Miranda woke before Shepard. She lay there for a minute, watching the blanket over Shepard rise and fall with her slow, even breathing, the peaceful look on her face.

She got out of bed. Shepard was a deep sleeper, which surprised her, but she liked it. She went into the bathroom, showered, and put on a lightweight black jumpsuit. Shepard's training would resume today - thanks to her boss' interference, they'd already lost a day, which was more than they could afford. She set the overhead to simulate a sunrise that would be finished about the time she had breakfast ready.

She walked into the small but well-furnished kitchen. She wasn't Gardner, but she'd learned to cook when she escaped from her father and had to learn to economize. She opened the freezer, the stasis field switching off automatically as she reached inside. Her hands chopped vegetables, ground coffee beans, and worked over the oven range. Her mind rehearsed the exercises they would do that day, planned what she and Shepard would do when they got to Ilium, and drafted the opening paragraph of another paper she wanted to write.

Shepard was awakened by the smell of cooking food, or more likely brewing coffee. She sat up and turned to put her feet on the floor, the blanket and sheet falling away from her nudity as she did so. She stood up and stretched. She caught Miranda watching and smiled.

Miranda pointed to Shepard's place at the table - meaning, don't bother dressing. Shepard lifted both reddish eyebrows, but she obeyed, pulling out a softly cushioned chair and sitting down. It did feel rather nice. "After two years, I'd think it'd more fun to see me with clothes."

Miranda said, "My ship, my rules." She set glasses and plates in front of Shepard, then at her own place, and sat down.

Shepard held the cup of coffee in both hands and gratefully inhaled. In front of her were hash browns, egg whites scrambled with chopped green peppers and tomatoes and artichokes, wheat toast, a sliced peach, and orange juice. She shook her head. "And you can cook? Now I'm intimidated."

"Shepard...I don't want to be told I'm pretty, or smart, or talented. I've had too much of that, and none of it meant a thing."

"It's your hands, actually."


Shepard began mixing her hash browns into her eggs. "I used to love just watching you type your reports. Could have done that for hours."

A smile tugged at Miranda's mouth. "Well, that's a new one, at least."

Shepard said, "Anyway, it's just my way of saying I appreciate this. So - I appreciate this, Miri." Better still, she slowly but steadily ate everything Miranda fixed her.

As she finished, she said, "What do you think we'll find?" She knew it was a dangerous topic, but Miranda needed to let some of it out.

"I don't know, Shepard." Miranda wasn't the patient sort, and the worry was beginning to eat at her. She forced herself to think it through calmly. "Jacob sabotaged the quantum communicator on his way out, and I took out the comm arrays on the shuttles. So the boss likely doesn't know what happened yet. And I won't give him a clue until we're off Ilium - with Oriana."

"Sounds like he jumped the gun once already," Shepard said. "He won't be in a hurry to do it again."

"No." Miranda's fingers drummed the table. "He'll have the family moved. Probably just to somewhere else on Ilium."

"A bargaining chip," Shepard said. "Me for her."

"More likely just your cooperation. It doesn't matter," Miranda said, her face hard. "Even if he already has her, I'm not letting you charge off to be killed. One doesn't negotiate with terrorists." Her mouth thinned. "I ought to know."

"You're going to need help to get her out," Shepard said.

"Yes, but not yours - though I appreciate it."

Shepard sat forward. Her voice was flat. "You're not going to risk your life while I sit at home and worry."

"Think, Shepard. Pushing you into action prematurely is what the boss wanted, and why I helped you escape."

"We're six weeks out. It's your job to have me ready by then."

"Understood, Commander," Miranda said in a mutinous tone.

Shepard couldn't help smiling. She reached across the table and squeezed Miranda's hand.

Miranda squeezed back, and stood. "That's not realistic, but we'd better get started anyway."

The yacht had a luxurious dining room, which Miranda converted to a shooting range by removing the linens and crockery. The tables were bolted to the deck, but they could be used to simulate cover. She stood a spare mattress against the far bulkhead to prevent ricochets from missed shots, though the bulkhead was paneled in dark wood. She also dialed down the acceleration on Shepard's pistol.

From the armory she brought a target drone and a set of Armax capacitor armor for Shepard. She got the fit just right, of course. "Hard to believe this is the first time I've done this in two years," Shepard said as she wiggled her fingers into a glove. Everything seemed lighter and more comfortable than she remembered. She felt good. In her element again.

