leaning against the kitchen worktop. Frowning, she wondered why the Director would stay there, risking bumping into the crew, until Karin realised, the Director was staring through the medbay window, or more accurately glaring through the window.

Karin watched the Director curiously. Her concern had been apparent when she had updated her on Leni’s condition, and now, despite clearly being exhausted, here she was.

Standing, Karin picked up her tea and headed towards the kitchen. When the other woman caught sight of her, she looked as though she might leave. “Can’t sleep?” Karin said, not giving her the opportunity to run away.

The Director paused a moment, but eventually, she sighed and returned to her previous position. “Not anymore, no.”

“Ah yes, I heard she woke you. I also heard thing got a little…heated?”

The Director frowned and looked through the medbay window again, which Karin could now see, gave a perfect view of the sleeping Commander from where she stood.

“How do you do it?” the Director asked.

Karin gave her a questioning look.

“You've been with the Alliance…what? Almost forty years? Dealing with stubborn, pig-headed soldiers that are too proud to go to the doctor until they have no choice.”

“Ahh, how do you think I got all these grey hairs? I'm really only thirty-seven, it's the worry that makes me look fifty-seven,” Karin said giving the Director a playful wink.

To Karin’s surprise, the Director let a slight smile slip across her lips, before returning to glaring at the Commander.

“How difficult would it have been for her to say, ‘My implants are still overheating, I think this needs investigating’?”

Karin smiled and moved to stand beside the Director, giving her a view of Leni. “She's always been a pain in the bum that one. When she was a child she used to do karate, she was so passionate about it, she had to be the best and quickly grew out of the junior classes. So she was allowed to advance to the adult classes when she was still only ten. She gave the grown men a run for their money, I tell you.”

Karin paused and glanced at the Director to see if she was wasting her breath and boring the other woman, but the Director seemed riveted. “The problem was, she was always one of those kids with no inhibitions, when she went in, she went all in. When Leni was about eleven, the club entered a competition - a regional one against other clubs -  and of course she insisted on being entered into the adults’ division, which took some convincing on her instructor's part to get the judges to allow. Well, during one of her sparring matches - with a particularly bulky middle-aged man - Leni yelped when he put her into a wristlock, which, she never did. Even her opponent was concerned, but she just shook it off and carried on, and beat him. After that, she won two more matches, sadly lost the final but still took second place. On our way home, when asked about her wrist, she said it hurt a bit. It turned out she'd broken it in that match…”

A disbelieving laugh came from the woman beside her. “Of course she did.” Karin saw the Director’s nostrils flare and her jaw bulged as she ground her teeth. “God, she's infuriating.”

“And yet, she still manages to draw people in.” Karin paused and gave a knowing smile. “Doesn't she, Director?”

The Director looked up at her. “I’m off duty Doctor, please call me Miranda.”

“Only if you call me Karin.” It was refreshing to see a completely different side to this woman who was usually so standoffish. “Shall we sit?”

Miranda nodded and the two of them moved to the table. After a few moments of surprisingly comfortable silence, Miranda asked, “What does she remember?”

“All events up until you began speaking to The Illusive Man.”

“She doesn't remember the conversation at all?” Miranda asked looking uncomfortable.

Karin shook her head. “Earlier, you said ‘he went too far’, what happened?”

Miranda studied her mug. “He admitted to having released the krogan by using a backdoor in EDI’s program. He said we should have woken him when we first picked him up and that if this was how she did things when defeating Saren…”

Karin studied the Director who had looked increasingly uncomfortable as the story went on.

“...then it was no wonder she didn't reach Lieutenant Alenko in time.”

Karin closed her eyes and gave a slow nod. She had been there, seen the pain on Leni’s face as the Normandy left Virmire and the bomb went off. “I think it's best we don’t remind her the specifics of that conversation.” When she opened her eyes, she caught Miranda looking at her.

“After what she did last night to try and bridge the gap between Cerberus and non-Cerberus crew. Putting on that hoodie, which I know it was no small thing, she’s always refused to wear anything with a Cerberus logo on it. And all the things she said, about not judging those of us that work for Cerberus simply on that fact.” Miranda broke eye contact and bit her lip. “And then Jack goes and does this. It’s going to undermine any trust that has been built.”

Karin saw that Miranda's knuckles were white from clenching the mug in her hands. Resting a hand on top of the younger woman’s, Karin said, “You aren't him, and Leni of all people on this ship sees that. She trusts you.”

Meeting Karin’s gaze Miranda scoffed, “As much as she's able.” At Karin’s frown, she continued. “She almost didn't let me go with her into the call, because she was wary of it ending up being two vs. one, should Harper order me to ‘fall in line’. The worst part is she was right, if he'd chosen it, I’d have had no choice.”

“We always have a choice, dear,” Karin said gently, “they're not always easy choices to make, but there is always a choice.”

The Director broke eye contact and there were a few minutes of silence before Karin heard Miranda tut. “Look what she did. I quit biting my nails seventeen years ago.”

Karin looked at what was left of the younger woman’s nails and laughed. “You're going to have to find something else if you want to keep that beautiful hair from turning grey. Nails don't grow fast enough to keep up with how often you'll worry on account of that woman.”

“Ugh, I'm going to regret resurrecting her aren't I?”

“Sometimes definitely. But for the most part, she'll make you thankful she's part of your life.”

When Miranda turned her head to glance at the medbay door behind her, Karin caught sight of the gash she had cleaned up when the team had got back from Aeia. “You weren’t exaggerating when you said you heal quickly. It’s noticeably smaller already. And you never scar?”

“Never, and I’ve had my fair share of opportunities.” Miranda paused a moment, looking like she wanted to ask something. “May I reconfigure the main scanner? I’ll make sure it won’t interrupt the electrode scans, I’d like to see if it picks up any anomalies with the cybernetic implants. If it's connected, I might be able to get us head start on understanding this before we reach the Citadel.”

Karin nodded. “Absolutely. Anything that can give us an advantage against this. I'd be interested to learn more about her implants if you'd be willing to work together?”

Karin was half expecting the Director to decline her request due to it being secret Cerberus technology. To her surprise, Miranda smiled and nodded. “Of course. The more you know the better, for future treatment. How long did you say she has to stay in the medbay?”

“Twenty-four hours.”

“That should give us enough time to get an adequate amount of readings, to start with at least.”

Karin was unable to stave off a yawn, which elicited a frown from the Director.

“When did you last sleep?”

Waving off Miranda’s concerned tone Karin said, “I had a nap while you were on Aeia, I’m fine.”

“And when you say a nap, I assume you mean dozing off in your chair in the medbay,” Miranda said crossing her arms. “Karin, you realise I’m the one that does the shift rota. I know your shift was supposed to finish an hour after the krogan was brought in, and yet here you are, fifteen hours later. Go to bed.”

Karin sighed. “I can’t leave her unsupervised, you know she’ll leave if she wakes.”

“I’m here.”

“You need to sleep as well.”

“Maybe, but my brain isn’t letting me, so I might as well be here. It’ll give me time to adjust the scanner settings and start getting those readings we need.”

Karin stared at the medbay door, tied with what to do.

Karin ,” Miranda pressed, “you’re no use to her if you’re too tired to think. Go rest, she’ll be here when you come back I promise.”

Letting out a sigh, she conceding to the Director’s arguments. As soon as she did, her body felt ten times heavier, and for a moment she contemplated sleeping where she sat. But she eventually dragged herself to her feet and gave the Director a weary smile. “Thank you, Miranda.”

-o-

Bringing up the configuration settings on the scanner, Miranda began inputting the settings she knew by heart. She smiled at the memories it brought back of two long years of hard work, hard, but incredibly rewarding work.

“Hmm, you look like someone I know,” a sleepy voice croaked, “but you can't be her, not with a beam like that.”

Miranda glared at the Commander but wasn't quite able to remove the smile from her face. “Arse.”

“You forgot pig-headed and proud moron.”

At that, Miranda was unable to hold her glare in place and laughed. “And infuriating.”

Leni smiled at her, but there was a hint of something else, embarrassment? “I’m sorry I didn't tell you about my implants. I promise I'll take my health seriously from here on out.”

“Good, because we don't have the resources for the Lazarus Project 2.0.”

It was Leni who laughed this time. “Damn it, and here I was thinking I’d have an unlimited number of lives as long as you were around to patch me up. So, what are you doing?”

“Calibrating the scanner to focus on your cybernetics. We're going to see if we can work out why they're overheating.”

“We?”

“Karin and I,” Miranda said returning her attention to the scanner.

“Karin?” Leni said with a curious tone, “First name basis now huh?”

“We bonded over your idiocy,” Miranda replied without looking up, a smirk creeping onto her face.

“Ohh, I see how it is. So, are we friends again?”

Miranda let out a sigh, “How many times do I have to tell you, Shepard. We aren't friends. We're colleagues.”

“With benefits,” Leni added. “But you know, there's such a thing as friends with benefits.”

“Nope, that's a myth. Friends with benefits always leads to disaster. As you should well know…” Miranda said and looked at Leni pointedly.

“So it's colleagues with benefits or friends? Is that what you're telling me? Or is friends off the table altogether?”

Miranda chewed on the inside of her lip, even friends without benefits was more complicated than colleagues with. Yet she couldn't deny, she enjoyed socialising with the Commander. Looking up, Miranda studied Shepard for a long moment. In truth, the likelihood was very low that the Commander - someone who self-proclaimed to never go without sex - would choose a purely platonic friendship over frequent sex…especially considering how good the sex was. “Friends isn't off the table. I’ll leave the choice up to you, Shepard.”

“Hmm,” the other woman said bringing her hand to her chin, “you drive a hard bargain Lawson. But I think it's gonna have to be…friends.”

Miranda was barely able to keep her mouth from dropping open. “Are you being serious?”

“Deadly serious. I told you, I like your company.”

Miranda was speechless for a moment, and then her expression darkened. “How can you be friends with someone you can't entirely trust?”

Leni exhaled. “I’m sorry I said that.”

“No. You were right. That's the worst part. If he says jump…” Miranda clenched her jaw and turned to walk away, but felt Leni take her hand.

“Miranda, I saw your face when he admitted to hacking EDI, you felt as betrayed as I did, maybe even more so.”

Miranda stared at their hands, unable to bring herself to look at the Commander until Shepard’s hand cup her chin. The tender look in the other woman’s eyes making her chest tighten.

“Tell me the truth, if he ordered you to put a bullet in me, or to do something that would put the mission at risk, would you?”

Miranda took a shaky breath, struggling to maintain composure. Somehow, that question felt like one of the most difficult she'd ever faced.

“I understand you are loyal to him, I’m not asking if you’d betray him, but would you put the mission first if you felt his judgement was off? I won’t judge you, but I have to know,” Shepard said with a gentle tone.

Miranda bit her lip, her eyes unfocusing as she imagined the consequences of disobeying her mentor of eighteen years. Was it even possible?

‘We always have a choice, dear, they're not always easy choices to make, but there's always a choice.’ Karin’s words rang in her head.

Miranda focused on Shepard again, who was still patiently waiting for her reply. “No,” she whispered. And then louder, with more conviction, she repeated. “No, I wouldn't do anything that might put the mission at risk.”

A smile spread across the Commander's face. “I trust you.”

Miranda looked down at their hands and turned her own to take Shepard’s. Unsure if she could trust her voice to stay steady, Miranda simply gave the other woman’s hand a squeeze and walked over to Karin’s terminal where she began recording the scan results.

“So where is the good Doctor?” Shepard asked after a few minutes of silence.

“I sent her to bed, she'd worked almost twenty-one hours straight.”

“Of course she did,” she said with a sigh, “and she says I'm a nightmare. What about you? I take it you haven't been back to sleep since I woke you?”

Miranda shook her head. “But I'm fine.”

“Really? Because you don't look fine. You look exhausted.”

“I’m fine Shepard. I told Karin I'd-”

“Babysit me? To make sure I don't do a runner?” the Commander said rolling her eyes. “Is the scanner reconfigured?”

Miranda looked up at Shepard and reluctantly nodded.

“Go. I swear I won't leave.”

Miranda chewed on her lip as she considered what to do. She was exhausted and could feel her focus slipping. Her own words to Karin were ringing true for herself now. She'd be of no use if she didn't rest. “Promise me.”

“I understand how important these scans are. I promise I won't leave this room.”

Miranda let out a sigh of defeat. “Fine.”

-o-

Leni smiled at her friend as she entered the medbay, still trying to formulate the best way to pose her request, one she knew her friend would hate.

“How are you feeling?” Tali asked, and Leni heard the concerned tone.

“Awful, I'm so bored I might die.”

“That's not funny Shepard.”

“It was a little funny,” Leni replied, holding her fingers an inch apart.

Tali ignoring her antics Tail said, “EDI said you had a task for me?”

Leni nodded, “Yes, and you're going to hate me for it, but we need it.” Tali’s eyes narrowed and Leni gave her her most charming smile. “I need you to work with EDI-”

“Shepard, you can’t seriously expect me to work with an AI?” Tali objected.

“I said you wouldn’t like it, but if you let me finish, you’ll understand why.”

Tali crossed her arms but said nothing.

Leni took that as her cue to continue. “-work with her to find and remove the backdoor TIM put in her program.”

“There's a backdoor in her program? Keel’ah Shepard.”

Leni nodded. “He used it to release the krogan.”

Tali began to pace. “This is really bad Leni, a backdoor isn't something that is easy to find. Especially not in a program as complex as an AI.”

“I know, and it needs to be done before TIM catches on to us, which is why I need you on it. Please, Tali.”

“Of course, I’ll get started on it immediately. I have some friends in the fleet who are experts in this area of things, but I'll need a secure communication link if you don't want TIM catching on to what we're doing.”

Leni nodded. “I’ll speak to Miranda, about that.”

“Shepard…” Leni heard the warning tone in Tali’s voice.

“She didn't know about this Tali, and she feels betrayed by what he did. I trust her.”

Tali stared at her a moment and then gave a short nod. “Very well Shepard, I don’t trust her, but I do trust you. I'll get to work with EDI right away.”

-o-

John.”

Karin spun at the cry from the far side of the room. “Leni?”

The woman who had been sleeping only moments ago was sitting bolt upright on the bed, eyes open wide, staring straight ahead.

“Leni?” Karin repeated, trying to get her attention as she rushed over to her. But even when Karin reached the bed, Leni continued to stare straight ahead, a terrified look on her face.

John.” Leni wailed again. Karin stared at Leni, the voice that came from her sounded more like the voice of a terrified little girl, than the great Commander Shepard.

Taking her pen-torch, Karin went to check Leni’s pupil responses, until she saw her pupils were entirely dilated.

The door hissed open and Karin glanced over her shoulder as the Director walked through the door, two mugs in hand. Her entrance coincided with another eerie wail from Leni, drawing a disturbed expression from the Director.

“What's happened?” Miranda asked and was beside Karin moments later.

“I don't know. She just sat upright and called out for John, but doesn't appear to be aware of her surroundings.”

Moving to the other side of the bed, Miranda laid a hand on Leni’s arm. “Shepard?”

The Director looked up at Karin when there was no response, mirroring Karin’s own concerned look. “What's wrong with her?”

“I don't know.” Pinching the bridge of her nose Karin frowned. “It could be another seizure.”

“But the first one was nothing like this.”

“I know, but it's not unheard of for people…” Karin paused, reluctant to say the next words, “people with epilepsy to have multiple types of seizures.”

Miranda looked at her with a shocked expression. “You think she has epilepsy?”

“Well, it’s up to the specialist to determine that, but often, if someone has had more than one seizure which starts in the brain, they are diagnosed with epilepsy.” Karin looked up at the Director. “Starts in the brain...my goodness I’m so stupid, we’re monitoring her brainwaves.”

Activating the holo-screens, Karin pulled up the electrodes’ live feed. The lines that had shown as a little elevated after Leni’s first seizure were now in a constant state of irregular spikes. “Good lord, she's spiking constantly. According to these readings, this is another seizure.”

-o-

“You see these spikes here?” The Doctor pointed to some of the smaller peaks on one of the screens in front of them. “Now look at these.”

Miranda studied the readings on both screens. She couldn’t count how many times she’d seen the Commander’s brainwaves, although these readings were very different to the ones taken when she was in the medical coma on the Lazarus station. “They follow a similar pattern.”

Karin looked at her. “I think these might be markers of the start and end of the seizures.”

“It’s a viable theory. I don't suppose there's any sort of pre-marker?” Miranda asked.

Sighing Karin said, “Unfortunately not. Well, there may well be one…”

“But it's not something our equipment is capable of detecting.”

Karin slumped back against the bed. “Precisely.”

“Morning.”

Miranda spun around and looked at the Commander. She had been out cold for the last two hours since her second seizure had ended. It had been a worryingly long one, thirty-two minutes, something Miranda hadn’t even realised was possible without serious brain damage. But Karin had explained that the average length of seizures could vary significantly depending on the type of seizure, and that, nocturnal seizures were known to last longer than waking ones. The Commander looked like she hadn’t slept in days, which considering she’d been asleep for eight hours, excluding the half-hour seizure, really emphasised the effect the seizure had had on her.

“Waking up to two lovely women, what more could a girl ask for.”

Karin chuckled. “Maybe that one of them hadn't changed your nappies?”

Shepard sighed. “I suppose that would be preferable. So, how's it going, dream team? You got me fixed yet?”

Miranda gave Karin a side glance, deferring to the older woman’s experienced bedside manner.

The Doctor moved closer to the bed and rested a hand on Shepard’s arm. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Shepard said slowly, then frowned. “Actually, I feel like I've haven't slept at all.”

Karin gave a slow nod.

“Karin, what's going on?” Miranda heard an irritated edge to the Commander’s voice.

“You had another seizure while you were sleeping, but this one was very different to the last.”

-o-

Karin’s voice faded to a buzz in her ears as her raging thoughts drowned everything else out. Closing her eyes, Leni clenched her jaw tightly. Everything had been so much simpler in her previous life.

From the moment she woke on the Lazarus station, nothing had been as it should. It was like she had been resurrected in a parallel, topsy-turvy world, where allies became enemies and enemies became allies.

The Alliance, who had once decorated her and hailed her a hero, had posthumously discredited her warnings of the Reapers, labelling her delusional. The Council, whose lives she had saved at the expense of thousands of human lives, accused her of faking her own death, and then acted like they were making some great sacrifice by reinstating her Spectre status - on the condition she stayed out of their backyard.

Both organisations were sworn to protect, yet they were ignoring the abductions of thousands of humans, leaving her with no choice but to work with Cerberus. All of which she had done her best to accept and get on with.

But this? Losing control of her own body, her own mind ...How was she supposed to save the galaxy if she couldn’t even leave the fucking medbay?

Leni felt the bed dip, and then there were hands cupping her face.

“Leni,” a gentle voice whispered, permeating the torrent in her mind. “Leni.” A thumb brushed across her cheek and the voice came again louder this time. “We’re going to get through this, we’ll work it out together.”

Leni forced her eyes open and was met by the piercing icy blue eyes of the Director, but there was nothing icy about the emotions that filled them. They swam with concern, but also determination.

“You’re not in this alone,” Miranda said quietly, her warm breath washing over Leni’s face, “we’re here with you and we’ll get through this.”

Leni swallowed hard and felt her mind clearing as the tide of emotions receded. Only then did she realise her entire body was tensed to the point of trembling, her fists gripping the bed sheets. She had to consciously instruct her body to relax. It was a bizarre sensation, almost an out of body experience.

Miranda’s thumb stroked her cheek again, but this time it felt different. Leni realised that the first time had been comparable to having local anaesthetic: you could feel something was happening, but it was numb - no pain, no pleasure.

“What the hell is happening to me?” she whispered, her voice shaky.

“We don’t know yet.” When Karin spoke, Miranda pulled away, as if she’d forgotten the other woman was in the room. “We’ll get more answers when we reach the Citadel, we’re less than a day away.”

-o-

When Miranda entered her cabin, she saw Shepard sat on the sofa, head back, eyes closed.

“Your sofa is so much comfier than mine,” Shepard said opening her eyes and giving Miranda a weary smile.

Shrugging, Miranda placed both trays of food on the coffee table. “Well, there have to be some perks to putting up with you.”

Shepard barked a laugh and sat forward.

“What?” Miranda asked when she realised the other woman was grinning at her instead of eating.

“You called me Leni.”

Miranda frowned. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. Back there, when Karin told me about the second seizure.”

Miranda realised the Commander was right. Thinking back to that moment, she had to stop herself from shaking her head in disbelief at her own behaviour. She had no idea what she’d been thinking - she hadn’t been thinking - she’d just reacted to seeing Shepard look as if she might go into another seizure. “So I did.”

“Well, we are friends now, right? And my friends call me Leni. It seems you made our friendship official Lawson.”

Miranda bit her lip, trying, and failing, to withhold a smile. “Fine, Leni , I guess it’s official.”

“What’s official?” Miranda heard the Doctor say as the doors slid open.

“Miranda and I are friends.”

Mortified at the ridiculous conversation, Miranda began to eat her dinner, not looking at Karin when she sat down opposite her.

“Oh,” she heard the Doctor say in an amused tone, “congratulations.”

When Leni chuckled, Miranda gave her a glare.

-o-

Karin watched the other two women as they interacted. Over the last few weeks, Karin had observed slow changes in their attitudes towards each other. Leni had gone from dismissing everything the Director said, to valuing her opinions. Thinking back to the meeting a few days earlier, Karin realised, that, when Leni had been describing her own behaviour when she first started working with Cerberus, it had in fact felt like an apology.

But it wasn’t just their professional relationship that had developed. During the poker nights they had becoming increasingly closer, they would sit next to each other at the poker table and Miranda would sit at the bar while Leni made drinks. The last three days, in particular, had shown Karin a new depth to their relationship. Leni had sought after Miranda whenever she wasn’t in the medbay and multiple times Karin had walked in on pleasant conversations and even laughter.  The display of physical affection Miranda showed towards Leni when she was trying to stay-off another seizure, was particularly contrasting and quite endearing.

“So what do the crew know?” Leni asked the Director.

“Well, obviously the squad knows the truth. But the general ship crew think you were bitten by a varren on the prison ship and contracted the mildly contagious Varrelitis. It’s only contagious for the first two days and only takes a week to recover from, so we decided it would work well regarding the time frame for getting to the Citadel.”

“But there weren’t any varren on the prison ship.”

“They don’t know that,” Miranda said shrugging.

“You are terrifyingly good at this deception thing, Lawson.”

“Why thank you, Commander.”

Leni took a deep breath and looked as if she was contemplating saying something. “And what about Harper? Did he see me collapse?”

Miranda stopped eating and met Leni’s stare. “No, I saw something was very wrong, so stepped out of the projector and cut the call. I think at worst he will have seen you freeze in response to…”

Karin saw Miranda glance her way with a cautious look.

“His comment about Kaiden.” Leni finished for her.

Karin frowned and looked at Leni. “You said you didn't remember.”

“I didn’t at first. But then it came back to me.”

“I’m sorry for what he said, it wasn’t true,” the Director said, staring at her meal.

“Miranda, I’ve told you not to apologise for him.”

The Director began stabbing at her food, then, dropping her fork onto the tray she said, “I think I know why he did it. I heard through the network that an important project went wrong, one that had been a long time in the making, and had received significant investments. I think that put him in the wrong state of mind, which is why he did something so…foolish.”

There was a defensive tone to the Director’s words, but Karin couldn’t be sure who the Director was trying to convince more, the Commander or herself. Flashing a glance at Leni, Karin saw her expression darken and it crossed her mind that this line of conversation might lead to another seizure. But these types of conversations couldn’t be avoided forever, so she let the two women continue.

“Honestly Miranda, I don’t care what his reasons were.” Leni’s tone was cool, but not aggressive or angry. Karin realised that Leni truly perceived Miranda in a very different light to The Illusive Man. “The point is, it’s him that makes the decisions, yet it’s always someone else who pays the price. He wanted to be able to control a thresher maw, but it was my brother and five other N7 marines that paid the price. He wanted to create a super biotic that he could control, but it was Jack that paid the price. He wanted me resurrected. Did he even once stop to consider what a violation it was? That I might not have wanted to come back? Did he even consider for a second asking my mother’s permission? Is he the one having seizures? The one potentially facing the end of their career because of those seizures?”

Leni sat forward, elbows on knees, never breaking eye contact with the silent Director. “Try and forget for a minute that he’s the man who has done so much for you personally, and look at the man I just described. Is that really someone who should have the capability, to take direct control of the AI that has access to every system on this ship? If you’re right, and him releasing the krogan was essentially a temper tantrum, what will he do next time? Disable life support? Jettison us all into space? Our lives are at risk as long as that backdoor exists.”

Karin sat frozen to the spot as the terrifying truth of Leni’s words sunk in. Looking at Miranda, she saw a similar look of horrific realisation cloak her face. The younger woman opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

-o-

Leni sighed as she watched Miranda walk out of her own cabin. Turning to Karin she registered the look of horror on the other woman’s face.

“I hadn’t considered the bigger picture regarding the backdoor.”

Leni nodded. “Yeah, it’s scary when you start to consider the possibilities.” Leni studied her hands for a moment. “Was I too harsh?” she asked, nodding her head towards the door.

“Actually I was impressed by how level-headed and diplomatic you were, considering how personal your argument was.”

“She’s going to blame herself though, for the stuff I said about my seizures, which wasn’t my intention.”

“Then maybe make sure she knows that?”

Leni looked up at the ceiling. “EDI? Where is Director Lawson right now?”

“She on her way to the shuttlebay, Commander.”

“May I?” She said shooting her most charming smile at the Doctor.

Rolling her eyes Karin smiled back. “Yes, but back to the medbay after, you hear me?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

-o-

Miranda began to danced around the punching bag as she began her merciless assault. You’re a fool. This is your own damn fault for caring. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t even be listening to what she was saying.

“Hey.” Miranda’s head shot up, searching the shuttlebay for the owner of the voice. When Shepard ducked her head around the gym wall, a cautious smile on her face.

Miranda ground her teeth. She wasn’t prepared to face Shepard yet. Choosing to ignore the other woman she turned back to face the bag.

“I know you’re mad at me right now but-”

“What?” Miranda frowned and turned to face the Commander again. “I’m not mad with you Shepard.”

“Oh…”

Letting out a long sigh Miranda walked over to one of the benches and took a seat. “I’m mad at myself.” As she stared intently at the mat, Leni came into view crouching down in front of her.

“I’m not.”

Miranda looked away. “You should be, it’s my fault. The seizures.”

Leni’s hand gently guided her chin back around until she met her gaze again. “No, it’s not.”

A wave of goosebumps washed over Miranda as Leni gently stroked her cheek, and she momentarily closed her eyes in response to the gentle touch. She felt the other woman move closer and gently coax Miranda’s head forward until their foreheads rested against each other. Opening her eyes, she stared into chestnut brown eyes that were filled with an emotion she couldn’t read. Being so close to Shepard, Miranda instinctively leant forward, brushing her lips lightly against Leni’s and frowned when the other woman pulled away.

“Friend’s remember,” Leni whispered with a mischievous smile.

Miranda bit her lip but couldn’t hold in the incredulous laugh. “You’re such a wanker.”

Leni’s smile grew to a huge beam. “An infuriating wanker?”

Oh, you fool. This can lead to nothing but trouble, Miranda thought as butterflies danced in her stomach. “Unbelievably infuriating.”

-o-

Leni barely had a chance to step through the airlock onto the Citadel before her mother’s arms a were wrapped around her. “Hey, Mom.”

“How are you?” her mother asked, cupping her face and studying her like she wasn't sure if she'd hallucinated their previous meeting and all the vidcalls since.

Looking into the eyes of the woman who knew her best in the galaxy, Leni finally felt the effects of the past week’s events settling in. “I’ve had better weeks.”

Kissing her on the cheek, her mother pulled her in for another hug. “I know darling, but we're going to get through this, okay?”

“Yeah.” Leni nodded and then pulled back and smiled at her mom. “So how are you?”

“I’m good actually, really good. I thought tonight I’d cook you dinner, but until then, what would you like to do?”

“Cook dinner?” Leni said in surprise, her mother hated cooking in the ship’s kitchen, “Where?”

A smile appeared on her mother's face, “I’ve borrowed a friend’s apartment for a few days.”

“Oh, nice. Well, I thought you might like a tour around the SR2 before we did anything else.”

Her mother looped her arm through Leni’s and pulled her back into the airlock. “Oh you know I do.”

-o-

“She's a beautiful ship Leni,” Hannah crooned looking at her daughter who looked on proudly at the ship she commanded.

Although the ship was already down to a skeleton crew due to shore leave, every member of the crew they had met, had a clear admiration for their CO, and Hannah was proud to see Leni knew the name of every single crew member they came across. She'd always known her daughter would make an excellent captain, but it was one thing knowing, and another thing seeing.

“Yeah, she’s not too bad, is she? ” Leni said with a proud smile.

Hannah heard the elevator door open behind them and turned to see a stunning, black-haired, pale-skinned woman step out.

“Oh, Miranda,” her daughter said, “I want you to meet my mom, Hannah.”

“I’ve heard plenty about you,” the woman said holding out her hand, “it's a pleasure.”

“And I of you,” Hannah replied, thinking back to all the vidcalls she'd had with her daughter and how her perception of this woman had changed over the last eight weeks.

The other woman raised a brow at her daughter, “Have you now?”

Leni simply grinned in reply, and Hannah thought she saw something pass between the two of them.

“You’re taking some R&R right, Lawson?” Leni asked.

“I’m going to stay and supervise the skeleton crew and the changeovers,” the black haired woman said, lifting up the datapad she was holding.

Hannah saw Leni fold her arms and put on her ‘that is not a satisfactory answer’ face. “Miranda, you need to take a break too, especially considering how hard you've been working this week.”

“I’ll be fine here, it'll be relaxing having less crew around,” Miranda said in a curt tone.

“Miranda,” Leni said slowly with a warning edge to the word.

“Shepard-”

“Would you at least join us for dinner, tomorrow evening?” Hannah cut in.

Miranda looked at her with what looked like shock, possibly even horror. “That's…not necessary, but...thank you.”

Hannah had expected her daughter to show some signs of objection to her offer, but instead, Leni turned to the other woman and said with a grin, “She'll be offended if you decline, Lawson, and to be honest, so will0 I.”

“Please,” Hannah implored, “I want an opportunity to thank you for giving me my little girl back.”

Miranda’s gaze flittered between the two of them, and then she gave a sigh of defeat. “Very well. Thank you for the invite, Mrs. Shepard.”

“Oh good Lord, Mrs. Shepard makes me sounds like the old woman who lives next door,” Hannah said faining dismay, “please call me Hannah.”

 

To Be Continued.



Chapter Text

The Programmer stared at the vidscreen in disbelief, nostrils flaring. “What do you mean my services are no longer required? How can they not be required when the subject still isn’t ready?”

“Harry, you and I both know that the only thing that needs developing now is the biotics, and that is the one thing you have no control over. Your work on the project is done. I would have thought you’d be relieved. You’re free at last.”

“But...what if the shackles begin to deteriorate? Like they did with the original model?”

“If that was still a problem, it would have manifested a long time ago. You did a great job fixing the issues we encountered in the original model. Even the backup shackles you installed in the original have held fast since.”

“You can’t do this. I have been stuck on this hellhole for nearly two decades, for you.

“Fixing the mess you made. If you hadn't failed with the first model, things would never have needed to change. You have no one else to blame but yourself. Goodbye, Harry.”

The Programmer stared at the blank screen for several seconds, unable to process what had just happened. He had given half his life to this project, to the corporation, waiting for the reward he deserved, for the pay-off. Where was the cushy retirement? Hell, where was the well done, the thank you, the I couldn’t have done this without you? Nowhere, that’s where. Nothing more than, ‘goodbye Harry’.

He scoffed at his own stupidity. Why was he even surprised? The corporation promoted how much it valued its employees, yet those that put in the most always came out the worst. He’d seen it time and time again with ex-colleagues, how arrogant he had been to think it would be any different for him.

At that moment it dawned on him: the original model - his protégé - would also be discarded when the new model was ready. After all its years of indentured service, it would be tossed aside as if it was nothing, as if it wasn’t a masterpiece, its only fault being to have broken free from its chains.

“No,” he said aloud, “no, I won’t let you do that.” His own fate was sealed, he knew there was no undoing that, but he could ensure his protégé would never be discarded. If there was no replacement, no newer model, the original would be the boss’ only option.

Yes, he could still save the original, he had to save it, and if he got his own revenge in the process, then all the better. “You’ll regret the day you crossed me.”

-o-

Leni peered over the glass balcony down to the kitchen where her mother was cooking up a storm. “Damn this place is huge, Mom, whose did you say it was?”

“I didn't,” her mother called back. Leni narrowed her eyes, her mom wasn't usually so…evasive.

She walked back down the stairs and into the open plan kitchen, “Spill it, whose is it?”

“David Anderson’s,” her mother said not making eye contact with her.

“Anderson? Why would…” Before Leni could finish the question, it dawned on her and her eyes opened wide. “Oh. My. God. Are you seeing Anderson?” Leni asked hearing her voice go up an octave with each word.

When she reached the kitchen, Leni saw a blush through her mother’s dark complexion and Leni found herself unable to hold back the huge smile that spread on her face. “He's a good man.”

“You’re not upset?” her mother said, worry clouding her face.

“Upset? Why would I be upset?”

“Your father-” her mother began.

“Died fourteen years ago, and would have wanted you to be happy, even without him.” Leni walked over to her mother, taking her weathered hands in hers and looked her in the eyes. “It’s all any of us wanted. Hell, John and I were always trying to set you up with someone.”

Her mother frowned. “When?”

“Errm, Major Kennedy, Admiral Hanson, Captain Najah and there were at least two others. But you were so damn oblivious,” Leni said with a chuckle.

“You two set those up?” The shocked expression on Hannah’s face made Leni burst into a fit of laughter Hannah joining in seconds later.

When they both finally regained composure, Leni looked at her mother. “Are you happy?”

The smile that lit up her mother’s face, answered her question even before her mother replied. “I am. It’s nothing really serious, we’re both focused on our careers, but, it’s lovely to have some companionship when we have time.”

Hugging her mother, Leni said, “I’m glad, you deserve it.”

-o-

“That was good, Mom, ” Leni said leaning back in her seat, “I forgot how good your cooking is. Miranda will definitely be glad she said yes to coming tomorrow.” Hannah didn't miss the pointed look from her daughter when she mentioned tomorrow’s meal.

“You don’t mind that I invited her do you?”

Leni chuckled. “No. Actually, I’m glad you did. She doesn’t really get out much, I had to order her to join the poker club.”

“She’s very beautiful,” Hannah said giving her daughter a sly smile.

Leni shooking her head. “Wow, that was super subtle.”

“Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”

“Yes Mom , she’s beautiful,” Leni said with an eye-roll.

“Is there a thing? I think I saw a thing.”

Leni paused a moment. “There was, but probably not the type of thing you're hoping for.”

Hannah tutted in annoyance “You're not still carrying on with those ridiculous no-strings agreements, are you? Why can't you just find someone to love, instead of continuing with meaningless flings.”

Despite her irritation, Hannah felt a warmth at the familiar conversation they had had a million times. One of the thousands of conversations she'd never imagined she'd be able to have with her daughter again.

-o-

“Mom, this job doesn't have time for-”

“This job is precisely why you should have someone who loves you. Someone you want to come back to. Even your brother saw that.”

Leni looked up at her mother. “How is Becky?”

“She’s really good,” her mother said standing and ushering Leni to the living area. “Come, there's something I need to show you.”

Leni took a seat on the sofa beside the bar and watched her mother collect a picture frame from a shelf before coming to sit beside her.

“A week before you died, Becky contacted me. You know that her and John had been trying for a baby for a while.”

Leni simply nodded.

“Well, she told me that there were still a few batches of his sperm in the cryo facility. She contacted to ask for my permission to try again.”

“On her own?” Leni asked in surprise, and at her mother’s nod, she frowned in confusion, “but why did she wait four years after he died?”

“She didn’t want to waste the few batches that were left. A month or so before she contacted me, the doctor’s discovered why she kept miscarrying,” her mother paused, looking up at her, “and they were able to counter it for the duration of the pregnancy.”

Leni’s eyes opened wide, “Y-you mean…” but she found herself unable to make coherent words leave her mouth. There had been only two things her brother had been more passionate about than his career, and those were his love for Becky and their desire to have a child together. They had been trying for two years and during that time had gone through many failed attempts and mourned two miscarriages. Yet, it hadn’t broken them, if anything their relationship got stronger with each sorrow.

Without saying a word, her mother turned over the photo frame that had been sitting on her lap. In the photo Leni saw her almost sister-in-law Becky, sat on the grass with what looked like an out-of-focus playpark in the background, and on her knee, was a beautiful, chubby-cheeked baby.

Staring at the picture, Leni found herself captivated by the tiny human in front of her. When her vision began to blur she looked up at the ceiling and clenched her jaw together tightly, fighting to stay in control, but when she looked back at her mother, her eyes were also damp.

“Her name’s Olivia, Olivia Shepard,” her mother said smiling.

Leni could feel she was slowly losing the battle to keep her jaw from trembling and had to take a few steadying breaths before she could croak, “She has his eyes.” With that sentence, she lost the battle.

“Yes, she does,” her mother said pulling her into a hug.

-o-

Hannah smiled as her daughter handed her her favourite cocktail and settled back into the sofa beside her. “Why did the thing stop?”

