Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.

Whiskey and November

Chapter Three: Ash and Salt and Freedom

"'It's the end times, Jack,' she whispers breathlessly through the raging hail of gunfire and explosions around them. Just below in the valley lies their death, or their freedom. 'You ready?'" - On the frontlines of London, Jack and Miranda contemplate the end of things. A not-quite-love story in three parts.

Jack and Miranda find themselves leaning back against one of the Alliance's M-080 Infantry Fighting Vehicles that made it across the stretch of London leading up to the beam. The artillery unit is just ahead, the collapsed hull of the guarding Destroyer leveled close by the tanks, the fiery explosion of the Thanix canons sifting resulting ash and embers through the air. The city is smoke-filled and rotting.

Shepard and Admiral Anderson converse several vehicles away, the crowd of soldiers in the street massing for the final run toward the beam. Even now, more Reaper forces are making their way through the city toward their position.

The two women resting against the hull of an IFV simply try to catch their breath in anticipation of the next few minutes, waiting for the round-up of squads.

Jack turns her head to watch Miranda beside her, a dark, hoarse chuckle leaving her lips. "I'll admit, Cheerleader, those were some wild moves back there." She inclines her head back to nod behind them, where the flood of Marauder and Cannibal corpses stretches across the hollow London streets, a testament to the slow and hard-won battle of the still-dying city.

Miranda laughs softly, licking her chapped lips, rubbing a hand over her forehead. "Looks like you don't have the patent on 'crazy' anymore." She turns her own gaze to the woman beside her.

Jack barks a laugh, nudging an elbow into Miranda's side, softly though, conscious of the woman's weariness and injury. Softly enough for her to question the move herself. "Not by a long shot."

Miranda smirks, leaning her head back on the vehicle. She can feel the heat from Jack beside her. It is an odd thing to not want to move away, to feel steadied and reassured and calm by the presence.

Calm.

The last word she'd use to describe Jack.

But here they stand together, breathing the same air, bleeding the same red, looking out at the same last threat to their world.

A world that scars them and loves them and pushes them still. A world that, even now, finds ways to surprise her.

Miranda sighs softly, flicking her gaze to Jack beside her. The tattooed woman sniffs loudly, wiping a hand across her nose and then spitting into the dirt. She rolls her shoulders and winces slightly at the distant but constant throbbing of her wound. She feels Miranda's eyes on her and turns, one brow raised. "What?" she whispers on a curious chuckle.

"Mm." Miranda purses her lips and shakes her head. "Just…" She pauses, laughs, reaches a hand up to pull the tie of her ponytail loose, fingers raking through her dark, tangled hair.

Jack watches the motion silently. There is something comforting and unnamable about it she cannot place.

Miranda levels a crooked grin in Jack's direction. "Ever think we'd make it this far?"

"Fuck yeah," Jack answers without hesitation, crossing her gauntleted arms over the dark green of her chestplate. "Goddamn Reapers didn't stand a chance." Even now, hidden behind the bravado and the confidence and the self-assurance, there is the sharp twinge of maybe lying in wait. The hesitant, tremulous thought that this is just illusion. A sick afterimage. The ugly, desperate dream of the dead.

Jack wonders if really, she died back there on the streets of London, broken and unknown and without witness.

She wonders if this is what death feels like when the soul has not let go.

Miranda cocks her head at Jack's answer, her lips parting in thought a moment, and then closing swiftly.

Jack notices the motion, her gaze falling softly on the woman's lips for a moment before finding their way back to her gaze. "You didn't?

Miranda furrows her brow, the words slow and hesitant in her throat, her weight shifting against the IFV behind her so that she turns fully to Jack, leaning one shoulder against the jeep. She moves a hand unconsciously to the wound along her thigh, wincing only slightly now that the medi-gel has temporarily sealed the gash, the high of the trauma kit's auto-injector slowly dulling. "I meant us."

Jack blinks in question at her.

"I meant," she starts, eyes questioning and needful on Jack. She feels her lungs clench tightly in the soot-filled air. "Did you ever think we'd get to this point? Fighting together. Covering each other. Not ripping each other's throats out?" she ends on a weary chuckle.

Jack shrugs one shoulder, quirking her lip in a nonchalant smirk. She keeps her gaze on Miranda. "We worked together even when we wanted to rip each other's throats out."

Miranda narrows her eyes at Jack. "I had a responsibility to the mission," she breathes harshly. "It was never anything personal."

"It was for me." Jack's words are dark and seethed through clenched teeth, her fingers tightening in their grip of her crossed arms.