They drilled for six hours without stopping except for Shepard to take drinks of water. Miranda had Shepard fire at the target while standing, gripping the pistol in both hands, then her right, then her left. The drone hovered on antigravs and generated a spherical mass effect field to trap each bullet, then let it fall harmlessly to the deck. As Shepard hit the drone again and again, Miranda made the field smaller, until it was hardly larger than the drone itself - smaller than a human head, and Shepard hit it in or near the center every time. She had Shepard fire while kneeling, then lying prone, then popping up from cover. Clip after smoking clip ejected from Shepard's pistol and rolled around the deck, until Miranda had to sweep them away.

They ate a quick lunch with Jacob in the crew's mess, then went back to work. Miranda had the target move, first in a straight line, then dodging the way an enemy's head would. Then she had Shepard move and fire - walking, then jogging, dodging, diving, and rolling. She shouted and threw empty boxes at Shepard to distract her. She opened the vents and the hatch and used her biotics to fill the room with howling wind, overwhelming even the pistol's auto-compensation systems. The mattress was soon riddled with bullets, but Shepard was improving.

And she could feel it. She felt strong, and optimistic, though she knew much of it was because of Miranda. Yet she found it easier to focus than before, now that she had a clear goal. There was no horseplay or even idle talk; in six weeks, at least three lives might depend on how well she learned here.

After twelve hours of practice, Miranda stopped. "You fired over twenty-five hundred rounds and went through five boxes of thermal clips and two ammo blocks. We'll do more tomorrow, but you're still building your strength, too."

Shepard nodded, blowing drops of sweat out of her eyelashes. Her arms trembled with fatigue, making it hard to aim. She sat down and let Miranda strip off her armor, which would go into the cleaner for tomorrow. The light jumpsuit Shepard wore underneath was soaked. Miranda peeled that off as well, then took Shepard's hands and pulled her upright. They walked back to their stateroom.

Miranda kissed Shepard's cheek. "Take a shower and I'll make dinner."

Shepard smiled tiredly. "Deal."

Miranda went to the kitchen and sauteed two chicken breasts in a large skillet with olive oil, adding chopped onion, garlic, and parsley, followed by tomato sauce, basil, and rosemary.

"Right front: boil," she said. A few moments later, steam rose from the skillet. "Simmer until chicken is tender," she said, covering the skillet. Sensors in the oven range watched the skillet's contents and the range beeped a minute later. She uncovered the skillet, stirred brown rice into the mixture, and covered it again. "Simmer and stir until rice is tender," she said. The range beeped again, then put the inside of the skillet in a stasis field until Miranda removed it to eat or gave more instructions.

She made two bowls of spinach salad with chopped nuts, then put two sweet potatoes in the oven. "Oven: cook until tender." The potatoes promptly exploded, startling her and coating the inside of the oven window with sizzling orange mush. She'd forgotten to poke holes in them. "Oven: clean." The oven rinsed itself as she got two more potatoes from the pantry, jabbing each with a fork. It was clean by the time she put them in and repeated the order. It beeped a minute later as they finished cooking.

Shepard walked out of the bathroom with a white robe wrapped loosely around her, her red hair wet and dark. "I thought explosives training was next week."

"Watch yourself or it'll be unarmed combat," Miranda said, pouring two glasses of ice water. There was no wine - neither of them drank.

"Yeah?" Shepard walked up to Miranda and put her arms around her. Her robe fell open and Miranda's hands slid under it and around her. She wasn't wearing anything under it. Miranda rested her head on Shepard's shoulder, breathing in the smells of her soap and shampoo, the warm clean fabric of her robe.

The world spun briefly around Shepard and then she was flat on her back. It hadn't hurt, or even knocked her breath out. Her robe lay open across the amber cherry wood kitchen floor. Miranda was lying on top of her, a curtain of her dark hair tickling Shepard's face.

"Yeah," Miranda said softly, her soft full lips parted slightly, showing the faintest gleam of her white teeth.

Shepard's tiredness had left her. She smiled and breathed in and reached up to pull Miranda down into a kiss. Miranda smirked and resisted. Shepard pulled harder, but only lifted herself a bit off the floor.

She lay back down and ran her hands through Miranda's hair. Miranda's eyelashes fluttered and her lips parted a little more and she sucked in a breath and her back arched a little. Shepard did it again, this time running her nails across Miranda's scalp. Miranda made a sound and her blue eyes rolled up a little and her body moved, shifting her weight on Shepard. Shepard did it again, and again. Miranda closed her eyes and let her. Slowly, she relaxed into Shepard's embrace. Shepard put her hand on the back of Miranda's neck and kissed her.