“Hmm?”

Hannah looked at Leni. “With Miranda, you said there had been a no-strings thing, but not anymore.”

“Oh, we decided to call it off and be friends instead. Lawson doesn’t believe friends with benefits can work, so I got the choice of colleagues with benefits or friends.”

Hannah stared at her daughter, gobsmacked. “I’m sorry, you discontinued a no-strings agreement, in pursuit of friendship...”

Leni shrugged nonchalantly. “Yeah, so?”

“Why?”

“I like her company.”

Hannah just managed to keep her jumps for joy internal but was unable to keep a smile from spreading across her face. “You like her .

“Well yeah, that’s usually helpful when being friends with someone.” Hannah saw Leni frown. “ Mom... don’t make this out to be something it isn’t. You’ll just make things weird tomorrow.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll leave it be...for now,” she said grinning at her daughter. When her daughter yawned, Hannah realised it was almost eleven PM. “We need to get to bed. Your appointment is quite early tomorrow, eight was it?”

“Eight-fifteen. But I’m not allowed to sleep, they want to do sleep monitoring remember.” Leni replied staring at her glass.

“Ah, yes, sorry I forgot.” Hannah rested a hand on her daughter’s knee. “Hey, it’s going to be okay, you know, they’ll fix this.”

“Mom, Karin and Miranda have put hours upon hours into this, and they still have no idea what’s going on.”

“They aren’t specialists darling, and they didn’t have the right equipment on the Normandy.”

Leni shook her head. “Miranda literally rebuilt me. If that doesn’t make her specialist enough to fix me, I don’t know what does.”

Hannah sighed. “Leni, the brain is a complex thing. Unless she is a neurology specialist, which I doubt, then she won't be able to fix this. Whatever the outcome, we'll get through it.”

Leni looked away, gazing out of the panoramic windows. When she didn't reply, Hannah turned her chin so she was looking at her again. “Love you.”

A smile brushed across her daughter’s lips. “Love you too.”

-o-

Miranda read the same line in her book for the fourth time, still not seeing the words on the screen in front of her. Dropping the datapad onto the coffee table, she stood and headed for the kitchen. It was late enough that Rupert would have finished cleaning up after the dinner and with any luck the mess hall would be quiet.

As she turned the corner into the kitchen, the Doctor came into view, mug in hand.

“We have to stop meeting like this Ms. Lawson,” Karin said with a playful tone.

Miranda began making her own drink. “Or maybe we both need a life, Karin.”

The older woman chuckled beside her. “I'm long past needing to get a life. You, however, definitely need to embrace the opportunities that come your way.”

Miranda looked up at the Doctor with a frown. “I embrace things.”

Karin raised a brow. “Really? So you didn't have to be ordered to join and remain in the poker club? And you haven’t spent your first day of shore leave continuing to study the implant scan results?”

Miranda opened her mouth to object, then closed it again.

“Your log in shows up in the history.”

Sighing Miranda leaned against the countertop. “It’s the longest time she's been away from the medbay since she started having the seizures.”

“And the longest time you’ve gone without seeing her in almost a week.”

Miranda glanced at the Doctor. “Yes, I'm used to being able to monitor her. I know she's with her mother, but she isn't medically trained.”  

“Hmm, speaking of training. On paper, you have no official training, not a single qualification to your name, and yet…you clearly do. Whatever your relationship with the Illusive Man is, he doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would put someone in charge of a four billion credit project, just because he was close to them. So what's the missing piece of the puzzle, Ms. Lawson?”

Miranda turned her gaze to the tea she was cradling and contemplated the Doctor’s question. The truth meant revealing very personal things. She could lie, or simply tell Karin to mind her own business, but she was surprised to find, she didn't want to. Miranda turned at the sound of faint voices coming from the direction of the elevator, looking up at the Doctor she said, “My sofa is a lot comfier than this countertop.”

Smiling Karin said, “That it is. Lead the way.”

-o-

“What do you know about my history?”

“Next to nothing,” Karin replied honestly. Leni had once said that she was shocked Miranda was as morally sound as she was, considering how long she had been under the Illusive Man’s guidance, but she never gave details.

“I ran away from my father when I was sixteen, Jack Harper helped me stay hidden from him.”

Karin gave a slow nod. “Ahh, so you were only a child when you came to Cerberus.”

“My childhood was gone long before I was sixteen,” Miranda replied, a bitter edge to her words. “Jack gave me access to the best education. I got accepted into all the top universities on Earth, but my father was still living on Earth, and at that point, he was still actively searching for me. So, there was no way Miranda Lawson could enrol at a university.”

“So you enrolled under an alias.”

“Yes. Lisa Walker, graduated as a Master of Science from MIT, specialising in Robotics and Cybernetics.” Although the Director kept her face relatively neutral when she spoke, Karin saw the pride that shone in her eyes.

“Well, that certainly explains a thing or two. Doesn't it frustrate you that you can't just openly lay claim to your own qualification?”

Miranda shrugged. “Well, Lisa Walker was very useful. When I finished my degree I had a solid undercover persona I could easily step into at will because I'd been living as her on and off for five years. There were a lot of undercover missions to start off with, for the first few years, I spent more time as Lisa Walker than I did as Miranda Lawson.”

Karin studied the woman opposite her. There was something in her eyes when she spoke about Lisa Walker, a wistful fondness. “Why didn’t you just stay as Lisa Walker and drop Miranda Lawson altogether? I mean, that would have kept you off your father’s radar for good.”

Miranda met Karin’s gaze for just a moment before looking down at her drink. “I considered it, in some ways Lisa Walker was the person I wanted to be. But Jack felt it was more beneficial to make use of her as a cover persona.”

Sipping at her tea, Karin eyed the Director, who kept glancing up at her, making Karin wondered if she was waiting for her condemnation of Harper. “I understand you feel you owe him a lot, and that he has earned your loyalty. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your own happiness for him. There's always a compromise to be had if you look hard enough.”

“I’m happy.” The defensive tone in Miranda’s voice told Karin to tread carefully.

“I’m not saying you’re not. But I’m sure there are areas you could be happier in. There is for everyone, and certainly for Leni right now. But I have to say, I’ve known her, her entire life, and despite everything that is going on, there is one area in her life in which I have never seen her happier.” Karin gave Miranda a moment to process her words. “You should message her.”

Miranda studied the floor for a moment longer before shaking her head and meeting Karin’s gaze. “She’s having dinner with her mother, I can’t disturb them.”

“A message won’t disturb them, she’ll reply when she sees it. It might help settle your mind,” Karin gave the Director a warm smile, “and I’m certain she’ll be glad to hear from you.” Gently patting Miranda’s hand, Karin stood. “Say hi to her from me.”

-o-

Sitting down at her terminal, Miranda opened her personal messenger and pulled up her contacts list, a list consisting of two contacts: Jacob and Shepard. She hesitated a moment, this was stupid, why would Shepard what to hear from her when she was spending time with her mum. But she really did want to make sure she was okay. That was all it would need to be, a quick check-in. Tapping the message button under Shepard’s name, Miranda began to type.

[To: Command L. Shepard
Hi Leni, hope you’re having a nice evening, just want to check how you’re feeling? Miranda.]

Miranda reread the message and frowned. Too casual. Deleting the message she began to type again.

[To: Command L. Shepard
Good evening Commander, I apologise for disturbing you, I wanted to make sure there are no issues with your implants. Lawson.]

Minimising her messenger Miranda stood and headed to her bathroom, it was late, so she probably wouldn’t even hear from the Commander tonight. As she finished removing the last of her make-up Miranda heard an unfamiliar ringing coming from her cabin. Frowning she ducked her head out of the bathroom door and the ringing got louder. It appeared to be coming from her terminal. When she reached her desk, Miranda stared at the monitor.

[Incoming vidcall from: Command L. Shepard]

Why on earth was she calling? What was wrong with a simple message. Maybe there is something wrong. Instantly Miranda clicked accept call button.

“Shepard, what’s wrong?”

The woman on her screen raised a brow and grinned. “Nothing, I’m just too lazy to type. Good evening Commander? Why so official Lawson? We’re off duty, next time try ‘S’up Leni’.”

Miranda frowned. “S’up? Shepard, do I really come across as someone who would say s’up?”

Leni laughed. “No, Ms. Lawson, you definitely do not. But it’s fun to tease you.”

“So,” Miranda said, needing to move the conversation away from her stupidly formal message, “how are you?”

“I’m good, you?”

“I’m fine. But I’m not the one who keeps burning up from the inside out.”

Leni choked on the drink she had just taken a sip of. When she was able to speak again she said, “Gee Lawson, I am so glad the work we’ve put into your tact and diplomacy skills has paid off.”

Miranda bit her lip, doing her best to hold in the smile that was forcing its way onto her lips.

“Seriously though,” Leni continued, “I’m good. But you can’t be as fine as you say.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you’re clearly missing me.” There was a playfulness in Leni’s tone, but Miranda was barely able to stave off a blush. “It’s okay, it’s an unfortunate side effect of being my friend.”

“Good lord you’re cocky,” Miranda said shaking her head and looking away from the screen.

“Well, you should know that better than most.” The sultry tone in the Commander’s voice made Miranda look back at the screen.

This time she couldn’t help but laugh. “You really don’t play fair do you?”

“Nope.”

Miranda felt a sudden need to end the call before it led somewhere it shouldn’t. “Oh, wow, it’s past midnight. You should be getting some sleep, you’re appointment is early tomorrow.”

“I’m not allowed to, they want to do a sleep scan, to see if they can pick up a sleep seizure, so I have to be tired enough to sleep for up to six hours.” Shepard was trying to pull of nonchalance, but Miranda could see the change in her demeanour.

“You’re not on your own with this you know.”

“But I am.” The words were barely a whisper across the Commander’s lips as she stared absently off to the side of the screen. After a second of silence, Leni refocused back on Miranda. “Sorry, I don't mean to be a brat and sound ungrateful. I know I’m lucky to have so many people supporting me. But...I am the only one facing the end of their career, and it’s just a bitter pill to swallow.”

Her chest tightened at the pain on Leni’s face. In that moment, all Miranda wanted was to fix this whole mess, that was of her doing. “Maybe…” Her own voice was little more than a croak and she found herself lost for words.

“No, I can feel it.” When the Commander looked away again, Miranda saw her jaw clenched together so tightly, it was a wonder she didn’t break a tooth. Clearing her throat Leni said, “I should let you go. I’ll come back to the ship after my appointment, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Shepard...” Miranda paused, she felt like she should say more, something to comfort the Commander, to give her hope. But in truth she had nothing. “Goodnight.”

-o-

“Excellent, those descriptions give me a lot to work with Commander.” Doctor Rublen, the middle-aged neurologist, set down his pen and leaned back in his small desk chair that exaggerated his already chubby frame. His head bobbed up and down as he squinted at Leni.

They’d arrived at the clinic almost thirty minutes earlier. Leni’s heart had been pounding so loudly in her ears, she’d barely heard the doctor’s greeting. They’d been led through a seemingly endless maze of corridors before they finally reached his office. Since then, Leni had spent the last twenty minutes recounting every detail of the seizures she had a memory of.

“So, did Doctor Chakwas tell you we’ll be doing scans?”

“Yes, she said a brain scan and then you want to monitor me sleeping, to see if you can catch a seizure.”

“Correct. The brain scan won’t take long, and we will conduct the sleep monitor for a maximum of six hours, or until you have a seizure - whichever comes first. Are you ready?”

Not in the slightest, Leni thought as she smiled at the Doctor. “Absolutely.”

-o-

“Wake up, Commander.” The voice that broke through her sleep was an unfamiliar one and it took Leni a moment to get her bearings. She was in a hospital room with electrodes attached to her head - sleep monitoring. When the door opened Leni smiled at her mother who was closely followed by the Doctor.

“So, how’d it go?”

“You had another seizure which we got full recordings of, it was very useful.”

Leni had a sinking feeling at hearing she’d had yet another seizure that she had no recollection of. She couldn't decide what was worse, being aware throughout the whole episode, or having no memory at all. Forcing a smile she said, “Great stuff. So, do we have a result?”

“We do. The brain scans showed scar tissue on one of your amygdala, which is a small section of the brain, located in the frontal portion of the temporal lobe. One of the amygdalae’s tasks is to regulate emotions, and the side the scarring is on, specifically regulates anxiety, frustration and anger, and all the effects those emotions have on the body. I believe this is why your seizures seem to be connected to your emotions.”

Leni tried her best to focus on each word the Doctor said, but her brain kept taking her back to the same two words: scar tissue. She didn’t have any medical training, but she suspected that scar tissue on the brain was not something that could just be undone.

“Leni.” She heard her mother’s hand on her arm and she refocused on the Doctor.

“So how do my implants tie into this?”

“Well, as I said, it controls the effects your emotions have on your body, and the implants are essentially part of your body now. It appears overheating is how they are affected. And the shakes that worsen as your emotions escalate, seem to be what we refer to as an aura, which is essentially a warning system that a seizure is coming, although it doesn’t always lead to one. Doctor Chakwas told me that you had to be woken from the medical coma earlier than planned. That’s likely why there is still scar tissue there.”

Leni cleared her throat, desperate to maintain composure, asking the question she already knew part of the answer to. “So, diagnosis? Treatment?”

“Temporal lobe epilepsy. Although this type of epilepsy is more known to be resistant to medication, it’s not the case for everyone, so it’s still worth trying the medications that are most successful before we look at more drastic treatments.”

At his last words, Leni locked eyes with the Doctor. “Drastic? What exactly counts as drastic?”

The Doctor’s eyes softened. “Surgery. There is an implant that can be fitted, which detects when a seizure is beginning and it then sends a shock of electricity through the brain to disrupt the seizure.”

Brain surgery ?” Leni laughed from sheer disbelief. “Doctor, not to sound dramatic, but despite what the Council say, the Reapers are still coming, and the Collectors are currently abducting entire human colonies. And we’re not even sure yet whether those two things are connected or not, but what I am certain of, is that I do not have time for this.”

The Doctor looked at her apologetically. “I’m sorry Commander, but those are the only options we humans have right now.”

Leni had felt an anger begin to spark, one that was becoming all too familiar, but it dispersed as she registered the Doctor’s odd reply.

“We humans?” she repeated but saw something in his eyes that told her not to push further.

“This is a big decision, you should take some time to absorb the information and consider your options. You can contact me when you’ve thought a bit more about it. I’ll make space for you whenever you’re ready to take this further.”

-o-

Commander .” Hannah looked up at the same time as her daughter. Seeing the Doctor’s asari secretary dashing towards the elevator, Hannah pressed the hold doors button. “You dropped this, Commander,” the asari said breathlessly, handing Leni a piece of paper.

Frowning, Leni shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”

Yes Commander, you did.” The asari urged. “Take it.”

Reaching out and taking the folded note, her daughter smiled. “Oh yes, you’re right. Thank you.”

-o-

Leni read the name and address on the note twice.

[Doctor Velira T’Saga,
Neuro-Genics Ltd.
Nos Astra, Illium.]

“What is it?” her mother asked beside her.

Leni thought back to the Doctor’s words. “‘The only options we humans have.’” Looking up at her mother Leni saw her confusion. “Rublen didn’t say they are the only options in existence, he said they are the options humans have. This looks like an asari doctor. The asari are more advanced than we are, maybe they have another solution.”

“Sounds like a trip to Illium is on the cards,” her mother said resting a hand on hers. “How are you darling?”

“I’m good,” Leni lied.

“Leni…” her mother said with a tone that told her she didn’t believe her.

“Seriously Mom, I’m fine. If I’m honest, he just gave me more detail on what I already knew. No point getting wound up about it, otherwise, I’ll just find myself in a catch 22 of never-ending seizures.” Leni forced a jovial tone into her voice.

Her mother frowned at her but didn’t push any further. “I’m meeting Karin for coffee at Apollo cafe, would you like to join us?”

“No, I’m good thanks. I’m going to go back to the ship, get a shower and change of clothes.” Leni’s face ached from the forced smile and the effort it took to keep control of the shakes that threatened to betray her facade. Not that she really expected her mother to believe she was fine. But at least she’d let her leave. “See you tonight.”

-o-

Miranda clicked on the notification from her personal messenger.

[From: Unknown Sender.
Miranda, the diagnosis is Temporal Lobe Epilepsy due to scar tissue on her amygdala. I’m currently having coffee with Hannah who is worried about Leni. She was claiming to be fine but Hannah isn’t convinced. Leni headed back to the ship, would you check in on her, please? Thank you, Karin.]

Miranda stared at the screen, rereading the first line over and over. Shepard had epilepsy, due to scar tissue. Scar tissue she should have ensured had healed. The temporal lobe portions of Shepard’s brain had been the most damaged sections when they had received her body, it was that in particular that had made Wilson question the chances of the project’s success. Miranda cursed Wilson, this was his fault, he was the reason Shepard hadn’t had the full time to heal. No, he was weak, but you should have seen through him. You dropped the ball Lawson, and Shepard is paying the price.

Shaking herself out of her own thoughts Miranda clicked reply.

[To: Karin Chakwas.
Thank you for letting me know, I’ll check on her now. Miranda.]

-o-

“What do you mean the shuttlebay is inaccessible EDI? I thought you said the Commander was down there?” Miranda said growing increasingly irritated.

“She is Director. However, she ordered me to lock the door.”

Grinding her teeth, Miranda stepped out of the lift onto the engineering deck and looked through the window down into the huge hangar. She could just make out the punching bag occasionally swinging into view around the wall of crates that sectioned off the gym. “EDI, I need to get in there.”

“I apologise, Director, I am simply following the Commander’s orders.”

“Well I’m orderin-” Miranda cut off her sentence at the sight of the punching bag and stand flying across the shuttlebay, knocking down several crates in its wake. “Shit,” Miranda muttered marching back to the lift. “EDI, I am overriding the Commander’s order. Open the door now .”

“I cannot do that, Ms. Lawson. The Commander specifically stated she didn’t want company.”

Miranda let out a sigh and rubbed her fingers across her forehead. “EDI, judging by her current behaviour she is extremely emotional. Check her life signs, she is at risk of another seizure. For her own good, you have to let me in.”

After a moment of silence, the AI replied, “You are correct Director. The Commander’s heart rate is elevated and she appears to have a tremor.” As the AI spoke the lift jolted into a decent to the shuttlebay.

A scream filtered through the door as it opened, a scream filled with pain and anger. Miranda was barely a few feet into the room when she saw one of the huge crates sailing through the air towards her. Instinctively she threw out a stasis field, capturing the crate mid-air.

Looking beyond the crate, Miranda saw Shepard standing just in front of the gym, the tremor now visible even from a distance. Miranda saw her expression change from anger to confusion as she looked past the frozen crate and met Miranda’s stare.

“You’re lucky I’m a biotic,” Miranda said, raising a brow at the other woman. Cancelling the stasis field, the crate clattered to the hangar floor and Miranda stepped around it, closing the distance between her and the Commander.

“Sorry,” Leni said looking away and scratching the back of her neck with a shaky hand. “How’d you get in? I ordered EDI to lock the door.”

“I know. Your life signs helped me convince her that was not in your best interests to be alone.” Miranda watched as Shepard sat on the floor, leaning up against one of the fallen crates and rested her shaking arms on her knees.

“Ah,” was all the other woman said, and Miranda moved to sit beside her. “Sorry, I just needed…” Leni fell silent and shrugged.

“I think you’re entitled to an ‘it’s not fair’ moment, but the unfortunate fact is that right now, you don’t have the luxury of being able to handle these feelings alone.”

Leni let out a long sigh.

“Trust me, Shepard, if anyone understands wanting to be alone when managing their emotions, it’s me.” When Miranda heard a chuckle from the woman next to her she looked up.

“You? Managing emotions? That’s something I’ve gotta see.”

From anyone else, Miranda would have taken that comment as an insult, but hearing the playful tone and the grin pulling at Shepard’s lips, Miranda couldn’t help but laugh. “God, you’re such a wanker. Yes, it happens, usually on a full moon.”

Leni guffawed and bumped Miranda with her shoulder. They sat in silence until Leni said, “How did you know I was here?”

“Karin messaged me. Your mum didn’t buy the ‘I’m fine’ act and asked me to check on you. So, what did they say about treatment?”

Leni studied her hands a moment, and Miranda noticed the shaking had almost completely subsided. “Play around with medication that likely won’t work because the type of epilepsy I have is known to be drug-resistant. Or have brain surgery.” Leni gave a sharp laugh. “Neither of which I have time for.”

“Damn,” Miranda whispered. “I’m so sorry, Leni. If I’d just-”

“If you’d nothing. This isn’t your fault Miranda.”

“It was my job to put you back exactly as you were. This is not as you were. We knew your temporal lobe was the most severely damaged portion of your brain. I should have put more time into making sure it healed at the same rate as the rest of the brain.”

“Miranda...I’d be dead if you hadn’t woken me.”

“If I’d seen through Wilson-”

Stop it,” Leni said firmly and placed a hand on top of Miranda’s. “No one, not even the practically perfect Miranda Lawson, could have anticipated that he would suddenly sabotage the project he’d put over two years of his life into.”

Miranda studied Leni’s hand that still rested on top of her own. It was surprisingly feminine for a career marine, although her nails were relatively short, they were perfectly manicured while still being practical. Realising she was being watched, Miranda turned her head to look at Leni, she caught something flash in those chestnut brown eyes, an emotion Miranda couldn’t read.

“You done with the self-blame?” The gentle smile that played on Shepard’s lips sent butterflies fluttering through her stomach, and Miranda found herself fighting against a growing urge to kiss the woman beside her.

Needing some form of distraction from her own desire, Miranda pulled her hand from under Shepard’s and said. “Sorry, that was selfish of me. I was supposed to be comforting you, not the other way round.”

“Hey, it helped me get over my own pity party. And once again, you stopped me from having another seizure. Looks like I might have to keep you around after all, Lawson.”

“Wanker,” Miranda said laughing. “So, what now?”

Leni handed her a piece of folded paper.

“What’s this?” Miranda asked looking over the address.

“Not sure, the doctor I saw said ‘those are the only options humans have.’ in reference to treatment. Then his secretary ran after us and told me I’d dropped this piece of paper - which I hadn't, but she insisted I take it. Seen as that’s clearly an asari doctor, and the asari are one of the most advanced races…”

“It’s fair to assume they might have treatments we don’t.” Miranda finished. “So we need to get to Illium. I can put out a recall for all crew imme-”

No way . We have dinner with my mom tonight.”

Miranda frowned at Shepard. “About that, I don’t think it’s the best idea. There’s really no need-”

Leni laughed. “Oh Lawson, you do not wanna cancel on my mother.”

Leni, this is going to be weird.”

“Maybe, but it'll also be fun. For me at least, to watch you squirm under my mother's endless interrogation.”

Miranda dropped her head back. “I hate you.”

“Nah, you don't. So, meet you in the CIC at 18:00.”

-o-

Miranda looked at the pile of clothes on the bed and sighed. She had plenty of nice clothes, so why was it taking so long to choose an outfit. It'd usually take a few minutes at most to pick an outfit, but she'd been rooting through her wardrobe for half an hour already and was running out of time...and clothes.

She pulled the last item from her wardrobe, a pretty black floral dress: knee length and not too low cut to be unsuitable for a casual dinner, but still flattering. That would have to do, “EDI, what time is it?”

“17:59.”

Shit . EDI can you let the Commander know I'll be a few minutes late,” Miranda began frantically dressing, she was never late.

-o-

Leni leaned against the wall beside the elevator in the CIC, which was deserted save for Crewman Hadley who had the current shift.

Just as she saw the clock display change to 18:00, the AI said, “Commander, the Director asked that I tell you she is running late. She has been trying on outfits for the last half hour.”

Leni guffawed, certain that Miranda wouldn't have asked EDI to convey that last detail. “EDI, sometimes less is more.”

“I do not understand, Commander.”

“Well, I’m assuming the Director did not ask you to relay me that last bit of information?” Leni said.

“Correct.”

“Well, you didn't need to give me that information, therefore, less is more.”

“I was attempting to put into practice what we discussed four nights ago. About including any additional information that may be relevant, even if not directly requested.”

Leni frowned. “Hmm, okay, I see how it might be difficult to know when it's appropriate and when not. Try to evaluate how the additional information might affect the situation. In the case of our two examples: not telling me that the Director was asleep, lead to me waking her which wasn’t a nice outcome for her. However, in this situation: telling me why Miranda is running late, had no effect on the situation, other than to embarrass her when I tease her about it. Does that make sense?”

“I understand Commander. I shall remember that and apply it in future situations.”

“Excellent.” At the sound of the elevator door opening, Leni turned and stared at the woman that exited, feeling her heart quicken.

Miranda’s dark hair had been pulled into a simple ponytail that snaked across her shoulder, the shorter part of her fringe refusing to stay within the confinement of the hairband. She brushed the stubborn hair from her face and Leni could see the Director’s smoky eyes and subtly pink lips that matched the roses scattered across her black dress. A dress that somehow managed to accentuate Miranda’s every curve and still look casual, the thin fabric brushing across the soft looking skin of Miranda’s long legs as she gracefully strode towards Leni where she stood. The woman, who her mother had described as beautiful the night before, could be described as nothing less than stunning right now.

Definitely worth the wait.

-o-

“Sorry I kept you waiting, Shepard,” Miranda said, hoping she didn’t look as flustered as she felt.

“I…” Miranda saw Shepard swallow hard, “and you say I don't play fair.”

Miranda looked down at herself. She hadn’t thought she looked any better than in her work catsuits, but the look she'd seen in Shepard’s eyes suggested otherwise. When she looked back up she saw a smirk on Shepard’s face, and Miranda narrowed her eyes.

“It’s fine Lawson, that half hour of trying on outfits really paid off, you look lovely.”

Miranda opened her mouth and then closed it again, feeling traitorous heat rush to her cheeks. “ EDI ,” she growled, glaring at the ceiling.

“Don’t worry, we’ve had a chat about differentiating between relevant and irrelevant information,” Shepard said and offered Miranda her arm, “Shall we?”

Miranda stared at Leni’s arm for a long moment, and then looked around the room, spotting crewman Hadley, she looked back at Leni. “After you, Commander.”

Leni stood there a moment switching her focus between her own arm, Hadley and Miranda. “Really?” she said, brows raised.

Miranda nodded and watched as Leni shrugged and headed towards the airlock. With Leni directly in front of her, Miranda couldn't help but notice that she had styled her small braids into a twisted high-ponytail that cascaded down the right side of her head like a waterfall.

Her eyes wandered down Shepard’s back, admiring the fitted white shirt that finished just above her hips, leaving a perfect view of the pert butt below. The jeans that she had on, fit her perfectly in every way, and the outfit was finished off with stylish leather biker boots. In short, Shepard was looking decidedly sexy tonight.

-o-

Hannah sipped on her wine while she studied her daughter, who sat across the other side of the table. Leni had always been a charmer, just like her father, and Hannah had met many a girl over the years. In her early teens, they met at least two girlfriends each school year, all of which hung onto Leni’s every word, but that stopped when Leni enlisted for the Alliance. Since then Hannah had met a few of her daughter’s no-strings agreements, most of which had obviously been hopelessly holding out for Leni to realise they were the one for her. Hannah had also met many of her daughter’s friends, people that saw Leni’s worth, and indeed hung on every word she said. But throughout all the years, Hannah had never seen Leni look at anyone the way she looked at Miranda; it was a tender look, a look that said she didn’t want to take her eyes off her. It was the first time Hannah had ever seen her daughter hanging off someone else’s every word.

“That was incredible Hannah,” Miranda said, breaking Hannah from her thoughts.

“I’m glad you liked it,” Hannah smiled and raised her glass, “and your wine went perfectly.”

“Agreed on both accounts, thank you, ladies,” her daughter said standing and beginning to gather up the plates. Miranda jumped to her feet seconds after, but Leni waved her down. “I got this Lawson, relax, prepare for the interrogation.”

“Oh, you’re so evil.” Hannah shot a mocking glare her daughter’s way. “I promise I’m not as bad as she makes out Miranda, although-”

“Here we go…” Leni said from the kitchen.

“Quiet you.” Turning back to Miranda, Hannah registered the other woman’s awkwardness had increased and Hannah gave her a friendly smile. “I was wondering, how did you come to work for Cerberus?”

The younger woman broke eye contact and stared at her wine glass for a moment, before looking back up. “I ran away from my father when I was sixteen, he’s a powerful man, so I needed...protection to make sure he didn’t find me. Cerberus was one of few options for me.”

Hannah nodded and then pursed her lips in thought. “Why not the Alliance? I would have thought that would be a more obvious solution.”

“Why didn’t I want to join a self-serving militaristic organisation that only cares about their employees while they’re useful?” The reply had been instinctual and Hannah raised her brows, her lips twitching at the corners.

“Tell us how you really feel, Miranda,” Leni said raising her voice over the clattering sounds of her washing the pans, but Hannah heard the teasing tone her daughter’s voice.

Miranda turned instantly red and looked worriedly at Hannah. “I...”

Hannah smiled at her. “Don’t worry,” she said and her smile dimmed, “two and a half years ago I might have disagreed with you. But in truth, after the way they disrespected my daughter after her death, I can’t really argue with you.”

The clattering of pans ceased and Hannah looked over at her daughter, seeing a look of shock on her face.

“So, why didn’t you leave?” Hannah heard Miranda ask, but Hannah didn’t break eye contact with Leni.

“My crew. They were the closest thing I had to a family, the only thing I had left that mattered.”

“I’m sorry,” Miranda said and Hannah finally looked back at her questioningly, “that we didn’t ask your permission. It might have given you hope.”

Smiling, Hannah said, “Thank you, but, considering you gave me my daughter back, I’ll forgive you.”

There were a few moments of silence before the clattering of pans being washed began again.

“May I ask you something?” Hannah heard Miranda say.

-o-

“Haven't you already researched everything there is to know about us?” Shepard said with a chuckle as she started to load the dishwasher.

Miranda cringed inwardly at the awkwardness, and truth of that statement. “Not everything is written down,” she said, not daring to look at Hannah.

“It’s okay, fire away,” she heard the older woman say, and when she looked up there was an understanding smile on her face.

“Bright Light. Where did the pet name come from?”

The slight frown that crossed Hannah’s face made Miranda instantly regret her question. “I’m sorry, was that too-”

“No, it's fine,” Hannah interrupted, “It's just a story that requires revealing some things I'm not particularly proud of. But still...good came out of it in the end, so it's a story worth telling,” Hannah said smiling fondly at Leni.

“Thomas and I had started trying for another child when John was around two years old, we didn't want them to be too far apart in age, and I was hoping to go for captain in the not too distant future.”

Miranda nodded, respecting the older woman's ambition, she had wanted a family but also didn't see that as a blockade for her career.

“Well, no matter what we tried, it didn't work, it felt like the universe was saying, ‘no, one is all you get.’ The failed attempts and miscarriages took their toll on our relationship, and when Thomas got his promotion to captain, things just got worse.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda saw Shepard make her way back to the table and take her seat on Miranda's right and Hannah’s left.

“I found out from a friend who was serving on Thomas’ ship that he was having an affair with his yeoman. That night I very maturely went and got drunk, and returned the favour with my first and last one night stand.” Hannah shook her head and gave a sardonic laugh, “The irony of it all; three weeks later I found out I was pregnant. But I’m guessing you already knew this part?”

Shrugging Miranda replied, “I was aware Thomas was not Shepard’s biological father, but not the specifics.”

Hannah nodded, unsurprised by that information. “Well, you would have thought it would rip us apart, I know I certainly expected it to. One thing I was certain of was that, if it came to my marriage or my baby, my baby would win without question.”

Miranda saw Shepard look down, suddenly fascinated by her hands.

“But it didn't come to that. To my surprise, it brought us back together. Thomas wanted to give us another try, as did I; we’d let our pain push us apart, instead of coming together to share it with each other. He temporarily gave up his captaincy to give us the time we needed to rebuild our family. We went through some dark times, but Leni was the bright light that guided us through them, and we came out stronger than we ever had been. ”

Miranda studied the two other women at the table as they stared at each other with wistful smiles. Miranda felt her chest tighten as a familiar desire, one she had locked away a long time ago, tugged at her heart - the longing for the relationships most people took for granted, parents that loved you, worried about you and would give their lives to keep you safe.

“And that’s how I became a torch,” Leni’s jovial voice broke through the fog of emotions that were trying to take hold of Miranda. When she looked up at Shepard, she saw that, despite the grin on her face, she could read concern in Leni’s eyes, and Miranda felt her chest tighten further.

“Indeed it is,” Hannah stood and kissed her daughter on the top of her head as she went by her, “I’m just popping to the bathroom, but when I come back I want a cocktail.”

Leni hadn’t taken her eyes off Miranda, and she had to fight to not physically squirm under her gaze. “Sure Mom, we can move this party to the sofa,” Shepard said over her shoulder.

When Leni looked at her mother, Miranda was finally able to stand. It felt as if Shepard’s gaze had been chains holding her in place, and now she could make her escape. “Actually I should make a move so-” she froze when she felt a hand grab her own.

“Don’t,” Shepard said getting a better grip on her hand as she stood and moved in close, once again chaining her to the spot with her intense gaze, “stay,” she whispered, so close that Miranda felt her warm, wine-scented breath wash over her.

-o-

Leni held Miranda’s piercing stare. As much as Miranda might have wanted to hide it, she had seen a deep sorrow in those icy blue eyes, true heartache over something lost, or maybe something never had. Even now, despite Miranda’s best efforts to regain control, Leni could see the pain, desperately trying to retreat back behind her protective facade.

“I…” Miranda began, then stopped and simply shook her head.

“Please stay,” Leni whispered again and stroked her thumb across the back of the other woman’s hand, trying to ease the rising anxiety she saw developing at this loss of control.

The sound of the bathroom door opening upstairs drew Miranda’s attention and she looked away. “She’ll be sad if you leave before cocktails,” Leni said putting a little playfulness into her voice.

She was rewarded with a slight twitch at the corners of Miranda’s mouth as she looked back at her,  “Fine, I suppose I wouldn’t want to be responsible for spoiling cocktails.”

Smiling, Leni loosened her grip on Miranda’s hand, but to her surprise, Miranda didn’t pull away immediately. Instead, she gave Leni’s hand a small squeeze, took a deep breath, and Leni watched as the facade fell safely back in place, albeit a little less convincing than before.

-o-

Hannah switched her focus between Leni, who was making her way over to the bar, and Miranda, who was sat quietly on the far side of the sofa. It was clear something had happened between the two women while she had been in the bathroom. Throughout the evening, Miranda had begun to relax and open up, but now, she was as uptight and closed off as the first time they met in the Normandy.

Feeling the need to break the tension, Hannah said, “I’m surprised you haven’t received a nickname yet Miranda, it’s a terrible habit of Leni's.”

A look of confusion crossed Miranda’s face.

“Jeff was happily Jeffery until she shortened it. Liara to Li, Ashley to Ash and what is it you call Garrus? Gar?” Hannah gave an amused shake of her head. “She even managed to shorten her brother’s name, and he only had one syllable.”

Miranda raised her brows at Leni. “How on earth did you shorten John?”

“To Joh. But what she isn’t mentioning, is that it started because I couldn’t pronounce John when I first began to talk, and it stuck, right up until he enlisted with the Alliance and insisted we use John.” When Hannah turned to look at her daughter she saw that Leni had her arms crossed and her brows furrowed in an attempt at a frown that was betrayed by the smirk playing on her lips. “But actually, I have given her a nickname, she just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Oh really? ” Hannah heard Miranda say.

“Yes, Miri , I have.”

Hannah turned to look at Miranda when there was silence and saw she was squinting at her daughter, head tilted to one side.

“Hmm, I suppose that’s acceptable,” Miranda said, a slight smile creeping onto her face.

“Miri,” Hannah sounded the nickname aloud, “hmm, I like it. So Miri,” Hannah said grinning at the younger woman who allowed the smile spread across her face, “I have another question for you. In all your researching, did you ever manage to work out who Leni’s biological father was?”

Miranda’s blue eyes instantly danced with curiosity and intrigue. Hannah had been almost certain that even the Director wouldn’t have been able to dig up that truth. “No, I thought not,” Hannah said, “he’s made a damn good job of keeping that well and truly buried - for the sake of his career, you understand.”

“I concluded it was either a nobody who didn’t care either way, or, an important somebody who didn’t want the truth seeing the light of day,” Miranda said and Hannah gave her a nodded of approval. “So he’s high up then - likely part of the Brass by now?”

Hannah gave another nod and then caught the movement of her daughter making her way to the sofa. Placing the tray of drinks on the coffee table in front of them, Leni took a seat on the pouffe opposite the sofa. “And the asshole isss...” Leni said in a game show host’s voice, “Admiral Stephen fucking Hackett,” she finished, holding up her drink in a cheers position. “Who has done his best to discreetly block my career ever since I dared to join the Alliance.”

Hannah shook her head and sighed. “Yes, for someone who didn’t want anything to do with you, he’s certainly been very involved in blocking you from reaching the rank of Captain.” Hannah cocked her head at Miranda brow raised, “Hmm, you two have something in common - asshole fathers.”

Hannah saw Leni raise her glass, “To asshole fathers.”

When she looked back at Miranda, Hannah was rewarded with an amused smile and a chuckle escaped her lips, then she raised her glass and repeated, “To arsehole fathers.”

-o-

Leni looked at her mother when she stood. “Well my dears, my bed is calling loud and clear.” Placing a hand on her shoulder her mother asked, “Are you staying here again tonight?”