Miranda looks out toward the other Alliance soldiers gathering around Anderson. She can catch a glimpse of Shepard talking with Garrus and James. Her throat is tight with words she will never say. She hears the heavy sigh of Jack beside her and turns to find the biotic moving from her lean against the jeep to face her fully, uncrossing her arms as one hand rubs the back of her neck sorely.

"Fuck, just…look, Miranda." Jack rolls her eyes and leans her shoulder back against the vehicle, mirroring the other woman's position, her other hand planting itself along her hip. "You were Cerberus. That kind of shit doesn't just disappear."

Miranda opens her mouth to object but Jack continues.

"I know, I fucking get it!" she interrupts. "You're not with them anymore. But damn, Miranda. Don't you fucking get it? I'm not exactly the epitome of mental health," she scoffs, one hand raised up to tap a finger against her forehead. "Forgive and forget isn't something I practice. But I'd be stupid to turn away your help now when we need everyone we've got to have even a fucking sliver of a chance here."

Miranda straightens from her lean. "You say it like I was the Cerberus operative who sanctioned those experiments on you."

"Might as well have been," Jack snaps. No. No, that's wrong. But she won't to admit to it.

Miranda's mouth opens in clear contempt. She scoffs, planting a hand on a hip. "Yeah, you've definitely got the pity party down."

"Fuck you."

"And the childish vocabulary."

"Fuck y-" Jack stops, biting her tongue. She huffs an indignant breath out and narrows her eyes at Miranda. "Look, Tits-For-Brains," she growls.

Miranda raises a brow at the moniker.

"We are what we are. And it doesn't look like we're changing anytime soon." She groans, twisting the sore muscles in her neck. "I'm not about to apologize for that. This is me. Always will be. And you knew that when you offered to back me up on the frontlines," she finishes, an arm pointed out across the horizon to signify the words. She drops the arm and lifts her shoulders in question. "I don't know what you expected but I'm not about to braid your fucking hair."

Miranda sneers, leaning her shoulder back against the jeep beside them. "I don't exactly relish the thought of your hands on me anyway."

Jack raises a brow at the words, her look slowly dragging over Miranda's form, her voice a teasing lull. "That right?"

Miranda groans in frustration. "Oh for the love of -" She stops, rubbing a hand down her face and leveling her gaze on Jack, unabashedly, unrelenting. "We have our orders. We're going to have to work together. Can we do that?"

"Well, that's the question now, isn't it, Buttercup?" Jack's eyes are a dark enticement, her lean toward Miranda both forward and testing.

"'Buttercup'? What the fu –"

Jack waves her off. "It's not a matter of orders. It's a matter of you and me. This?" she motions between them. "This doesn't work unless we both want it to."

Miranda swallows her words.

Jack braces a hand against the IFV beside them as she smirks. "So, you want us to work?"

Miranda eyes her suspiciously as she asks the question. She cannot help the sharp tangle of emotion that pulls at her gut every time Jack is near. It tells of anger and heat and desperation.

And excitement.

Miranda licks her lips and lifts her chin, her fingers thrumming softly along the jeep in thought. "If I said yes?"

Jack is silent, her teasing smirk faltering slightly, her eyes careful on Miranda. She mulls the thought over for a moment before straightening from her lean toward the other woman. She shrugs noncommittally. "Then points for surprising the fuck out of me."

Miranda frowns, the sigh of frustration frothing in her throat. "Can you utter a single sentence without resorting to swearing?"

Jack only shakes her head in slow resignation. "Can you utter a single sentence without sounding like a pompous tight-ass?"

Miranda grumbles, her fingers curling along the metal of the jeep in her indignation. "It seems neither of us is likely to rise to the other's expectations."

Jack blows an incredulous breath through her lips. "Honey, if you had expectations, that was your first mistake."

"Damn it, Jack," Miranda bites out, her fist slamming into the jeep beside her.

Jack flicks her gaze to the motion in mild amusement, but there is something darker and secret in the look, something yearning and hot.

Miranda straightens, running her hands through her loose hair. "This is bloody ridiculous."

Jack cocks her head and bites her words out. "You're telling me. I'm trying to beat the shit out of Reapers and instead I've got Ms. Cerberus Bubble-Butt to deal with."

Miranda cannot help the curl of distaste that lights along her mouth. "Ex- Cerberus," she stresses, her heavy sigh of aggravation broiling hot and insistent in her throat. "Why am I even trying to prove that to you?"

