Jane meets the Illusive Man.
Apologies for the long delay! I have a lot of stuff going on, as you probably know if you follow my Ao3 (which you should! That's where all the stuff that isn't... fit... for ffn goes).
I'm letting myself write shorter chapters, which will hopefully mean less of a delay between chapters 3 and 4. Thank for reading!
"We have Shepard," Miranda told the hollow image of her employer.
The Illusive Man smiled, a smoldering cigarette held between his fingers. "That's good," he said. "I was worried she would get herself killed, and so soon after she returned to us."
Miranda smiled thinly. Of course, he knew. She knew because Feron knew everyone and had access to Blue Sun networks. He knew, presumably, because he had access to those same networks.
"I think she was just lucky," Miranda said. "She couldn't explain how she survived, but she stole a ship and now she's here, with me. One of her old crew-mates is with us, too, which should make adjustment to the new ship easier." She didn't mention the little AI, that it had a name and could speak and apparently made Shepard immortal.
This secret, she could sense already, was quite valuable.
"And tracking down her old pilot is going as planned?"
"Of course." The man known most commonly as Joker had been grounded. Like Shepard, the idea of having a ship again was too much for him to resist, even if it wasn't the ship he'd apparently almost tried to go down with.
"Good." He put out the cigarette out of view and stood up, crossing his arms behind his back. "Bring her to speak with me, when you arrive," he said. "I suppose I should be grateful. She seems to have saved me a great deal of money."
With that, he cut the feed, leaving Miranda in the dark.
Jane was surprised when Miranda gave her essentially free reign of the small ship during their journey. It would probably have been smart to poke around, see if there was anything on Cerberus that she could find without tripping any alarms (she had never been the computer expert of the crew, that was certain), but instead she found herself sitting across a small table from Liara.
"I don't want you to think I trust them," Jane said. She'd already said this, but she wanted to make sure Liara understood. More than any other member of her crew, Jane cared what Liara thought about her. "I know what they've done. I just."
If she could get her ship back it could be like nothing changed. A few weeks or months wasn't that long; she was lucky to have been dead only a little while, and now she could just continue on with her life like nothing had ever happened.
"Have you contacted the Alliance?"
Jane looked away and down at her hands, sitting on the table in half-clenched fists. "No," she said. "I can't seem to bring myself to." Why had no one gone looking for her?
"I haven't heard from Ashley since she was promoted," Liara said quietly. "I haven't heard from the others at all. I was so focused on finding you…" She stopped mid-sentence, her eyes distant. "If we could only figure out what happened to her," she said, referring to the Normandy. "Do you know who died?"
Jane shook her head. "I could just ask you, I guess, but I just…"
Liara gently covered Jane's hands with hers. "I understand," she said.
"Oh," Jane said. "Right." She looked away, unable to deal with Liara's sympathetic expression. "Does it get any easier?"
Liara sighed. "I don't know," she said. "And I have lived with this knowledge my whole life, while you have only the potential of old age to stare at." She smiled. Jane found herself returning the smile, even as she felt wetness in the corner of her eyes. "I will send you the list, and you can look at it when you're ready. For now…" Her smile turned impish, and she clapped her hands together, reminding Jane abruptly of how she had been when they had first met. "What do you say to running a few experiments with your powers?"
"What kind of experiments?" Jane stood, Nox popping into existence above her shoulder. Figuring out the new and exciting ways she could fight was, she thought, much less existentially stressful than the deaths of her crew or the future.
Liara pushed herself to her feet, her grin not changing. "Everything," she said. She shrugged. "Well, everything within reason."
Jane and Nox shared a glance. "I don't want to blow up the ship," Jane said carefully. "But there is something I know I can do…"
She let the purple dome from Alcherra flicker into existence. "It's like a barrier, but stronger?" she said. "I don't know if I can move it." She sighed, shaking her head. "Right now it seems to be mostly just I'm really good at punching, though," she admitted.