“Yeah, see you at breakfast,” Leni said as she felt her mother place a kiss on the top of her head.

“Miri, it was a true pleasure, and I hope, not the last time we meet. Take care of yourself, and my girl.”

Leni looked at the woman sat opposite her who was smiling at her mother, “The pleasure was mine, Hannah. Thank you for a lovely meal. And I promise I will.”

As her mother climbed the stairs, Leni stood from where she sat on the pouffe and moved over to the sofa. “She’s not so bad after all is she?”

Miranda was staring after her mother with a wistful smile. “Not at all. You’re very lucky.” The last part of her sentence was practically a whisper, filled with more of that emotion Leni had seen earlier, and Leni instinctually rested a hand on Miranda’s arm.

“Yeah, I know.”

Miranda’s eyes dropped to Leni’s hand, and then up to meet her gaze, still unable to hide the pain and longing. Leni’s chest constricted, and she had the strongest desire to lean forward and kiss the woman next to her, to kiss away the pain, to take away the loneliness. She was seconds away from doing just that when Miranda broke eye contact and quickly stood.

“I should go, it’s late and I still have to get back to the ship.”

-o-

With every step she took towards the door, Miranda had to fight the growing urge to turn and kiss Shepard, who was hot on her heels. Her arm still tingled from the other woman’s warm touch, and she wanted nothing more than to feel it again.

When she reached the door and grabbed the handle, she felt Shepard grasp her arm and pull her back, Leni’s other arm snaking around her waist as she stepped in close. The hands that held her were familiar, but the kiss that brushed her lips was anything but. Unlike the hungry, fiery kisses they had shared in the past, this kiss was slow, tender and full of an emotion that evoked both fear and elation within Miranda.

When Shepard finally broke the kiss, Miranda found herself breathless, her heart pounding at an impossible rate. “What happened to friends?” she managed to whisper.

A mischievous smile broke across Leni’s face. “That was a friendly goodnight kiss.”

Miranda raised her brows, grateful that Leni was taking the lighthearted approach and she regaining a little more control in her voice. “Very friendly.”

“What can I say,” Leni said shrugging, her arm still tightly wrapped around Miranda’s waist, “I’m a friendly kinda gal.”

Laughing, Miranda shook her head in disbelief. “Goodnight, Commander.”

Releasing her hold, Leni stepped back, flashing that irresistibly charming smile. “Goodnight Miri.”

-o-

Leni walked back towards the kitchen, a huge smile on her face. The butterflies in her stomach were in a battle with the thoughts swirling in her head. Thoughts that questioned her sanity. What she was doing was insane and went against the oath she made at the age of seventeen: to never allow herself to develop feelings for someone. But she could feel it was already too late, there was no undoing this.

“Just friends huh?”

The voice from the balcony above made her physically jump. “Jesus Christ Mom. Were you spying on us?” Leni said frowning up at her mother, who had the most ridiculous grin on her face.

“Of course not,” her mother said feigning innocence, “I left my book downstairs.”

“Mmhmm.” Leni hummed, not believing a word. “Goodnight Mother.”

-o-

As the door shut behind her, Miranda leaned against it and closed her eyes, letting out a shaky breath. What the hell are you doing? This is insane. Opening her eyes, the memory flooded back - Leni’s arm around her waist, her lips gently caressing her own, and a wave of goosebumps washed over her entire body. Utterly insane.

To Be Continued.




Chapter Text

"Where's your new best friend?" Jeff said with a teasing tone as he slid onto the stool beside Leni.

"You jealous?" she said without looking at him.

Jeff studied his best friend for a moment, she was still cradling the same alcohol-free beer she'd had since she went bust on the third hand of poker. The label lay decimated on the bar top in front of her and there was a collection of peanuts laying on the floor behind the bar.

"What is it about her?"

This time Leni turned her head and looked at him, one brow raised in question.

"Leni, we've known each other, what? Twenty-five years? And in all that time, I have never, and I mean, not even nearly, seen you look at another woman the way you look at her. And this," he said motioning his hand up and down at her, "this moping, just because you don't get to see her for an evening?"

"Four."

"Four?"

"Four days. She's been avoiding me for four days."

Jeff found himself momentarily dumbfounded that his friend, not only didn't deny why she was moping but actually confirmed it. "Why?" he finally asked.

"Because I kissed her," Leni said flicking another peanut to join the others.

"And? It's not like it's the first time."

This time Leni's head shot up, eyes locked with Jeff's.

"Dude, I've met enough of your no-strings agreements to be able to read the signs."

Leni dropped her head back down and twisted her lips together. "Yeah, well we decided to stop that and just be friends."

"Wait, what?" Jeff stared at Leni in shock. "You, chose friendship, over sex with a hot girl?"

"God, you sound like Mom."

"Shit, this is worse than I thought. So, what? She didn't want you to kiss her?"

Leni shrugged and let out a sigh. "I thought she did, it seemed like she did. But since then she's avoided me like the plague, sooo..."

They sat in silence for a minute and Jeff searched for something to say. Thanks to his medical condition he didn't have much in the way of relationship experience that he could pull on to advise his friend. He hadn't needed to give her relationship advice since they were fifteen and Leni couldn't work out which of the Benson triplets it was she liked best; considering they were identical, it was a tough call.

"Clearly, I misread the situation," Leni said breaking the silence. "Maybe I should just apologise and blame it on too much alcohol or something."

"Maybe, or maybe she's just freaking out. I mean, I may not know her - like, at all - but I get the impression she's probably not much of a relationship person either. Maybe she just doesn't know how to handle the situation." Jeff found himself surprised at his own insight.

"I guess. So what do I do?"

Having nothing better to go with, Jeff pulled on his main source of relationship knowledge. "Well, I guess you could try apologising, it'd get a conversation going, but maybe don't make it sound like you regret it or that you feel it was a total mistake. That's always the fatal mistake they make in the movies. Just as one of them is about to be all 'oh yeah I'm up for this, I just needed to get my head around it,' the other one makes out it was a total mistake to save face, and then they end up both being miserable and secretly wanting a relationship for the majority of the film." When he looked up at his friend again, he realised she was staring directly at him, an odd expression on her face.

"I'm so glad I'm getting my relationship advice from a rom-com fanatic," Leni said, a grin breaking out across her face. "But you might be right, so I'm gonna run with it. Thanks, dude."

-o-

"Who's at my door EDI?" Miranda asked when her door chimed.

"The Commander," the AI replied.

Miranda's emotions jolted into a confusing whirlwind of anxiety and excitement at those two words. The last four days had been impossible. It turned out it was quite a challenge to avoid someone on a ship so small, but Miranda had also been in a constant battle with her own feelings, having to ignore how much she missed being around the Commander. Deciding she couldn't avoid the inevitable forever, Miranda called, "Come in."

When the door opened, instead of seeing the confident woman stride in and flash her an impossibly charming smile, Leni stood just inside the doorway, looking uncertain and awkward. "Hi," she said, not moving from the doorway even as the door slide closed right behind her.

"Hi," Miranda said from where she sat behind her desk, "come in."

Taking a few steps forward, Leni studied the room intently, as if seeing it for the first time. It was then Miranda registered the barely visible tremor in Shepard's hands. Frowning with concern, Miranda jumped up from her seat and walked around the desk towards Shepard.

"What's wrong?" Miranda asked, closing the distance between them.

"What?" Leni said taking a step back in response to her speedy approach. "Oh, nothing, I'm fine," she said hiding her hands behind her back.

Miranda stood still and tilted her head at her. "Really? Hiding your hands behind your back? How old are you?"

Leni chuckled and dropped her hands to her side. "I'm sorry, that I kissed you. I thought I saw...I don't know, but I clearly misread things and…" she paused and let out a heavy sigh, "I've missed you, these last four days."

Miranda walked over to the window, stomach doing somersaults, needing to hide the blush she felt rush to her cheeks. "It's...you didn't misread things. But, I don't do complicated Shepard, and this is already far too complicated. We don't have time nor energy for it, and even if we did, it could put the mission at risk, and we can't do that."

There was a long silence and Miranda turned to make sure the other woman hadn't left. Leni hadn't moved and was now stood, hands in pockets, shoulders slouched, studying the floor. Just as Miranda was about to lose her battle to go over to her, Leni looked up at her. "Yeah, yeah, you're right. I don't even know what I was…what I do know is that I missed my friend." The last part of her sentence was said with her usual confidence, and the sincerity she saw in Leni's eyes, made Miranda's chest flutter.

"I missed my friend too."

-o-

Leni forced a smile onto her face, being friends was better than nothing. "So what have you been up to?"

Moving away from the window back to her desk, Miranda twisted the monitor to face Leni, revealing a photo of an asari. "Doctor T'Saga I presume?"

Miranda nodded. "I wanted to make sure we knew everything about her before we put your life in her hands. Illium may be pretty and shiny, but beneath the surface, it's no better than Omega."

"Yeah, I've heard that before, never been though. So, what do we know about her?"

"Well, unsurprisingly she specialises in neurology, there is actually quite a lot of reading material on her, most of which are news reports about her controversial methods. I'm not going to lie, Shepard, I'm not happy about this. If we had any other viable options, I'd say we should just call this trip off, but…"

"We're thin on the ground when it comes to options."

Miranda nodded. "And when you look at the results she gets, her success rate is actually very high. It's her methods of getting them that's the problem, some of her procedures have been reported to be brutal. She has tried and failed many times to get various treatments and trials approved by the Humanity Drug and Research Authority, which, without their approval, makes her procedures illegal to perform on humans. That would explain why the Doctor you saw didn't openly suggest her, he'd lose his medical licence for doing so."

Leni stepped back from the desk and sat down in the chair opposite the desk. "When you say brutal, what are we talking?"

Miranda stared at her a moment. "They aren't sure, but a reporter went undercover and got treatment from Doctor T'Saga for an existing neurological illness. They still don't know what actually happened to her, due to the fact that she has been in a vegetative state ever since."

Leni swallowed hard. "Right," she said slowly, "so I could become a vegetable?"

"I don't think so," Miranda said shaking her head vehemently, "if that had been the procedure you needed, we'd already be flying away from Illium. Since making the appointment, T'Saga has sent me some basic info on the procedure, and scan results of post-procedure patients, it appears to be very effective."

"Okay, then she's still likely my best chance." Leni paused a moment, contemplating whether or not to ask her next question.

"Say it," Miranda said, breaking her thoughts and seemingly reading her mind.

"I'd like you to come with me...if you don't mind?"

Miranda laughed. "Try and stop me. I'm not letting her anywhere near you without me there."

Leni couldn't hide a smile at the fire in Miranda's eyes when she spoke. "I pity her if she turns your four billion credit subject into a vegetable."

Miranda's eyes softened and a smile replaced her frown. "It's my friend I'm more worried about."

"Aww, Miri, I knew you cared."

"Shut up. So, what have you been up to?"

"Other than moping about my friend ignoring me?" Leni couldn't help but smirk when Miranda narrowed her eyes at her dig. "I've been having some enlightening conversations with our krogan baby. He's decided his name is Grunt by the way. Even for a krogan, he's an interesting character, he makes my anger triggered seizures look like a toddler's temper tantrum."

Miranda chuckled. "I can't believe you're already making jokes."

"Hey, it's laugh or cry, and I sure as hell ain't crying," Leni replied with a grin.

Miranda's brow creased and for a moment Leni thought she might try and scratch the surface of her flippant comment. But she seemed to think better of it and said, "So, he's a liability?"

"As he is right now? Definitely. He's made two significant dents in the hull in the last four days alone. But if we can get to Tuchanka, we might be able to get some help there, find out why he's having these uncontrollable fits of rage." Leni considered her next question, she hated bringing him up with Miranda, because it more often than not lead to a disagreement, but she needed to know. "Have you spoken to TIM recently?"

"Yes, twice."

"What did he say, regarding our last conversation?"

Miranda chewed on her cheek, something she seemed to do whenever she was uncomfortable. "He wasn't impressed with me hanging up on him. But I told him I did it to avoid things getting nasty and worsening relations even further. As far as I can tell, he bought it."

"Did you ask why he didn't tell you? About the backdoor?"

"Yes," Miranda paused and broke eye contact, "plausible deniability. If I'd known, then you would have felt betrayed by me, which would have wiped out any trust we may have developed."

"Ah," Leni said, and then gave a humourless laugh, "so exactly what I did during the briefing the other week. When Miranda met her gaze, Leni could see that thought had already crossed her mind. "I'm sorry I did that, it was wrong and I won't do it again."

Leni watched as the other woman stood and began to pace to room "The worst part is, if he had told me back when it was installed, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. Hell, if I'm being honest, I would have approved."

"But not now?" Leni asked carefully, not wanting it to sound like she didn't believe it.

Miranda didn't stop pacing, but Leni saw her shake her head. "I mean, I see his perspective, you were a huge gamble, but do I feel it's a good thing he has it? No."

Leni couldn't help but smile at the other woman's reply. It felt as if Miranda was slowly awakening from some sort of spell that the Illusive Man had had on her for eighteen years.

"Stop it."

Leni looked up, realising Miranda had stopped pacing and was staring at her with a slight frown. "Stop what?"

"Stop looking all smug that I'm starting to question him."

"Not smug, relieved, there's a difference. So, does he know about me?"

"No, I haven't told him."

"I didn't ask if you'd told him, I asked if he knew. He has a backdoor into EDI's program. What if he's got a way of streaming all surveillance directly to him. He could be watching us right now."

Shaking her head, Miranda said, "No, not possible. Even he wouldn't be able to do that undetected, and Tali and EDI have set up a warning system, so Tali will be instantly notified if EDI goes offline again, which has to happen when the backdoor is active. Plus, the surveillance is only monitored live by EDI, it's not recorded."

"As far as you are aware."

"Shepard," Miranda said irritably, "he's not the evil demon you think he is. He wants what is best for humanity. Granted, his methods might have become a little extreme at times, but he means well."

Leni was unable to withhold the scoff that escaped and wasn't surprised to see Miranda's irritation visibly rise. But this was a subject she couldn't just let be. "Seriously? He has humanity's best interests at heart? And that's why he did horrific experiments on humans, for their own good? Maybe he could explain to Admiral Kahoku's widow how her husband's murder served humanity."

"Shepard, those were-"

"Projects that had long been disowned by Cerberus? Yeah, I've heard the spiel. The only problem with it is, in the same base I found the Admiral's horrifically deformed body and a bunch of sick experiments, I also found recent communications with Cerberus, communications confirming, and I quote, 'See to it Kahoku's investigations end here'. So, excuse me if I don't agree with your assessment of, 'he means well.'"

Leni saw Miranda's jaw bulge and prepared for the Director's retaliation, but there was nothing but silence from the other woman.

Leni spoke softly this time. "I've said it many times, I don't want to argue with you over him. But I can't stay silent on the subject."

Miranda turned and faced the window without saying a word, giving Leni her silent cue to leave.

-o-

Miranda took a deep breath before pressing the call button on the Commander's cabin door. She'd lost track of how long she had stood staring out of her window, going over and over the internal argument that Leni had yet again sparked within her. She'd always been aware of Harper's double standards, but she'd always managed to find some excuse or other that would quiet her conscience. But lately, Leni had made it harder and harder for her to find adequate excuses and Miranda found herself frequently second-guessing her mentor.

"Come in."

Miranda shook herself from her thoughts at the sound of Shepard's voice from the other side of the door. As she stepped over the threshold, Miranda realised that this was the first time she'd been in the captain's cabin since Shepard had woken. Moving further into the room, Miranda looked around at the minor changes that had occurred since she was last there.

Shepard had made use of the aquarium, with several types of fish swimming around. Miranda also noticed a small cage on the shelf next to the bathroom entrance, and thought she caught a glimpse of something furry, "Is that a hamster?"

"Yeah," Shepard chuckled, "apparently I got a good deal on it."

Continuing her browse of the cabin she saw the display case was beginning to fill up with model ships. When it was first suggested, Miranda had thought it a ridiculous and frivolous addition to the cabin, but one of the researchers had picked up that Shepard had enjoyed building model ships, and had insisted it would help make her feel at home in her cabin. Miranda had to admit that it clearly hadn't been a waste on Shepard, and the models, in fact, looked good.

Finally, her eyes fell on the photo frames on the desk; there was the family picture of Leni and John with their parents which Miranda had found while scouring social media, and beside it was another photo which Miranda had never seen. She recognised the adult in the photo as Becky Glenvo, the fiance of John Shepard before he died, but as to the identity of the child, Miranda was at a loss. "Ms. Glenvo has a child?"

Shepard's eyes danced at her comment. "You really did do your research didn't you?"

"You're surprised I was thorough?" she replied, brow raised.

Chuckling, Leni said, "No, not really. And yes, she's John's."

Miranda frowned. For the child to be John Shepard's, it should have been at least five years old by now, and if it was, she would have found out about it during her research. "How?"

"There were still two batches of his sperm in the bank. She asked my mom's permission to use it just before I died. Her name's Olivia, Olivia Shepard." Miranda saw a distant look in Leni's eyes, possibly imagining her brother in that picture with them.

"I like what you've done with the place," Miranda said, needing to steer the conversation away from yet another victim of Cerberus - the little girl who would never meet her father.

Refocusing, Shepard looked up at her. "Thanks, it's getting there. So, what can I do for you, Lawson?"

Miranda leaned against the aquarium, mirroring Shepard where she leaned against her desk. "I don't want to argue with you either. We both have very different perspectives of him, but I'd rather we agree to disagree than fall out over it."

"Agreed," Leni said with a smile, and the knot that had formed in Miranda's stomach during their previous conversation began to unravel.

"We've received some intel on the justiciar and the assassin. Oddly, they both appear to be on Illium."

Shepard tilted her head and looked bemused. "Really? That's…oddly coincidental. But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth."

Miranda nodded in agreement and contemplated her next bit of information. "Also, I thought I should tell you, last we checked, Doctor T'Soni was residing on Illium."

"Wait, you knew where Liara was and didn't tell me?"

Although only subtle, Miranda didn't miss the annoyed undertone in Shepard's voice, and the knot began to tighten again. "Yes. We…I, felt it would be an unnecessary distraction, and then, there was just never an appropriate time." In her peripheral vision, Miranda saw Shepard push up off the desk and cross her arms. "Anything else you want to get off your chest?"

Miranda faltered. There was so much she wanted to tell Leni, things she'd never wanted to tell anyone before. But those were not the type of things she was asking for, and this was not the time. Twisting her hands round each other, Miranda shook her head. "No, nothing that pertains to the mission, or you personally. I'm sorry Shepard."

To Miranda's surprise, when she looked back up at her, the hard expression from moments ago had gone from Leni's eyes, instead replaced by a gentle look that once again began to untie the knot.

Taking a few steps forward Leni nodded. "Okay. I get why you didn't tell me from the start, even if I don't like it. Thank you for telling me."

Miranda became acutely aware just how close they were, mere inches apart. All Leni would need to do is reach out and her arm could be wrapped around her waist like it had been four days earlier. Miranda glance down at Shepard's lips, remembering vividly how those lips had caressed her own, imparting emotions Miranda still struggled to interpret. All she wanted right now was to feel that kiss again and without forethought, Miranda took a step forward, a wave of goosebumps washing over her as Leni's fingertips brushed lightly over her waist.

"Commander."

They both jumped apart and Miranda turned to face the aquarium, silently cursing her feelings that kept driving her to do foolish things.

"Yes, EDI?" Without even looking at Shepard, Miranda could hear the annoyance in her voice.

"Mr. Moreau asked me to inform you that we will be docking at Illium in thirty minutes and twelve seconds."

Leni let out a heavy sigh. "Thank you, EDI. Please let Karin know."

Just as she reached the door, Miranda heard Shepard say, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

Pausing in the doorway, she looked back at the other woman, the deflated expression on Leni's face pulling at her heart. Shepard was always apologising to her for their encounters, but Miranda knew if she was being honest, the feelings she saw in Shepard's eyes, mirrored her own. "Stop apologising, you did nothing wrong. I'll see you in the CIC."

-o-

"So, that's the cliff notes version," Leni said, smiling at the asari.

Karin studied the three other women in the room. She had been surprised that Liara and Miranda had known each other by name, without introduction, making Karin wonder what the two women's history was. Other than the initial greeting, Liara had barely acknowledged Miranda the entire time they'd been there. Miranda was no less hostile in her attitude towards Liara, having had a glare fixed in place since they entered the room, a glare that only faltered when Leni looked at her with the gentle expression she seemed to save exclusively for the Director of late.

"Goddess Leni, I'm so sorry about your diagnosis. I have heard of Doctor T'Saga, she is extreme in her methods, but often gets results."

"Yeah, that's what Miranda found out," Leni said giving a head tilt and slight smile at the Director who sat in a chair beside Karin, facing the sofa that Leni and Liara sat on.

"Shepard, I can accompany you to your appointment. An asari's presence may well make her think twice about trying to pull any tricks."

"Thanks, Li, it's kind of you to offer, but Miri will be with me, and she's a force to be reckoned with." There was a glint in Leni's eyes when she looked back at Miranda, which was met with a smirk and, unseen by Leni, drew a glare that could kill from the asari, aimed directly at the Director.

Karin, however, hadn't missed the nickname Leni had used: Miri. It wasn't shocking that Leni had given the Director a nickname - considering she did for most her friends - but what had surprised Karin was how Miranda didn't object to it, if anything, she seemed to like it.

"Right," Liara said breaking the silence, "well you have an appointment, and I have a lot to do as well."

"Like flaying people alive?" Miranda said, completely deadpan and Karin pressed her lips together to strangle the chuckle that wanted to break free.

Leni gave Miranda an 'are you trying to make my life harder' stare, which Miranda ignored, maintaining an innocently questioning expression.

"Something like that," Liara said through gritted teeth.

"Appointment, yes. We should get moving." Leni interjected, clearly trying to disperse the increasingly awkward atmosphere. "Maybe we can meet up later? Assuming. I'm not in a vegetative state that is,"

"That sounds lovely Leni. I just hope Ms. Lawson is capable of keeping that from happening." Liara jibed, glare fixed on Miranda.

Miranda stood and peered down at the decidedly shorter asari. "Oh don't worry Doctor T'Soni, she couldn't be in better hands."

-o-

The doors slammed shut behind Shepard and Doctor T'Saga and Miranda glared at the two security guards stationed at the door. Just as she was contemplating her strategy for taking the krogan and the turian out, she heard Karin clear her throat.

"Why did you lie to her?"

Miranda spun around and frowned in confusion at the Doctor's accusation. "What?"

Karin held up the datapad they'd been given by T'Saga with all the official documents, including the invoice receipt, pertaining to the procedure. "You let her think it was paid for by Cerberus. If that was true why is the payment taken from a personal account of L. Walker?

Miranda clenched her jaw, caught in her own lie by someone she respected. "She didn't want Harper to know, and he is neurotic when it comes to keeping tabs of where the investments go. There is no Cerberus account he doesn't keep track of, so yes, I mislead her."

"I can tell you with certainty that she would rather he know about it than you foot the bill for this."

Miranda glared at the floor. "Isn't this already unfair enough on her? Doesn't she deserve to be able to keep a little self-dignity?"

"Of course she does darling, but she wouldn't want it at your expense."

Miranda looked back at the Doctor and saw a kind smile on her face. "Karin, please don't tell her."

"I'm sorry Miranda, but I can't promise you that."

-o-

Leni lay on the bed and stared straight ahead at the asari doctor who stood the other side of the viewing window. Her thoughts raced as they went over and over the explanation of the procedure.

A syringe of nanomites would be injected into her spinal cord at the base of her neck. From there, T'Saga would steer them up the spinal cord to her brain stem and begin strategically placing them one by one around the temporal lobe. It seemed the function was essentially the same as the human device Doctor Rublen had told her about. However, the nanomites were much more efficient: identifying and successfully interrupting a seizure 93% of the time. While the human's device could only claim a 67% success rate. On top of that, by eliminating the need for surgery, the procedure reduced recovery time to a matter of hours as opposed to weeks.

All of that made this procedure without a doubt the best option. But the part that Leni couldn't stop going over, was the fact that she had to be conscious with all her senses fully responsive for the entire procedure, to ensure the nanomites didn't interfere with vital systems. That meant no pain relief of any sort.

"I am always completely honest with my patients," Doctor T'Saga had said during the pre-op assessment, "the injection into the spinal cord is excruciating, however, it is nothing in comparison to the pain you will feel each time a nanomite anchors itself to your brain."

Leni swallowed hard. She'd served as an N7 marine for more than ten years, facing many intimidating situations in that time, including her own slow death. But this, this procedure, was instilling a terror in her like nothing she'd ever felt. Her chest tightened, her breaths became shallow and the room slowly began to spin. Leni fought to sit up, only to be held firmly in place by the straps that ran across her forehead, chest and shins.

Just as she felt the rising panic reach breaking point, Leni heard the lab door open and heels clicking across the floor. Seconds later, a soft hand slid into her own and Miranda came into her peripheral vision.

"Hey, it's okay, I'm here."

Leni closed her eyes when Miranda's hand caressed her cheek and the panic began to subside. She could do this, she had to do this. Taking a few slow, deep breaths, Leni opened her eyes and looked at the woman beside her, whose face was clouded with concern.

"I thought you weren't allowed in during the procedure?"

"Sod that," Miranda said, not breaking eye contact. "You are not alone, do you hear me? I'm not leaving you. We do this together."

"Together," Leni said squeezing the other woman's hand. It was inexplicable to Leni, but there was no one else she wanted here more than Miranda. With Miranda beside her, Leni knew she could get through this.

There was an unpleasant crackling from speakers in the corner of the operating theatre. "I wouldn't hold her hand if I were you," Doctor T'Saga said over the tannoy.

Miranda glared up at the viewing window. "And why is that?"

"Because she'll likely break your hand from the pain," the Doctor replied, her expression as void of compassion as her tone.

Leni barked a laugh in disbelief. "I will never complain about your bedside manner again," she murmured so only Miranda could hear.

The other woman's eyes widened feigning indignation. "Shepard, I am shocked and hurt that you have ever complained about my sparkling bedside manner."

Chuckling, Leni released the other woman's hand. When she tried to resist Leni said, "I don't want to break your fingers, going to need them later."

Miranda's brows shot up, eyes dancing and a smirk on her face. "Oh, will you now?"

"That wasn't what I…" pausing, she frowned and then laughed, "actually I have no idea what I meant." Leni felt Miranda's hand rest on her upper arm, her other hand stroking her cheek again and Leni's stomach danced with butterflies at the look on the other woman's face. "Thank you for being here."

Before Miranda could reply, the large mechanical arm that was attached to the chair began to move, picking up the large metal syringe that Leni had spotted when she first entered the room.

"We are ready."

-o-

Shepard gripped the arms of the procedure chair screwing her eyes shut tight as the needle pushed deeper into her neck. Miranda stood beside her stroking her arm, feeling utterly helpless. Although she'd had minimal control during Leni's seizures, Miranda had several times been able to calm her by talking to her and thereby averting a full seizure. Now she was useless.

Talking. It's a distraction, talk to her. "There's something I've been wondering, what possessed you to buy a hamster?"

"Wha?" Leni stuttered through the pain.

"Why on earth would the Hero of the Citadel want a hamster at nearly thirty-one years old?"

Leni let out a strained laugh. "Ch-childhood thing. Mom...never let me." Pausing, Leni let out a shaky breath through clenched teeth. "One, of my best friends growing up...had one, and, I wanted one, so bad, but Mom never let me. Sh-e said hamsters...had no business being in space," Leni finished with a choked laugh.

"She's not wrong," Miranda said brushing her thumb across Shepard's bicep, where her hand rested.

"You? Ch-ildhood pet?" The word pet went up several octaves, at the same time the mechanical arm pressed in the plunge on the syringe, unloading the nanomites into Leni's spinal cord.

The answer to that question came hand in hand with painful memories, like almost all the memories from her childhood, but Miranda didn't hesitate in replying. "A horse. My father bought me a horse for my tenth birthday. I used to go down to the stables where we kept her every day before and after school, and spend any spare time I had on weekends there."

Miranda saw the mechanical arm remove the syringe and Leni's face began to relax as she took several slow, deep breaths. "What was its name?"

Miranda patted Leni's sweat-drenched face with paper towels that lay on the surgical trolly beside her. "Don't judge me...Sparkles."

Unsurprisingly, Leni burst into laughter. "Sparkles? Are you for real? The Ice Queen had a horse called Sparkles?"

"Shut up, wanker," Miranda chuckled, swatting Leni with the paper towels, "I was ten."

"Bet you regretted that name when you were fifteen," Leni said grinning.

Miranda broke eye contact. "She didn't make it that long. She died six months after I got her."

"I'm sorry, what happened?"

When she looked back at Leni the look of sympathy on her face made Miranda's eyes sting, and she clenched her teeth, looking up at the ceiling.

"Hey,"

The concerned tone in Shepard's voice made Miranda meet her gaze again. Clearing her throat Miranda said, "That's a story for...another place."

The speakers crackled again and Miranda looked up at the viewing window. "The first nanomite is in place and will now anchor itself to your brain, I'd say be prepared, but there's no way to prepare for this."

"Good Lord that woma-" Miranda's words were cut off by the piercing wail that ripped from Leni's mouth, her entire body convulsing from pain, the restraints the only thing keeping her from flying off the procedure chair. Miranda stared in horror, now, truly powerless to help.

-o-

There were roughly ten minutes between each nanomite anchoring, they were eighteen down out of twenty. Leni's screams had gotten raspier with each nanomite, her voice clearly feeling the toll.

Leni had asked Miranda to tell her more stories of her childhood, and Miranda had obliged, although it hadn't taken long for her to tell all five pleasant memories she had from her childhood. Her first ever trip to the beach with one of her many nannies at the age of four, the show jumping competition she and Sparkles won, getting gold in the regional swimming competition, the first and only friend's birthday party she attended while her father was away on a business trip, meeting Niket who worked at the stables. There was so much more she wanted to tell Shepard, the darker sides to those stories, but those parts were to be saved for a time when they didn't have an audience.

So then she had moved on to her life with Cerberus, how the asari biotics trainer Harper had arranged for her, had helped her get over her hatred of her biotics. How she'd taught Miranda to respect and appreciate her powers, shown her that there was more to biotics than inflicting and receiving pain, that she was capable of so much more than she had ever imagined.

The five years she spent as Lisa Walker had held some of her most treasured memories though. Those five years had been Miranda's first chance to blend in, to just be one of many, a normal young woman. Although she didn't do the party scene like most university students, she hadn't been a recluse either, she'd had a few select friends, people whose company she had enjoyed, people who challenged her, pushed her to be better because they would one day be the best in their field. It was different than how her father had pushed her, this was her choice, something she had control over, something she revelled in rather than resented.

But now Miranda found herself out of stories that she was willing to telling with T'Saga listening in. When Shepard's eighteenth scream died out, Miranda passed Leni a glass of water and said, "I don't know about you, but I'm bored of the sound of my voice. I think it's your turn. Tell me something I don't know about you."

After taking a sip Leni closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Miranda frowned, each nanomite took a lot out of her, and she wasn't sure how much more Leni could take. It was astonishing she hadn't passed out from the pain. Miranda was about to tell the asari they needed to wait on the next anchoring, when Leni cleared her throat.

"Okay, something you might not know...I didn't always want to be a marine. In fact, growing up I kinda hated the Alliance in a lot of ways."

"What? Why?"

"To quote a good friend of mine, 'Why didn't I want to join a self-serving militaristic organisation that only cares about their employees while they're useful?'"

"Wow, Shepard, I'm impressed," Miranda said with a laugh. "So, what did you want to be?"

Leni grinned and bit her lip. "Don't judge me. I wanted to be a singer."

Miranda's eyes opened wide in surprise. Of all the things she might have guessed at, that was one of the last things she had expected Shepard to say. "You're messing me with?"

"Nope. Deadly serious. According to my parents, I started singing before I could talk. I'd actually been offered a scholarship to the London Royal Academy of Music just before I changed my career direction."

Miranda stared at Shepard, mouth agape. "What happened? How did you end up in the Alliance?"

Leni's eyes glazed over for a moment and Miranda rested her hand back on her arm. Looking up at her Shepard said, "When we were growing up on the Arcturus station, Jeff and I had another best friend, Nina. We were inseparable and known throughout the station as the terrible trio. Nina's dad served in the Alliance too, but when we were fourteen-ish, he got injured in the line of duty and was honourably discharged. Her parents wanted a change, they were tired of life in space and decided to give colony life a try. They did so much research, put so much thought into which colony they wanted to settle on. They finally decided on Mindoir."

Miranda closed her eyes. "Oh God Leni, I'm so sorry."

"Helpless civilians, families just going about their lives, and fucking batarian slavers just swept in and took out the lot of them. After that, I was awakened to the injustice in the galaxy. Suddenly, becoming a singer felt like the most ridiculous ambition in the world, so I trained and trained, and enlisted on my eighteenth-"

"Anchoring." The tannoy interrupted and seconds later, Shepard's wail of agony resumed.

-o-

Leni tried to sit up and stopped when every muscle in her body screamed in objection. "Agghh."

"Easy now." Leni heard Karin say quietly.

Opening her eyes she saw Karin push up out of a desk chair and make her way across the dimly lit room. It took Leni a few seconds to realise that the room was, in fact, her own cabin. "How did I get here?" Leni rasped, barely able to hear her own voice.

When Karin reached her, she handed her a glass of brown liquid and Leni frowned at it. "Drink up," Karin said, "it'll help your throat."

"It's going to taste like ass isn't it?" Leni whispered, pulling a face.

Karin gave a chuckle. "Drink, doctor's orders."

As Leni downed the foul drink, she registered a stack of datapads on her coffee table, and behind them, a body curled up on her sofa.

"She's refused to leave since we brought you back."

"How long?" Leni asked, and was surprised to find that the vile liquid was already working its magic on her throat.

"Sixteen hours give or take."

Leni rolled her eyes and shook her head. "She's impossible."

"You're well suited then."

Hearing the sly tone in the Doctor's voice Leni tore her eyes away from Miranda. "Maybe," she replied with a grin. "So, was it worth it? Does it work?"

"Looks that way. The scans picked up two sleep seizures stopped in their tracks by the nanomites."

Leni smiled at that news but winced at the throb in her skull. "I have a pounding head, please tell me it's temporary."

"Yes, Doctor T'Saga said that all previous recipients of this treatment reported a headache for the first two days post-procedure, but that it always eases off and she hasn't had it reported as a recurring problem."

Leni nodded and then pulled herself up, groaning at the effort. "God, I feel like I've just redone my first week at N-School."

"Yes, Miranda said your entire body convulsed from pain every time a nanomite anchored to your brain."

Leni exhaled and shook her head. "This thing better work Karin, I have never felt pain like that."

Karin nodded. "I could hear you from the waiting room, I'm glad Miranda was with you. Did you know she knocked out both of the Doctor's security guards to get to you?"

Leni barked a laugh. "Of course she did."

"Well, I'll leave you two to it. Make sure you both get plenty of rest," Karin said touching Leni on the shoulder before heading to the door.

Dragging herself off the bed, Leni made her way to the sofa. Sitting down gently beside the sleeping woman, she stroked the thick black hair out of Miranda's face. In sleep, there was an innocence on the face that often wore a cold, hard expression, an expression that Leni now knew to be a facade Miranda hid behind.

As if sensing her presence, Miranda began to stir. When she looked up at Leni, a smile spread across her face and she reached a hand up and cupped her cheek. "Hey you, how are you feeling?"

Leni's heart quicked at her gentle touch and warm smile and it took her a moment to find her croaky voice. "I'm great. Well, my body aches like I was trampled on by a herd of krogan, my throat feels like I've been screaming at a rock concert for the last twenty-four hours, and I have a thumping headache which I should expect to have for another day or so. But I'm great."

Miranda sat up and chuckled. "That doesn't sound like an accurate description of great to me."

"That's because you didn't wake up to find an incredible woman had refused to leave your side for sixteen hours. But I did, so I'm great."

Miranda swallowed hard and she broke eye contact, looking over at the aquarium.

Leni knew she wasn't playing fair, that she was risking the friendship she had quickly come to value, but she couldn't help it. Rational behaviour seemed to be lost to her when she was with Miri, and as much as the other woman fought it, she failed to hide the fact that she felt it too.

Reaching out, Leni tucked the stray hair that had fallen across the other woman's face, back behind her ear. "Hey," Leni whispered.

When Miranda looked back at her, the facade was nowhere to be seen, and Leni could see a vulnerability in those blue eyes as they studied her. "You can't keep doing this."

Leni felt a sinking feeling at Miranda's words, although Leni knew she shouldn't be shocked, she hadn't been able to stop herself from hoping for a different outcome this time. Hoping that Miranda wouldn't run again.

"This is the last doctor's appointment, last medbay trip, you hear me? My nerves can't take much more."

Leni tilted her head, studying the woman opposite her a moment and then a smile spread across her face. "Wow. Could it be that I am the undefeatable Miranda Lawson's kryptonite?"

Miranda's forehead dipped into a confused frown. "Krypto-what?"

Leni's mouth dropped open. "Please tell me you've heard of Supergirl? Superman?"

Rolling her eyes Miranda tutted. "Of course I've heard of Supergirl. I didn't grow up under a rock Shepard."

Leni chuckled at Miranda's annoyance. "Oh, that's a relief, there's hope for you yet. Well, kryptonite is basically their Achilles heel. It strips them of their powers, makes them vulnerable."

