A/N: Hm. Went back and forth for a while whether this would be the last chapter, whether there would be a next chapter, just an epilogue or a one shot later to catch things up. Still undecided. I will likely one shot it later (but this was also meant to be a short one shot). For now, I will tentatively call this completed and start writing the other ME stories I've been planning to do. As always, thanks everyone for the reviews! They are really encouraging. And eternal gratitude to my proofie th1nm1nt!

There are two squad members that need to be monitored more than others, the ones that won't allow history to be forgotten and whose forgiveness can't be bought through credits. The first is Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. Fortunately the Normandy SR-2 is appropriately fortified through various security protocols so that she can't cause a great deal of damage on the ship should she endeavor to become a saboteur. If she is foolish enough to take up physical arms, a few carefully placed shots would make it easy work to dispatch her. Ultimately, she won't be a problem. Subject Zero, on the other hand, isn't as easy to handle. Her blatant and openly hostile distrust of Cerberus is problematic. She will not be as easy to eradicate as the quarian.

The Illusive Man has placed Miranda in charge of such matters. Miranda trusts both women, more or less, though she knows she hasn't earned either of their loyalties. That's what Shepard's for. They're low on Miranda's priority list but it is still something that must be attended to. It isn't easy to hack into Subject Zero's amp. Subject Zero is smarter than she looks and takes the necessary precautions. If Miranda weren't so adept at hacking and overcoming obstacles, Jack might be able to stow away the secrets she wants to keep. Her searches are mostly irrelevant and predictable. She plays poker on the extranet and loses credits. She writes poetry.

Miranda pauses.

Jack writes poetry. The revelation makes Miranda's smile undefined, hedging between beguilement and condescension. "Cute," she says dryly. She twines her fingers, casually resting her elbows on the desk before leaning forward to read closely on the computer monitor.

My soul Burns

With a fire of darkness

Quenched only in the pain

Of loneliness

I hold my breath waiting

Until spots appear black as the past

And fill my lungs with lies of hope

I mark myself

Black and jagged

To cover the scars

That make me a monster

A warning

This is not a place of honor

No esteemed dead are buried here

She's submitted it to a publishing site. Charming. Miranda reads the poem several times over though there is no need for deeper analysis. The work is juvenile. Awful, really. Jack does not appreciate nuance or subtlety. Still… It is honest and given the author…

Miranda minimizes the window. She has real work to do. She reads various reports that come in from other Cerberus facilities and sends a string of directives and updates to her contacts onboard the Citadel and throughout the rest of the galaxy. Her work is time sensitive and high attention to detail is a must. Distractions will only interfere.

Jack's poem continues to blink at her from the corner of the screen, needlessly garnering her attention. Miranda considers opening the window but decides against it, closing it altogether.

Jack doesn't like how the asari looks at her. What the fuck is the point of a Justicar? They're just overrated prison guards, c-sec officers, spectres. Samara has eyes like a blind woman but Jack can read her. She thinks that after they've killed the Collectors she can take Jack out and the right the wrongs of the galaxy or some shit. Fuck that. Samara may be a thousand some year old Asari but no one can predict crazy. Jack has the edge. Not that she's holding her breath on anyone jumping in to help her if it comes to that.

No one fucking cares about her. Which is fine. She doesn't care about them. Caring is just a virus that infects you until you break down. Before you know it, you've been fucked and you're dead.

It's all fucked up. Shepard has killed who knows how many people. It's probably in the thousands. So has Cerberus. So has Garrus. Samara, Thane, Zaeed, but she's the one who always gets shit about it. The others don't brag about it like she does, maybe, but what difference does it make? It's not like she wants to be like this.

She rolls on her side on the cot. She's tired of the Normandy, tired of this hole. She can't take the ship and go joyriding, much as she'd like. They still have to go to Pragia. Whenever she asks Shepard she gets 'soon' as a response. Maybe Shepard would hurry it the fuck up if Jack slammed her head into a wall a few times.

Jack cradles her head in her hands and pulls her limbs close to her. Everything is getting to be too much. At least when she's out and killing she doesn't have all this fucking time to think. What kind of a pussy can't outrun this shit? It happened years ago. She's over it. Doesn't matter.

Fuck. She squeezes her eyes shut but no matter how hard she does she can't block the memories. She can't go on like this. Fuck that. Nothing can stop me. Then why does she feel so fucking weak and worthless? She knows what her biotics are worth but her. Who gives a shit about her?

She needs drugs. No. She wants drugs. They'll make all the buzzing in her head, all the light feathery, scratching wings go away. She stands with renewed determination.