Jack shrugs a shoulder and raises a brow. "Guilt, maybe?" Even as she says it she regrets it. There is something stronger than fear or hate or distrust working between them now. Something that breeds in the close battles and sailing bullets and intrinsic need that comes from small squad units. Their days fighting Collectors are far-away and insignificant in the face of the Reaper threat. But it does not lessen the basic lingering connection that has blossomed, unknown and unwanted, between them. The familiar feel of each other's heat close by, the expectant sound of the other's voice, the unquestioning, inherent trust that comes with backs to each other and mutual life at the end of the same bloody corridor.

Jack knows it's not guilt that urges Miranda forward, urges her closer to her. She knows. But she will not voice the truth. She will not name it. She will not put words to this blistering tangle of emotion she is too afraid to even look at. To chance. To hope for.

No.

There is nothing but bitterness between them. This she can count on. Even when it hurts her in ways she still doesn't understand.

"I am more than my past," Miranda bites out. "You of all people should understand that." Her features are sharp and hardened, the familiar twinge of anger settling soft and searing in her gut.

Jack eyes her silently for a moment, jaw clenched tight. "I know," she seethes.

"Do you?" Miranda questions, taking a step closer.

Jack's hands curl into fists at her sides and she can smell the light musk of sweat from Miranda's closeness. It is alluring and barely-there beneath the metallic tang of dried blood. Her eyes search Miranda's broad face, finds her blue irises haunting and demanding and thrilling. Finds the heavy pant of her heated breath intoxicating in a way she has never felt before. She frowns, pulling her lips into a tight line. She takes a bold step even closer. "Yes. I fucking do."

Miranda pulls a slow, uneven breath in at Jack's proximity. The sharp brown of her eyes tell of forcefulness. Danger. Unapology. It lights something breathless and treacherous in her. Miranda lifts her chin and holds Jack's gaze. "Then you should know that I have no intentions to fight a pointless battle. There is enough in this galaxy to hate. I would not add to that." She swallows tightly.

Jack finds the slow, undeniable pull of her lips that promises a wicked smile. "Are you proposing a truce?"

Miranda rolls the word along her tongue a moment, contemplating. "Isn't that what we've been enacting this whole battle?"

Jack shrugs, her lips pursed in thought. She eyes Miranda a moment, unclenching her fists and re-crossing her arms. "I'm not looking for a friend."

Miranda's lids lower, her chest rising steadily with her breath. She swallows thickly and cocks her head to watch Jack. She tries to ignore the promising twist of something unknowable in her gut. Tries to even her voice when she offers a hand between them. "Neither am I," she responds, her words a heady whisper.

Jack's lips part in thought, her eyes narrowing at the dark-haired woman. She tentatively puts her palm forward, grasping Miranda's hand with the cautious and fierce eyes of a wounded animal.

Miranda curls her fingers around Jack's, the rough pads of their armored gloves sliding together. Jack's grip is firm and unrelenting.

"Not friends, then?" Jack asks.

Miranda nods, her grip on Jack's hand tightening. "Not friends."

"Good." Jack releases her hold of Miranda's hand.

There is something ancient and intrinsic passed between them.

Something that tastes of unspokens.

Silent and savage. Thrilling and terrifying. Heated and hesitant.

Something that feels like longing.


They make it to the top of the hill when Harbinger's first beam rips through the field of soldiers below them. The explosion is deafening and blinding and floods the women with a gripping terror that roots their feet in the dirt.

Miranda looks to Jack and the biotic's brilliant eyes are wide and unblinking.

There is a stirring to Miranda's gut at the sight, the sharp clench in her stomach that tells her this is it. This is the end.

This is the end.

"Fuck me," Jack barely gets out, her breath a short exhale, her throat clenching with the thick swallow of her words. She cannot take her eyes from the field of destruction before them. Soldiers are rushing past them over the hill. The hollow, bellowing blare of Harbinger's beam echoes all the way to their bones.

Somewhere below, Shepard is running.

Miranda licks her lips, her whole body enflamed, her muscles tight with readiness, her feet itching for the dirt beneath their soles, her heart ready for the frantic pounding, the thudding cry of freedom that comes from her sprinting form in the brilliant, devastating light of the Reapers.

Something inside her screams Run!

"It's the end times, Jack," she whispers breathlessly through the raging hail of gunfire and explosions around them. Just below in the valley lies their death, or their freedom. "You ready?"

Jack releases a sharp, hoarse chuckle that is half fear and half disbelief. Her fingers curl into fists at her sides and the familiar tremble of biotic power lights at the base of her spine. "Nothing prepares you for this," she gets out in a harsh whisper.