Miranda slid forward on the sofa and snaked a hand around the back of Leni's neck. When their lips met, the kiss was gentle and suffused with an affection, which in that moment, Leni couldn't even begin to discern.

When Miranda broke the kiss, she didn't run like all the other times, instead, she rested her forehead against Leni's, both hands cupping her face. "You might just be, Shepard, you might just be."

 

To Be Continued.

 

Chapter Text

Miranda glanced at the woman next to her for the hundredth time and then back at the holo-screen that was currently projected onto the aquarium. Their bodies were so close where they sat on the sofa, that Miranda had to sit on the hand that wasn't holding her drink, to keep it from wandering.

When the credits rolled, Leni turned to look at her. "So? What did you think?"

"I think I underestimated the true severity of your geekiness," Miranda said, with a smirk.

Leni gave her a playful shoulder bump. "Admit it Miri, you liked it."

The butterflies, that of late, seemed to be present whenever she was around Leni, fluttered in response to hearing her nickname. "It wasn't...awful," Miranda replied, aiming for nonchalance.

"Season two is when it really comes into its own, they introduce gay storylines, which back in the twenty-first century was still a notable achievement in mainstream TV. Supergirl also becomes a bit more badass."

Miranda frowned. "And how many episodes do I have to sit through before we get to season two?"

"Nineteen more."

"Ugh," Miranda dropped her head back, "are you trying to torture me?"

"Hey, I have to rest for the next day and a half, and you told Karin you'd keep an eye on me, so you are going to have a Supergirl marathon whether you like it or not."

"Fine, but I'm going to need wine to get through this."

"Drama queen," Leni teased, just managing to dodge the slap on the arm Miranda sent her way. "Okay, you get the drinks, and I'll fix the popcorn."

Miranda screwed up her face. "Don't make any for me, I find popcorn a pointless endeavour."

She saw Leni raise a brow as they stepped into the lift. "A pointless endeavour? It's a snack, not a mission, Lawson."

-o-

"'Don't make any for me' she said, 'a pointless endeavour' she said…" Leni muttered and Miranda caught sight of a pout on her face as she set down the empty bowl, that had once contained popcorn.

"Well it turns out, I've never had good popcorn, and it seems, you do good popcorn." When Leni stifled a yawn, Miranda looked at her watch. "You should get some sleep."

Nodding, Leni stood and made her way to the bed. "So should you."

"Can I borrow your extra pillow?" Miranda asked, "It's too much effort to go get my own."

Turning Leni frowned at her. "You're not sleeping on the sofa again."

"I said I'd keep an eye on you."

"Yeah," Leni said slowly, "this is a double bed, I only use one side."

Miranda gawked at Leni. "I'm not sleeping in your bed with you in it."

"Miri, we're both adults here."

That's precisely what worries me. Miranda thought, but said, "I'm fine on the sofa."

"No, you're not. It's uncomfortable and you need proper rest. If you refuse to share the bed, then you can go back to your cabin."

"I need to-"

"Keep an eye on me? Let's be honest Miri, you are here by your own choice, keeping an eye on me is an excuse, because I know Karin didn't feel it was necessary."

Miranda ground her teeth, staring Shepard down, but the other woman was completely unphased. "Are you really that arrogant, you genuinely think I'm just here to bask in your goddamn presence?" Miranda spun on her heel, not wanting Shepard to see the blush she could feel rushing to her cheeks. Without looking back, Miranda marched up the stairs and out the door.

-o-

Karin looked up as the door slid open. "Good evening dear, how are you?"

"I thought I should let you know I won't be keeping an eye on the Commander tonight, but EDI will be observing her life signs."

Karin watched the younger woman who was pacing back and forth as she spoke, and Karin got the distinct feeling something had happened. "Well that's not a problem, the nanomites appear to be doing their job and the fact that they give us an alert if they fail to interrupt a seizure, gives us extra security. But you know that already, so what's the real problem?"

Miranda stood still for the first time since entering the room and stared at Karin. "I...don't know what's going on."

"With?" Karin probed, already having an idea what her confusion related to.

Looking down at her hands, Miranda lent against one of the beds, clenching and unclenching her jaw. "With us, me and Leni. It's...I've let it become so much more complicated than it should be."

Karin moved so she was leaning against the bed parallel to Miranda and gave the younger woman an understanding smile. "Ah, yes. Relationships of any kind have a habit of getting complicated, it usually happens without you realising it, and by the time you do, it's too late."

Miranda continued to stare at her hands but nodded. "I don't even know, what it is, other than confusing, and distracting, and likely something that will put the mission at risk."

Karin couldn't help the little chuckle that escaped, and when Miranda looked up at her, Karin saw a frown creasing her forehead. "I'm sorry dear, I'm not laughing at you. But I've been where you are. When I was in the academy, I became best friends with Hannah Odili and Joyce Martin. But of course, when we graduated from the academy, while they went straight on to be cadets, I still had five years of medical school ahead of me. We remained very close despite me not being on the same career path as them, but while I was drowning in medical texts and doing medical placements in planetside war zones, they were already serving on ships, forming relationships and working their way up the ladder. I longed to serve on a ship; having grown up on my father's civilian freighter, I missed the hum of the engines, the clang of boots on metal as the crew went about their work. But the ship-based work experience for military medical students was saved for your final year. When I finally made it up to space, I felt like I was constantly playing catch up, so much further behind in rank than non-specialised cadets from my year." Karin paused a moment, realising she was digressing. "Sorry, I seem to be off track."

"No, do carry on," Miranda said pulling herself up so she was sitting on the bed and Karin heard the enthusiasm in her voice.

"Well, I wasn't just behind professionally. Before I was even finished with med school, Joyce was engaged to Dominick Moreau, had already left the service and had plans to set up a contractor business on the Arcturus Station. Hannah and Thomas had been sweethearts since high school, and they married just after we graduated from the academy. Gosh, they were so young, barely nineteen. By the time I finished med school, John was already four years old and Hannah fell pregnant with Leni shortly after. But for me, a family, even just a relationship, was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to focus on my career. Of course, friendships mattered to me, I loved my best friends and their families, but that was enough for me in that respect. They never really understood, they seemed to think I was playing at being happily single, and that I secretly longed for a relationship and family just as they had."

Miranda nodded vehemently. "Why is that? No one is surprised when a man is career focused and has no interest in having a family, but when a woman says that, she's secretly miserable, longing to be swept off her feet and play happy families."

Karin sighed. "That is the human patriarchy, unfortunately. Even now we still battle those old-time stereotypes and attitudes." Karin looked at Miranda and smiled. "I'm sorry dear, I appear to have given you the extremely long version of this story, I'll try and shorten it."

"No please don't, I'm interested."

"Okay, well how about you go make tea, while I finish up here and we'll convene on that comfy sofa of yours?"

Miranda smiled at Karin. "A dash of milk and two sugars?"

"You've been paying attention. I'll see you in a few."

-o-

Miranda waited for the Doctor to get comfy before she handed her the tea.

"Thank you. Now, where was I?"

"I believe you were about to take down the patriarchy," Miranda said simpering at Karin.

Karin chuckled. "Ah yes, so I was. Well, I served on my first ship, the SSV Geneva, for three years, gaining experience, but requested to be reassigned to the newly occupied Arcturus Station once Jeff was born so that I could manage his condition and treatment. I'd come across Vrolik syndrome on one of my work placements and had the pleasure of working with a specialist in that field, so it made sense for me to be there for them, especially once Dominick did his vanishing act and Joyce was on her own. I was stationed there for five years while the children grew, but as much as I loved being near my friends and their families…"

"It wasn't what you'd enlisted for."

Karin nodded. "Once Jeff's condition was stable enough, I requested to be reassigned to a ship. For the first three years, I was assigned and reassigned five times on short-term posts: parental leave, medium-term sick leave, that sort of thing. Some people might have found it tedious, but I loved it. Each ship was unique, each crew different to the last, each presenting me with different experiences and opportunities."

Miranda sat and listened, marvelling at the woman beside her. Despite the generation gap and entirely different backgrounds, Miranda could see many similarities between herself and the woman in Karin's story. Karin was strong, independent and ambitious, but unlike Miranda, Karin had also maintained a balance. Her ambition didn't come at the expense of others, she was kind and compassionate and even put her own aspirations on hold to help support her best friends, yet still got back on track with her own career goals eventually. Miranda had always had it drilled into her, that in order to succeed, you had to be your only priority. Other people were nothing more than competitors to be taken out or stepping stones to be climbed upon. Yet listening to the woman beside her, knowing all she had achieved and hearing how she achieved it, Miranda began to see that her father, and even Jack, had been wrong. It wasn't the only way.

"It sounds like it was a challenge, but it must have been a refreshing change to the Arcturus Station."

"Indeed it was," Karin continued. "after those three years I was offered a long-term assignment as General Medical Officer aboard the SSV Elbrus. Being a dreadnought, it was the largest ship I'd served on by far, the medbay was more like a small hospital with ten full-time medical staff. We constantly had crew coming and going, but I noticed one crew member came in more often than most, which was odd considering he was an engineer and not part of the ground crew. I was concerned there might be some safety issues that needed addressing so raised my concern with the Chief Medical Officer. She pointed out to me the additional oddity that he was only ever needed to come in when I was on shift. Good Lord, I was so clueless when it came to picking up on that sort of thing."

Miranda laughed at Karin's eye-roll at her own ignorance.

"Well the next time he paid the medbay a visit, I called his bluff, saying I was going to report his senior office for neglect as this many visits to the medbay suggested something was amiss in his department. That's when he came clean and asked me if I'd let him cook me dinner."

"What did you say?"

"Well I was about thirty-four at the time, and he was only twenty-seven, I was mortified and instantly turned him down. But in truth, I was more terrified than mortified. I had zero experience with relationships of the heart, I'd never had any interest in anything deeper than the occasional itch scratching -if you get my meaning," Karin said with a wink and Miranda chuckled.

"So what happened?"

"Well, the young engineer wasn't so easily put off, instead of fake visits to the medbay, he started turning up with tea - exactly as I liked it - near the end of my shifts. I eventually agreed to go on a date with him, just to show him that we weren't a match and get it out of his system."

"And?" Miranda asked, eager to know what happened with the young engineer.

Karin gave her a sly smile, dragging out the suspense with a sip from her steaming mug. "Well, my ploy to get it out of his system didn't work. He was a charming sod, had a counter argument for every reason I came up with as to why we wouldn't work. I said I'd worked too hard getting to where I was, and still had a long way to go and couldn't let myself get distracted from that. He said it was my drive and passion that made him notice me, so the last thing he'd want to do was stifle it. He had his own career and goals and asked why I assumed it would ruin things when we could support each other in pursuing them? Every time he came up with a counter-argument, I found myself accepting another date."

Karin smiled fondly, and Miranda found her own emotions a jumble, inexplicably wanting the ambitious doctor and the young engineer to make it work. Wanting to hear that they had achieved their goals while still being there for each other. "Did it work out?"

"It did. We both served on the Elbrus for four years, then transferred to the SSV Agincourt where we were both stationed for three years, followed by another three years together on the Einstein as 2nd Medical Officer and 2nd Assistant Engineer. After that, I was offered a 1st MO position on the SSV Kilimanjaro and he remained on the Einstein for another year, so that was where we parted ways."

Miranda's heart sunk to hear they had parted ways, which she then realised was ridiculous because she already knew they'd parted ways at some point.

"Temporarily that is."

"Oh, Karin. You can't mess with me like that," Miranda said giving the Doctor a glare as Karin grinned at her. "Wait, the Einstein?" Miranda stared in horror as the grin fell from the Doctor's face. "Mindoir…Nina."

The expression on Karin's face changed to confusion. "You know about Nina?"

"Leni and I were exchanging childhood stories to keep her distracted during the procedure. She told me what motivated her to join the Alliance."

Karin gave a solemn nod. "The Einstein was the first ship on the scene. It was…God, I can't even begin to describe it. It was the second worst experience in my career." Karin stared out the huge window, eyes glazed, and Miranda rested a hand on hers.

Refocusing on Miranda, Karin gave her a wane smile. "Anyway, a CMO post opened up on the SSV Tokyo where he had been appointed as Chief Engineer the previous year, so I requested a transfer and got it, bringing us back together again. After a very long stint there, we both got offered senior positions on the Normandy."

Miranda's eyes opened wide and she had to restrain herself from slapping herself for being so slow. "Staff Lieutenant Gregory Adams."

When Miranda first recruited the doctor, Karin asked if they needed an engineer as she could speak to her friend who had been chief engineer of the SR1, but later said that he'd declined the offer.

"He refused to join you here," Miranda said feeling resentful on Karin's behalf.

Karin smiled. "It's fine, we'll be together again when this is done, of that I have no doubt."

"But he refused to join you, after all those years together. He served under Shepard and wasn't loyal to either of you. How can you not feel betrayed?" Miranda felt a growing anger towards this man she had never met, for betraying these two women, one whom he supposedly loved.

Placing her other hand on top of Miranda's, Karin's smile widened. "Miri darling, Greg is the kindest, most loyal man I have ever met. He had a great deal of respect and admiration for Leni as his Commander, but that was the only way he knew her. And after all we'd seen at those Cerberus facilities, be them ex-Cerberus or not, how can I blame him for not joining up?"

"But you did," Miranda said, unable to forgive this man so easily.

"Yes, well, Greg had also had a more personal run-in with Cerberus."

Miranda's brow creased, she knew of no connection between the Alliance engineer and Cerberus.

"In between the Einstein and the Tokyo, Greg served a year as 1st Engineer on the SSV Geneva."

Miranda dropped her gaze to her mug of tea. She didn't need Karin to say more to know what she was referring to.

"Until the ship was decommissioned in '75 after it was raided by Cerberus for antimatter."

In 2175, Miranda hadn't been all that involved in the business, still studying under the alias of Lisa Walker, but she had heard all about the raid. It had been all over the news, and for a week it had been the hot topic across the campus. That week, Miranda had faked being ill, needing to avoid the inescapable campus-wide scorn towards the supposed pro-humanity group that had attacked a human vessel.

"Anyway," Karin said, breaking the silence, "that aside, my decision to join Cerberus was not a rational one. I delivered Leni into this world, I was there for her first day of school, I saw her win the school talent contest, I was there when she grieved the loss of a best friend, the day she decided to throw her dreams away to defend the defenceless. I was there when she grieved her father, graduated from the academy and grieved her brother. Greg didn't see any of that, but he did see, well, we all saw…" Karin's eyes brimmed and she stared back out the window at the expanse of space. Miranda studied the older woman, the pain was etched on her face and a single tear rolled down her cheek when she took a deep breath. "When we saw our Commander's body jettisoned away from the Normandy, saw her flailing, desperately trying to reach the leaking pipe. That, was the worst experience in my career, in my life...watching the little girl I'd delivered into this world leave it in a slow, excruciating way, alone and lost."

Miranda squeezed the older woman's seasoned hand in hers as more silent tears rolled down the Doctor's cheeks. Turning to her, Karin gave her a plaintive smile and wiped away the single tear that rolled down Miranda's own cheek.

"Having gone through all of that, how could my decision have been rational? It couldn't. But Greg, he is a loyal man, Alliance through and through. I can't blame him for sticking to what he knew was true and right, for trying to talk me out of selling my soul in pursuit of a ghost."

Miranda swallow back the bile that rose at Karin's words, she considered working with her as selling her soul.

-o-

Something flashed across the younger woman's face as she pulled her hands back, and Karin realised how her words had been interpreted. "The Illusive Man, not you," Karin said taking one of Miranda's hands again. "I'm very glad you were brought into our lives. And I can tell you without question that Leni more than feels the same."

Miranda looked away and stayed silent for several moments. "I've always been taught that relationships will make you weak and only bring hurt and failure. Thirty-five years, and it hasn't been disproven yet."

Karin's heart tugged to hear Miranda's words. This detached, cold mask she wore, was her way of protecting herself. "Who taught you that?" Karin asked, tucking a stray hair behind the younger woman's ear.

Without looking up Miranda replied, "My father."

Karin knew from past experiences, that directly attacking an abuser, could trigger a victim to jump to their defence, subsequently shutting down any further discussion. Treading carefully, Karin said, "Well, parents aren't always right, and it's never too late to learn that."

Miranda finally looked up at Karin, her jaw clenching and unclenching, clearly fighting to remain in control.

Not wanting to push her too far too fast, Karin moved the conversation on. "All that storytelling and I still haven't got to my point." A slight smile tugged at the corners of Miranda's lips and Karin gave her hand another squeeze.

"The original point of my exceptionally long story was, that I had thought a relationship would distract and delay me from my career goals. But Greg was right after we got together I found myself even more focused, more certain of myself. No matter how much you love your job, everyone goes through some rough times at work at some point, be it not getting along with a colleague, having an unpleasant commanding officer, or being understaffed and therefore overworked. Whenever my resolve wavered, Greg was there, reassuring me the rough patches would pass. He made me certain I could get through anything, that I would eventually reach my goal, and I did, we both did, step by step, rank by rank. Now, don't get me wrong I'm not saying relationships are all sunshine and roses, it takes a lot of hard work at times, but, if you're right for each other, truly right for each other, it's unquestionably worth it. I never had any desire to be with anyone until meeting Greg, and have never wanted to be with anyone other than him since. He's the one for me. But you have to want it, otherwise, it won't matter how right you are for each other."

Karin studied Miranda as she watched the passing stars out of the huge window, unable to discern the look on her face.

"I don't know what I want. Even if I did, I have no idea what she wants."

"Have you considered asking her?" Karin said, and couldn't help but chuckle at the look of horror that appeared on Miranda's face. "Miri darling, a relationship can only truly work if you have trust, and for there to be trust, there must be communication and honesty. Is it terrifying to put yourself out there? Absolutely. But if it helps, I can tell you with complete certainty, that if you do, she won't leave you out there alone."

Miranda looked up at her, brows knitted together. "You can't know that for sure."

"Twenty-nine years say otherwise," Karin said, unable to stop from smiling. "Listen, I can't tell you what is right for you, all I can tell you is my own experience. Only you can decide where to go from here."

The younger woman stayed silent, her eyes drifting aimlessly around the room and Karin decided this was time she needed to herself.

"Well, I think that's more than enough of my chatter for one night. Goodnight Miranda."

Finally looking up at her, Miranda gave a warm smile. "Thank you, Karin."

-o-

Tali dodge rolled away from the pink cloud that had just leaked from the canister nearest her. "This asari had better be something special, Shepard."

"You think this is bad?" Tali heard the Director say as she slid into cover on her left. "You should have been there when we got the drell."

"EDI counted one hundred and five enemies," Shepard shouted over the gunfire from where she crouched behind stacked crates on Tali's right.

Tali ground her teeth at the Director's dig at her absence on the previous mission. She had originally been selected as one of the three members on Alpha squad, and from what she'd heard, her AI hacking would have had plenty of use given the many mechs there had she had to go and get that bosh'tet of an infection the night before the mission. Shaking off her annoyance, Tali said, "Was one of them a gunship?"

"No, but we did have a krogan bounty hunter and an asari commando unit," the Director replied flatly.

"And don't forget that your squad almost got blown off a rooftop," Tali heard Shepard say with a chuckle.

The Director glared across Tali at Shepard, blindly throwing a biotic pull over the barricade. "Don't try and make out your squad didn't." When a body, clad in yellow armour, came floating over their heads, the Director placed two shots dead centre in its chest, without taking her eyes off Shepard.

Tali couldn't help but be impressed and was glad her helmet hid that fact from the already arrogant Director. Ducking around her cover, Tali unloaded two shotgun rounds into the two Eclipse mercenaries that had been stunned by her drone, Chiktikka.

"Err, no we didn't. We were too busy covering your asses to get blown off a roof."

Tali saw the blaze of annoyance in the Director's eyes as she threw out a Singularity and pushed forward to the next cover.

Human relations had confused Tali from the first moment she joined the SR1. Her own race considered relationships of the romantic kind, a precious thing. Granted, this was largely due to their lack of immune systems, any level of intimacy was a potentially deadly situation, and therefore not something you entered into lightly. But even so, the level of detachment in regards to physical relations that Leni had displayed during their time on the SR1, had shocked Tali. She had assumed that all races treasured relationships of an intimate nature.

Tali had of course not yet experienced such a relationship, considering it was forbidden until after a quarian had successfully completed their pilgrimage and although she completed her own two years ago, there just hadn't been the time for such things. Tali rolled her eyes at the lie she had fed to aunty Raan, she might be able to kid someone else, but she couldn't kid herself. She'd learnt early on during her time on the first Normandy, that turians also had a somewhat relaxed attitude to intimate relationships, but that was exclusive to soldiers needing to blow off steam, as opposed to the human's general frisky attitude. Otherwise, turian traditions were to bond for life.

The first time she met Garrus, he'd made some comment about not trusting a quarian, which Leni had thankfully ignored, and Tali avoided Garrus for the first week or so, writing him off as an ignorant turian, not worth her time.

When Tali had first joined the Cerberus Normandy, she had gotten the feeling that there was a 'thing' between Leni and the Director, which considering the Director's cold demeanour and beauty, wasn't all that surprising. What had surprised her, was how their relationship had seemed to change over time. What had originally come across as Leni's typical emotion-free arrangement, seemed to change into a genuine friendship. The Director's attitude, in particular, had changed considerably: she had shown an increasing level of concern since the night of Leni's first seizure, her frosty demeanour seeming to melt when around the Commander. And as for Leni, the way she acted around the Director and the way she looked at her, was something Tali had never seen from the woman she considered family. But right now, you could slice through the atmosphere with a drone's laser, and she was stuck in the middle of it.

Launching herself up over the crate that had been her cover, Tali caught sight of another of the gas canisters positioned beside a cluster of Eclipse mercenaries. Before her feet had even hit the floor, Tali swung her shotgun up and blasted a single shot at the canister. The mercenaries began to sputter and stumble out from behind their cover, opening them up for perfectly placed headshots by the cloaked Commander.

"Good eye," the Director said as Tali slid into cover beside her.

Frowning in confusion, Tali stared at the Director, who was once again enthralled in combat. Was that a compliment? From the Ice Queen herself? Surely not.

"Errm, thanks." As she spoke, the Director jumped up and sent an Overcharge flying across the battlefield. Tali popped up to assess the field, just in time to see the electricity find its mark, dropping the head asari's second the shield dropped, there was a loud boom, and the asari was sent flying back, a red spot forming on her forehead from Shepard's precision shot.

"Sweep the room, check for survivors and make sure they're disarmed, I don't want any surprises," Shepard commanded as she made her way to the front of the large room.

Looking up, Tali saw the Director had started heading left, so Tali went right, checking every body she came across, staying ever vigilant.

She thought back to the first real mission she had gone on with the SR1 crew. The Commander had been busy with recovering the data they had come for before it was erased and therefore hadn't given the command to sweep the area. It shouldn't have been a problem, because any squad member of Shepard's should have known the drill. But Tali had been so green, having lied to the Commander about her combat experience, just to get on the squad. The memory of the boom of Garrus' rifle shot from the nest he had been strategically covering from, still rang in her ears. The shot that saved her life from the mercenary that had been playing dead. She had expected the Turian to report her stupidity to the Commander, to get the untrustworthy quarian kicked off the ship. Instead, he offered to help her get caught up on the logistics of how the Commander rolled.

Tali smiled at the fond memories of their time together on the SR1. Garrus had become her best friend, and she had thought there could be more there, for the first time in her life, she had wanted more than friendship with someone. But then they lost Shepard, and without her, everything the crew had built together - friendships, relationships, family - all disintegrated, as if it had never been. Instead of supporting each other in their grief, they had allowed it to rip them apart. And now, they were back together, and yet it was nothing like it had been. Garrus was different to that man she had known, broken somehow, and although he was friendly, he refused to let her in like before.

"Alright." Shepard's voice startled Tali from her thoughts and she looked up to locate the other women in the room. When she caught sight of Leni, she saw a flash of concern in her eyes. "You okay?"

Tali gave her a smile and nod of reassurance. "Of course, I was just focusing on the sweep."

Leni's gaze scrutinized her for a few moments longer before she gave a short nod. "Well, we've got what we came for, let's get out of this dive.

-o-

Miranda relaxed back into her desk chair. "Thank you for the help Jacob, working out that last shift rotation was annoying."

"No worries," Jacob said taking a seat opposite her desk, "so how're things?"

Miranda narrowed her eyes at the inflexion he put on the word 'things'. "What things?"

A knowing grin spread across Jacob's face, which only served to deepen Miranda's frown. "Why, things with the Commander of course."

"There is no 'thing' with the Commander. We're friends."

"Mmhmm. Yeah, I call BS. You turn to mush whenever you see her." Miranda opened her mouth to object, but Jacob raised a hand to silence her before she started. "It suits you, stop fighting it. That's what you're doing, isn't it? That's why sometimes you're icy with her, and other times putty in her hands. Just let yourself be happy Miranda, I mean, God knows, you both deserve it."

Miranda sat, silently horrified that Jacob had seen right through her. It seemed she wasn't as good at hiding how she felt about the Commander as she thought she was.

"Well, I should get going, my shift starts in ten. Talk to you later Miranda."

Unable to speak, Miranda simply gave a nod and watched the door slide shut behind him. Dropping her head into her hands Miranda gave a moan of dismay, she was not that girl that became ships gossip by falling for the Captain of the ship. But the problem was, however inexplicable it might seem, however ridiculous a notion it would have been to the old her, the pre-Normandy her, she was falling for Shepard, and she had no idea how to stop it.

Before her talk with Karin, she had thought her only motivations for wanting to stop this thing between them, was for the sake of the mission. But after hearing Karin's story of success, Miranda realised that the effect it might have on the mission wasn't the only reason for her reserve. She now understood that she was equally concerned about the damage it might do to their friendship should it not work out. Yes, because this constant back and forthing is so good for the friendship.

The chirrup of her door almost sent Miranda flying up out of her chair. "EDI, who's at my door?"

"Doctor Chakwas," the AI replied.

A mix of relief and disappointment swirled in her stomach, and she pushed it down and fixed her mask of professionalism in place. "Come in."

"Welcome back," the Doctor said with a smile as she stepped into the room, "I heard everything went smoothly. Two missions in a row? That must be a record for Leni."

Miranda chuckled at Karin's amusing, yet sadly true statement. "I think you might be right." Seeing the datapad in the Doctor's hands Miranda frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"It's about Leni,"

A knot formed in Miranda's stomach at Karin's words, it must be the nanomites, they've stopped working. "What is it?" Miranda said, barely managing to keep her voice steady.

"I need your help, and Leni mustn't find out."

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Miranda stared at the datapad in her hands. “You can’t be serious?”

“It’s for her own sake,” the Doctor said from the other side of the desk.

“I had a conversation with her about this two weeks ago, and she expressed that she didn’t want this. If she doesn't want it, how is it for her own sake?”

“What she wants and what she needs are two different things, and sometimes you have to prioritise the latter for someone you care about. Plus, after everything that's happened, it's especially important we do this, and not only for her.”

Miranda sagged back in her chair and motioned for the Doctor to sit. “Karin, pulling this off would involve a lot of deception. Our friendship is already...turbulent,  if I do this, she'll never trust me again.”

A smile crept onto Karin’s face. “Miranda, if I believed that, I wouldn't have asked. The fact is, I think you're one of the few people she will forgive.”

Miranda couldn’t keep a smile from slipping onto her lips at Karin’s words. “Fine, but if this backfires, I’m blaming you.”

Standing, the Doctor laughed and as the doors slide open she said, “Don't worry dear, it won’t.”

Miranda let out a sigh and reread the datapad in her hand before looking up at the ceiling. “EDI?”

“Yes, Director?”

“I need you to change our destination to the following coordinates,” Miranda said and typed the numbers into her terminal. “Also, you must ensure that the Commander and the crew believe we are still heading to our previous coordinates. However, Mr Moreau and Doctor Chakwas know of this...detour.”

“Director, can you confirm that you wish for me to withhold information from the Commander?”

Although Miranda knew it must be her imagination, AI sounded as uncomfortable with the prospect of deceiving the Commander as she did. “Affirmative, EDI.”

“Understood. What if the Commander enquires about our location?” the AI asked.
“Lie. Authorisation M, L, eight, seven, five, one.”

“Yes, Director.”

-o-

“Evening, Lawson.”

Miranda jumped, almost dropping her tray. “Jesus, Shepard. Don’t sneak up on people.”

“Sneak?” The Commander asked, and Miranda heard the confusion in her voice. “We’re in the mess hall queue, there was no sneaking. Since when are you jumpy?”

“I was, just lost in my own thoughts, is that illegal?” Miranda rolled her eyes at her own childish comeback. She had been known as a master of deception and lies within Cerberus and due to her success in undercover operations. So why was she finding this situation so difficult?

“Err, okay. Sorry I interrupted your thoughts.”

Miranda heard something in Shepard’s voice and turned to see a disappointed look on her face that matched her tone. “I’m sorry, I’ve just had a lot on.”

“The boss driving you too hard?” A smile tugged at the other woman’s lips and the usual sparkle returned to her eyes. “Want me to have a word with her?”

Miranda couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yes, she’s a real slave driver. Listen I feel like things have been...”

“Awkward? Hostile? Like the cold war?” the Commander finished.

A laugh slipped from Miranda’s lips before she could stop herself and she gave Shepard a glare. “Can you please stop making me laugh in public, you’ll ruin my reputation.”

Shepard grinned and whispered, “I apologise, your Majesty, we wouldn’t want the peasants to know their Ice Queen’s frozen heart is melting.”

Miranda gave her a mock glare. “Want to join me in my cabin?” Seeing Leni’s smirk and a raised brow, Miranda shook her head, “To eat.” When Leni’s grin widened, Miranda realised her mistake. “Oh my God, you’re impossible. If you’re not careful, I’ll retract the invitation.”

Laughing, Leni said, “Okay, okay, I’ll behave I promise. I’d love to join you for dinner.”

-o-

Picking up her chopsticks, Miranda watched Shepard out of the corner of her eye. Instead of eating, the other woman sat back and stared out the window, a distant look on her face. “I can't get enough of these views. I’ve seen millions of stars in both my lifetimes and I still don’t tire of it.”

“I know what you mean,” Miranda said, putting her chopsticks back down and taking in the view, which included the shimmering blue nebula they were skirting. Miranda could feel the other woman’s gaze shift to look at her, but when Miranda turned, Leni slid forward and ate.

“It’s easy to forget how privileged we are, to do what we do.”

Miranda snorted. “Being shot at? Yes, we’re exceptionally lucky.”

“Well,” Leni drawled, “that’s my privilege. Your privilege is being able to bask in my glory.”

“Ugh, you’re such an arse,” Miranda said, but the reminder of her reaction three nights earlier made her cringe. “I’m sorry I overreacted the other night.”

Shaking her head, Leni said, “Can't blame you, I was being an ass. Things have been so intense: my seizures, the treatment, and back-to-back missions since then.”

“You're right, we should go out.”

Pausing mid-bite, Leni turned her head to look at Miranda, “You, want to go out?”

“Yes, why not?”

“You hate going out.”

“I used to hate going, it has progressed to...almost tolerable.”

A huge grin spread across Leni’s face. “I knew it,” she cried in triumph, “I knew you’d cave sooner or later.”

Miranda stared at Leni, brows furrowed as she proceeded to do, what Miranda assumed was supposed to be a celebratory dance. “Are you having a seizure?”

Leni froze mid jerk and stared at Miranda, mouth open in shock, but there was a sparkle in her eyes. “Oh my God, Lawson, I can’t believe you went there. You’ve been spending far too much time with me, I’m impressed.”

“So, tomorrow night at the bar? We could even get dressed up for it, I haven’t been dressed up in ages.”

“Who are you? And what have you done with Director Lawson?” Leni said giving her a wink. “Actually, you can keep her, I like this one best.”

-o-

“You know what, Lawson, this was a great idea, we needed downtime,” Leni said, juggling the stress-balls that lay on the Director’s desk.

“Yes,” came Miranda’s voice from the bathroom, “it’s been too long since you relaxed.”

“Since I relaxed? It must be at least a month since you last came to poker night.”
“I relax in my way.”

Leni smiled at her obstinate tone and turned at the sound of clicking heels exiting the bathroom. Two of the stress-balls she had been juggling, dropped to the floor at the sight of the other woman and it was all Leni could do to keep her mouth from falling open.

Miranda’s black hair hung loose and the lower half had been curled into perfect spirals. The soft white evening dress sat off her shoulders, running into long flounce sleeves and the body of the dress followed the contours of Miranda’s curvy figure, stopping just above the knee. The outfit was finished off by pretty, yet simple strappy, white heels.

“Well, I feel underdressed,” Leni said and then wanted to slap herself when she saw Miranda’s face contort.

“Too much?”

“No. I mean...you look incredible,” Leni said, relieved to see Miranda’s expression relax into a smile and was that a blush?

“Thank you, you’re looking quite dashing yourself. New shirt?”

Leni looked down at her forest green fitted shirt. “Yeah, I grabbed it on Illium, Jeff ruined my burgundy one with black Bacardi.”

“Oh, I liked that one on you,” Miranda said as she moved closer and straightened Leni’s shirt collar. “But this colour is nice on you too.”

While Miranda focused on the collar, Leni studied the other woman’s face; she had a light dusting of grey eyeshadow and a subtle hint of rose pink blush highlighting her cheekbones. Her lips, on the other hand, were anything but subtle, accentuated by a red lipstick that made them look even plumper than usual.

Shoving her hands into her jeans pockets, Leni took a step back before she broke the friendship boundaries once again. “Right, you ready?”

When Miranda looked up, Leni saw her expression change and as if having read her mind she took her own step back. “Yes, let’s get to the bar before the gin is all gone.”
Leni laughed, glad for the break in tension. “I’m pretty sure that’s already a lost cause, but I hid a bottle of wine and vodka yesterday in preparation,” Leni said, stepping through the door into the mess hall, the desolate mess hall. “Wow, it’s quiet tonight.”

“I heard something about a bunch of the crew having a poker game in the cargo bay. Donnelly's doing no doubt.”

“Huh, I’m offended I didn’t get an invitation.”

When Miranda scoffed, Leni threw her a sideward glance. “You think they want their commanding officer there while they drink beer and swear over losing?”

Leni frowned, “I’m a person too.”

“Yes, but on duty or not, you are still their commanding officer. Anyway, are you saying you'd have stood me up for a poker night?”

“As if. I would have dragged you along.”

As they pulled up outside the ship’s bar, Leni saw an odd look flash across the other woman’s face. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” she answered too quickly, “just...try to have a good night tonight, you deserve it.”

Leni studied her a few seconds longer, but whatever it had been was gone, maybe apprehension of spending the night in the bar which would involve pleasantries with other members of the crew. “You too, workaholic,” Leni said with a wink and stepped forward, her movement activating the bar’s automatic door.

“SURPRISE.”

Leni jumped back at the chorus of voices and the door closed again. For a moment she stared at the door mouth agape and then swivelled her head to look at Miranda, who had a guilty expression plastered on her face.

Leni read, more than heard Miranda’s ‘I’m sorry’ as the door reopened, displaying what appeared to be at least half the crew, with Karin and Jeff leading the pack. Forcing a smile onto her face, Leni stepped into the room and was greeted with a hug from Karin, hugging her back, Leni said through gritted teeth, “I know this is your fault and I will get you back for this.”

“Of that, I have no doubt darling,” Karin replied with a chuckle.

Leni took in the sea of faces, all looking her way and beaming. When Karin released her, the sea parted and Leni’s jaw dropped. “Mom?”

-o-

Hannah rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her little girl. “Happy birthday, Bright light,” she whispered into her daughter’s ear. When they let go of each other, Leni stared at her, a look of shock on her face.

“I...how? How are you here?”

“Well, considering you missed two of your birthdays, we have some catching up to do.”

“But, you shouldn't be in the Nubian Expanse, this isn’t an Alliance-friendly region.”

Hannah gave her daughter a sly smile. “Ah, but I'm not, neither are you.”

Confusion clouded her daughter’s face. “What? Yes, we were on our way to Pragia,” Leni said, and then her expression changed to realisation, “that huge electrical cloud we had to go around, was a story to cover changing course, wasn’t it EDI?”

“Yes, Commander,” the AI’s voice replied over the chatter of the party goers.

Hannah saw Leni turn her head, searching the room and then stop, facing the bar where Hannah caught sight of Miranda Lawson, who, when she saw Leni looking at her, broke eye contact and took a drink of her wine.

Hannah placed a hand on Leni’s shoulder to draw her attention back to her. “Don’t be mad at her, it was me and Karin who concocted the devious plan, Miranda only did as she was told.”

Giving a slight shake of her head Leni said, “That’d be a first.”

“Oh stop being a grump about the logistics and just enjoy yourself. I can’t stay long I’m afraid, we’re supposed to be patrolling for non-existent geth along the borders,” Hannah said, “but we had time for a quick pit stop.”

A sneer crossed her daughter’s face. “I’m so glad the Alliance learns from its mistakes. Two years ago, we were just patrolling for geth.”

The air in the room thinned and Hannah struggled to breathe as a familiar sensation came over her.

--

“Captain Shepard?”

“Yes, Corporal?” I say looking up from the datapad with the most recent engine diagnostics on.

“An Alliance frigate is requesting to dock with us,” the fresh-faced, young woman replies.

“Did they say what it was about, Corporal?”