Nobody works the hours that she does, not even Chakwas. Perhaps it's an off night. The two women scarcely know each other but they have shared a drink on occasion. On very rare occasions. Admittedly, the prospect is appealing. Miranda seldom has company. Work hours always pass swiftly but her body feels the weight of a long day. Sitting in a chair for countless hours doesn't behoove her but there's no other place to get her work done and there is alwayswork.

The lights are on in the med-bay despite the dimmed lights of the rest of the level. Miranda goes to the medical bay, the doors sliding open at her presence. Chakwas isn't there. Jack is looking through the medicine cabinets, pulling out bottles and vials, studying them, setting some back while keeping others to the side. Miranda sees several syringes that have been prepped, their covers lined perfectly to the side of them. Three are filled, two are empty. The doors shut behind Miranda but Jack doesn't turn back to look at her, continuing to survey the collection at her disposal. "Drugs?" Unsurprising but disappointing. The two are not mutually exclusive.

"Got something to say about it, Cheerleader?"

"Plenty. I'll save my usual bit about priorities and the mission, the lack of authorization you have for what you're doing or how crucial it is that we have all available medication ready in case of an emergency. You don't care about any of those things. You don't care about anything but yourself." Jack's head turns slightly to the side, enough to offer a scant glimpse of her profile before she turns back to the cabinet. "I'll skip to the part where I tell you your behavior is pathetic." Jack's shoulder's tense even if her movements don't stop. "Having difficulty passing the hours without altering your physiological state?"

"The Cheerleader lecturing me on alterations. Funny."

Miranda frowns. Jack unscrews a bottle of pills and takes a few before setting them back on the cabinet. Miranda mentally tabulates the costs of the pills Jack has taken. She'll deduct them from her bank account. Not that it matters. Jack talks about credits but Miranda suspects that in the end they don't matter very much to her.

"I've got real problems." Jack goes on still not turning to look at her. "You think you've had it rough but you haven't. You were engineered to be perfect." She laughs caustically. "Your biggest problem was stress from Daddy to do better." That isn't true. What's the point of saying it? "I was tortured for years all so that I could kill better, so I could like it. The fucked up thing is that I do like it. I don't know how to stop liking it." She holds a pill bottle, looking at the label for a good length of time. "You may be a bitch but at least you can look normal. Act normal."

"It wasn't easy for me," Miranda hates that she's said it. She could compare their records. On paper it isn't the same. On paper, Jack was the one to suffer. It doesn't matter that neither of them really had a mother. Miranda can never confide in anyone. Her complaint borders on ludicrous. No one will ever understand her. Least of all Jack. She complains of the burdens of perfection. Jack laments that she was conditioned to enjoy killing.

"Whatever. Not my problem. Just don't come around expecting to chat. Soon as this mission is done I'm outta here. Maybe I'll take your head on a pike with me. Bit old fashioned but it'd do the trick."

Would she? Miranda is no longer so sure. She goes to Jack and grabs the syringes from where they rest on a medical tray. Jack looks at her furiously. "This is a violation of protocol. As a superior officer it's my duty to intervene."

"Fuck protocol. I don't work for you or Cerberus." Her chest falls and rises quickly, eyes hatefully set on Miranda. Her eyes plead for Miranda to let her have them but she says: "I could just take them from you."

"Try it. You'll be out an airlock before you can get to the facility that bred you." Miranda winces inwardly at the words. She has always been direct. She has never regretted it. She may now. Jack's eyes glisten but Miranda doesn't know the reason. It could be any medication she's already taken though it's unlikely it could affect her so quickly. Then again, Miranda doesn't know how long she's been looting their supplies, the dosage levels she's been taking or Jack's resistance to the various drugs. The most likely explanation for her eyes is that she's enraged at having her time at Pragia made light of. The comment was inappropriate but that's fitting for Jack, isn't it? Is there anything appropriate about the woman? "Why do you need these?" Miranda asks, holding the syringes up to her.

"I don't need them," Jack says through clenched teeth, "I don't fucking need anything." She throws over the medical cart, metal trays and medicines falling to the ground, vials shattering before she exits.

Miranda blinks and looks after her. The small and nearly humorous antiquated representation of EDI presents herself. "It's nothing. A minor accident." Miranda says. She clears the mess and returns to her office to work. She will not file a report on the incident.

She checks on Oriana, lingering on the details.