Miranda's hand reaches for the submachine gun strapped to her waist, her whole body poised for the run, her heels digging into the dirt. She glances behind her where far off in the distance, hidden safely behind the barricades of the FOB, are Jack's biotic students. She remembers their faces as they left. The tight brows, the quivering lips. The eyes that spoke of exhaustion and regret and goodbye.

The way they had each hugged Jack, their arms gripping and trembling around her lithe frame.

The small, fierce, defiant form of Jack as she cursed them for their tears.

The way she did not look back as she left them.

Miranda remembers all this. She remembers the quake to Jack's lip. The heavy shudder to her shoulders. The hard lines to her face that speak of more than grief and heartache. That speak of more than inevitability.

Miranda remembers how Jack looks when she cries. It is silent, and steady, and unspeakable.

She doesn't think she will ever share it.

There is something private and sacred, something beautiful to the wet streaks of Jack's cheeks. The way her mascara runs, dark and thick, in lines that tug harsh and insistent on Miranda's heart. In ways she has never felt before.

Jack has since wiped her cheeks.

But Miranda remembers. Miranda knows.

She cannot help the smile that breaks across her face as she looks at Jack.

This moment. This devastating, brutal moment. This break in time where they are simply woman and simply human and simply lost. This moment where everything is taut and sharp and uncontrollable.

Miranda's heart thuds harsh and quick in her chest when she looks at Jack. She doesn't question it. She doesn't try to smother it. She doesn't do anything but reach her fingers tentatively and unapologetically toward hers.

Jack blinks in surprise when she feels Miranda's fingers curl around her own. She cannot feel her heat through their gloves. Cannot feel the smoothness of her palms, or the tender stroke of her fingertips.

But her hand in hers.

Jack swallows thickly and looks up to find Miranda's eyes, bright and fearless, trained on hers.

"See you on the other side?" Miranda whispers breathlessly. There is the shaky lilt of her smile when she says it. The quick and anxious exhale of her breath as she keeps her gaze steady on Jack's.

Jack can only watch her in silence, the world falling into deafening darkness around them. She pulls a sharp breath through her lungs and laughs.

It is so light. And so uncontrollable. So foreign and needed and desperate in her throat.

Jack finds the tears hot against her lids before she realizes it. Her fingers clutch tightly to Miranda's.

The world around them falls apart and they can only watch each other.

Miranda sniffs loudly, her own unexpected tears suddenly warm and irrepressible along her eyes. "You're not my first choice to go out with, that's for sure."

Jack laughs.

The sound is warm and filling and everything Miranda needs at that moment. Everything that steadies her raging heart.

Jack pulls her lip in to stop the laugh, one hand moving to wipe quickly and roughly at her eyes. "Likewise," she chuckles, her voice drenched in fearful anticipation.

There are long moments where they simply watch each other, their hands refusing to unlink from their initial, unexplainable hold.

Jack opens her mouth to speak but nothing comes.

Miranda is silent and still beside her, her smile shaky and wide. Her whole face a promise of the future.

A future she isn't sure is still possible anymore.

The sudden blast of Harbinger's nearby ray tears the breathless moment from them in a deafening explosion. The two women crouch low instantly, their free arms over their heads at the close blast, the rain of dirt over them hard and threatening. They raise themselves back into a standing position to find their hands still linked.

Miranda looks at the connection with furrowed brows and parted lips. She slowly pulls her hand from Jack's.

Jack opens her mouth to object, the words instinctual and natural along her tongue, but she stops. She lets Miranda pull her hand from hers. The touch is missed instantly.

Miranda nods, swallowing tightly and she pulls a slow, heavy breath in. "Time we got moving." She keeps her gaze on Jack for one last moment. Waiting and hopeful and foolish. She swallows the unspoken feeling, pushing it back down where it can stay, forgotten, safe. Buried . When Jack does not move, Miranda straightens her back and turns to the destruction in the valley below. She takes her first step down the hill.

Jack cannot stop the words as they leave her. "Miranda, wait!" she calls, one hand reaching out toward the other woman.

Miranda stops and turns to her, her features questioning, her body tense and ready and aching for the end.

Jack feels her own sharp intake of breath as though it were her last. Miranda is waiting before her.

Everything else is fleeting.

Jack feels the violent clench of her heart in her chest, wild and frantic. She feels the blood hot in her veins. Feels the steady thrum in her bones that tells her this is it.