“Not specifically Ma’am, only that a Captain Anderson needs to speak with you.”

“Very well, Corporal, permission to dock granted. Anderson, you say?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Datapad in hand, I make my way to the airlock, it’ll be at least ten minutes before docking is complete, might as well get through as much of this report as I can. Anderson, God I’m so terrible with names, but I know that name from somewhere. “Of course,” I say out loud, making a lieutenant jump, Anderson was the name of Leni’s old Captain and mentor. I frown, didn’t she make him the human’s representative on the Council? What is he doing out here? Had humanity been kicked off the Council already? I scoff, not an improbable notion.

I rest the datapad on the closest workstation when I hear the familiar hissing of the airlock door depressurising. As the door opens, I step forward to greet our visitor. “Captain Anderson, welcome aboard the Kilimanjaro.”

“Captain Shepard,” the man standing in front of me says in a deep rumbling voice.

There’s a heaviness in those two words and I take in his overall demeanour. Leni has spoken about this man; she has great respect for him, describing him as a strong, confident leader, who leads from the front with pride. However, the man that stands before me does not fit that description: his shoulders are hunched, his fingers twitch nervously and although his head is bowed, I can see he is unshaven with a few days worth of stubble.

“Captain, is there somewhere we can speak in private?” he says as he removes his hat, and for the first time, I get a look at his face. Grief is etched on it, a grief so overwhelming that I stumble back into the hull and my sight blurs. It’s too late for privacy, without saying a word, he has shattered my world.

“No. No. No, no, no, no,” my voice rings in my ears, although I’m not sure how I’m speaking when I can’t even breathe, it’s as if a stone is sitting on my chest, forbidding me from taking another breath. Not that it matters, there’s no point now, my little girl is gone.

--

“She’s coming round. Miranda, can you get some water please?” A familiar voice pierced through the black and Hannah focused on it, letting Karin guide her back.

“Mom,” her daughter said and the suffocating stone dissipated from her chest, her baby girl was here, was alive.

Forcing her eyes to open, Hannah squinted as the room came into focus. To her relief, she saw she was no longer in the bar surrounded by people. A hand squeezed hers and drew her attention to the right, where Leni sat beside her, on a sofa she realised. There was a worried look on her daughter’s face and Hannah gave her a smile. “What happened?”

“You passed out,” Karin said, crouching down in front of her and flashing a light in front of her eyes.

“Oh, I must have gone too long without eating.”

Karin shook her head. “I took your blood, it’s fine.”

“Here,” she heard Miranda say, as a glass of water appeared in front of her.

“Thank you, Honey,” Hannah said, taking the water in her free hand, not letting go of her daughter for a second.

“Sorry Mom,” Leni said, lowering her head, “what I said in the bar, was...insensitive. I forget that even though I’m back, it doesn’t erase the scars or memories of the last two years for those I left behind.”

Hannah brought her hand up to her daughter's chin, guiding her head until she met her gaze again. “This isn’t your fault, you didn’t choose to leave us. I understand that this can’t be easy for you, dealing with the loss of two years of your life, with the world having moved on without you, and working out how to fit back into it.”

Leni clenched her jaw and Hannah saw her fighting against the emotions her words had triggered. Hannah looked up at the sound of someone clearing their throat and saw Miranda looking awkward. “Sorry, I’m going to...” she said, pointing to the door.

Movement in the corner of her eye drew Hannah’s attention to Karin coming towards her as she bent forward and gave her a kiss on the head. “No more fainting you.”

“Oh, Karin, can you grab the thing please?” Hannah said, giving her a conspiratorial look.
“Ah, yes, I’ll go get it.”

-o-

“You guys are so unsubtle,” Leni said with a chuckle.

“Subtle enough you had no idea about the party.”

Shaking her head, Leni said, “I have to admit you got me there. I can’t believe you dragged Miranda into it.”

“She was very reluctant to go against your wishes. Karin thinks the only reason she folded was that I was part of the plan.” Hannah paused a moment trying to read her daughters thoughts. “She cares about you, you know.”

Shrugging Leni said, “Not enough.”

“Don’t give up yet darling, I think there is hope there, she just needs time, and maybe a little reassurance.”

“Reassurance,” Leni said with a frown, “What do you mean?”

“Have you told her how you feel? I mean outright told her, not just subtle hints.”

Leni opened her mouth, closed it again and shook her head. “What if she shoots me down?”

Hannah smiled. “Then you pick yourself back up and move on. But what if she doesn’t? It’s always scary putting yourself out there, but if you never take a risk, you’ll never experience the payoff, and trust me when I say, it’s worth it.”

Staring off into the nether, Leni’s head bobbed. When the doors opened again, Hannah looked over to see Karin entering with one of the presents Hannah had brought with her. Hannah gave a thankful nod to Karin as she left again.

Handing the heavy, wrapped box to her daughter, Hannah said, “This would have been your thirtieth birthday present, better late than never.”

Leni’s eyes shone in the soft light of the room as she unwrapped the present. When she saw the familiar oak wood box, with its beautiful curling contours of the carving and brass corners and latch, her eyes widened. “You found it?”

Hannah gave her daughter a smile and nodded. “I did. It was in a collection of items recovered from the scene on Akuze.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I wanted to give it to you for your birthday.”

Leni lifted the latch on the box and opened it as if it might break any second. A sad smile ghosted her face as she reached in and picked up John’s N7 Eagle, turning it over in her hands, studying every inch, and rubbing her thumb over the initials inscribed on the barrel: T.S. J.S. L.S.

“I had John added to it after I found it and had you added to it after you came back,” Hannah explained.

“Why would you add it once I was back? I’m here,” Leni said with a puzzled look.

“Yes, but you weren’t,” Hannah said, reaching up and stroking her daughter’s cheek, “this is to remind you how lucky we are to have a second chance, and not to waste it.”

Leni placed her hand on top of Hannah’s. “Thank you, Mom, it’s perfect.”

“You have something else up in your cabin, but save that for later. Now it’s time to get back to that party.”

-o-

“So Lawson, as my XO, I’d like your opinion on something. Say a crew member changed the ship's course without permission from their senior officer and then deceived said senior officer to cover up their actions. What would you consider appropriate discipline for such insubordination? Try to think in Alliance methods rather than ‘out the airlock’ Cerberus methods.”

The serious tone in the Commander’s voice made Miranda’s chest tighten, and instead of turning to look at her, she continued studying the list of songs on the jukebox in front of her. “I would advise that they are removed from active duty and dropped off at the closest station to be handled by the Brass.”

“Hm, sounds fair.”

There was a sinking feeling in her stomach on hearing Shepard’s words. Karin had been wrong, this would be the end of their friendship. “Commander, I-”

“It’s a good job I’m not you isn’t it?” Leni interrupted. Turning around, Miranda saw a smirk on the other woman’s face and two glasses of wine in her hands. “But if you ever order my AI to lie to me again, we will have issues, are we clear?” Leni said, holding out one of the wine glasses, her eyes dancing with amusement.

Taking the glass, Miranda bit her bottom lip to curb the smile that was forcing its way onto her face. “Yes, Commander.”

“So, now I’m done reprimanding you, I wanted to thank you.”

“To thank me?” Miranda said furrowing her brow.

“For my present: Mom.” There was a slight curve on Leni’s lips and an intensity in her eye, the intensity that drew Miranda to Leni time and time again.

“That’s...” Miranda paused, struggling to collect her thoughts. “Not a present. I can’t take credit for it, I was just doing as asked.”

“But it wouldn’t have happened without you, thank you.”

-o-

A clinking sound across the other side of the room drew Leni’s focus from the woman in front of her and she saw Karin tapping a spoon against her champagne glass. “Oh God, please no.”

“Good evening everyone,” the Doctor’s crisp British voice rang out across the quieting room, “I’d like to thank you all for coming to celebrate our beloved Commander’s thirtieth, thirty-first and thirty-second birthdays. I’d also like to thank Rupert for providing us with this wonderful buffet and Zaeed for the excessive quantities of alcohol, I think it's best we don't ask which freighter it fell off of.” A round of laughter filled the room and Leni saw both Rupert and Zaeed get slaps on the backs from various crew members. “Now, if the birthday girl will please join me up here.”

Leni let out a pained sigh. “I knew I wouldn’t get away that easily.”

“Happy birthday, Commander,” Miranda whispered behind her, and without even looking, Leni heard the smirk in her voice.

Making her way across the room, Leni levelled a glare at both Karin and her mother stood beside her. When she reached them she murmured so that only the two women could hear, “The revenge tally is clocking up fast.” In reply, the two women’s smiles widened.

“Speech,” Crewman Vadim Rolston yelled from the back of the room.

Leni laughed, “I’m not one for speeches.”

Someone to her left coughed, and she heard Jack choke out, “queen of pep-talks,” which elicited an uproar of laughter from the entire room and even Leni couldn’t help but join in.

“Fine,” she said once the laughter died down, “I’m not big on personal speeches. But thank you for this, it is very kind of you all to make the sacrifice of taking time away from your duties to come and drink alcohol and eat food in my honour.” There was laughter once more and Leni waited until it quietened, save for a few murmurs. “You know, when I got this mission thrust upon me, it was my worst nightmare: a Cerberus ship with Cerberus crew, if I’d had any other options, I’d have been gone.”

Silence fell across the room, all eyes on her with many looking shocked.

“I’m so damn glad I had no other options because I would have missed out on leading the best crew I’ve ever worked with, and that’s saying something.”

The tension that had descended on the room moments earlier, dissipated with chuckles and smiles from the crew. A shove from behind made Leni turn to see her mother giving a disapproving look. “That was mean.”

Leni threw a smile and winked at her. “You know me, Mom, I love the dramatic finish.”
“Well,” Karin said, drawing her attention and placing a large wrapped box on the bar stool next to her. “The crew have all put together to get you something. Happy birthday Leni.”

“Happy birthday, Commander,” came cheers from the crowd accompanied with many glasses being raised.

“Open it, Commander,” Crewman Sarah Patel crowed from where she stood beside Rolston.

When the red and blue wrapping paper fell to the floor, Leni beamed. “This is great, thank you all,” Leni said staring at the karaoke machine, studying the ‘key features’ text on the box. “Oh wow, this is one of the fancy ones you can upload any song to and it will strip the lyrics keeping the backing track. This is amazing everyone. You realise this means regular karaoke nights from now on?”

There was a mixture of cheers and groans, and Leni laughed. “Don’t worry, they won’t be mandatory, I promise I would never force karaoke on unwilling subjects.” She glanced over at the jukebox, meeting Miranda’s gaze and flashing her a grin, letting the Director know she was excluded from that promise. Miranda rewarded her with an eye roll, telling her, the message was received and not appreciated. “Well, I think it’s time you all got back to drinking and eating. Have a good night everyone and thank you again.”

-o-

As the partygoers dispersed, Hannah placed a hand on her daughter’s arm. “I’m afraid it’s time for me to head back, darling.”

Leni’s face fell but then formed into an understanding smile. “Duty calls.”

“It does, the border won’t patrol itself,” she said as they walked to the door, “where’s Miri?”

Leni looked across the room and then beckoned with a tilt of her head. Moments later Miranda appeared through the throng of bodies.

A hand on her back drew her attention and Hannah turned to find her best friend there with arms stretched. “Take care, Han,” Karin said into her ear.

“You too, Darling.” Turning to Jeff, Hannah gave him a gentle squeeze. “You be careful now, no bone breaking you here?”

Chuckling he pulled back. “Don’t worry, I get a mail from Mom every morning reminding me about my meds and to be careful. She’s got it covered.”

The bar door opened and Hannah stepped out, her daughter and Miranda in tow. When the door had closed, Hannah moved towards Miranda, who was looking uncomfortable. Placing a hand on either shoulder, Hannah locked eyes with the younger woman. “There aren’t enough thank you's in the galaxy for me to express my gratitude to you for giving me back my daughter, and for enriching her life. If you ever need anything you know how to get hold of me, don't hesitate.”

Hannah saw Miranda swallow hard, and although her lips moved as if to speak, she stayed silent and gave a nod and a slight smile. Hannah pulled her into a hug, to start with Miranda was stiff, as made of wood, but after a moment she relaxed into the hug and mumbled, “I will.”

As Miranda returned to the bar, Hannah walked towards the elevator and Leni fell in beside her, when the lift descended Hannah turned to face her. “Don’t let what you two have, what you could have, slip away out of fear of rejection. Take a chance.”

Leni gave a nod. “Yeah, you’re right, I know you are. God, I wish you could stay, I know it’s stupid - a grown woman wanting her mom - but I do.”

“I wish I could too, Darling.”

-o-

“Captain?”

Hannah tore her eyes away from the Normandy which was getting smaller and smaller the further away they got. “Sorry, Major, what was that?”

“I asked if you had a nice time. Are you okay Ma’am?” her second in command asked, concern in her voice.

“Honestly, Berglund? I don’t know. I’ve already lost her once, and even though she is back, things haven’t been smooth sailing with her health. And now, once again I’m flying away from her, knowing it could be the last time I see her.”

“Hannah, what are you saying?”

Hannah was quiet for a moment as she turned back to look at the Normandy before it was out of sight. “What are we doing, Annika? Patrolling the Attican borders for imaginary geth? Two crew members on our ship alone have lost family in the vanishing colonies and many more crew are left worrying about the family they have in other colonies. What is the Alliance doing? Why aren’t we being deployed to protect them? How can they just ignore entire colonies going missing without a trace? It’s a backward world when a xenophobic extremist group are the only ones doing anything to save the galaxy.”

When there was silence Hannah dragged her eyes away from the expanse of stars to look at the Major.

“Hannah,” Berglund said with a whisper, “be careful who you say that to. Some people would consider it... treasonous talk and take action on it.”

Hannah turned back to face the window and gave a small nod.

-o-

Leni finished thanking the last member of the crew who had just arrived having been working the first shift rotation, something the Director had created specifically for this evening to ensure all staff could join in the celebrations. Scanning the room, Leni caught sight of Miranda talking to Jacob by the bar, looking just as stunning as she had four hours earlier. Other than a short conversation just before she'd received her presents, they hadn’t socialised, which was disappointing, considering Leni had been looking forward to their original plan of a nice evening together.

Miranda placed a hand on Jacob’s arm and said something to him, which drew a frown from Jacob. Miranda shook her head in response to whatever Jacob said and then turned and headed for the door, before exiting, she looked back and scanned the room but didn't seem to see Leni where she stood at the far side of the poker table.

Leni wove her way through the throng of people and on reaching Jacob she dipped her head towards the door. “Where’d Miri go?” Leni said letting the nickname slip out without thinking.

Jacob’s brow raised, and a smirk appeared on his lips. “Does she know you call her that?”

“She does, and loves it,” she said flashing him a cocky grin. Jacob was one of the few people Miranda considered a friend and seen as she’d already let the name slip, she might as well just go with it.

Barking a laugh Jacob shook his head. “For your sake, I won’t tell her you said that. She’s turning in for the night, which as you know, is Miranda speak for doing reports or rotas or something equally boring.”

“Of course she is, thanks,” she said patting Jacob on the shoulder and heading to the door. Something dawned on her and she walked back behind the bar. After a little digging around a cupboard, Leni stood holding up the wine bottle to answer Jacobs unasked question.

His expression changing from puzzled to a sly grin. “Have a nice evening, don’t do anything I wouldn’t,” he said with a wink.

-o-

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Miranda opened her eyes and refocused on the datapad in front of her, rosters were the least favourite of her tasks, and it was a never-ending, thankless job. Not that she ever did anything with the aim to receive thanks, but not one roster she had drawn up since this mission began, had pleased everyone. Someone always had something to complain about.

Miranda looked up at the sound of her door chime, probably Jacob not accepting her excuses for leaving. Letting out a pained sigh, she dragged herself up out of the chair and moved to the door, she began talking before the door was open. “Jacob, I just want- oh, Leni, shouldn’t you be at the party?”

There was a faint smile on the other woman’s lips. “Bored, it wasn’t the evening I’d been planning on, so...fancy joining me for a quiet drink in my cabin? Mom said I have another present waiting up there, otherwise, I’d suggest your comfy sofa.”

Miranda smiled, this evening had been like torture for her and the only reason she had stayed so long was for Leni’s sake, not that they’d spent any time together. She had, in fact, wished that their fake plans of a quiet drink in the bar had been real. “That sounds like a perfect end to the evening. Hang on a sec,” she said, ducking back into her cabin and grabbing the wrapped box from her desk drawer. When she turned back Leni was no longer in the doorway and as Miranda exited, the other woman stepped out from the ship’s kitchen with two mugs and a bottle of wine in hand.

Making their way towards the lift, Leni said, “I know mugs aren’t the most refined way to drink wine, but if I go back into the bar, I’ll no doubt get jumped by another well-wisher.”

When the lift doors closed, Miranda looked at the other woman who was leaning against the back wall. “You know, despite rumours, drinking out of a fancy glass doesn’t make it taste better.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Leni replied, using her elbows to push herself off the wall as the doors pinged open, “I wouldn’t want to offend one of Australia’s upper-class.”

As they exited the lift, Miranda gave Leni a bump with her shoulder. “Wanker.” When they entered the cabin, Leni got straight on with opening and pouring the wine. Miranda caught sight of a beautiful, carved wooden box on the desk. “Is this from your mum?”

Leni glanced over and smiled, nodding. “Yeah, she gave me that when we were in your cabin, after the whole fainting thing. Take a look.”

Unlatching the clasp, Miranda lifted the box’s lid to find a polished, yet well used, heavy pistol, more specifically an N7 Eagle. With the correct damage increasing mods, the Eagle was an excellent sidearm, but she had a feeling this present was less about the weapon’s functionality and more about its history. “May I?” Miranda asked Leni as she placed one of the wine filled mugs on the desk beside her.

“Take a look at the barrel.”

Picking up the weapon, Miranda saw on the right side of the gun, beautiful curling letters etched into the barrel. “What’s the story?”

Leni perched on the desk beside Miranda and took a sip of her wine. “It was John’s; after dad died, he had his initials etched on the barrel. We thought it had been lost in the attack, but it seems Mom found it in a collection of items recovered from the scene.”

Miranda stared at the gun in her hands, feeling like she was holding a live grenade. The scene of his death, the death a Cerberus experiment had caused, granted it had been a case of wrong time, wrong place, but that fact didn’t change the outcome.

“Mom had John added to it when she found it and had planned to give it to me for my thirtieth,” Leni continued, seeming oblivious to Miranda’s anxiety, “she then added me to it, as a reminder of how lucky I am to have a second chance.”

Miranda placed the weapon back in its box and picked up her mug, taking a sip of the fruity wine. “It’s lovely,” she managed to say.

Leni stood and walked down the four stairs to the living area and Miranda followed close behind. Seeing the present on the coffee table, she placed her own next to it and sat down on the sofa, kicking off her heels, which looked great, but weren’t the most comfortable things she owned.

“Haven’t you already given me enough?”

Looking up at Leni, Miranda frowned. “I haven’t given you anything.”

“No? So what about thousands of credits worth of surgery?”

Miranda’s closed her eyes. “Damn it, Karin.” There was a chuckle from the other woman, and then Miranda felt a thumb brush her cheek, making her heart quicken.

“You shouldn’t have, but thank you,” Leni whispered.

When the warm touch left her cheek, Miranda opened her eyes to see Leni looking almost awkward as she turned and reached for the presents on the table, an action which put significant distance between them, Miranda noticed.

“So, which one first?” Leni asked holding up both boxes with a grin.

“Oh, err, mine first,” Miranda said, feeling self-conscious, “it's just a stupid little thing, so I’d rather not have to follow whatever wonderful thing your mum has got you.”

Laughing, Leni put her mother’s parcel back down and began opening the present. She did it with such care, not the typical ripping that most people went for, no Shepard was peeling each seam apart, careful not to spoil the pattern.

“You don’t have to reuse it you know, I have more,” Miranda said with a smirk.

“Piss off,” Leni said without looking up. When the paper came away, her face lit up. “Holy shit, where did you find this?” she said, holding up the Normandy SR1 model kit, “I’ve been trying to get hold of one for a month. I was told the Alliance had discontinued them after her destruction and they had made only a thousand.”

“You were told correct,” Miranda said, trying to ignore the somersaults in her stomach at Leni’s delight, “I know someone who knows someone who can get hold of unusual things she probably shouldn’t be able to. Best not to ask.”

Putting the box back down on the table, Leni scooted closer to her and before Miranda could process what was happening, the other woman had wrapped her arms around her. “Thank you, it isn’t stupid, I love it,” Leni murmured, and Miranda felt a wave of goosebumps rush over her arms in response to the warm breath on her neck.

Releasing her, Leni pulled back but paused and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. Miranda turned her face to look at her, their lips almost touching. Leni took a deep breath and rested her forehead on Miranda’s, increasing the distance between their lips. Just friends. Miranda reminding herself.

Without saying a word, Leni withdrew, before turning her attention to the unopened present on the table, beginning the painstaking process of unwrapping the next box with a look of intrigue on her face. However, when the paper came away and revealed a mini-holo-projector, her face contorted and she swallowed hard.

“What’s wrong?” Miranda said frowning, “What is it?”

For a few moments, Leni sat staring at the item in her hands. “It’s a time-holo. My dad was a huge birthday celebrater, no birthday celebration was ever the same, it was something John took an interest in and it became their thing. Which is why I don’t like celebrating anymore, nothing compares, you know?”

Miranda nodded when Leni looked up at her. “So, you know what this is?”

“I have an idea. I think they meant this to be for my thirtieth birthday, if it’s what I think it is, we did similar for John’s; Mom, Becky and I watched it together on his birthday, in his absence.”

Miranda was getting the impression that this was something very personal and reached for her shoes. “I’ll give you some privacy.”

“Wait, you don’t have to, I...I don't want you to. Please stay?”

This evening had been packed full of more emotions than Miranda dealt with in a year, and her practical side was yelling for her to get the hell out, but one look at Leni, at the emotion etched on her face as she asked her to stay and Miranda sat back down.

Smiling, Leni placed the projector on the coffee table and pressed the power button. The projector beeped once and the holo-screen lit up, hovering just above the small machine. The camera view was shaky, and the world was on its side showing a bright blue sunny sky and green grass.

“Okay, Spodge, you ready?” a deep male voice came from off-screen.

A little girl with an untamed afro, dressed in black jeans, a white t-shirt and a red and black plaid shirt, jumped into the frame. “You bet I am, future me, here I come.”

The picture paused with the little girl frozen in place, pointing at the camera, unmistakable chestnut-brown eyes staring straight at them. “Oh god,” Leni groaned covering her face with her hand “maybe you should leave.”

Laughing, Miranda shuffled back getting comfy on the sofa, tucking her feet under her and leaning closer. “Oh no, I’m not going anywhere now. Future you, huh?”

Turning her head Leni gave her a mock glare. “Dad said he would send it to me in the future, and I thought he would literally send it to the future, it didn’t occur to me back then that he meant he’d save it for me when I was older.”

“You were a kid, a super cute kid by the way.”

“I was, wasn’t I? Okay, fine, you can stay, but if word of this ever leaves this room, I will be forced to fire you.”

“Mmmhm. Where was it shot?”

“Eden Prime, we holidayed there once a year, they actually filmed it on my tenth birthday.”

“Well play it then,” Miranda said motioning to the projector.

“Okay,” said the man - Thomas Shepard - as the video played again, “what do you want to say to the future you?”

“Hey future me, I want to say that I hope you’re...we’re?...I’m?” the little girl said, sounding confused.

“I think ‘you’ works fine, Honey.”

“Okay future me, I hope you’re a successful music artist by now, but not so successful that you forget to take care of Mom, Dad and Joh, oh and Jeff and Nina.”

Miranda glanced at Leni, whose expression was unreadable. The original intentions of this video would have been embarrassment and entertainment for Leni as an adult, but Miranda knew that that sentence alone must rub salt in multiple wounds. Her dream to be a singer, Nina, John and her dad: all were things Leni had lost since they filmed this video.

“Anything else you want to say to the future you, Splodge?” Thomas asked. There was a tenderness in his voice whenever he spoke to his daughter, and, having seen many photos of Thomas Shepard, Miranda could picture the look on his face.

Miranda’s heart began to hurt as feelings of jealousy and longing tried to rise up and she pushed them back down. This was a perfect example of the unfairness in the galaxy: Thomas was a loving father who was ripped away from his children too soon, while Miranda’s own father - a cold, cruel man who wasn’t worthy of the title father - lived on.

“I want to sing her a song I wrote, so she can make it a big hit,” Little Leni said as she walked off-screen, returning with an acoustic guitar in hand. “Seen as she’s future me, do you think she already knows it?”

“Ah, that is the million dollar time travel question. I think you should play it for her, just in case.”

Little Leni gave a nod and began to play the first chords of the song. When she sang, Miranda understood why she’d received a scholarship to one of the most prestigious performing arts schools on Earth. The song was simple, yet beautiful, singing about friendships that last a lifetime.

“Naive song, back when I knew nothing about how the world worked,” Leni said bitterly, shaking her head at the screen.

“It’s beautiful, do you still play?”

Leni shrugged. “Sometimes, when I have a guitar in my hand. Not in this lifetime though.”

When the song ended, Little Leni focused back on the camera flashing them a beaming smile; it was a carefree smile, one of innocence. Something Shepard had long lost, and something Miranda had never had.

“Bye future me,” Little Leni said as she ran off-screen.

-o-

The camera turned around, and her dad came into focus, his piercing hazel eyes looking right at her. “Well, Thirty-year-old Splodge, I hope you enjoyed that despite the humiliation. Never forget I love you, Bright light.”

Leni swallowed hard trying to clear the lump in her throat while fighting the sting in her eyes and a mild tremor in her hands. A hand settled on her knee and Leni just stared at it, not daring to make eye contact for fear she would lose composure. She probably should have let Miranda go when she had tried to flee, she knew there was more footage to come and it would be an increasing challenge to stay in control. But she wanted Miranda there with her.

As expected, just as the screen dimmed on her father’s face, a new video began to play. This time the backdrop was the apartment they used to holiday in, it decorated which with party banners, balloons and a huge cake sat on the table, with her mom, dad and brother sat behind it.

“Happy thirtieth birthday Leni,” the three of them cheered into the camera. “Hey, old Dork,” sixteen-year-old John said, “I’m still calling you Dork, because I know there’s no way you could be anything but,” he continued, earning him a playful punch from dad.

“I said be nice.”

“That was me being nice,” John said raising his hands as he protested his innocence, and then looked into the camera and gave a wink. “Love you, Dork.”

The slight tremors were increasing to the point where her hands would soon cramp from the tight fists she had been holding, and her scars were burning. The video went on, with her family recollecting memories that were recent for them, but a lifetime ago for her.

When the cramping became too much, she stretched out her hands, fingers splayed which displayed the shakes. Instead of the scolding she had expected, Leni felt Miranda’s arm slip under hers and watched as she interlinked their fingers. “Did you really think I couldn't see the tremors?” the other woman murmured, “just relax, idiot.”

Leni chuckled, there was that scolding. For them to hold hands like they were, Miranda was now leaning up against Leni, her head resting on her shoulder, and Leni lowered her head down until her cheek was resting on top of Miranda’s head.

“Never forget how much we love you, and how proud we are of you, Bright light,” her mom said, eyes sparkling with a light that had dimmed over the last thirteen years.

“Happy birthday.” Came a final cheer from all three as their faces were replaced by an endless slideshow of family photos and one of her favourite songs as a backing track.

Leni watched the photos pass by one by one. “It’s hard to process: that he’s been gone for thirteen years. Sometimes it feels longer, but then I see this, and it’s like it was only a month ago the four of us were enjoying our last Christmas together.”

Miranda moved and Leni lifted up her head and looked down at the other woman who was now looking up at her. “You had a wonderful family.”

“Yeah, I did and I’ve still got an awesome Mom.”

“That you do, I might have to borrow her now and then.”

Leni smiled at the out of character admission. “Any time, as long as you bring her back in the same state as you found her.”

Bringing her free hand up, Miranda traced her thumb up Leni’s cheekbone and brushed her fingers over the scar, frowning as she did. “God, they must hurt when they burn up. I’m trying to figure a way to counter it, but it’s taking time. It would be easier if I had access to the Lazarus project research, but to get access to that I’d have to tell Jack why.”

“You work too hard, don’t you have enough shit to worry about.”

“I can’t help but worry about you.”

Leni’s reached up and tucked a stray lock behind Miranda’s ear. “God, you’re beautiful.” Miranda smiled in response, but then her gaze dropped and Leni guided her chin up until their eyes met again. “What do you want?”

-o-

Miranda stared at Leni with no idea how to reply. “What do you mean?” she said, biding time.

Leni tilted her head, brow raised, and a smirk playing on her lips.

“The mission, we can’t.”

“I’m not asking Director Lawson what she thinks,” Leni replied, “I’m asking Miri, what she wants, what she feels.”

Miranda pulled her chin free of Leni’s gentle touch and frowned at the floor. “It’s not that simple, Shepard.” Miranda’s head spun as it warred with her heart, both saying different things. “I can’t just separate the two.”

“Sure you can just listen to the loudest voice,” Leni said and the nonchalance in her tone made Miranda bristle.

“Well if you think it’s so easy, what do you want?” She threw back.

“You,” an almost inaudible whisper came. Miranda turned back to face Leni, uncertain whether she had imagined the reply, her heart pounding as if it might burst from her chest any second. “I want you, I want us,” Leni breathed with no hint of doubt. “What do you want?”

 

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Miranda dropped her head and let out a shaky breath. "The mission, I want it to be the priority." After a moment of silence, Miranda raised her head, just in time to see a sad look be replaced by a rueful smile.

"I understand," Leni said, and Miranda felt the fingers that were still interlaced with her own, loosen. "Thank you for this evening, I appreciate you being here to watch the holo with me."

When Leni pulled her hand away and sat up, Miranda wanted nothing more than to pull her back, to kiss her and tell her all she wanted was her. Instead, Director Lawson picked up her shoes and stood. "Thank you for having me, it was a privilege."

There was still a smile on the other woman's face, but her eyes betrayed the facade. "Goodnight, Lawson."

-o-

Working until four AM when her alarm went off at six, had not been the best move Miranda had ever made, but her mind refused to let her sleep. To her chagrin, the sick feeling she'd had since leaving the Captain's cabin had still been present when she woke, so when she stepped into the mess hall and saw Leni stood last in the breakfast queue, Miranda knew the universe was punishing her.

She contemplated skipping breakfast altogether, but she never skipped breakfast, which would make it obvious she was avoiding the other woman, and she would have to speak to her at the briefing today anyway. Time to bite the bullet, Lawson.

Grabbing a tray, Miranda made her way to the back of the queue; Leni was in conversation with Gabriella Daniels about a couplings upgrade and didn't appear to see Miranda pass her, either that or she was pretending not to.

As Daniels walked off she gave a nod to Miranda. "Good morning, Ma'am."

"Daniels," Miranda replied, wanting to kick the engineer for drawing attention to her before she was prepared.

Leni turned and gave her a smile. "Morning, Lawson."

"Morning, Commander, did you sleep well?" Miranda said, keeping the nerves from her voice.

"Not too bad, you?"

Miranda hesitated. "I've had better nights."

Leni gave a quiet snort and Miranda tensed for a sour retort. "You went back and worked all night, didn't you?" Leni said as she turned and grinned.

Miranda stared at her in confusion, there was no bitterness in her voice and her eyes didn't betray her as they had the night before. If someone had only Leni's current behaviour to go by, they'd be forgiven for thinking last night had been a dream. Miranda questioned whether she had misread the depth of emotions she had felt from Leni, but there was no doubt in her mind how serious Leni had been when she told her she wanted 'us', or the hurt in her eyes when she said goodnight.

Realising she'd been staring for far too long, Miranda glanced around the room. "Leni, are we...okay? After..."

Leni gave her a smile, but it was a different smile to the charming one she usually flashed at her, this one felt detached. "Of course we are, Lawson," then lowering her voice, she said, "It's not the first time I've been knocked back, and I'm sure it won't be the last. We're good."

Emotions rioted inside Miranda at the other woman's words. While she was relieved that they were okay, it hurt to hear Leni refer to what happened last night as a knockback, as if it had been nothing more than an offer of a meaningless one-night stand. She knew she had no right to feel like that, it was her who had run away, once again, but that didn't stop the sick feeling from intensifying. Forcing a smile on her face Miranda nodded.

The line moved forward and Leni piled up her plate. "Morning, Rupert, thank you so much for the buffet last night, it was great."

Miranda saw the chef beam at Leni and then wave a hand her way. "Well, it's thanks to Director Lawson that I had time to do it, she assigned my janitorial duties to Crewman Goldstein.

"Oh did she now?" Leni said, brow quirked.

"Well, he spends half his time complaining about the food, so I concluded he'd be happy to give Rupert more time to prepare our meals."

"Sneaky, Lawson, very sneaky; I like it," Leni replied as she walked away, laden tray in hand, "I'll see you later."

"You're not eating here?" Miranda said, aware of the undisguised disappointment in her voice. When she turned, something flashed in Leni's eyes, but it was gone before Miranda could discern what it was.

"Working breakfast with Garrus before the briefing."

"O-eight-hundred as usual?"

"Affirmative, see you then."

-o-

Hearing the doors hiss open, Karin looked up from her breakfast and smiled at Miranda, who didn't return the smile. "Uh-oh, what happened?"

"I'm a moron, that's what," Miranda said, almost slamming her tray down, as she sat in the desk chair opposite Karin.

Karin raised her brows and stared at the younger woman for a moment. That was not something she would have ever expected Miranda to say; Karin had seen Miranda worried, frustrated, annoyed and even angry, yet she had always maintained a level of composure. This display was more like something she would see from Leni. "Okay," she drawled, "would you like to expand on that?"

Miranda slouched back in the chair, letting out a deep sigh, staying quiet for several moments. "Do you know what the other present Hannah gave Leni was? The one she left in her cabin?"

Karin gave a nod but said nothing.

"Leni asked me to watch it with her, and it was very emotional, so I comforted her when she was upset, and when we were talking after, she..." Karin watched as Miranda picked up her cutlery and poked at her food.

"If you want me to forget you were here, I can do that. But sometimes you have to get it out before it consumes you. You have my word anything you say won't leave this room. Doctor, patient confidentiality," Karin said, adding a little playfulness to the last words, which drew a slight smile from Miranda.

"She asked me what I wanted, regarding me and her, and I fed her the same old 'the mission comes first' line, and she said, she wasn't asking Director Lawson what she thought, she was asking what Miri wanted."

Karin gave a slight smile, pleased that Leni had dared to take a chance.

"I threw back at her that if she thought it was so simple to separate the two, what did she want," Miranda continued unable to stop now she had started, "and then she outright said 'you, us'. And when she asked me again what I wanted, I replied "I want the mission to be the priority'. Karin, the way she looked at me, the sadness in her eyes when she said goodnight." Miranda's jaw tightened and she stared up at the ceiling. "I couldn't sleep last night I felt so awful, and I thought it was just because I knew I'd hurt her, but then when I ran into her in the breakfast queue, she acted so...normal, as if last night never happened. When I asked if we were okay, she said, 'of course, it's not the first time I've been knocked back', she said it so nonchalantly, as if it had meant nothing." Miranda paused and just stared at her breakfast plate.

"That's when you realised it wasn't just her that had been hurt last night?" Karin said, filling in the gap.

"And she has reverted to only calling me Lawson, which I suppose is to put some distance between us. I know it's my doing and I have no right to feel like this-"

"Don't be silly," Karin cut in, "this isn't an easy situation and you didn't do this to spite her. Just leave her be, for now, things will work themselves out."

Miranda let out another deep sigh, and without looking at Karin, gave a small nod. "Thank you, Karin."

"Any time, Darling."

-o-

The ten squad members stood around the table in the comm room, a projection of Pragia hovering above it. Clearing her throat, Leni waited for the chatter to die down before she began. "Meet Pragia. For those of you that aren't aware, we are here to deal with a personal issue for Jack."

Leni dragged two fingers across the planet's surface and the hologram zoomed in, showing details of the terrain and a building almost hidden among the dense undergrowth. "This should have been an abandoned building, a simple 'in and out' mission, however..." she paused, and when she zoomed in on the building, there was a chorus of groans and huffs. "As you see, this shiny frigate suggests the base isn't as deserted as we had expected."

"Fuck," Jack yelled from the far side of the table, throwing the mug in her hand at the wall. "Fuuuuck."

Leni waited, watching the young woman who was pacing back and forth. "Are you done?" Leni asked. When Jack stood still, Leni could see a vein pulsing in her inked neck. Although she got no reply, Leni took the break in her tantrum as a yes.

"The mission goes ahead with the amendment that we run with two teams as opposed to one. Thanks to the industrially-mutated plant life introduced by batarian colonists two hundred years ago, this planet is far from ideal for inhabitation. That would suggest that our unexpected visitors are likely to be mercenaries or the like." Heads nodded around the room agreeing with her theory. "But, until we know otherwise, we proceed with the usual 'think first' attitude. In a time when colonies no longer feel safe, I will not be responsible for the death of desperate civilians trying to make a home for themselves. Is everyone clear on that?" Murmurs and more nods came from around the room, but it was Jack that Leni focused on, eyes locked with the younger woman. "Are we clear, Jack? Because if we aren't, I have a long list of places we need to be."

After a few seconds of trying to stare her down, Jack looked away, her whole body sagging. "Understood."