The mischievous glint in Liara's eyes did not waver. "Okay," she said. A crackling blue biotic barrier appear in front of her as she casually pushed aside the table they had been sitting at. "Let's see how quickly you can break this down. From personal experience, I know it takes a skilled biotic two minutes or so to take it down. And I've certainly never had it punched to depletion before. Can you do it faster?"
"You know," Jane said, striding quickly towards the asari. "I think I can still use my biotics." Gathering void energy around her left fist, she struck the center of Liara's barrier.
Liara staggered backwards one step, but the barrier did not drop. "Wow," she said, her eyes widening. "That was a lot." Her mischievous expression returned.
"Maybe I can finally match you," Jane said, also smiling. Another punch destroyed the barrier completely, leaving Liara breathing heavily.
"I feel the distinct urge to kiss you," Liara said, looking at her no longer glowing hands. "That may not be wise, however."
A surge of confused emotions filled Jane's chest, nearly staggering her. "I… wouldn't mind?"
Liara shook her head. "It's not a question of minding," she said. "I just want more time." She touched Jane's shoulder before bringing her hand distractedly up to her red hair. "And I want it to be somewhere we can call ours, something we choose to do."
"You've changed," Jane said.
Liara shrugged. "Grief is strange," she said.
"I'm here," Jane said. "I'm not going anywhere." She brought her hand up to touch Liara's briefly, before dropping it again.
"I can confirm that," Nox said, blipping into existence.
Liara's smile was stranger than it had been moments before. "You can't promise that," she said.
Jane hung her head. "I'm sorry,"
"It's alright," Liara said. "We'll just have to find who did this to you." She took her hand away.
"Sounds good," Jane said.
"This is not—" Liara started, apologetically, when Miranda's voice came on over the ship's intercom.
"We will be at the station shortly," she said. "I suggest you all gather your things. We will hopefully not return to this ship once our business there has been completed."
"Where will we be going?" Jane tried to ask, but the connection had already been cut. She sighed, glancing quickly at the speaker embedded high in the wall. "More mysteries." She shook her head in Nox's direction. "At least you're a helpful mystery."
"I try!" it replied.
The cockpit of Miranda's ship was cramped, but not so cramped that it could not fit two extra humanoids. Feron was further back, staring at his omnitool in apparent frustration. Jane felt a vague desire to ask him what he was doing but found herself distracted by the sudden appearance of the Cerberus station on the viewscreen.
It was bigger than Jane had expected.
"How do you keep this kind of place hidden?" she asked, glad Miranda couldn't see her eyes widen behind the visor of her helmet. Her pilot rolled their eyes, but didn't say anything. They didn't seem particularly interested in either their boss or her friends.
"No one comes out here," Miranda said. In response to Liara's skeptical silence, she added, "Cloaking technology similar to that of the Normandy. If that fails, very big guns."
Jane nodded. That wasn't an answer she liked at all (how would Cerberus have tech like that? Did they have spies in Alliance R&D?) but it was one that made sense.
They docked in silence, interrupted only by Miranda saying at the last minute, "It's in your hands if you tell my employer about your friend."
Something in Jane's heart clenched. How could she have been so stupid to have shown Miranda Nox? She didn't know as much about Cerberus as she would have liked, but she knew that the guy who ran them was dangerous, and probably more than a little bit crazy. He would want to steal it, even if Miranda did not.
The knot in her chest eased someone when Liara gently put her hand on Jane's shoulder, before letting it drop to her side again.
Feron disappeared almost the moment they were on board the station.
"I thought he was yours?" Jane asked Liara, trying and failing to whisper.
Instead of answering, Liara sighed. "These are not good people you are allying yourself with," she said, speaking out loud the thing they were both thinking, both had been thinking since they boarded Lawson's ship.
They were met, not by the Illusive Man, as Jane half-expected, but by a man with short-cropped hair who called himself Jacob.
"Were you Alliance?" she asked, recognizing his grip and the way he held himself.
He laughed. "More or less. Cerberus lets me do more good."