She feels the tender throb of regret settle heavy and immovable in her heart.

"What?" Miranda breathes.

"Oh, fuck it," she growls – breathless, dark and decided. Jack moves before she can stop herself. One hand reaches for the back of Miranda's neck and pulls her toward her, demanding, without hesitation, with everything of herself. Her lips crash against Miranda's with the warm breath of relief, her tongue hot and needy against hers. Jack's other arm snakes around Miranda's waist, pulling her forcefully against her and the two stumble as they collide together.

Miranda pulls a sharp breath in, her mouth gasping open at the contact, and her hands move instinctively to grip the other woman. There is a moment, a breathless second, where they share breath and life and want. Where they move their mouths in the desperate ache of unfulfilled desire. Where they grasp and pull and feel. Where everything falls away but the painful, momentary hope that this is it.

This is it.

A nearby explosion breaks them apart and Miranda tears herself from Jack, a hand moving to her mouth, the other pushing against the other woman's shoulder.

Jack blinks in unexplainable heat before her, licking her lips at the recent contact.

There is a moment of breathless trepidation between them. Miranda's eyes are wide and fixed on Jack's, her hand covering the trembling lip of her mouth.

Jack sighs, her shoulders slumping slightly as she watches Miranda. She finds her voice before she finds her sense. "Kiss goodbye?" The words end on a nervous, breathy chuckle.

Miranda touches her fingers to her lips, finds them swollen and wet and warm. Finds the lingering feel of Jack's mouth only pulling her deeper.

Jack is silent for only a moment longer and then she is clearing her throat, straightening her stance and looking out over the deadly valley that blazes light with their future. "Right then."

Miranda realizes she has only a moment. Only the whisper of a second before she is lost to her, before she is unreachable and distant and gone from her. She feels the frenzied thud of her heart against her ribs, feels the steady ache of yes and need and now in her gut. Miranda lowers her hand from her mouth and steps toward Jack.

Jack has a moment of breathless surprise before Miranda has pressed her hands to Jack's cheeks and pulled her face to hers. "Not goodbye," she murmurs desperately against her lips, the heated promise of her breath both thrilling and terrifying.

Miranda presses her lips to Jack's as though she has always known their feel, as though their warmth and their softness and their heady taste was as natural as breathing. She grips her face tightly and helplessly to her.

Jack moves instinctually. She wraps her arms around Miranda's slim form, pulling her tightly and recklessly to her, one hand sliding up her back, the other gripping her neck in a fearful and needy ache. She moves her tongue against Miranda's and is lost.

There is a moan between them and Jack smiles against Miranda's lips at the sound that rises from her. When Miranda sinks her teeth into Jack's bottom lip, sucking it into her mouth, the dark, curling sound of contentment that rasps through Jack is heady and reckless. She curls her fingers into the dark tangle of Miranda's hair, pushing further into the woman until she stumbles back, her boots treading closer to the edge.

They break apart then, feverishly, both clinging tightly to each other, both eyeing the close and moderate slope of the hill before them, panting and back-treading from the ledge.

Miranda is the first to speak, her voice a ragged mix of desire and fear. "We aren't finished yet." Her eyes are dark and fixed on the valley below, the deafening boom of Harbinger's attack shaking the hills around them.

Jack sighs, pulling slowly and reluctantly from Miranda, until it is only her hand on her waist. She hooks two fingers into the ammo-belt at Miranda's waist possessively, anchoring herself to her. "No, we're not," she intones meaningfully.

Miranda glances toward Jack. She swallows tightly and licks her swollen lips.

Jack pulls a sharp breath in and clears her throat, the need for words she doesn't quite understand bubbling up in her. "I don't love you or any bullshit like that." Her eyes fall to the fingers hooked into Miranda's belt. She exhales softly, cursing under her breath.

Miranda laughs, a half-scoff, a half-sigh. "God, I should hope not." She wipes a hand across her eyes, digging the knuckles into the socket, shaking the ash from her hair.

Jack's brow furrows, her jaw clenched as she looks to her. "I don't even know if I like you."

Miranda cocks her head, her eyes soft. "Maybe when this is over, we can figure that out."

Jack opens her mouth, then promptly closes it. She blows an exasperated breath through her lips and scratches at the shaved side of her head. "This is so fucked up." She looks down the valley and finds something lighting within her. Intense and unstoppable.

Miranda reaches for Jack's free hand and holds it between them. Jack looks back to her at the motion. The thunderous boom of battle below echoes deep in their bones. Everything is broken and dying and lost around them. She has no words.