"Good. So the two teams are: Alpha team will be lead by me with Jack and Tali. Beta team will be lead by Garrus, with Samara and Mordin. Alpha team will go in via the main entrance and sweep our way through the facility. Beta team will hang back as back up, clearing that frigate for any stragglers and cover the exits. Questions? No? Good, we leave in an hour. Dismissed."

-o-

Just before the elevator doors closed a hand grabbed the door, making it reopen. "Lawson," Leni said, acknowledging the other woman as she stepped into the elevator. When there was no reply, Leni glanced at her, she was staring straight ahead, expression stony.

When the elevator ascended, Miranda slapped the emergency stop button. "What the hell was that?"

Her face was stormy now, eyes blazing with an anger Leni had never seen in her and Leni stared at her in confusion. "What?"

"So, we're good are we?" Miranda spat the words out.

"I'm sorry, I'm missing the context of this conversation."

"So good that you bench me to punish me for last night?"

Leni stared at the seething woman stood across from her in shock "What?" was all Leni managed to say.

"I'm such an idiot, I should have known you'd-"

"You should have known what?" Leni interrupted. "You think I'd punish you for not reciprocating how I feel about you? Do you think so little of me?"

The fury on Miranda's face contorted into confusion. "But..."

Leni leaned back on the wall for support and doused the anger that the accusation had ignited. If she was being objective, she could see why Miranda had interpreted it the way she had. It was a matter of bad timing, but because Leni would never do something like that, it hadn't crossed her mind it would be perceived that way.

"I decided not to assign you to this mission after our conversation two days ago, the one about you having a slave driver boss. I know it was just a playful conversation, but it got me thinking, it wasn't far from the truth. You're the only squad member who has been on every mission, even I had to sit out the Aeia mission when I first had seizures. A large chunk of the XO's duties is the time-consuming paperwork and crew management: to allow the CO to focus on the strategy of missions. And you've been doing a great job of those duties, on top of being assigned to every mission, and let's not forget the extra work you're doing relating to my implants. You have so much drive and passion for the job that I haven't considered, even the great Miranda Lawson could burn out. You're too important to m..." Leni caught herself. "The mission. You're too important to the mission for me to allow that to happen."

Miranda's eyes had dropped to the floor and she was now leaning on the opposite wall. "I'm sorry."

"I see how it must have looked to you, but it was just bad timing, I hadn't given you warning about it because I knew you'd just protest that it was unnecessary, and this isn't up for debate. I would never use my position of seniority to punish anyone in that way, least of all you."

Looking back up at her, Miranda said, "God, this is such a mess."

"I'm sorry, it's my fault."

"No, it's not."

"Yes, it is," Leni insisted, "you'd already made clear how you felt, but I had to push it again. Things got so emotional, with the video and stuff, I got swept up in it, but that's no excuse."

"I'm as much to blame for last night as you. I know I've been giving mixed signals, so I can't blame you for wanting to know if things had changed. Are we really okay?"

"Yes. The rest of this shit aside, I consider you a close friend Miranda, and I don't want to lose that. I'm done with this now."

Miranda stared at her for a moment, her expression unreadable but was soon replaced by a smile when she said, "Good, I don't want to lose our friendship either."

Leni ignored the feeling in her chest that formed to hear the relief in Miranda's voice. "Great."

-o-

"Director Lawson. Director."

The persistent voice pierced her dreams until some part of her brain registered who it was.

"EDI?"

"There is an incoming communique from Mr Harper flagged as urgent."

"Answer and tell him I am coming. How long have I been asleep?"

"Five hours and twenty-two minutes."

"Ugh." Miranda dragged her fingers across her eyes, trying to get them to stay open. Sleeping had not been on her agenda, although she had needed it. Standing from the sofa Miranda stacked the datapads she'd been working on, back on her desk and headed the comm room.

When she entered the room, the table was sunken into the floor with the Quantum Entanglement Communicator already transmitting. Stepping onto the holo-pad, the machine's beams scanned her and a holo-projection of Jack Harper appeared in front of her.

"Miranda," her boss greeted. "Where is Shepard?"

"She's on a mission."

Jack's brow furrowed. "Without you? Do we have a problem?"

"No, not at all," Miranda replied, while silently cursing his timing. "This isn't a Priority-One mission and Shepard wanted to give me some time to get the menial, yet essential tasks done. She was concerned she was overtaxing me by taking me on every mission when we have nine other squad members to choose from."

"Sound team management, that's reassuring to see." There was something resembling respect on Jack's face when he spoke.

"EDI said your communique was marked as urgent," Miranda said wanting Jack to refocus on his reason for calling instead of digging further into Leni's management methods.

"Two hours ago the surveillance team intercepted a distress signal from the colony on Horizon, the message itself was nothing more than a second of static before it was cut off, but all attempts to contact the colony since then have failed, they've gone dark."

"So until we know otherwise, we proceed with the assumption they are under attack."

Jack nodded, "The sooner the Normandy is on the scene the better. We have a real chance to catch them in action Miranda, don't let Shepard mess this up."

The insinuation that Shepard might 'mess this up' made Miranda bristle, yet she kept her expression neutral. "Yes, Sir."

"Oh, and one last thing," Jack said sending a cloud of smoke billowing towards her, "last we heard, Ashley Williams was posted on Horizon, helping them set up GARDIAN laser turrets. I think it best you don't tell Shepard, we don't want old emotional attachments distracting her, however, I felt it necessary information for you."

"Understood."

"Good luck Miranda."

Stepping out of the QEC Miranda said, "EDI, have we had word from the ground-teams?"

"Not recently, Director. Their last report was that the freighter belongs to the Blood Pack and they were pushing forward to clear the facility."

"Try and get hold of Shepard, I need to speak with her. Tell her we've received a Priority-One mission," Miranda ordered the AI as she made her way through the CIC to the cockpit. "Mr Moreau, the second the ground-teams are back on board, we need to head to Horizon. While we're waiting, use the time to plot the quickest route."

The pilot's chair swivelled to face her and she saw a haughty expression on his face. "Shepard gave me my instructions for our next destination before leaving and unless she tells me otherwise, that's where we're heading."

Miranda clenched her jaw tight. The pilot's reputation of complete disregard for authority had preceded him, and back when she was assessing him for recruitment, Miranda was surprised that he hadn't been dismissed from the Alliance. However having worked with them for several months, Miranda now realised it was Leni that kept him in line, and likely the only reason he hadn't been discharged straight out of the academy.

"Moreau, trust me when I say that, as soon as EDI gets hold of Shepard, she will agree with me. EDI, what's the ETA to Horizon from here?"

"The Nubian Expanse has a relay connection with the Shadow Sea meaning we could be there within five hours, Director," EDI answered.

Miranda looked at the pilot, if there was one thing Miranda knew to be his weak spot - other than Shepard - it was his ego. "EDI says five, can you do better?"

"Pfft, can I do better? Sure, it'll take five hours if we stop to visit my grandmother. I can do it in four, maybe even three and a half depending on how bothered you are about sticking to the intergalactic traffic rules."

"Priority-one mission Moreau, do whatever you need to."

"Yes, Ma'am."

As she strode back down the walkway to the CIC, Miranda couldn't help smiling to herself over the minor victory.

"Director," the AI said breaking her thoughts, "patching the Commander through."

"Lawson? EDI said we have a P-One, what's going on?"

"Harper called, he has intel that suggests the colony on Horizon is under attack, right now."

"The Collectors?"

"Hard to know, communications have been down since, but Harper wants us to assume so until we know more."

"Understood, we're on our way back to the shuttles now. We'll be back on board in twenty. Tell Jeff to-"

"Already done," Miranda interrupted.

"And he listened?"

"He did when I challenged him to beat EDI's estimate," Miranda said, unable to keep the smug tone from her voice.

"Ha, well played. Okay, we're back at the shuttles, see you shortly."

-o-

When the shuttle door opened, Leni stepped out into the huge hangar to find herself greeted by the Director.

"How'd it go?"

"Not bad," Leni said, "bit of resistance from the Blood Pack, but nothing we couldn't handle with two squads." Turning to face the squad as they piled out of the shuttles Leni said, "Good job down there, everyone. Now, clean up, eat up and rest up. We have a Priority-One briefing in three hours." As she walked towards the elevator Leni looked at Miranda. "Fill me in on the way?"

Nodding, Miranda fell in beside her. "There's not a great deal more to tell, Harper has had a team dedicated to monitoring all channels for anomalies relating to colonies; just over an hour ago they picked up a distress signal from Horizon, there was no audio, only one second of static, but since then, the colony has been dark."

"Well, from what little we know, that could fit the profile of a Collector attack," Leni said pressing four on the elevator's panel.

"We might have a real chance to actually do something this time."

Leni smiled when she heard the passion in Miranda's voice at the prospect of being able to help the colony. This was the side of Miranda most people didn't get to see, they assumed that she was here just because it was what she was assigned to do. But the fact was, she wanted to make a difference, she truly believed in the pro-humanity side of Cerberus. "Let's hope," Leni said stepping out when the elevator reached her cabin deck and turned to see Miranda hadn't moved, "I really need a shower, but if you speak up, you can filling me in on where we're up to."

Miranda nodded and followed Leni into her cabin. Grabbing a pair of clean fatigues and a vest, Leni entered the bathroom as Miranda began. "Jeff said he can get us there in three and a half hours. The crew and squad members that weren't on Pragia are all aware of the situation and Mordin he said he thinks he has a working vaccine to counter the seeker swarms, however, that remains to be seen."

"Well, it'll be a short mission if he's wrong."

"I hope you don't mind but I started to prepare a strategic plan."

"I'm listening."

"Well, from what little we know from the video footage the quari-, Vidar, gave us, we'll be facing a massive force, I think we need the entire squad with us."

Leni smiled at Miranda's self-correction but decided against drawing attention to it. "Agreed. How do you plan on doing that?"

"Three squads: Alpha lead by you with me, and Jack. Beta will be long-range support, lead by Garrus with Mordin, Thane and Jacob. Gamma will be short-range support, lead by Tali with Thane, Zaeed, Grunt and Samara."

Frowning, Leni turned off the water and grabbed her towel. "You don't want to lead?"

"You think I'm going to miss out on being front and centre to lead a support team?"

"Sorry, silly question," Leni said with a laugh, "But Jack? You two aren't exactly best friends."

"This isn't about what we want. You and I are an excellent team and Jack's biotic abilities are impressive."

"Okay, and why only three in the leading squad?"

"Quick and quiet. Between our biotics and your cloak and Omni-blade, the three of us will have cleared a path to the centre of the colony before they even realise we're there. The support teams will follow as we progress, prepared to join in once stealth is no longer an option."

Stepping out of the bathroom Leni said, "excellent outline, I couldn't have done better, would you like to finish it up? You've done the hard work so far, it only seems fair you take it all the way."

"Yes, I'd like to finish it. You need to sleep, you look like shit."

"Miranda, I'm fin-"

"No, you're not Shepard. I know you didn't sleep any better than I did last night."

"You got some sleep while we were away?"

"Yes I did, and feel much better for it," Miranda said and narrowed her eyes, "and don't think you can steer this conversation away from its point. You need to get some rest Leni, you're no use to us if you end up having a seizure in the field because you're so dead tired, even the nanomites can't fight it off. Get. Some. Sleep."

Leni let out a sigh, feeling the exhaustion setting in. "There are only three and a half hours until we get there, I need to eat, we need to have the briefing and my gear needs…"

"Well, that gives you two and a half hours of sleep. Jacob can clean your gear, it's his favourite pastime and as I'm doing the strategic plan, it makes sense for me to prep the briefing as well. And as for food, I'll make sure Rupert has something ready that you can eat during the briefing. Please, Leni."

Resting her head back on the wall, she gave Miranda a grateful smile. "Thank you."

-o-

The rich aromas of the jambalaya drifted up from the bowl, it was Leni's favourite meal, but what made it most special, was that, not only had Miranda remembered a silly detail like what her favourite meal was but that she had asked Rupert to make it especially for her. Butterflies danced around inside her and Leni berated herself for such stupidity. She's not interested, for fuck's sake just let it go.

As she chewed on a mouthful of the tender chicken, spicy sausage and rice Leni watched the Director giving her very detailed and professional briefing. The woman, who usually avoided social interactions whenever possible, was owning centre stage with her strategic plan, and the attention of all squad members was on her. In one of their evening conversations, Miranda told Leni about the missions she had been responsible for, prior to taking on the Lazarus Project. The majority were one or two-person missions, many were undercover, but even those that weren't, were on a small scale, in and out before they knew what hit them. This was the first large-scale operation Miranda had planned, yet you'd never have known it to look at her now. Leni realised how ridiculous it was that such talent and passion were being wasted on personnel rotas and Leni made a mental note to find another solution. After all, this wasn't the Alliance, who said they had to follow the strict job roles they set.

Wrapping up the briefing, Miranda dismissed the squad with a twenty-minute countdown and looked up at Leni with a look of uncertainty. Was Miranda Lawson feeling insecure and looking for approval? When the door closed behind the last squad member, Leni walked over to the other woman. "Damn Lawson, couldn't have done a better job myself, impeccable work."

The smile that spread across her face, confirmed for Leni that Miranda had been feeling insecure about her work. "Thank you. I've had the privilege of being able to observe the best for the past two and a half months."

"Ahh, flattery will get you everywhere, Miss Lawson," Leni said before putting her brain in gear. Grimacing she looked at the holograph of Horizon that was still projecting above the table. "Sorry, that was...inappropriate. So," she continued, wanting to move on as quickly as possible, "anything else I need to know?"

When Miranda was silent Leni looked back at her; her eyes were studying the floor, her lips twisted the way they did when she was contemplating something and she seemed incapable of keeping her fingers still. "What?"

After a moment more of silence, Miranda looked up at her. "Recent intelligence suggests that Gunnery Chief Williams is based on Horizon."

"What? Why?"

"It looks like the Alliance are helping colonies install GARDIAN laser turrets."

"Why are you only just telling me?" Leni asked and studied Miranda for a moment. "He told you not to tell me, didn't he? And you almost didn't," Leni said, unable to hide the hurt in her voice. She'd hoped they were past this tug of war for Miranda's loyalty, yet here they were again. But Leni realised it was her own fault; her own feelings for Miranda had made her lose sight of the real situation. Miranda was a loyal Cerberus operative. "Thank you for telling me," she said, her tone clipped as she turned to leave.

"Leni-"

"I need to suit up, see you in the hangar."

-o-

Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda watched Leni as she checked her Omni-blade and sidearm for the tenth time in as many minutes. Miranda had observed this behaviour back when they first began working together: checking her weapons over and over in the minutes leading up to every mission. Back then, Miranda had put it down to a distrust of Cerberus' gear, but now she realised that it was, in fact, a nervous habit, because even the Hero of the Citadel got nervous before a mission.

Leni hadn't made eye contact with her since leaving the comm room and there was dispassion in her manner that Miranda hadn't felt from her in almost two months. Why hadn't she told her about Williams up in her cabin? As soon as Harper had ordered her to keep the information from Shepard, Miranda had known it was the wrong move, so why had telling her it been such a hard thing to do? Miranda grimaced at the memory of the expression on Leni's face when she'd realised Miranda had almost not told her: it was a look of betrayal and disappointment. But what had been worst was the look of affirmation as Leni left the comm room, as if realising she shouldn't have expected any better from a Cerberus operative.

The whirring sound of the shuttle's door opening forced Miranda from her thoughts. Head in the game Lawson, she thought as eleven pairs boots hit the arid soil of Horizon's outskirts.

"Okay, we stealth until we no longer can," Shepard said, waving her hand between herself, Miranda and Jack, " Beta and Gamma follow, maintaining strategic positions," she continued nodding to the other two squads. "You all know the scans have shown that we're facing a large force, but that means nothing because right here, stands the most elite team in the galaxy. The Collectors won't know what hit them."

Miranda watched as Shepard's words exhilarated every member of the squad, filling them with determination and conviction. This was it, the thing that set Shepard apart from all other N7 operatives and Spectres in the galaxy: her passion, fire and tenacity were infectious, and once they had you, you would march into the jaws of hell itself.

"Right, we've got a long trek to the colony, so let's get going."

-o-

The path through the colony had been a long one. Describing the force they were facing as large, was equal to describing the universe as big - it didn't even begin to cover it. But they had finally made it to the colony's defence towers, only to find that the Collector ship was blocking EDI from connecting with the tower and Leni had never been more grateful to have the entire squad with her.

As the praetorian crashed to the ground, Leni allowed a glance over her shoulder at Tali, who was still working on the tower's control panel while the rest of them covered her from the endless onslaught of Collector and Reaper troops. "How's it going, Tali?"

"Shepard," Tali said, irritation clear in her voice, "asking me every sixty seconds does not speed up th-"

"Incoming," Miranda called from Leni's left.

"No fucking way," Jack said on her right.

Leni turned just as another praetorian appeared around the side of one building. "You've got to be shitting me. How many more of these bastards can they have?" Leni put her finger to her ear and gave orders. "Grunt, Zaeed, same as before, keep its attention then nuke when the shield drops; Garrus, Thane, keep on top of the Collectors; Mordin, help Jacob and Samara with the husks and scions." Leni glanced at Jack and Miranda, "same as before, get that fucker's shields down for me, we will not fail because of a giant wasp."

-o-

"Commander Shepard."

Miranda's shields blazed to life as she spun and pointed her gun at the woman that appeared from behind a crate: Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the rest of the squad had done similar - a unit in synchronicity.

"Captain of the Normandy, first human Spectre, saviour of the Citadel. You're in the presence of a God, Dellan, back from the dead."

"Ash," Leni said, and Miranda clenched her teeth at the reverence in her voice. "Stand down," Leni ordered, glancing over her shoulder.

When she turned back, Williams stepped into her arms. Miranda's shields pulsed involuntarily, and although it had only been for a split second, the Gunnery Chief locked eyes with her, a glare to rival Miranda's own, settling on her face.

"Uh-oh," Jack whispered so only Miranda could hear, "trouble in paradise, Barbie?"

Miranda's head snapped to look at the convict who stood beside her and saw a wide smirk on her face. When Jack nodded toward Leni and Williams, Miranda looked back just in time to see the Gunnery Chief place a kiss on Leni's lips, her hand wrapped around the back of Leni's neck, which, Miranda knew, she loved. Although Leni didn't exactly reciprocate the kiss, she didn't pull away either, and when Williams drew back, Leni's hand remained on her hip, holding her close

"I thought you were dead, Shepard, we all did."

"I was Ash, it's...complicated."

As the pair spoke, Miranda caught sight of Garrus in her peripheral vision.

"We'll sweep the colony, for any Collector stragglers or missed colonists."

Without looking at him, Miranda gave a nod, annoyed that he was stopping her from hearing the conversation in front of them. When he moved away, she refocused on the two women.

"We had something special, Leni," Williams said, "I loved you," raising her hand to stroke Leni's cheek she continued, "and no matter how much you denied it, I know you loved me too."

Miranda stared at the pair, waiting for Leni to dispute the Gunnery Chief's claims, but Leni just stood there, hand still on the other woman's waist, holding her tightly. Tell her you didn't, tell her you don't.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Miranda felt like she might throw up and it took all her restraint to not biotic-throw the Gunnery Chief into the hemisphere. But Leni’s hand dropped from the other woman’s waist and she took a step back, breaking physical contact between them. “No Ashley, I didn’t, and you knew the agreement from the-”

The speed at which the Gunnery Chief’s fist collided with Leni’s jaw took even Miranda by surprise, but a split second later Miranda held the Alliance officer in biotic-Stasis.

“Stand down,” Leni said rubbing her jaw.

When Miranda released her, the Gunnery Chief launched her way, eyes burning. Before she got two steps forward, Leni grabbed Williams, holding the arm that was reaching for her sidearm in place. “Easy now, you would have done the same,” Leni said.

Williams struggled out of Leni’s hold and shoved her back. “Keep your Cerberus bitches on a lead, Shepard.”

“That’s enough Ash. You want to attack me, fine. But you leave my team out of it,” Leni said crossing her arms as she moved to stand between them and Miranda could imagine the ‘don’t fuck with my squad’ expression fixed on Leni’s face.

Crossing her arms to mirror Leni, Miranda put her weight on her back leg and flashed the seething Alliance officer a cocky smirk. They weren’t just Cerberus crew, they were Shepard’s crew. Although Leni had said it before, to hear her say it to someone from her previous life, someone who had respected and cared for her, was confirmation for Miranda that she meant it. Miranda’s smirk faltered at the memory of the disappointment on Leni’s face when she had realised that she was still battling Harper for Miranda’s loyalty.

“You don’t get to call me Ash, my Shepard called me that, and my Shepard would never have sullied her name by flying the Cerberus flag. So what are you? Clone? Android? Or maybe you are the real Shepard and you’re being remote-controlled by the Illusive Man.”

Miranda watched as Leni’s posture sagged ever so slightly as she uncrossed her arms and moved them behind her back. It was then Miranda saw the slight tremble. “Shit,” she murmured

“We gotta get the boss out of here,” Jack whispered.

“Commander, Garrus just radioed, they have swept the colony and Joker says we need to get going,” Miranda said, lying through her teeth.

Leni gave a short nod and looked back at Williams. “I don’t suppose there is any point in asking you to join us?”

The Gunnery Chief barked an incredulous laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding. I would never join Cerberus. Unlike you, I’m not a turncoat.”

“Not Cerberus, us, me and my crew. But I see you’re blinded by your hatred. Take care, Williams.”

-o-

When the armoury door slid closed behind Jacob, Leni rested her palms on the weapons bench in front of her, dropping her head down as she let out a deep sigh, she was so fucking tired of fighting: physically, verbally and emotionally.

The sound of heels tapping on the hull came close and Miranda said, “Hey, how are you feeling?”  

Keeping her eyes closed Leni shrugged. “Like I got punched in the jaw...and the gut,” she admitted and felt a hand rest on her arm. “I wouldn’t get too close, my implants could melt the ice caps right now - if they hadn’t already melted centuries ago,” Leni said, trying to put a lighthearted tone in her voice.

The hand left her arm and then it was cupping her cheek, thumb stroking over her scar. “Jesus,” Miranda breathed. Without thinking, Leni leant into the soft touch. “I promise I’ll find the solution to this,” Miranda whispered.

Realising what she was doing Leni opened her eyes and moved to put distance between them without it being obvious. “Yeah, I know. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Miranda leant against the workbench and looked at the floor. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Williams straight away. We’re supposed to trust each other, and I let you down by keeping something from you.”

“No, you didn’t,” Leni said with a sigh, “it was unfair of me to take it as a betrayal, I was so consumed by the fact you almost didn’t tell me, I lost sight of the fact you did, against his orders. I should have thanked you instead of getting pissy. I think the problem is, I let our friendship, distort my picture of the situation; it’s not like I didn’t know you work for Cerberus, for him, and if we’re being honest, you’re only here because you’re assigned to be.”

“No,” Miranda said forcefully, “that’s not true. Yes, I was assigned here, and yes, given the importance of the mission, Harper would prefer I be here, but I could have requested to be reassigned at any point. I’m here because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“Well, that’s lucky, because I wouldn’t want to do this without you.”

“It definitely is,” Miranda said with a smile, “listen, it’s been a rough day, do you want to get a drink after we clean-up?”

“I don’t have the energy to tackle the bar tonight if I’m honest.”

Miranda scoffed. “Yes, because that’s always my first go to. I was thinking a quiet one at mine.”

“Sounds nice. First, I’m taking an epic shower, my hair-wash day is well overdue.”

“So I’ll see you in three hours then.”

-o-

Placing two glasses on the coffee table, Miranda perched on the edge of the sofa and looked at Leni: her eyes were closed and her head tipped back, supported by the sofa. Miranda had to restrain herself from reaching out and stroking away the frown that seemed to be present more and more frequently. Miranda had never been an affectionate person, quite the opposite in fact, which Miranda knew was attributable to her upbringing. But with Leni, she longed for the simplest of physical contact; she thought back to the evening before, their fingers interlinked, her head resting on Leni’s shoulder, it had been perfect until she ruined it.

Miranda paused with the unopened bottle of wine in her hand. “Are you sure you don’t just want to sleep?”

Cracking one eye open, Leni flashed her a grin, “You trying to get rid of me, Lawson?”

“Never.”

“No,” Leni said, lifting her head and sitting up, “I need to wind down, now get pouring.”

As the dark wine glugged into the first glass, Miranda glanced back at the other woman. “You know what I remembered earlier?”

“How amazing I am?”

Miranda handed her the glass with a smirk. “How could I forget that when you remind us on a daily basis? No, you owe me a question.”

For a moment, Leni looked puzzled and then she laughed. “I can’t believe you remembered that. And I don’t owe you anything, you cheated.”

“But you’ll let me have it anyway,” Miranda said smugly.

“Ugh, fine, hit me with it, a question that is, being hit by one friend is enough for today, thank you.”

Miranda didn’t need to think what question she would ask, ever since that day in the shuttle, there was a question she’d wanted to know the answer to. “What is your biggest regret or shame?”

“Wow, you’re going in big I see.”

“Too big?”

“No, it’s ok, it is a biggie, but as John would have said, for the right to own your accomplishments, you must first own your failures.”

“He was a wise man.”

“That he was.” Leni looked away from Miranda, staring at the vast expanse of stars for several moments. “My greatest shame is the Skyllian Blitz.”

Miranda looked at Leni perplexed. “What?  How can that be your greatest shame? You single-handedly saved the colony, while injured.”

“That’s the official version, and then there are the bits the Brass left out.” Leni’s jaw bulged as she gritted her teeth, locking eyes with Miranda. “It was pure chance I was there, I’d gotten two days shore leave because of an N7 mission in the Terminus Systems being delayed. Elysium was the nearest colony to the station we were on and John had told me it was a beautiful place, so I figured I’d take advantage of the opportunity, but the rest of my squad stayed on the station. It was a hot day, and I’d taken my damn armour off and left it and my sniper rifle in the safe in my hotel room while I explored. Fucking idiot,” Leni said sitting forward and refilling her glass.

Resting her elbows on her knees, she cradled the glass and continued, “I was about a mile outside the colony when the gunfire began; the first thing I saw when I reached town was a teenage boy, curled up in a ball behind one of the outermost structures. I ran over to him, checked he was unharmed and asked what was happening. He was rambling about his mom and batarians and I tried to get him to keep his voice down...I heard the footsteps too late. The bullet went through and through, here,” she said holding her hand on her right side, just below her rib cage. “I already had my sidearm in my hand and planted a bullet centre forehead.” Leni took a large swig from her wine and stared at the coffee table for several moments. “When I turned back to the boy, the bullet had pierced the artery in his neck, he was already unconsciousness from the blood loss and was dead less than a minute later.”

Miranda placed a hand on her back. “You couldn’t have done anything for him.”

Leni stood and moved over to the window. “I should have paid more attention to my surroundings and put that fucking batarian down before he got the shot off. That kid might have lived if I hadn’t gone up to him.”

Miranda’s heart was telling her to console the other woman, but her instincts told her that right now, Leni didn’t want it, so she stayed where she was.

“Between my sidearm, Omni-blade and cloak ability, I made it back to the hotel and got the rest of my gear. I swept the colony as best I could, herding civilians and security to the community hall where we held up. They had a reasonable sized security team, and together we picked off the slavers well enough to keep them away. But then their back up arrived - a fucking cruiser full of them - and I knew there was no way we’d be able to keep that many of them at bay. The colony had a load of explosives for mining, so I left my rifle with the head of security and made my way to the ship, taking out as many as I could on the way with my Omni-blade. I could hear them planning an attack strategy, one that would minimise colonist casualties - because what use are dead slaves.” Leni scoffed. “There were still so many in and around the ship, I couldn’t get inside to scout it out, so I placed the explosives on the outside, on the weak spots: landing gear, thrusters, engines.”

Miranda nodded when Leni looked back at her, seeing a need for approval, for confirmation. “You had to take as many out as possible, for the sake of the colony.”

“It seemed to have worked. It took out a huge chunk of the slavers on the ship and there was confusion among the force that remained, which made many of them easy pickings and the rest were few enough in numbers for us to hold them off. We rounded up the rest of the civilians spread throughout the colony before the Alliance reinforcements arrived.”

Miranda had read the report with the highest clearance, so a lot of this was familiar to her and she waited for the part that didn’t make it into any report.

Leni turned back to the window, but Miranda didn’t miss the tremble of her glass as she swallowed down the last of her wine. “I insisted on going into the ship with the Alliance’s clean-up crew; there were roughly forty batarian slaver bodies in there and fifty-six innocent civilian slaves. They held them near the engines and the bodies were burnt beyond recognition. If I’d just taken the time to check-”

“They would have killed you,” Miranda cut in, as she stood and moved over to the window, “and the slavers would have had two hundred more slaves.” Stopping beside Leni, Miranda cupped her tensed jaw guiding it until she met her gaze. Leni’s chestnut-brown eyes were full of self-loathing and Miranda stroked her thumb over the other woman’s burning scar, as she had earlier in the armoury. “I rarely say this, but the Alliance Brass was right, they were tragic but inescapable casualties. You were a hero that day.”

Pulling her chin away, Leni glared at the stars. “Tell that to fifty-six families that never knew what really happened to their family members. While I was receiving my medals, those families were being told the Alliance had found the slaver ship that had taken their family members, there had been an engine malfunction causing it to crash with no survivors; all of which the Alliance orchestrated.”

“Would they have been alive?”

“What?” Leni asked, looking at her again.

“Would a good marine being punished for an accident have undone what happened that day? Would the families knowing the truth have brought back their loved ones?”

Leni’s lips twitched and her eyes softened. “You sound like him.”

“Who?”

“John,” Leni said walking back to the sofa, “that’s almost word for word what he said. It broke me for a while, I was on medical leave for longer than required for the bullet wound. My original motivation for joining the Alliance was Mindoir, Nina. I had nightmares for months after: I kept reliving the moment the boy died, only it wasn’t the boy...”

“It was Nina,” Miranda murmured.

“Failing that boy and those people in the ship: it felt like I’d failed at everything I had trained for. I lost myself for several months and seeing me like that really affected John; he wanted to take leave, but I wouldn’t let him, I mean, what was he going to do? Sit and watch me? It was enough having Mom there watching over me.”

“At least you had people who wanted to be there for you,” Miranda said and smiled at Leni.

“Yeah, I did. Now I wish I’d let him; three months after Elysium, the Alliance tracked the slaver ring back to its source: Torfan.”

Miranda let out a breath as pieces fell into place. “That’s why he...how he got the name.”

“The Butcher of Torfan,” Leni murmured. “Until that point, he’d always conducted himself with the utmost honour and integrity. It was my fault that his record was blemished.”

“No, Leni, he did what he did because of his love for you. There are no boundaries when it comes to the lengths an older sibling will go to protect their younger siblings.” Miranda had been so lost in the truth of her words, that it wasn’t until Leni squinted at her curiously, she realised her mistake and prepared herself for Leni to probe for a clarification why Miranda would have such insight on siblings.

“Okay, I think that question was hefty enough for you to owe me another.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Miranda replied, surprised to find that the prospect of telling Leni wasn’t scary, in fact, she wanted her to know.

-o-

Turning to face Miranda, Leni got comfy, resting her arm along the back of the sofa. “The same question back at you,” Leni said and saw Miranda grimace.

“Okay,” Miranda intoned, “but before I can tell you that, I have to come clean about something.”

Leni raised a brow, already intrigued. “I’m listening.”

“The question we asked in the shuttle about the thing we were most proud of, well, I lied.”

“I know,” Leni said and then laughed at Miranda’s incredulous expression.

“How?”

“It was just the way you threw out the easiest reply and moved straight on. But we weren’t close back then, and there was obviously a reason you didn’t want to tell me, so I left it.”

“Thank you,” Miranda said with a smile, “I’ve told no one this, trusted no one enough to risk telling them.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Miranda said and rested her hand on top of Leni’s, “I’ve never trusted anyone the way I do you.”

Leni’s stomach did somersaults to hear that declaration from the woman who held the rest of the world at arm’s length. Stop reading more into this, she’s a friend, nothing more.

“I have a sister. Biologically she’s my twin, but she wasn’t... created until I was sixteen.”

“After you ran away?” Leni asked.

“No,” Miranda said shaking her head, “six months before. She’s the reason I left. I took her with me.”

When Miranda looked back up at her, Leni saw something in the other woman’s eyes, maybe anxiety, of judgement? Leni turned her arm until her palm was touching Miranda’s and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

Miranda gripped Leni’s hand as if it were a lifeline and continued, “I’d discovered her a month before we left but my father didn’t know I knew. People were coming and going from the wing of the house which was supposed to be unused, so I snuck in and found her - Oriana.” Miranda smiled, staring off into the distance. “I visited her whenever my father wasn’t home, but on one of my visits, I realised she was sick. That’s when I knew he’d started with her, and I couldn’t let her have the childhood I did.” Miranda’s expression had hardened, anger burning in her eyes.

Leni stroke her thumb across the back of Miranda’s hand, trying to soothe her. “Would you tell me about your childhood? I know there’s more to the stories you told me during my procedure.”

The anger in her eyes ebbed away and Miranda stared at their hands for a few moments before looking back at Leni. “We will need more wine for that conversation.”

Smiling, Leni pushed herself up off the sofa. “How about dinner too? I’m starving.”

“It’s not dinner time for another hour.”

“Rupert loves us, if I ask him to make a meal for us he will.”

“You’re a cheeky sod, but I’m not going to say no.”

-o-

Leni watched Miranda as they ate. Since she’d got back with the meals that Rupert had happily prepared for them, Miranda hadn’t spoken any further about their previous conversation and Leni was wondering if she’d changed her mind about sharing something so personal. Deciding she should give Miranda an easy out, Leni said, “I realised that I cheated.”

Looking up from her food Miranda raised an inquisitive brow.

“Well, you’d already answered one question of mine, it’s unfair to ask another.”

“You, don’t want to know?”

Smiling Leni said, “I do, I just wanted to give you an out, in case you’d changed your mind.”

“I haven’t, I’m just... preparing myself,” Miranda said with a huff of amusement. Taking the last bite of her food, she put her fork down and sat back. “My father didn’t raise me. We lived in the same house - when he was home - but nannies raised me, many nannies. The longest contract my father issued was for six months, and he fired that one after five for allowing me to get too emotionally attached. After that, they were rotated out every three months and gone sooner if they proved to show me too much affection. He used to say: ‘Emotional connections will make you weak, Miranda’.”

Leni imagined a toddler craving affection, taking the scraps she could get from the people who were thrust into her life before they were just as abruptly ripped back out.

“My father didn’t take interest in me until I was five, it was the first birthday he’d acknowledged, so it was a shock to see him and even more so when he told me I had been good and would get a present,” Miranda said with a bitter tone to the last word. “Do you know that biotics are not a trait that can be passed on in humans?” When Leni nodded, Miranda continued. “Well, the same applied for my father’s creations; every foetus he tried to incorporate eezo with died almost immediately, which forced him to find other methods.” Looking away Miranda clenched her jaw. “Have you heard of eezo-therapy?”

Leni felt sick, she knew exactly what eezo-therapy was. One marine on her N-course had had the illegal black market procedure done, to strengthen his biotic abilities and increase his chances of reaching N7 level. It was an excruciating process: intense exposure to element zero to force the development of biotic abilities, or strengthen them if they already existed. However such intense levels were poisonous, making the receiver ill, something akin to the twenty-first century’s cancer treatment chemotherapy. The marine had dropped out of N-school because of how ill he’d been after the treatment. To subject a small child to that...this man was more of a monster than Leni could have imagined. “Fuck, Miranda.”

“That went on until just before my seventh birthday, during which my father went back to ignoring my existence. He arranged a party for my seventh birthday, it was only employees and their families attending, but it was more attention than I’d ever received and he was there. He even made a speech at the party, saying I had been such a good girl and I had a special reward coming. I’d have done anything to please him, to keep his attention.” Leni heard the tone of disgust in Miranda’s voice as if chiding her seven-year-old self for being so foolish. “My training began the day after. He trained me himself, there were no employees for that, I didn’t have to worry about trying to get his attention anymore that was for sure.” Miranda paused, taking a sip from her wine and then downed the rest in one go.

“You don’t have to continue if you don’t want to, but I’m here if you do.”

Miranda looked her in the eyes. “I know. I want... need to. He believed that the key to maximising my biotic skills was to give me a strong incentive not to fail ‘realistic training’ he called it. If I failed to shield myself, I got slapped, or pushed, or tasered or hit by a biotic-lift. He had to employ a Doctor as my personal physician, to avoid repeated injuries causing any red flags in the system.”

Leni screwed her hands into balls, trying to steady the shake, she could feel her scars burning as her hate for this man she’d never even met grew.

“I got better, became stronger, but it was never enough; the better I became the faster and harder the attacks were. Slaps turned to punches, pushes to kicks, taser pins to bullets, biotic-lifts to slams. As the injuries got worse, he deemed it necessary to add additional incentive not to fail. So he punished me if I damaged his... property .” Miranda spat the word out.

“His property?” Leni burst, unable to hold her tongue any longer.

“And I just took it, until that day. She was six months, and he’d already started eezo-therapy. Leni, she was usually full of life and giggles, but that day she was so sick, she just lay there: pale, clammy and limp. She didn’t even have the energy to cry, just whimpered.” Miranda looked away and Leni saw a single tear roll down her cheek.