"That's not what I've heard." Or experienced, she thought, but did not say.
"Do I reveal myself to him?" Nox asked, internally.
"No," Jane answered, grateful they'd figured out subvocal conversation. "Not yet. Not here." There was something about the station that made her uncomfortable. She was not at the heart of Cerberus-not even close-but this did not mean she would let her guard down.
Jacob's expression didn't change. "There's more to us than you've heard," he said. "Follow me. Miranda will join you both again shortly." He looked briefly at Liara, but was apparently professional enough not to ask why Jane was not alone, if that was even what he was thinking.
"Where's the mysterious boss of yours?"
"I don't know. Miranda will explain."
He resisted any further attempts at conversation, and the three of them lapsed into silence as they walked.
"My apologies if you assumed you would meet the Illusive Man," Miranda said when they joined her. "He is quite understandably paranoid and does not like to disclose his physical location to any but the most trusted members of the organization, among which even I am not counted." She smiled as though she were sharing a joke. "It is not how he got the name, but it helped." She looked pointedly at Liara. "He wishes to speak with Commander Shepard alone."
Jane felt sheer stubbornness flood through her and she frowned. "No," she said. "I want backup."
Miranda laughed as though Jane had said something funny. "Speaking with him is not exactly dangerous," she said. "Are you always this difficult?" Amusement was better than anger, but not by much if it still didn't get her anywhere.
"Absolutely," Jane said. "Ask anyone on the Council." Now that would be an unpleasant conversation. Pushing her so swiftly under the rug would not look good for them, especially now that she was back under equally mysterious circumstances as her death.
She refused to break Miranda's gaze. She'd been stubborn before her death, and now she was a semi-immortal superbeing.
"Fine," Miranda said. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
"The Illusive Man's opinion of aliens is rather notorious," Liara said, but she didn't seem particularly interested in dissuading Jane.
Jane shrugged. "He presumably knows where he can stuff that opinion." Grabbing Liara pointedly by the hand, she stepped into the center of what she now recognized as an advanced holographic communications rig and look up.
"You've saved my quite a bit of money," The Illusive Man said, removing the cigarette from his mouth. "I would have brought you back, no matter what, but now here you are." He smiled, his image leaning towards Jane. It morphed quickly into a frown as he recognized Liara. "Why is she with you?"
"I don't like being alone," Jane said. She stared at him, refusing to let herself feel intimidated by the setup of their mutual holograms. "I was told you would tell me why Cerberus wants me so much. Explain."
The Illusive Man quickly wiped the grimace from his expression. "I suppose I did want you back. Are you always this difficult?"
Liara barely stifled a laugh. Jane grinned. "Yes," she said. "Your subordinate asked me something quite similar just now."
He sighed. "The Normandy was not the only human ship to disappear," he said. "Have you heard of the Collectors?"
"Only distantly," Jane said, as Liara flinched. "Don't they mostly keep to their own part of space?"
"They used to. They've been more active, recently. And I think they want you."
"I have no idea. I'm just glad we got to you first." He looked to the side, apparently consulting something. "We assumed... retrieving... you would take a great deal longer, and so we do not have everything we meant to give you." He frowned again, tapping at his cigarette. "How do you feel about experimental vessels, Shepard?" he asked.
"The Normandy was one," she said. "Are you giving me a ship?" She couldn't help her excitement at the thought, not when memories of the Normandy in flames filled her thoughts at a moment's notice.
He nodded. "It's not as complete as I would like, and you will have to forgive us for some of the onboard V.I.'s... quirks... but I believe it will be to your liking." He looked at her for a long moment. "Can I trust you, Jane Shepard?"
Jane took a long moment to think about the question. "Yes," she finally said. "You can." To do what, she didn't elaborate upon, and at the Illusive Man's smile, she knew he'd make his own assumptions.
"Good. Miranda will help your adjustment. Farewell." With that, he cut the connection, leaving Jane and Miranda in the dark.