Jack sighs and shakes her head. "I'm not looking for – I mean, I don't…"

"I know," Miranda offers.

Jack narrows her eyes at the other woman. "What do you even want from me?"

Miranda opens her mouth to answer but Jack continues, scoffing, pulling her hand from Miranda's to rub at her mouth. "This could be the end of fucking everything and it was only a kiss. Only a fucking kiss, you hear me?" she hisses, her hand swiping through the air as though to signify the finality of the sentiment. She does not relinquish her hold on Miranda's belt through any of it. "Because shit," she chuckles, "Who knows if I'll ever get another one. That's it. That's all this fucking, stupid mess is. This is not a promise or any bullshit like that. I don't need that kind of shit in my life." She brings a shaking hand to her forehead.

"Jack!" Miranda barks, huffing slightly in exasperation. "I don't care. Just shut up and kiss me." She swallows tightly and straightens her back as the words leave her.

Jack is still and silent before her, eyes fixed to Miranda's unblinking ones. Slowly, the wicked hint of a smirk tugs at her lips and she pulls at the hold she has on Miranda's belt, dragging her body into hers, her arm moving to wrap around Miranda and hold her flush against her. Her other hand is already sliding up Miranda's neck and into her hair when she slips her tongue into the other woman's mouth without further words.

Miranda sucks a sharp breath through her nose at Jack's sudden intrusion, but she is quickly sighing into the kiss, her own tongue pushing roughly against Jack's, her hands falling to rest softly along her shoulders. She feels Jack's needy fingers digging into her scalp and moans into her mouth, her own fingers curling against the smooth material of her armor. They break the kiss a moment later, both heated and panting, their lips a whisper's touch away.

Jack smirks against Miranda's mouth, nipping softly at her bottom lip, her arm tightening her hold around her waist so that they have never been closer.

It is everything new and strange and unexplainable.

Miranda's eyes flutter open, her mouth parting in anxious impatience to taste the woman again.

Jack pulls from her needy mouth and buries her face in Miranda's neck, exhaling heavily against her skin, her lips hot and slick and tender along the smooth column of her throat. "Demanding as ever," she smirks against her neck.

Miranda huffs, but it is tinged with the heavy breath of her desire, her hands gripping Jack's shoulders to pull her from her, just enough to lock eyes with the biotic, just enough so that the space is still warm and stirring between them, so that their chests are still pressing together. So that she can slide her hands up to Jack's cheeks and rub a thumb along her swollen lips. "I do want something from you," she whispers breathlessly, her gaze locked on the fullness of the other woman's mouth.

"Of course you do." Jack rolls her eyes, her hand in Miranda's hair slinking down to linger against the yielding softness of her throat, her fingers spreading gently over the skin where her pulse beats recklessly. Her eyes light along the spot her lips had touched moments ago.

"Don't say goodbye," Miranda murmurs heatedly between them, her brows furrowing, her words heavy and unfamiliar along her throat. "Whatever that means."

Jack flicks her gaze to Miranda's, finds the lingering trepidation in them. She feels the searing heat of her body pressed to hers, feels the steady thrum of gunfire echoing around them, feels the light dusting of soot along Miranda's skin. She feels the way her heart has not stopped raging in her chest since she first pulled Miranda to her.

Pressing her forehead against Miranda's, Jack exhales slowly against her lips. She closes her eyes and remembers what she tastes like. Ash and salt and freedom. "Okay," she breathes lowly. There is something deeper than fear in the words, something angry and forceful. Something uncompromising that lights a fierce tremble along her skin.

Miranda releases a shaky breath, her eyes fluttering closed, her thumb running tenderly over Jack's lips and then against her cheek. "Okay," she repeats, nodding slightly, her eyes sliding open once more.

Their gazes lock.

More than past, more than bitterness, more than hesitance. There is something stronger. Something that promises danger and vulnerability and tender, beautiful heartache. Promises it in all the tantalizing and freeing ways of connection. Touch. That unknowable tangle of emotion that grips at their hearts.

Maybe in the most painful and desperate of ways, but it will be together.

It will be together.

Jack and Miranda stand stoic, ready, immovable on the hill. They look out to the blinding, threatening light of Harbinger's attacks, to the unending barrage of soldiers flooding toward the beam. They find each other's hands, shaking and desperate and unknowing. They feel the air, heavy and ash-lined, filling their lungs like a soothing promise. They welcome the threatening quake of the earth beneath their feet. And when they look to one another, they smile.

Brilliant and shameless and alive.

They run.