"That was cheating," Miranda managed to say between kisses. Shepard kissed her again and this time Miranda pressed Shepard's lips open with her own and forced her tongue down into Shepard's mouth. Shepard's body jerked under Miranda's weight and she moaned, the sound trapped in Miranda's kiss. Miranda's thigh was pressed between the joining of Shepard's thighs, and she could feel the fabric of her jumpsuit becoming damp.

She broke the kiss, leaving Shepard panting slightly, and sat back on her heels, taking in the shape of Shepard's body, the curves of her hips, the fairness of her skin. Her hands reached out and her fingertips traced the outlines of Shepard's scars - from memory, as they were no longer visible. Shepard shuddered as Miranda's nails raked lightly over her areolae, nearly as pale as her skin and no larger than dimes.

Then Shepard's stomach rumbled. They both smiled. Miranda leaned down and kissed Shepard over her heart, then stood stiffly and extended a hand to pull Shepard up. "Sit down and eat." She patted Shepard's backside. "I worked too hard on this for you not to take care of it."

"'It was a dark and stormy night,'" Miranda read. "'In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.'"

They didn't have books here, so Miranda read from a datapad. Shepard, propped up against a stack of pillows with the sheet pulled up to her chin, closed her eyes and listened. She had asked for something on tactics, or at least related to the mission, but Miranda said it would be counterproductive, that her brain needed relaxation too. The overhead showed only the faint starlight outside, so the stateroom was lit by warm yellow lamps to either side of the bed.

Soon Shepard was yawning. Miranda finished the first chapter, put the datapad aside, and said, "Lights: out." She turned to Shepard, who was now only a shadow against the white sheets of the bed, and kissed her. Shepard's arms went around Miranda and pulled her close. Miranda slid her hands around Shepard's back and discovered Shepard had slipped out of her robe before sliding under the sheet. She smirked and pressed her knee between Shepard's thighs, which were together. Even in the darkness, she saw Shepard's eyes widen and her lips part slightly as she lifted one knee to accept Miranda's thigh between hers.

They lay there, their faces close but not kissing, their quiet breathing tickling one another and ruffling their hair. Miranda's thigh rubbed slowly and gently back and forth against Shepard, whose legs quickly closed around hers. Shepard's eyes drifted closed and her breathing began to rasp between her slightly open lips as Miranda began rubbing more firmly.

"Miri..." Shepard's voice was strained and breathless. "Not that I'm - ohh - " a ripple of pleasure coursed through her body as Miranda shifted her angle. It took her a moment to remember where she left off. "...complaining, but you said - "

Miranda kissed her, then whispered into her ear with a little puff of air: "I don't think you're sore here yet." She pressed her thigh against Shepard a little harder, for emphasis.

"Ohh," Shepard sighed. The fabric of Miranda's pajamas, soft but textured, was absolutely perfect against her clit. Her hands slid up Miranda's back and her long slim fingers entangled themselves in Miranda's lush dark hair, taking two thick handfuls. "Yes, please..." Her hips were working now, perfectly matching the rhythm of Miranda's thigh. "Yes - oh God, just like that." Her blue eyes were partly open, but she clearly wasn't seeing anything. In the dim light, her body glowed with a faint sheen of sweat. "Just - oh - ohmygod - Miri - "

Miranda's hands slid around Shepard's sides and came to rest on her breasts. Her nipples were small, but - Miranda smirked again - easy enough to find. Each of them quickly found itself between the joints of two fingers. Miranda squeezed and then tugged gently, as she ground the full length of her thigh against Shepard in one smooth, firm motion.

Shepard cried out. Her back arched and her fists tightened in Miranda's hair hard enough to light up her scalp. She suddenly let go, her hands sliding down Miranda's back and enfolding her in a crushing hug, both her legs wrapped around Miranda's, digging her clit into Miranda's thigh with a quivering, iron grip as her whole body shuddered with her orgasm. As before, she was almost silent, only a whimper escaping her.

Finally she moaned, almost too softly to hear. Slowly, her grip relaxed. She took in and let out a long, shaking breath. A single tear escaped from the corner of one blue eye and trickled down her face to melt into the pillow. She closed her eyes and smiled. Miranda kissed her again and she giggled a little. Whatever worries she had about the future, the look on her face said all was right with the world, right now. Already her breathing was becoming deeper, and in a few minutes she was asleep, still smiling.

Miranda was used to sleeping alone. On the rare occasion she slept with someone, she needed her own space. She also liked to have a pillow between her knees, though at the moment, Shepard's leg was taking care of that... When she woke up, she was surprised to find she had fallen asleep in Shepard's embrace as easily as if she'd never known anything else.