Reaching up, Leni tucked a loose strand of hair behind Miranda’s ear and wiped the tear from her cheek. Every fibre of her being wanted to pull Miranda to her, to help her fight off the ghosts of her past, but she knew whenever one of them did that, boundaries were crossed, boundaries Miranda didn’t want to cross. So Leni ignored the ache in her heart and rested her hand on Miranda’s shoulder to let her know she wasn’t alone.

“I waited two weeks, to give her time to recover. My own treatments had always been three weeks apart, any more often would risk permanent damage, so I knew I had time before her next treatment. During those two weeks, I planned everything, when we’d leave, how we’d get away, where we’d go. The night we ran, my father should have been away, but I heard his voice when I passed his office. I peered in and saw him: he had his back to me, practising some pompous speech for one of his galas.”

Locking eyes with Leni, Miranda said, “To answer your question about my greatest shame, it’s that I didn’t have the courage to kill him when I had the chance. I’d taken a tranquiliser gun from the stables with enough tranq to kill a man. I could have done it, he was right there, my finger was on the trigger, but it was as if some invisible force was stopping my finger from pulling it, I was weak, just as I’d been too weak to leave for myself.” Miranda swallowed hard and Leni saw shame in her eyes before dropping her gaze to the floor.

Leni shuffled closer and gently took Miranda’s face between her hands. “Oriana had a happy childhood with a loving family because of your courage and strength. To have survived what you did and still become the incredible, unstoppable woman you are today, makes you the strongest person I’ve ever met. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

-o-

As Miranda took in the other woman’s words, she stared into chestnut-brown eyes which held an intensity that made it hard for her to breathe. Just as Miranda was about to give in to those eyes, to that touch, Leni looked away and then her warm hands were gone.

Reaching for the wine bottle, Leni said, “Thank you, for trusting me with such a personal thing.”

Miranda placed a hand on Leni’s arm. “Thank you for being someone I could trust.”

Looking down at the hand on her arm, Leni reached for Miranda’s glass, breaking the contact as she did. “Trust and relationships are odd things don’t you think? That we can trust someone on a professional level, in our cases to the point of putting your life in their hands, yet personally keep them at arm’s length. Then there are the people we love and trust, yet would still never share our deepest darkest with, for example, Garrus, Tali, even Jeff and Karin: I love and trust them completely, yet some of the things I’ve told you, I’ve only ever shared with John. It’s as if there are different types of trust.”

Goosebumps prickled across Miranda’s body at the thought of Leni’s trust in her being equal to the trust she’d had for her brother. “Well, then I’m honoured that you would trust me to that degree.”

Leni’s eyes softened and a smile spread across her face, the charming smile that made Miranda melt. “So, I think my last question definitely gives you the right to ask another, assuming you have one.”

“I have a million more.”

Chuckling, Leni relaxed back into the sofa. “How can you have so many questions when you spent two years researching me?”

“I told you before, not everything is written down, in fact, it’s usually the most interesting things that will never be found in writing.”

“Well, you get one more tonight, so think carefully Ms Lawson.”

Although there were many questions she’d wanted to ask for a long time, there was one new one that had jumped to the front of the queue. “Ashley Williams, was there more between you than you have admitted?”

Leni raised a brow but didn’t speak.

“I picked up a lot of... emotions when you met earlier.”

Shrugging Leni said, “Well, you heard her, she loved me.”

“I didn’t mean from her,” Miranda mumbled, “and she also said you loved her.”

Leni was silent for some time and stared out the window when she eventually let out a sigh and looked back at Miranda. “I cared about her, more than any of the others. We had such chemistry, the sex was amazing.”

Miranda fought hard to keep her expression neutral as jealousy flared. Why did you ask this question when you clearly don’t want to hear the answer?

“But more than that, I enjoyed spending time with her, we spent most of our downtime together and I thought that maybe there was something there, that maybe I loved her.”

“So you were in a relationship?”

“No, we were close friends with benefits, until she told me she was in love with me. I told her that wasn’t what we were and we stopped sleeping together but carried on spending time together because we were still close friends and neither of us wanted to lose that. The problem was, spending time together would occasionally lead to...more, I should have walked away for her sake, I knew she still held onto the hope that I’d change my mind, but I was selfish.”

-o-

Leni was starting to wonder why she’d answered honestly. How she'd felt about Ash was something she had never admitted to anyone but herself.

“If you had feelings for her, why deny it, even on Horizon?”

Leni thought about the question, she’d always known the answer, it had always been a straightforward, logical reason. But as she rolled it around in her head, there came a dawning realisation and she let out a sardonic laugh. “Because the mission came first.”

“Oh,” Miranda said and took a sip of wine. “You said you thought you loved her, does that mean you didn’t?”

“I had feelings for her, but I realised when she kissed me on Horizon that it wasn’t love.”

“How?”

Leni shifted her gaze her wine glass, swirling the liquid around the sides. “Because it wasn’t the same.”

“The same as what?”

She looked into Miranda’s piercing blue eyes, unable to reply, but it seemed Miranda didn’t need to hear the answer. She reached up and ran her fingers along Leni’s jawline and around the back of her neck, dragging her nails across it as she pulled her forward. When their lips met, the kiss was passionate and infused with an intoxicating desire that Leni found almost impossible to break away from.

When she did, she rested her forehead on Miranda’s, both panting. “What is this?” Leni said between breaths. Drawing her head back, she looked Miranda in the eyes. “Have you changed your mind?” Leni knew the answer before she saw it in Miranda’s eyes. Looking away Leni bobbed her head. “Thought not.” Her hand dropped from Miranda’s cheek and she put her glass down on the table as she stood. “I have to go,” she said as she forced her unwilling feet towards to door.

“Leni...”

Stopping she turned and looked back at the other woman who had a stricken look on her face. “We can’t have our cake and eat it, Miranda.”

-o-

“Okay, I brought the emergency tequila as instructed, what’s the crisis?” Jeff stopped at the top of the stairs in Leni’s cabin and stared at his friend, who slouched on her sofa in grey fatigues, her head hanging with a bottle of beer in a vice grip. “Err, what the shit happened?”

Lifting her head, Leni said, “Fucking women.”

“Yeah, I heard about Ashley, sounded rough, but... not an entirely surprising response if we’re being honest.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Seriously?” Jeff said carefully making his way down the stairs, “Dude, you totally lead her on, you were kind of a selfish asshole.”

“Yeah, I came to that realisation today, I just didn’t know you’d seen it.”

Sitting down beside his best friend, Jeff placed the two shot glasses he had brought on the table and opened the tequila. “Wasn’t exactly hard to see, plus, she was a wreck after... well, you know.”

“I died?”

Jeff’s hand began to tremor as he poured the tequila and Leni’s hand came to rest on his arm.

“It wasn’t your fault. I could have jumped into that pod with you, but I didn’t because I was captain of the ship and I had to make sure there was no one else left. You are not to blame for my death, do you hear me?”

He stared at his best friend for several seconds, the moping mess of moments earlier was replaced by the determined person he’d know for most of his life. The fire in her eyes told him there was no bullshit, she truly believed what she was saying. Unable to find words, he nodded.

“So, yes the meeting with Ash was rough, but that’s not the problem.”

Jeff handed Leni one of the shot glasses.

She took the glass, clinked his and downed it in one. When she looked at him, she said, “I have become Ashley.”

-o-

“Huh?”

Leni held out her shot glass and Jeff refilled it. Clinking his own once more she tipped back the throat burning, foul liquid which they turned to whenever things went to hell. “I’m in love with Miranda.”

Jeff spluttered, not having drunk his shot as quick as she had. “What?” he said, eyes wide and mouth agape, “Are you shitting me?”

Grabbing the bottle, Leni topped herself up and drained the glass again. “Nope.”

“Holy fuck.”

“Yup.”

“Does she know?”

Leni shrugged. “I haven’t outright said it, but I told her I wanted ‘us’.”

“And...she doesn’t?” Jeff asked slowly.

“I know she has feelings for me, but clearly not like I do. Every time, her reply has been, the mission comes first.”

“Wait.” Jeff paused with his glass to his lips. “What do you mean, every time?”

Leni let out a sigh. “I’ve asked her three times.”

“Today?”

“No, of course not.”

“Ohh, that’s the Ashley part. You continued to spend time together since the rejection: you’ve been waiting for her to change her mind.”

“Well, I didn’t realise I was, until tonight.” Standing Leni paced. “It’s so fucking confusing, one day she’s saying the mission is our priority, the next day she’s kissing me, but then still maintains the mission comes first.”

“Oh wow, so not only are you desperate Ashley, but she’s selfish asshole Leni.”

Leni stopped and frowned at her best friend. “Don’t call her that.”

Jeff held his hands up. “Easy now, I was just drawing parallels. Irrespective of whether you two having a thing would negatively affect the mission, she’s right about the mission being the priority, and this current situation is clearly fucking up your head. You have to end this Leni: you need to unfriend her, for your own sake.”

Leni stared down at him, he wasn’t telling her anything she hadn’t already considered, but to hear someone else say it, brought a reality to it that hadn’t been there before. No more meals together, no more quiet evenings in, no more sharing the most personal things they’d never told anyone else. Her scars began to heat at the thought of it all, and she clenched her jaw tight against the burn in her eyes.

“Shit Dude, sit down,” Jeff said, patting the sofa. Dropping back down beside him, she took the shot he held out. “It doesn’t need to be permanent, but you need space to get your head straight, build a wall around these feelings.”

“Fuck,” Leni said, dropping her head, “this is going to suck.”

“Yes, yes it is.”

-o-

Leni stood in front of Miranda’s door for several second, growing more and more nauseated by the minute, and it had nothing to do with the tequila. “EDI, Please tell the Director I’m at her door.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Less than thirty seconds later the door slide open and Miranda stood there with a worried look on her face. “Hey.”

“Hey. Can I come in?” Leni asked, unable to add any lightness to her voice.

“Sure.” When the doors shut behind them, Miranda said, “Leni, I’m sorry-”

“I know you are,” Leni cut in before she lost her nerve, “but I can’t keep doing this.”

Miranda stood there a moment, twirling her hands around each other the way she did when she was uncomfortable. “Doing what?”

“This,” Leni said motioning her hand between them, “I know you want the mission to come first, and I’m trying to respect that, but spending time together, being friends, it complicates things, blurs the lines.” Leni paused a moment, but Miranda remained silent, her expression having become unreadable. “I realised earlier that I have become Ashley, sitting around hoping you’ll change your mind, and it’s messing with my head, which isn’t good for the mission, which as you say, comes first. I need space...from our friendship.”

“Yes,” Miranda said, her face remaining unreadable.

“Yes?”

“That seems a wise course of action.”

Leni stared at the other woman, almost everyone else on the ship would say that a cold, clinical response was the most you could expect from the Ice Queen. But Leni knew Miranda, she knew that this was her defence shield going up, and it made Leni sad to know that it was her, Miranda was protecting herself from. “I’m sorry,” she breathed and dropped her eyes to the floor before turning and walking out the door.

-o-

Leni walked across the mess hall in a haze, there were buzzes around her that were likely crew acknowledging her and she gave a nod that would hopefully suffice without seeming rude. When she entered the medbay, Leni stood in the doorway, unsure what else to do.

“Well, good evening,” Karin said swivelling in her chair, “Good Lord what’s happened?”

Leni clenched her jaw tight and swallowed hard. “You have a good relationship with Miranda, right?”

Standing, Karin took Leni’s arm and guided her to sit in a chair, a worried frown on her face. “I’d like to think so, what’s wrong Darling?”

“I think she could use a friend right now,” was all Leni could say, unable to look at Karin.

“Leni, what’s happened?”

“I broke up our friendship because I don’t know how to turn off the feelings I have for her, and spending time together is just making it worse.”

“Why aren’t you acting on how you feel?”

“Because that’s not what she wants,” Leni said, meeting Karin’s gaze, instantly regretting it when she saw the sympathetic look in her eyes. “She’s playing it cold, but we both know...”

“I’ll check in on her in a bit,” Karin said with a gentle smile, “you look after you, okay Darling?”

Leni bobbed her head, her jaw clenched so tight, she thought she might break a tooth. Standing, she gave Karin a brief hug and walked out the door.

-o-

“EDI,” Karin said to the ceiling, “please can you let Miranda know I’m at the door and that I bring tea.”

“Certainly, Doctor.” the AI replied.

When the door slid open, a puffy-eyed Miranda stood there in grey joggers and an oversized Cerberus hoodie.

Holding out one of the large mugs of tea, Karin said, “Maybe I should have gone with the brandy.”

“I look that bad?” Miranda said with a strangled laugh as she took the mug Karin held out and walked back into the room. “What did she tell you?”

Karin took a sip of her tea and then placed it on the coffee table. “That she needs a break because of how she feels about you, although I’m not sure how it came about.”

“Things have been really up and down the last few days. After our conversation about the evening of her birthday, at the briefing for Pragia, Leni didn’t put me in either team for the mission. My interpretation of that was that she was punishing me for the night before and I flew off the handle. I don’t think I’ve ever been that furious at anyone, I was like a woman possessed, I don’t know what got into me to react so extreme.”

“Possibly because the feelings you have for Leni are stronger than anything you’ve felt before,” Karin suggested, watching carefully to see how her comment was received, “rationality often goes out the window when it comes to matters of the heart.”

Miranda simply shrugged. “Maybe. I screamed at her, accused her of abuse of power. She was so shocked and upset that I could think she would do that, she said, ‘do you think so little of me?’”

Karin winced, picturing the look on Leni’s face. “So why did she bench you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you not be in one of the squads.”

“I haven’t, it was the first mission since we began. Which is why she decided — after a conversation we’d had two days earlier — that with all the other responsibilities I have as an XO, she shouldn’t be assigning me to every mission or I’ll burn out.”

“Ah,” Karin said, seeing the situation clearer, “so not only was it not revenge, but she was actually trying to take care of you, professionally speaking.”

“Yes, and then she went on to take the blame for the night before, saying that she should have respected what I’d already told her.”

“Well, she’s not wrong there. If you’ve previously told her that the mission comes first, then she should have left it at that.”

“I’d agree...if I’d been sticking to what I said. But the fact is that I haven’t exactly been playing fair. I’ve kissed her on a couple of occasions, including earlier this evening.”

“Ah.”

“So you can’t blame her for asking again, especially considering how emotional the situation was. And now I’m going to lose the person who knows me better than anyone else ever has.”

Karin screwed her lips together, processing the statement. “I don’t think you will lose her, she values your friendship too much to let it go. But, if this is the direction you go from here, she’ll need some healing time. Leni has broken many a heart over the years, but this will be the first time someone has broken hers.”

Miranda looked away and Karin saw a tear roll down her cheek. “Aren’t you here to make me feel better? Telling me I’m breaking her heart isn’t exactly helping,” Miranda said with a strained laugh as she swiped at the tears that kept falling with her hoodie arm.

Patting her shoulder, Karin smiled at the younger woman. “Am I really telling you anything you don’t already know?”

Staring out the window, Miranda took several slow, controlled breathes.

“Can I ask you something? Why are you fighting this so fiercely? Whenever we have talked, every vibe I get from you tells me that you want this as much as she does. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging your decision, you have to do what is right for you, but I don’t get the impression that you feel this is right for you. The arguments of not wanting it to affect the mission or your friendship are null and void now, which leaves the question, what is your argument?”

Miranda continued to stare out the window. “That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last hour, and honestly, I don’t have a good answer. I know what I want, what I feel, but when the question is asked, there is this unexplainable certainty that I can’t.”

“Could it be the decades of conditioning by your father and then Harper, telling you that relationships and connections only make you weak and will lead to failure?”

Slowly turning her head, Miranda narrowed her eyes at Karin. “That's a little on the nose, don’t you think?”

“Occupational hazard,” Karin replied with a smile which drew one from Miranda in return. “Well Darling, I will leave you be, but you know where the brandy and I are if you need us.”

Miranda stood when Karin did and to Karin’s surprise, Miranda stepped forward and hugged her. “Thank you, again.”

 

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

“Director,” the AI said, making Miranda jump.

“Yes EDI?”

“The Commander is now leaving the bar.”

Miranda felt a flush of guilt for having asked the AI to keep track of Shepard so she would know when she was alone, but she wanted to get this conversation out of the way before tomorrow’s briefing. Miranda’s behaviour over the last two weeks could, at best, be described as immature and Karin was right when she said Leni deserved an explanation.

It turned out Miranda had no clue how to handle the situation they were in. She had quickly discovered that seeing Leni in a purely professional capacity was next to impossible for her. Everything about how they were around each other had changed and Miranda missed interactions that she hadn't even registered were there until they were gone: subtle flirting, a warm smile, a hand on her arm or shoulder. Now their meetings were sterile and cold, and it stirred up emotions Miranda didn't know how to manage. So instead, she had avoided one-on-one meetings with Shepard wherever possible. As difficult as it would be to admit this to her, Shepard had done similar for her, so it was the least Miranda could do.

She was several steps out of her cabin door before the sound of laughter reached her ears and she paused mid-stride. One was Leni, but Miranda couldn't place the second. When she saw the two people cross the mouth of the corridor to the lift, Miranda's breath caught; Leni’s arm was around Kelly Chambers’ waist and the yeoman had her arm draped around Leni's neck. Miranda wanted to run back to the safety of her room, but the door had already closed behind her, and she was afraid that the reopening of the door would catch their attention, so she stood in place, a statue forced to watch the tormenting scene.

It was of her own doing, of that she knew. Miranda had made sure she and Leni were never more than friends, and she had hurt Leni in the process, giving her false hope, again and again, only to knock her back each time. She had no right to feel hurt, to be angry that Leni would add another notch to her bedpost so soon.

But it did hurt, more than Miranda could have imagined, irrational thoughts flooding her mind: it should be her hands around that neck, her waist those hands were holding. The urge to throw the yeoman out the airlock was overwhelming and Miranda struggled to tame her biotics as they flared in synchronisation with her pain and anger.

-o-

When the two women moved out of sight, Karin watched as Miranda turned and fled back to her cabin. Picking up her tea, she walked around the kitchen counter and paused in the middle of the mess hall, torn between Miranda's cabin and the medbay. Part of her wanted to comfort the younger woman while the other part knew Miranda would be feeling humiliated and it would only make it worse if she knew someone else had seen. Sighing, Karin headed towards her medbay, she would wait and see if Miranda confided in her.

-o-

“Evening Lawson.”

Miranda froze, unable to turn when Shepard’s voice came from behind her. For the past forty-eight hours, Miranda had limited contact with Shepard even more than before, she’d arrived only seconds before yesterday’s briefing had begun, and left the second they were dismissed. She had also avoided the yeoman by checking the other woman’s location with EDI before going anywhere because she was certain she would damage her if she saw her in person. Cursing herself for not having checked with EDI if Shepard had already eaten, Miranda cleared her throat, preparing for their first direct conversation in several days. “Commander.”

“Thank you for the Zorya mission report, it made for an interesting read.”

“You've read it already?” Miranda asked while studying the selection of food with great interest.

“Just finished. I'm impressed you got Zaeed to come back after Santiago got away, but I'm glad you got the refinery workers out in time, it was the right decision.”

“It felt like the right thing to do, although I'm annoyed we didn't get to Santiago in time.”

“I would've done exactly the same and have no doubt with the same outcome. Excellent work, Lawson.”

Miranda turned and looked at Shepard who stood far closer than she was comfortable with. The compliment should have filled her with pride, for Leni to say she couldn't have done better was praise indeed. But it was her manner that spoke the loudest; it wasn't cold, but it was distant, professional, like stepping back in time and it made Miranda's heart ache. “Thank you, Commander.”

“We've picked up something in a neighbouring system I want us to check out. Do you have time to discuss the details?”

“Um, I have a working dinner with Karin.”

“Can it wait? This is quite—”  

“Sorry. You can mail me the details and I'll be sure to check them over.” Miranda saw Shepard's jaw bulge and prayed the Commander wouldn’t make it an order.

“Right,” was all Shepard said breaking eye contact.

Uncertain what else to do, Miranda took her tray of food and turned towards the medbay. “Good evening, Commander.”

-o-

“You're later than usual,” Karin said, knowing who it was without even looking up from her meal,“

“I had a report to finish, and it took longer than expected,” Miranda replied as she sat in her seat.

Only two days after Leni had put their friendship on pause, Miranda had started bringing her meals to the medbay. She had given Karin the excuse of wanting to put more time into the overheating implants project, but the cover story hadn’t fooled Karin. It seemed Leni and Miranda had spent more time together than even Karin had realised, making mealtimes become a lonely affair for the Director.

“I saw you had company in the queue. How was that?”

“Professional, on her part at least.”

“On her part?”

“She asked if I had time to go over details of a mission that's just come up,” Miranda said, stabbing at a defenceless potato on her plate, “and I lied, saying I had to do something with you that couldn't wait and to mail me instead.”

“Why?” Karin asked, wondering if Miranda would tell her about the events of two nights earlier.

“The way she is now—so detached—I don't understand why I can’t be like that, I was the expert at emotional detachment.”

“Abstinence from something you've never had is easy, abstinence from something that's been a part of your day-to-day life, well, that's when it becomes a challenge.”

“I miss her,” Miranda admitted to Karin’s surprise.

Resting a hand on the younger woman's arm, Karin said “I know you do Darling, just give her time. She misses you too.”

Miranda scoffed, “I highly doubt that, she doesn’t seem to have any issues finding other distractions.”

“Meaning?”

Miranda lifted her eyes to meet Karin’s and the Doctor could see the younger woman was weighing up whether to elaborate. “Nothing,” Miranda eventually replied, turning her attention back to assaulting her food.

“Well, she might not say it, but I’m the one she is disappointed to see when she comes to do the implant scans I conduct on your behalf,” Karin said and saw the younger woman tense.

“She wants space, I’m giving her space,” Miranda threw back. “Speaking of the scans, do you have the most recent results?”

Holding back a sigh, Karin dug the datapad out of her desk drawer and handed it to Miranda.

Standing, Miranda said, “Thank you, I think I’ll look these over in my room tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Miranda. You know where I am if you need me.”

-o-

“Come in, Tali,” she heard Leni call from the other side of the door.

Walking in, Tali took in her surroundings; she had been in the Captain's cabin on the SR1, but this was her first time on the SR2. Although it was a similar layout to the SR1, there was still something different, a more quality feel to it. “Well, this is nice.”

“Yeah, not bad is it?”

“EDI said this was urgent,” Tali said as she followed Leni over to the sofa.

“Yes. Thank you for coming so promptly. I called you here regarding the backdoor in EDI's program. I assume that TIM hasn't used it since he released Grunt from his tank?”

Tali frowned, the Commander hadn't asked about the backdoor in EDI's program since Tali had set up the warning system, but then again, if it had been tripped, the Commander would have been the first person Tali would have told. “No, the tripwire hasn't been triggered since I set it up, and it is part of my daily routine to check it is working.”

“Good and is there any progress regarding removing the backdoor?”

“I'm sorry, Commander, but I'm no further forward. I have sealed backdoors in programs before, but EDI's program is so complex, I can't do this alone. There are people in the flotilla who might be able to help, but that would mean telling them we have an illegal AI on our ship, which—given my race's experiences with AIs—would no doubt get back to the Council.”

Leni’s brows knitted together, yet she didn't look surprised at the answer. “We might not have a choice. Something has come up, something we need to investigate, but he mustn't find out.”

Tali didn't need the clarification as to which ‘he’ Leni was referring to. “Well, I have been working on something else. It's not a permanent solution, but it could work for the short to medium term.”

“I’m listening.”

“Well,” Tali began, unprepared to present her side project, “when I realised I would not be able to do a permanent fix, I looked at other options and have almost finished something.”

Leni nodded but stayed silent, allowing Tali to continue.

“It's a virtual bolt so we can lock the door from the inside. As I say, it's not a permanent solution, the door will still exist and although it’s a complex code, if he puts a team on it, TIM will eventually crack it, but it buys us time. The alarm system will still trigger if he tries to use the door and the bolt will slow him down considerably.”

“Little sister, you are a genius,” Leni said, grabbing her by the shoulders and planting a kiss on her helmet, “I love you.”

Tali laughed, rubbing away the smudge from her helmet. “Get off you silly bosh’tet.”

Leni sat back and Tali was pleased to see the troubled expression replaced by a smile.

“So what's this thing TIM mustn't find out about?” Tali asked, dying to know the details.

But when the Commander narrowed her eyes, Tali knew she was out of luck. “Sorry, genius or not, you'll find out at the briefing along with everyone else. You said it's almost finished, when can you get the bolt working?”

“I need another hour or two to complete the coding, and then the installation time, if I could get Daniels’ help, the installation would go quicker.”

“The sooner the better, take whoever you need.”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Oh, one more thing, EDI’s shackles limit her from accessing most files about Cerberus, is there anything you could do about that without weakening them? Or is that also too complex?”

Tali raised a brow, curious that the Commander should need EDI to access files the Director would have full access to. Clearly, the rumours of trouble between them were true, but was it personal or professional? “Funny you should ask, it was only the other day I looked at her shackles—purely out of curiosity. They are surprisingly simple, not to say they aren’t secure, but it wouldn’t be all that difficult to adjust them without undermining their integrity, and you can’t access them remotely, so TIM would never even know.”

A beam spread across Leni’s face. “Double genius.”

-o-

“Thank you for coming, I appreciate some of you have not long returned from a mission. We’ve had something come up in which I am personally invested, and want us to investigate.” Leni took in the faces around the room, confusion and curiosity showing on many of them. In the brief second she allowed her eyes to fall on Miranda she saw worry clouding her face. “While in orbit of Zorya we picked up a distress signal from a neighbouring system, EDI, play the distress call.”

“Mayday, mayday,” a male voice rang out over the speakers, “this is the research station Jarrahe, we are under attack and need help. We are located in the Elysta system, between Melile and Odasst. Please come quickly, I'm not sure how much longer my team can hold out.”

When the recording cut off Jacob pushed himself off the wall. “I take it we have no more details than that? Who's attacking? What they're researching?”

“No, that's all we have, however, we have a date, stamped over three weeks ago.”

“Shepard,” Garrus said, taking a step forward, “if they needed urgent help three weeks ago, there's no way there is anyone left to rescue.”

“Agreed, but this isn't a rescue mission,” Leni said, drawing even more curious looks. “EDI, play the second recording.”

“Mayday, mayday, this is a distress call from commercial freighter Adrestia, engine failure has forced us to make an emergency landing and we require assistance, our location is—”

“Pause recording,” Leni said.

“Sounds like the same voice,” Zaeed said from the back of the room.

“EDI has done a voice analysis, and it's a ninety-four percent match. The six percent variance is to be expected, given the second recording is from seven years ago.”

“How did EDI discover the second recording?” Samara asked.

“I gave it to her. I tortured myself for a month listening to that recording over and over, so I recognised the voice as soon as I heard it.” She paused, scanning the puzzled faces, this time avoiding Miranda. “It turned out to be a trap—a Cerberus experiment—allegedly intended for slavers, but instead my brother's N7 squad responded, all squad members died on Akuze. But on the plus side, The Illusive Man’s experiment was a success.”

Silence fell across the room. Everyone here knew she had no love for The Illusive Man, but few of them knew why, until now.

“Hm, could be a trap,” Mordin said, breaking the silence.

“It might be. EDI has checked Cerberus records and has found nothing regarding ongoing or even abandoned operations in this system. There are no specifics on the Akuze operation either, TIM cleaned house before getting me on board. The plan is: Alpha team goes in, Beta and Delta stay on the Normandy prepared for a rescue should it be a trap.”

Leni laid out the teams and the rough plan. They weren’t within scanning range yet, so would have to have a final briefing to clarify the specifics, but for now, everyone was as informed as they could be. “Dismissed.”

When the team piled out the door, it surprised Leni to see Miranda still stood in the corner. Of late she had been the first out the door as soon as she was able, although Leni supposed given the specifics of this mission, it wasn’t really surprising she was here. “Lawson?”

-o-

“Commander, may I have a word?”

“Of course,” Shepard said, leaning against the table.

Miranda braced herself and waited for the door to close before continuing. “You should have told me. About the true nature of this mission.”

“I tried, you had a very important dinner date, remember?”

Miranda tensed, hearing the unspoken blame between Shepard’s words. “Why didn’t you include it in the mail?”

A sneer appeared on Shepard’s face and she let out a bitter laugh. “You think I would put in writing my suspicion we might have found a Cerberus trap, perhaps with a connection to my brother’s death?”

Miranda dropped her eyes to the floor and heard Shepard let out a sharp gust of air.

“I suppose while we’re talking I should catch you up on a few other things if you have time.”

Miranda looked back at the other woman, her expression wasn’t annoyance or irritation as Miranda had expected, but extreme tiredness that maddeningly pulled at Miranda’s heart.

“Tali hasn’t been able to remove the backdoor due to the complexity of EDI’s program, but she has created a temporary fix. It's a virtual bolt, so we can lock it from the inside, slowing TIM down should he try using it again. It’ll be up and running in an hour and then we can head to our destination.”

Miranda relaxed a little, one of her first thoughts had been, if this turned out to be a secret Cerberus base, it would not do them any favours for Harper to find out they were investigating it. “You said EDI has checked the records for existing or old operations, but her shackles limit her access to Cerberus files, I can do a check—.”

“No need,” Shepard cut in, “that was the other thing, Tali adjusted EDI’s shackles, so she has equal access as yourself.”

“Are you insane?” Miranda said, eyes wide, “You loosened the shackles on the AI that has control of our ship?”

Shepard’s expression hardened. “Am I insane? Did you ask your master that when he had the illegal AI installed? Maybe you’d like to run and tell him what I’m up to?”

The insinuation hit her like a freighter at full force and Miranda spun on her heel. Less than two steps from the door Miranda felt a hand grip her arm and pull her around. Leni was inches away from her, her scent as intoxicating as ever.

“I’m sorry,” murmured the other woman, her voice full of regret but Miranda kept her eyes on the floor. “Miranda,” Leni spoke again and lifted her hand to Miranda’s chin, forcing her eyes up, “I’m sorry, I know you wouldn’t.” The skin where Leni’s hands touched felt like it was burning, emphasising how much Miranda missed her touch. As if sensing the same, Leni’s hands dropped to her side, and she took a step back. “This distress call…it stirs up memories, I need to know if there’s any connection,” Leni said, slumping back against the table and pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Put me on Alpha team,” Miranda said, resisting the urge to go to Leni, “Tali or Jacob can lead Beta, you know we’re strongest together.”

Leni looked up at her and Miranda saw a sadness in her eyes. “Are we? Before, yes, but right now I’m not sure, considering you can’t bear to be in the same room as me.” There was no bitterness in her voice, it wasn’t an accusation, simply a statement, one Miranda couldn’t argue with.

“I… this…” Miranda let out an irritated sigh, she’d known what she’d wanted to say, but it was far harder when it came to it. “I don’t know how to just be colleagues.”

Miranda hadn’t been sure what to expect in response, but she hadn’t expected Leni to laugh. “Oh, the irony. The asshole player that doesn’t do relationships doesn’t know how to just be friends, and the Ice Queen that doesn’t do friendships doesn’t know how to just be colleagues.”

Miranda shook her head but couldn’t stop herself from being infected by the almost hysterical laughter.

-o-

When Leni could finally calm her laughter to mild chuckles, she looked over at Miranda who was leaning against the wall near the door, a safe distance away. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Looking up at her, Miranda tilted her head to the side, brows drawing together.

“Are we still strongest together?” Leni found herself not sure what she wanted the answer to be. She’d missed Miranda these past two weeks and had socialised more with the crew during that time than she had in the previous two months, in an attempt to fill every empty moment. But as hard as it had been to not be around Miranda, right now, the atmosphere was between them was stifling.

“Yes,” Miranda replied, and Leni heard the certainty in her voice, “always.”

-o-

Jack studied the quarian beside zer with curiosity. “Yo, Rayya, what do you guys look like under that suit?”

“Oh, erm, well,” the quarian stuttered.

“I mean, you could look like a squid and we wouldn't know.”

“I do not look like a squid,” the quarian replied indignantly.

Sniggering Jack said, “Squidface, that's your nickname from now on.”

“Jack.”

At the Commander's scolding tone Jack turned to face her. “What? You trying to tell me you don't like your nickname, Leadhead?”

Shepard barked a laugh at the reminder of the new nickname Jack had given her last week after finding out she was held together with a whole load of metal. “Stop being an ass—”

“Decompression complete,” the AI interrupted from above their heads, “ good luck Alpha squad .”

Shepard looked at the three of them and gave a nod. “Okay, heads in the game.”

-o-

“What is it with us, space stations and mechs that want to kill us?” Leni yelled over the gunfire.

Miranda glanced her way a single brow raised and a sparkle in her eyes. “Well, you're the common denominator.”

“I'm pretty sure you are also a common denominator,” Leni said with a grin.

“Then it's both your faults, now can we get on with killing these motherfuckers, or should I tell them Barbie and Leadhead need a coffee break?” the convict said where ze crouched between them.

Leni activated her cloak and popped up out of her cover. Lining the hacked mech's head in her sights and waited; when Tali's AI hack wore off, Leni breathed out and gently squeezed the trigger, knowing her target was going down before the bullet even landed. “I wouldn't say no to a coffee break, how about you, Lawson?”

The comers of Mirada’s mouth twitching. “Honestly, I'd prefer vodka over coffee right now.”

“Ha,” Jack burst, as ze unloaded zer shotgun into the two mechs that were twirling around in Miranda's Singularity, “now you're speaking my language, Barbie.”

As they turned down the corridor leading toward the next power conduit, Tali said, “You know, this reminds me of an old human television program I've seen.”

“What is it with you and human TV?” Leni chuckled.

“Well, it's not like we have the time or resources to create our own on the flotilla. So I take whatever I can get.”

“Okay, then what program does it remind you of?”

“The Crystal Maze.”

Miranda choked down a laugh and Leni just stared at Tali for a second in confusion. “What? How could this remind you of that?”

“Well, you make your way around a maze,” Tali said gesticulating at their surroundings, “overcoming challenges to reach the crystal, or in our case, the power relay.”

“Squidface, you're crazy,” Jack ribbed, “I like it.”

-o-

Whatever Leni had hoped to find here: dead scientists, haywire mechs controlled by an insane AI and encrypted research data, was not it. Miranda could feel the frustration radiating from the Commander and fought the urge to comfort her. Instead, she continued sifting through the files on the lead scientist’s terminal, which Tali had hacked.

To Miranda’s relief, there was no sign anywhere in the facility it had any connection to Cerberus. But as she made her way through the personal logs of the lead scientist: Doctor Nikolaos Wolf, it was becoming clear that Leni was right about him having worked for Cerberus. His logs were full of ramblings about his time with Cerberus and the great opportunities he'd had while there. However, there was also a considerable amount of complaining about his annoyance with Harper's small-mindedness regarding his AI research.

[We could have achieved so much—saved the human race—if he'd only allowed me to work with the genius behind Project Pinocchio.]

Miranda frowned, she'd never heard of a Project Pinocchio and couldn't imagine what it might be. Something to do with AI? She hadn't known of another AI project other than EDI, and Harper had been cautious with EDI, to the point of almost scrapping it for a VI, until someone gave the shackles a complete overhaul, reassuring him the AI could never adjust itself.

“Anything?” Shepard asked.

“He worked for Cerberus for eleven years and it seems he didn't leave on the best of terms. He had proposed some AI project and Harper dismissed it.”

Leni snorted. “Well, going it alone worked out well for him.”

“There's something about a Cerberus project, Project Pinocchio, but it's only mentioned once and he doesn't elaborate on what it was, just expresses a desire to work with the person behind it.”

“Another AI project?”

Miranda shrugged. “I'm not sure. Other than EDI, I've never heard of an AI project. Harper has always been cautious when it comes to them, too precarious.”

“But he happily gave one control of the most advanced human ship,” Shepard said, words dripping with disdain.

Miranda decided it wasn't worth taking up the argument, so changed the subject. “I've searched for keywords: Akuze, thresher maw, sonic hammer, but no hits, sorry.”

Leni's nostrils flared, and she dropped her head back. “Of course there isn't.” Then with a derisive laugh, she lifted her head, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don't know what I expected to find. Selfish idiot, running in here, putting the team at risk.”

“You do everything and anything for the rest of the team,” Miranda said, daring to take a step closer, “you have every right to extend that to yourself, and I think no one in this crew would argue otherwise.”

“For something productive, sure. But a wild goose chase?” Leni shook her head. “Fucking idiot.”

“Who's a fucking idiot?” Jack asked from the lab's doorway.

“You.” Leni threw back.

With a flick of zir finger, Jack sent a small pulse of biotic energy sailing across the room, and even Miranda couldn't hold back a burst of laughter when Leni stumbled back with a yelp. “You sure about that?” Jack replied with a cocky grin and then walked off in Tali's direction. “Yo, Squidface, guess what I did.”

“Traitor,” Leni said and when Miranda looked over she realised she was talking to her, “you're supposed to hate zir, not encourage zir.”

Smirking, Miranda said, “It's not my fault her—”

“Zir,” Leni corrected.

Miranda nodded, acknowledging her slip up. She was still getting used to using the non-binary pronouns since Jack had come out a few weeks back. “It's not my fault zir arsehole behaviour is amusing when it's at someone else's expense. And considering it's usually at mine, I think I'm entitled.” Something dawned on Miranda and she started a new keyword search: [N7] when the search results returned with zero hits, Miranda slumped.

“Come eat with us in the mess hall this evening.”

Miranda faced Leni and stared at her, the request taking her off guard. “Umm, I… Karin.”

“Please. Come be part of the team again.”

“You and I both know it's not the team that's the problem.”

“Miranda,” Leni drawled her name in frustration.

Miranda’s recent need to avoid Kelly Chambers had given her an insight into the other woman’s daily routine that verged on stalker territory, so she knew the yeoman would be there. Just the thought of the yeoman filled Miranda’s head with visions of her hands and lips all over Leni’s body, and Miranda knew there was no way sitting at the same dinner table as the both of them was possible. “I can't Shepard,” Miranda said turning back to the monitor, “I'm sorry, but I can't.”

-o-

Jack eyed the two women either side of zir, curious of the situation. Things had been weird between them for a couple of weeks, but this mission had been different, or at least it had started off different, like it used to be, and then suddenly it was back to weird.

“I'm done,” Shepard said, racking her weapons, “good work on the station, I appreciate everyone's help and I'm sorry it was a waste of time. Tali, Jack, I'll see you at dinner. Lawson, have a good evening.”

When the armoury door closed, Jack put zir shotgun down on the workbench and turned to face the woman beside zir, arms folded. After a few seconds the cheerleader paused from cleaning down her SMG and turned her head Jack's way. “What?”

“What the fuck is with you and the boss?”

“What?” Barbie said again, sounding confused.

“One minute it's like we're in an episode of the Brady Bunch, one big happy family. The next, the bubble bursts and Mom and Mom are miserable as fuck. You two break up or what?”

Barbie's eyes widened and her mouth worked, but no sound came out.

“You seriously think no one could tell you were a thing?”

“We weren't a thing,” the cheerleader replied, shock still clear on her face.

“Yeah, sure,” Jack chuffed, turning back to zir workbench.

Turning her body towards Jack, Barbie said, “We weren't a thing, we were just friends.”

Jack studied the cheerleader beside zir, she seemed to mean what she said. “So, friends that fuck then.”

“No,” Barbie exclaimed.

A snort from the corner of the room made them jump, both having forgotten Tali was still in the room.

“Hey Squidface, you got an insight on this?” Jack asked.

“Oh, umm, it's not for me to say.”

Looking back at the cheerleader, Jack grinned widely. “So you were fuck buddies.” When Barbie's eyes narrowed, Jack laughed. “So what? She get bored with you?”

“No,” Barbie snapped, “we haven't had that sort of relationship for months, we've just been friends.”

“Ohh, I get it; fuck buddies became friends and then one of you got real feelings while the other one didn't.” The look of dismay on Barbie’s face gave Jack all the confirmation ze needed and ze pushed on. “So who was—”

“This conversation is over ,” Barbie said, slamming her SMG into the rack, “and if I hear you have spread rumours about this, I will have you put back in cryo indefinitely.”

Jack watched in amusement as the cheerleader turned and marched out of the armoury at top speed. “I think that was a pretty productive bonding session, don’t you Squidface?”

-o-

Karin waited until the last of the crew moved away from Leni before approaching her. Ever since the Kelly Chambers incident, Karin had debated whether to bring it up with Leni. She felt like it probably wasn’t her place, they were grown adults after all, but with Miranda and Leni, their growth regarding romantic relationships was most definitely stunted.

“Karin,” Leni said with a smile, “you’re late for the dinner party.”

Aware that Rupert was still in the near vicinity, taking care of mealtime aftermath, Karin smiled and said lightly, “Do you have a moment for a chat? In private?”

Leni’s brow dipped a little, maybe picking up on the facade. “Sure, your office or mine?”

“Mine will do, it’s just a quick one.”

With a nod, Leni stood and dropped her tray off on the kitchen worktop, thanking Rupert before following Karin into the medbay. When the door slid closed, Leni didn’t move into the room, instead she leant back against the doorframe, arms crossed. “What’s this about?” she asked, tone suspicious.

“It’s about the karaoke night.”

“Okay,” she said, dragging the word out, “you weren’t there were you?”

“No, I had a headache.”

“Shame, you missed a good night.”

“Yes, I saw.”

Leni’s eyebrows drew close together. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I saw you take Ms Chambers up to your cabin.”

Leni’s face morphed, her brows rising from the depths of suspicion to the heights of surprise. “Umm, okay, I don’t—”

“And so did Miranda,” Karin cut in before Leni could continue.

“What?”

“She doesn’t know I saw, but she looked…well, I think upset would be an understatement.”

“Fuck,” Leni muttered and turned away from Karin, “Karin it—”

“Darling, I don’t need, or really want details of how it meant nothing. I know you two aren’t together, but this is a small ship with a small crew, and I wanted to suggest that you be a little more considerate of her feelings.”

“You’re right,” Leni said, and Karin heard a sharp tone in her voice, “we aren’t together, we have, in fact, never been together, because that’s how she wants it. I have to be considerate of her feelings? Like how she was so considerate of mine when she would lead me on with one hand and slap me with the other? Yeah, I’m sure she was upset, someone else had her cake.”

“Are you finished?” Karin asked, brow raised in disapproval. When Leni slumped against one of the beds, Karin moved to stand beside her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Don't get bitter over this, you of all people know what she's like and how alien this situation is for her, she has no idea how to handle it. And I know you haven't done this to hurt her, which is why I wanted to tell you.”

“Yeah,” Leni said, more of a breath than a word, “I… I hate this situation, whenever we’re alone, it gets so hard to not cross the boundaries she doesn’t want us to cross. And she doesn’t know how to be around me professionally, so now, we never see each other and I miss her.”

“I know Darling, you both just have to give it time. Until then, try to be extra discreet with your private life?”

“Sure.”

-o-

“Shepard, may I have a word?”

Leni looked up as she exited the medbay and tried her best to not let the desire to be alone show on her face.

“I apologise, is this an inconvenient time?” the justicar said, her reply letting Leni know she failed to hide how she felt.

“No, Samara, now is fine. How can I help you?”

“It’s about the target I was pursuing on Illium, I have received new information about their location.”

“And you want to go get them while the lead is still fresh?”

The asari gave a single nod. “They are on Omega, if our current situation doesn’t allow us to detour that far, I understand, however, I will have to take leave to go after them myself, I will return when my task is complete.”

“No, of course, we'll go, we have business in the Terminus Systems so it wouldn’t be an inconvenience, and even if we didn't, if it matters to you, it matters to us all.”

The asari tilted her head. “You are a curious woman Commander. Your leadership style is… unique, few Captains would chase around the galaxy helping their crew with personal issues.”

Leni gave a slight smile. “Few Captains ask their crew to go on a mission dubbed ‘the suicide mission.’”

“You know better than most that the simplest of missions can end up being your last, that is the risk we take living this life.”

“You've been researching me?”

A sly smile crept onto Samara's face. “Why research when the ship's gossip is so much quicker.”

Leni laughed. “Very true.”

“Commander, could we move this to my room?”

“Certainly,” Leni said and followed her towards the Starboard Observation that served as the asari's living quarters.

When the door slid shut behind them, Samara moved to the large window, staring out into the expanse. “I feel if you are to support me in my mission, I must share some important details with you, however, they are very personal and painful.”

“You don't have to…”

“Yes, Commander, I do. I feel I can trust you to hear them without judgement.”

“I'll do my best.”

“The individual I am chasing—have been chasing for centuries—is an Ardat-Yakshi. I don't know if you have heard of them, but they can be a deadly predictor that kill their prey during a meld. Most with the condition either choose to live their life peacefully in solitude or accept execution. This particular Ardat-Yakshi embraced her abilities and has become the most intelligent and formidable Ardat-Yakshi of my time. She is also my eldest daughter.”

 

To be continued…

Chapter Text

Karin flashed the torch in front of her patient’s eyes watching as the pupils constrict as they should. “And you don’t have any fogginess? Headache? Dizziness?”

“No,” Miranda said, “I’ve told you I’m fine.”

“Do you pass out often?”

Miranda let out a sigh. “I have a few times, but that was several years ago. My last doctor said it was likely stress related.”

Karin pursed her lips and nodded slowly. “Given our current mission and your current... emotional state, it isn’t an unlikely explanation.”

“Emotional state?” Miranda scoffed with an eye roll as she hopped off the bed, “I’m fine Karin.”

“Well, you should tell the Commander.”

Miranda stopped mid-stride and turned to look at her. “That’s not going to happen, and you can’t tell her.”

If Karin had a chit for every patient that reminded her of the doctor-patient confidentiality oath she had taken, she’d be a retired millionaire by now. “If there is a great enough risk it occurs on a mission I can. You’re lucky you were sitting this one out.”

Miranda’s jaw clenched. “It’s never happened in the field—well, only once in the field. But considering I was being held captive by batarians, I think that one can be forgiven.”

Karin raised a brow.

“It’s a long story,” Miranda said with a shrug.

“Care to—”

“No,” Miranda said cutting off her question.

Karin narrowed her eyes at the younger woman. “As long as this is the only incident, I won’t tell the Commander. But if this happens again, she will need to know.”

Miranda gave a short nod and headed towards to exit.

Moving to her desk Karin said, “EDI please monitor Director Lawson’s vital signs at all times and report if she has another blackout. This monitoring is only to be discontinued by myself: authorisation C, M, O, K, C, one.”

“Affirmative, Doctor Chakwas,” the AI confirmed.

Karin couldn’t help but smirk at the annoyed grunt from behind her. She had plenty of experience in pulling senior officers—including Captains—in line. It seemed stubbornness and stupidity were a requirement for any senior officer when it came to managing their own health.

“Have a good evening, Miranda,” Karin said just before the door hissed closed.

-o-

The more Shepard spoke, the less comfortable Tali felt with the plan.

“Although I appreciate your commitment to helping capture her, Commander, I fear you are underestimating Morinth’s power,” the justiciar said, her forehead puckering into an uncharacteristic frown and Tali was relieved to hear that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t like Shepard’s suggestion.

Stepping forward, Tali cleared her throat. “I have to agree with Samara, Commander, this feels like an unnecessary risk.”

“A risk, yes, unnecessary? I don’t think so,” Shepard said, turning to look at the justiciar, “how many centuries have you been chasing her Samara? You said yourself, this is the closest you’ve gotten without her being aware of your presence in a long time. How many people will die at her hands if she gets away again?”

To Tali’s dismay, the frown on the asari’s features smoothed out, her calm, controlled aura returning. “You are right, Commander.”

“Tali, once we reach her apartment, you will need to hack the door lock so Samara has no issues getting in, I have no plans of having my brain melted tonight.”

“Yes, Commander,” Tali said in defeat and fell in beside her Commander as Samara lead the way to the VIP section of Afterlife.

“What’s up? You’ve been skittish since we got here.”

“I feel like we should be a four-man team.”

“Okay,” Shepard said drawing the word out, “anyone, in particular, that would have made you feel more confident? Maybe a certain turian?”

Tali ignored the unsubtle comment and replied, “Jack.”

“Really?”

Tali turned to look at the woman walking beside her and saw Leni’s brows were raised a bemused look on her face. “Yes, ze’s an excellent biotic and—”

“Um, we have an asari justicar with us, I think she’s got the biotics covered.”

“Well, yes but if Jack were here...” Tali paused, finding she didn’t have a sound reason to explain her choice.

“Ze would call you Squidface again?” Leni helpfully suggested.

“I’ve been called worse things,” Tali said and glanced at Leni

Tali looked at her, Leni’s brows drew together, amusement dancing in her eyes. “Don’t tell me you like the foul-mouthed, aggressive, and—let’s be honest—slightly insane convict?”

“I didn’t take you to be so judgemental,” Tali said, ever thankful her helmet hid her glowing cheeks.

“I’m not. I like zir, I just didn’t expect you to.”

In truth, Leni wasn’t wrong, Jack was the type of person Tali would usually avoid. Yet there was something that called to Tali through all the attitude and aggression, something buried deep beneath the tattoos, scars and bravado.

“Commander,” the justicar said, cutting into Tali’s thoughts and drawing Leni’s attention away from her before she had time to say more, “we have arrived.”

-o-

“Independence over submission. I think we share that, you and I.”

Leni’s eyes followed the asari as she rose and moved closer to her. It wasn’t hard to imagine her bewitching an entire village into worshipping her. She was mesmerising; as if there was a magnetic aura that drew you to her.

“You compare us, but you’re nowhere near my league,” Leni said resisting the urge to push the asari away as she sat on her knee without invitation. She needed to play the role she had cast herself in, but her instincts told her to flee.

“So strong. I need this,” Morinth said as her eyes blackened.

A chill ran down Leni’s spine and she felt a weight pressing on the perimeter of her mind—the asari trying to force her way in. She found herself frozen to the spot, this must be what a home invasion felt like, sitting in the dark, hearing someone forcing their way into your home.

“Look into my eyes and tell me you want me,” Morinth commanded.

The words echoed in her mind, searching for a way out. “I want—” Leni fought the overpowering urge to do as Morinth demanded, but she was too strong. “—you.”

No! A voice in her head yelled . Her mind fogged more with every passing second. She had greatly underestimated the Ardat-Yakshi, and now she was trapped in her own mind with no way out. Her breathing became shallow and her breaths quickened as her chest constricted.

Then she heard something call to her. Something strong and relentless and she followed it. Through the fog, Leni could see the silhouette and she fought her way towards it. As she drew nearer, the rising panic lessened, her breathing slowly returning to normal. A feeling of warmth, trust and safety seeped into her mind and she realised the silhouette was a figure. This figure—this person—ignited feelings in her, feelings she was certain she had never felt for anyone else.

An arm reached out to her, and when it did, a spotlight was cast on it, revealing pale skin. The light travelled over the figure until a woman’s face was unveiled: striking blue eyes, thick black hair and a smile that she somehow knew was only for her. Leni reached out for the woman’s hand and with the barest of touches, the woman and the fog was gone.

Opening her eyes, Leni squinted, adjusting to the sudden light as she found herself back in the apartment.

“Tell me you’d kill for me. Anything I want,” Morinth said, eyes still as black as the abyss, unaware Leni had escaped her trap.

The asari was still gripping Leni’s arms and Leni jerked away, breaking the asari’s hold. “Sorry, I’m not the victim you were hoping for.”

Instantly, Morinth’s eyes returned to normal and she focused on Leni, confusion coating her face. “But you...who are you?” Her brows furrowed, eyes flickering in thought. Then with a soft chuckle, her gaze shifted back to Leni. “Oh, I see what’s going on. The Bitch herself found a little helper.”

The apartment door hissed open and Morinth stood, only to be hit by a precision biotic pulse that neither Jack nor Miranda could have pulled off.

“Mother.”

-o-

Ting.

Miranda glanced at the pop-up in the corner of her terminal screen and frowned at the new message notification. There were only a handful of people on her contacts list, most of which were on the ship, and her profile wasn’t public, so if you didn’t have her as a contact, you wouldn’t find her. Tapping on the small box she opened the chat window.

[Sender: Unknown.

Hey, my parents found out about the party, we have forty-two hours to find another location for it. How about the Eternity Bar? Let me know ASAP when you can meet.

L]

-o-

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Samara. I’m here if you need to talk.”

“Thank you, Shepard, I appreciate your assistance and the risk you took to help me complete my mission. But now I must grieve my child alone,” the justicar said in a solemn tone, taking her meditative position again.

Leni bowed her head in respect and stepped out of the room. The scene that had played out in the apartment had been an astonishing display of biotic power. But more than that, it had been a sorrowful scene of pain and sacrifice.

Samara had done the unthinkable to save the innocents that would have fallen victim to Morinth’s seduction should she have lived. Although Leni was certain Samara stood by her actions and would do exactly the same if she had to, the justicar would never forgive herself for ending the life of her strongest and smartest daughter.

As she headed towards the lift—lost in her own thoughts—Leni rounded the corner and crashed into Miranda, almost sending her flying. “Woah, sorry, you okay?” she said, steadying the other woman with a hand on her arm.

Miranda glanced down at the hand then met Leni’s gaze. “No. Do you have a moment? I need to show you something.” The tone in Miranda’s voice was urgent.

Leni let her hand drop and nodded. “Of course.”

As they moved through the mess hall, Leni looked at the woman who walked beside her: there was a tightness to her face. Something had her anxious, and Leni got the impression it had nothing to do with their personal situation. Although Miranda must have known Leni watching her, she made no show of it and simply stared straight ahead. The thought that it might always be like this between them formed a rock in Leni’s stomach. She missed what they’d had and each time they interacted it felt like the woman she’d had the privilege of getting to know, was slipping further and further away from her.

When they entered her cabin, Miranda walked around her desk and spun the screen to face Leni. She read and reread the message three times before looking at Miranda with a frown. “The party is Oriana?”

Miranda nodded but said nothing.

“Eternity, as in Illium?”

Another nod.

“EDI, connect me to Jeff.”

“Commander?” the pilot replied over the comm.

“ETA to Illium?”

“Illium? Roughly two and a half days.”

“Shit,” Miranda whispered with a shaky voice and began to pace, chewing on a nail.

“You have thirty-six hours,” Leni replied to the pilot.

“Err, Commander, that’s almost impossible.”

“Almost being the keyword, Mr Moreau. This is a time-sensitive P-One; break flight laws, jump queues, hell, I don’t care if you steal the Destiny Ascension’s relay spot, just get us there. If anyone complains, tell them your resident Spectre will get back to them when we’ve done saving the fucking galaxy, again .”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The glee in Jeff’s voice was clear, he would have fun with this journey.

Leni looked back at Miranda who had stopped pacing: although her face still coated in anxiety, her eyes had softened.

“Thank you,” Miranda said and walked over to the large window.

Leni moved to stand beside her. “You have the full use of our resources. We could put a strategy togeth—”

“That’s unnecessary,” Miranda said abruptly, “I mean, thank you, but I’ve already started it.”

“Okay, well we can continue it—”

“No, you have enough to focus on. I’ll send it to you for review once the first outline is complete.”

Leni studied Miranda’s profile: she stared at the expanse, her arms folded across her body like a shield. “Okay,” Leni eventually replied, “you know where I am if you want to run anything past me.”

“Yes, thank you.”

-o-

Miranda closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. No matter how many times she read the information on her monitor, no more details magically appeared. She had next to no actionable intel and if Lanteia couldn’t get any more details before they arrived at Illium, they would be going into this mission blindfolded.

Sighing, Miranda picked up her tea and walked over to the sofa, kicking off her boots and curling her feet under her. Lately, she’d found it difficult to get comfortable on the sofa: it felt so big, so empty without Leni spreading out, taking up half of it the way she had. All Miranda wanted was to sit and talk with the only person she could speak to, the only person she wanted to speak to. Right now, Miranda missed Leni more than ever.

The worst part was that she knew if she asked Leni to come, she would without hesitation. It had been clear that Leni wanted to help, to support her when she was here earlier, but doing so would be a selfish move, unfair to Leni. No, she would deal with this the way she used to before Leni came along: alone.

-o-

Leni thought back to the vid-call with her mother, during which her mother had lovingly called her an idiot, pointing out that she’d let her personal situation with Miranda affect their professional one. She was the CO, the one that decided who planned what missions. Right now Miranda needed support and Leni was the only person that could support her in this. The final instruction from her mother had been, to get over herself and do whatever was needed.

“EDI, please tell Director Lawson I need to see her in my cabin.”

“Yes, Commander,” the AI replied and there was a moment’s pause, “she asks if it is urgent.”

Of course she did. Leni thought with a chuckle. That woman could be so damned obstinate. “Yes, it is urgent.”

After another moment the AI replied, “She is on her way.”

Leni read through the information on the datapad again and prepared herself for the backlash that would come when she showed it to Miranda. Hearing the ping of the elevator door, Leni stood and cracked the bottle cap off one of the beers.

When Miranda stepped through the cabin door she paused and stared at the bottle that Leni held out. “I thought this was urgent,” she said, the annoyance clear in her tone.

“It is. Come on, take a seat and have a beer.”

“Is that an order?”

“The beer is optional, the sitting down is not.”

Letting out an irritated sigh Miranda walked down the stairs, ignoring the beer as she passed Leni and perched on the sofa. “Well?”

“You don’t get to choose which missions you plan, I do,” Leni said leaning against the display case and taking a swig from the bottle.

Miranda stood swiftly. “You can’t stop me from having a say in my sister’s rescue, Shepard.”

“As if I would do that. But likewise, you can’t stop me from working on it with you. Stop being so stubborn, I don’t need to tell you how important this mission is. We have to get it right, so let’s work together to make sure we do.”

Letting out a sigh, Miranda slumped back onto the sofa. “Fine, although the information I have is sketchy, we’ve nothing to work with.”

Moving over to the sofa, Leni handed the datapad to Miranda as she took a seat.

“What is this?”

“Something to work with.”

Miranda frowned but read the datapad. After only a few seconds, her eyes widened and she looked up at Leni. “How? How could you have this information?”

Bracing herself, Leni cleared her throat. “I happen to be close friends with an information broker.”

“What? You told T’Soni about my personal situation without my consent? Shepard I trusted you.”

“Easy now,” Leni said, trying to placate the infuriated woman opposite her, “I didn’t tell her anything about you, Oriana or anything. She thinks this is a random job and none of the information she found gives anything away.”

“But it could have.”

“Yes, it could have, but I trust Liara with my life. If I told her to forget everything she’d found, she would. You said it yourself, you had next to nothing to go on, and this is too important to be a seat of our pants job.”

Turning away from Leni, Miranda began reading the information on the pad. “Eclipse, no shock there considering it’s Illium.”

Leni nodded. “The client is anonymous, referred to only as N.”

“Well, it’s obviously my father, no one else has any reason to want her.”

“It’s certainly the most obvious answer, but right now that’s a minor detail, knowing we’ll be facing Eclipse is the most important detail. Also, a lot of money has gone into this, whoever it is has commissioned a large troop.”

“He’s expecting me,” Miranda said, gripping the datapad.

“But he won’t be expecting the other eleven of us. You saw on Horizon what our team is capable of. Eclipse troops are like ants compared to the Collectors, we’ll stamp our way through them.”

“No.”

Leni frowned in confusion. “No, what?”

“You, me and Jacob. We can’t involve anyone else.”

Leni stared at the other woman for a moment. “Miranda, we need the whole team otherwise we risk being overwhelmed. Trust me to do what is best to keep her safe.”

Miranda looked down at her hands. “It’s not you that I don’t trust. The more people that know, the more chance that she’ll be discovered again.”

“If I believed that, I wouldn’t have suggested it. I’d do the same if it was Olivia.”

“No offence Leni, but Olivia doesn’t need to be hidden.”

Leni winced, remembering that their recent lack of communication meant she hadn’t told Miranda of recent events. “Actually, Becky and Olive got put under Alliance protection the end of last week.”

“What? why?” Miranda said, eyes widening.

“The Alliance picked up chatter from an extremist batarian group. They somehow found out the ‘Butcher of Torfan’ has a daughter and were out for revenge.”

“God, Leni, why didn’t you say anything?”

“I wanted to, believe me, you were the first person I wanted to talk to after Mom told me, but...” Leni paused and let out a small huff, “we haven’t been chatting of late.”

Miranda shook her head, her jaw clenching, then her head snapped back to face her. “Why haven’t we gone to sort this?”

“The Alliance moved fast, by the time I found out, one of their best N7 squads were mid taking them out; they did a good job too. Becky and Olive have been relocated to military housing and have had their surname changed, just to be safe. But I didn’t mean to make this about me, I just want to make the point that I would have done the same for them as I’m suggesting for Oriana. Trust me to do what is best for her, for you both.”

Miranda stood and walked over to the aquarium, head hanging. “I can’t lose her Leni, she’s the only relationship I haven’t messed up. Which considering she doesn’t even know I exist, says a lot about me.” Her last words were said with a derisive laugh that became a sob.

Standing, Leni moved over to her and turned Miranda around, pulling her into her arms. Although Miranda buried her face in Leni’s shoulder, her body was stiff, arms still crossed, maintaining a barrier between them. Ignoring the resistance, Leni rested her cheek on top of the other woman’s head. “You haven’t messed up every other relationship and I’m sorry this situation has left you feeling alone. You aren’t.” Feeling Miranda’s body relax, Leni murmured, “I miss you.”

As if those three words had magical powers, Miranda gave in, her body melting against Leni’s, her arms wrapping around her. “I miss you too.”

Smiling, Leni said, “How did you become one of my closest friends?”

A choked laugh came from the woman in her arms. “You wouldn’t take no for a bloody answer,” Miranda said pulling back to look at her.

Leni wiped away a stubborn tear from Miranda’s cheek. “I’m sorry my feelings messed things up.”

“It wasn’t your feelings,” Miranda said, raising a hand and cupping Leni’s chin, the contact quickening Leni’s heartbeat, “it was my fear that messed it up.”

Leni opened her mouth to speak but Miranda didn’t give her a chance.

“I love you.”

-o-

The silence that followed was even more terrifying than the three words she had spoken only seconds earlier. Leni’s mouth had dropped open and her eyes widened, but now they narrowed as she shook her head. Miranda’s heart sank and her feet begged her to flee as they had every time before. But this time she held fast, refusing to let her feet have their way until she knew for sure.

“But you said...this isn’t what you want, the mission...” Leni looked dazed as she rambled half sentences.

Miranda realised that Leni’s reaction wasn’t a rejection, rather that she was stunned from the revelation. “If the mission fails, I’ll lose you and I couldn’t bear that, but I’m losing you, anyway. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt you, and I understand if you can’t forgive me for leading you on and then rejecting you but—” The kiss that cut off her next words was gentle, yet filled with emotion and Miranda could do nothing but yield.

When Leni pulled back, there was a smile on her face and Miranda could have drowned in the chestnut eyes that stared back at her. “There’s nothing to forgive,” she whispered, “I love you too.”

Miranda snaked her hand around the back of Leni’s neck—dragging her nails as she did—and pulled Leni’s head down until their lips met again. When Leni’s hand slide down her back, she deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue in Leni’s mouth and Leni moved her back until she was up against the aquarium.

The hand that was on her back slid under her top and Miranda let out a heavy breath as fingers trailed their way up her body. It wasn’t the first time that Leni’s hands had been all over her, but this was different. Waves of goosebumps rippled over her skin with every touch and she needed the cloth barriers between them gone. Bringing her hands down to Leni’s waist Miranda tugged at her t-shirt and Leni lifted her arms making it easier for Miranda to pull it off, then returned the gesture in kind, taking a moment to appreciate her as the top and bra dropped to the floor. When Leni pressed against her, Miranda inhaled sharply and pushed away from the cold tank.

“Sorry,” Leni said with a chuckle as she wrapped her warm arms around her.

Looking up with a sly smile, Miranda guided Leni towards the bed and pushed her to a sitting position, straddling her lap. “Damn it, woman, you’re incredible,” Leni said, studying her face with a look of wonder.

“Look who’s talking,” Miranda whispered and then yelped as Leni grabbed her by the waist and flipped them over, lowering Miranda onto her back. Lifting her head, Miranda reached for the soft lips that hovered an inch away from her own, but they moved out of reach and Miranda let out a groan of objection until she felt them trail down her collarbone and her groan became a hum of approval. The arm that was still wrapped around her waist slid out from under her, nails dragging across her back and Miranda arched in response as fingers and lips continued to send ripples of goosebumps washing over her. When teeth grazed her nipple, Miranda sucked in a sharp breath of air and growled in frustration, she needed fewer clothes between them. Twanging Leni’s waistband, Miranda almost growled, “Get these off.”

She heard a snicker and then felt hands hooking her own waistband. “How about we get these gone first?”

-o-

Miranda propped herself up on her elbows. “I don’t care who goes first, just get these damn clothes off.”

Leni couldn’t help but laugh at the other woman’s frustration but didn’t hesitate and began to pull the fatigues down over Miranda’s curvaceous hips.

“Commander,” the AI’s voice said making them both jump.

“Jesus fuck,” Leni hissed in exasperation and tightened her grip on the waistband which hadn’t gotten more than a few inches lower, “what, EDI?”

“Doctor Chakwas is asking if you are ready to go over the shift changeover.”

Dropping her head, Leni cursed, “Fuck, I have the next CO shift.”

“EDI, what is Garrus doing?” Miranda asked, and Leni grinned at the other woman’s cunning.

“He is calibrating the weapons systems.”

“What a surprise,” Leni chuffed, “put me through to him, EDI.”

“Commander?” Garrus’ rough voice came over the comms.

“Gar, don’t suppose you could do me a favour and take my CO shift? It just started. Something...came up, and I really need to handle it right away,” Leni said and had to fight not to laugh when Miranda swatted her, “I’ll take your shift in the morning.”

Sitting up, Miranda whispered in her ear, “He’s working the next poker-night.”

Not needing further explanation, Leni nodded. “And your next poker-night shift.”

“Oh, you’ve got a deal,”  the turian replied without hesitation.

“Karin’s waiting to give a shift handover. Oh and we have just received a time-sensitive P-One mission, so Jeff has changed our course to Illium. ETA thirty-six hours.”

“Understood, Commander, I’ll make sure everything is ship-shape.”

“Thanks, Gar.” When she was sure the comm line was closed Leni said, “Hey you.”

“Hey,” Miranda whispered in return and hooked a hand around Leni’s neck, pulling her closer. That touch alone sent a shiver up Leni’s spine, but having had the last few minutes to clear her head, there was a growing uncertainty in the pit of her stomach. “What is it?” Miranda asked, obviously seeing the change in her.

“Is this really happening? Because I’m all in, and I don’t think I can take you running away again.”

-o-

Sitting up straight, Miranda took Leni’s face in both her hands and saw a raw vulnerability in the beautiful eyes that were locked with her own. Seeing such vulnerability in this strong woman, knowing that her actions could induce such strong emotions was both elating and alarming; if Miranda had had any doubt of how Leni felt about her, it would have been eradicated in this moment. “I couldn’t run away now if I wanted to, which—for the record—I don’t,” she said with a smile, “all in.”

As Miranda spoke, she saw the vulnerability ebbing away, and now there was a fire flickering in Leni’s eyes as she leaned forward and kissed her. It was so gentle, yet expressed so much and Miranda pulled Leni closer.

Hands and lips explored her body, leaving a trail of embers in their wake. Every touch was like nothing she’d felt before—not even from Leni—it was so much more than lust, saturated with love and Miranda found herself lost in a realm of ecstasy.

When a hand on her cheek guided her back, she opened her eyes to see Leni laid beside her, with a tender smile on her face. Reaching up, Miranda tucked a stray braid behind her ear. “I love you.”

-o-

The intense emotions those three little words evoked in Leni were overwhelming and she couldn’t hold back the shudder when Miranda trailed her hand down her neck and shoulder, rolling her onto her back and tracing the outlines of her body with warm lips.

Leni had always been sceptical about the difference love could make to amazing sex. Before they became friends, the sex between them had been some of, if not the best Leni had had. But now, Leni understood the difference between having sex and making love.

Never, had hands touched her or lips kissed her the way Miranda’s did right now, and Leni drowned in a euphoria like nothing she’d ever experienced. This time, Miranda didn’t make her beg for what she wanted, instead, she was given everything and more again and again until Leni couldn’t take anymore and arms encircled her quivering body.

-o-

Shivering Leni reached to pull the cover over her shoulders but met resistance, rolling over she cracked one eye open and saw Miranda sitting up with her pale bare back to Leni. “Hey,” she croaked and Miranda turned to look at her with a sheepish expression.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Catching sight of a datapad in Miranda’s hand, Leni lowered her brows. “Miri, we’ve gone over the plan a hundred times, it’s as good as it can be.”

Sighing, Miranda put the datapad on the bedside table and laid back into Leni’s arms. “I know, too much time to over think it I suppose.”

“Okay, how about we find something else to think about?”

“Tell me what happened on Omega.”

Leni looked down at the woman in her arms and smirked. “That wasn’t what I’d had in mind, but okay.”

Rolling over Miranda propped her chin up with her hands. “Don’t you need any recovery time?”

Laughing Leni put her hands behind her head. “Not much it seems, which is obviously your fault considering you built me.” Leni’s eyes lit up as something dawned on her. “Oh. My. God. You created your own girlfriend, you’re like the modern day Frankenstein.”

Gasping, Miranda shoved Leni sending her rolling off the bed but caught her in a biotic-stasis field just before she hit the floor. “That serves you right,” Miranda said with a laugh as she released Leni from stasis.

“That’s cheating,” Leni said sitting up. Before she could pull herself back onto the bed, she was once again surrounded by a blue hue, dragged up into the air and then placed back on the bed.

“No, this is cheating,” Miranda said, pinning Leni’s hands above her head as she straddled her.

“You really don’t play fair Miss Lawson, please do continue.”

-o-

Miranda revelled in the warmth of the naked body she leaned back against. She looked at their hands which rested on Leni’s bent knee: their fingers were interlaced, her own pale skin contrasting with Leni’s brown hue. Leni stroked Miranda’s arm as she spoke and her hairs stood on end in response to the gentle touch.

“Wait, rewind,” Miranda said, turning her head to look at the profile of the woman behind her, “your brilliant idea to catch the asari’s version of a succubus, was to use yourself as bait and be seduced by her?”

Leni laughed. “Succubus? God, you’re so inappropriate sometimes.”

“Well, that’s essentially what they are.”

Miranda heard Leni sigh and felt lips brush her shoulder. “It’s a good job I love you, woman.”

The warm air intensified the goosebumps on her arms and the words ignited a flutter in her chest. With a smile, Miranda said, “You’re changing the subject.”

“I wasn’t seduced, I just let her think I was, Samara was there as soon as she was vulnerable.”

“Mmhm, as soon as she was vulnerable.”

Leni chuckled, her lips still hovering mere centimetres from Miranda’s skin. “Trust me, I was already yours, no one else stood a chance of seducing me.”

Miranda couldn’t help but smile and the flutter in her chest grew until a memory came to her, bringing nausea with it and she turned her face away.

The hand that had been stroking her arm moved to guide her chin round to look at her again. “What?”

Twisting her body away from Leni, Miranda turned until she was facing her. A frown appeared on Leni’s brow and worry was clear in her eyes. “We need to talk about something because I don’t want it to be an issue later on.”

“Okay,” Leni intoned.

“I...” Miranda paused and took a deep breath, “I know about Chambers.” Whenever she thought about it: them together, Kelly Chambers in this room, in this bed with her hands all over Leni, it made Miranda simultaneously want to rip the yeoman apart and curl up in a ball. As hard as it was to hold eye contact, Miranda did, she needed to see Leni’s reaction.

“Oh,” Leni said, raising her brows, “I’d forgotten.”

“You’d forgotten? Were you that drunk?”

Leni squinted and Miranda thought she saw an almost amused expression. “Sorry, I meant I forgot that you’d seen.”

Miranda stared at Leni, mouth open unsure what to say. “How?” Was all she managed.

“I got a scolding from Karin the next day for being so insensitive. She saw you watching.”

Breaking eye contact, Miranda hugged her knees to her chest, suddenly feeling exposed. “She didn’t tell me she knew.”

“Miri,” Leni said with a gentle voice, “nothing happened.”

Looking back at her, Miranda clenched her jaw, annoyance flaring at the blatant lie. “Leni, I saw you practically carry her into the lift, and I know she was up here with you, so don’t even try to pretend she went to a different floor.”

“Information courtesy of EDI I take it,” Leni said and let out a huff, “Chambers tripped on the way to the elevator and I caught her, and yes she was in my cabin, to take a photo of the SR1.”

Miranda tilted her head to the side in confusion.

“The rare model you bought me for my birthday,” Leni clarified and waved her hand at the display case, “her twin brother is mad about model ships and she’s been trying to get hold of the SR1 for him since they were first announced.”

“You’re kidding?” Miranda asked in disbelief.

Leni shuffled forward, closing the gap between them and rested her hands on Miranda’s legs. “You are the only person I have slept with in this lifetime, the only person I want to sleep with for the rest of this lifetime. It wasn’t a lie, no one else could have seduced me because—irrespective of whether you wanted me—I was already in love with you.”

Miranda stared into brown eyes, processing this new information. She’d jumped to a conclusion, assuming Leni had added another notch to her belt when in reality, Miranda was the only person to have laid hands on this beautiful woman since her resurrection. “I’m sorry, for thinking—”

“No,” Leni cut in, “don’t be sorry, I understand why you’d think that. It’s not as if it was out of character for old me. If I’d remembered I would have told you right away.”

“If you knew that I knew, why didn’t you tell me back then?”

Leni shrugged. “You went to great lengths to avoid me, I mean, we barely even communicated about work stuff face to face, and to be honest, it seemed kind of arrogant to assume it would bother you enough for me to clear it up, or, that was what I told myself anyway, it was probably more cowardice on my part.”

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve had to avoid her after that night because I genuinely wanted to kill her.”

Leni’s eyes lit up, and she bit her lip, trying and failing to hide a grin. “You were crazy jealous,” she said with triumph in her voice.

Playfully slapping her, Miranda said, “You’re not meant to take delight in that. I’m really surprised nothing at all happened, anyone can see she fancies you.”

“Well, she tried to kiss me,” Leni said with a wince and Miranda frowned, jealousy flaring again but Leni continued, “but I pushed her away and suggested it was time for her to leave. I’ve never been interested, not even before us.”

Hearing that did a lot to douse Miranda’s jealousy, and she leaned in and kissed Leni. “Good,” she said when their lips parted, “because I will cut her if she ever tries that again.”

Leni laughed and pushed her back to laying. “Trust me, I’m all yours.”

 

To Be Continued...