On a whim she pulls up Jack's records and skims what is already familiar. She had, as a matter of caution, taken hold of the PDAs that Jack had and discreetly removed some of the more dangerous elements that she knew Jack would not properly understand. Since then, however, she has begun to do some research of her own in the little time that she has available. She is sure that the Illusive Man has told her the truth but to make her point more succinctly it would be best if she had all the information. The incident with Niket has proven that no one can be fully trusted. For a moment she considers him before sweeping him aside. He is just another loose end that has been taken care of. She peruses the records and finds nothing too damning. She probes further, rummaging through the various folders and records until she finds one that wasn't there before: Teltin Facility—Pragia. Miranda clicks on the folder.


The words flash red at her on the screen. Miranda's forehead crinkles in agitation. There aren't supposed to be any blocks on her end. There must be a mistake. She enters her override password, a clean password without any sentimental value; she has little to be sentimental about.


She furrows her eyebrows. "Strange…" She taps a finger on her desk before making herself stop. "EDI." The AI reports. "The Teltin Facility—Pragia folder is inaccessible. I am to have full access."

"A block was placed for that file several weeks ago by the Illusive Man. I am unable to remove the block without prior authorization."

Miranda knows better than to argue with EDI on whom to follow orders from. She dismisses her and stands, walking slowly back and forth next to her desk. Why would the Illusive Man place a block on Jack's files? It's one thing for Jack not to be able to see them, but for her… What's in them that he doesn't want her to see? Jack can't be right about Cerberus.

She isn't.

Forty-five minutes later she writes a message to Shepard.

It may be imperative to go to Pragia as soon as possible. Jack's mental state is quickly deteriorating. Delaying action any further could have great repercussions for her state of mind and our mission. I'll make all the necessary preparations. We'll be ready to go once we have your go ahead.

She sends the message and massages her forehead. She has a headache.

Jack doesn't see Zaeed often but she doesn't mind when the old bastard comes down to play cards and shoot the shit. They sit lazily on the floor, creating a space between them where they throw down cards. Usually she takes a hit on credits when they play a game. She doesn't mind cheating but there's no point with Zaeed. He'd catch on to her. She can take him out, easy, but not before he got in a few good hits. Anyway, she likes him. He's got more killing stories than she does. Talks about his guns like they were his girlfriends. She won't say they're friends but if she knew how to have those, he's not the type she would mind.

"Normally I'd kill a man for cleaning me out," Zaeed says shaking his head at the miserable lot of cards in front of him. "But Shepard probably wouldn't like it if I took out her biotic bitch."

Jack grins vengefully and looks at her omni-tool, making sure Zaeed transfers every credit she's owed. "Try it, old man." This is this only the fifth hand they've played but Jack has come out on top. Maybe she learned something from the poker games she played on the extranet. Fucking assholes, booting her from the forums.

"Not at range this close," he deals out another hand of the weathered cards, faded and soft at the edges. "But if I had my baby Jessie you wouldn't have a head to bang against the walls with. I miss that girl," he says ruefully and examines his cards.

"She sounds like a beast."

"Nothing you kids could handle. You're all spoiled by sleek guns that never jam. Sometimes I had a real love hate relationship with Jessie but that's the best kind of relationship to have, that give and take. No fun if there isn't a challenge. She screwed me a few times and sometimes I traded her out for another gun, thought I didn't need her, but in the end I could never stay away."

"Whatever you say, old man," Jack throws down a card. Her cheek aches and she isn't sure why. Some seconds later she realizes she's smiling. Weird. She's flustered. Zaeed takes the opportunity to throw down a winning hand.

"I'll be taking those credits back," he says. "You're distracted, Girl."

"Yeah, maybe." She begins to transfer the credits back to him. In the middle of it, Shepard comes down to tell her they're hitting Pragia. Jack watches the credits disappear from her bank account but can't make it matter. She looks back distractedly at Zaeed. She knows what Santiago did to his face, to his fucking skull. Must be cybernetics that kept his head together, gave him his sight. "How'd it feel to take that fuck Vido out?"

"Bloody great. Been sleeping like a baby. He's sleeping better." He laughs.

Jack allows herself to entertain the idea of hope. Maybe it'll be easy. Maybe once it's gone, it will all go away.

Miranda has synched her omni-tool to tune into the frequency of her squad mates life signs and medical history. The information is useful in a pinch and on the battlefield where life or death medical decisions must be made quickly. It's not as helpful as it could be given that the team she works with tends to be on the unconventional side; they aren't in the habit of keeping up-to-date medical histories and trying to get them onboard of Cerberus is worse than pulling teeth, but it is better than nothing. Outside of that, it's useful for procuring information. Miranda has a knack for reading people but a little insurance is always appreciated. Heart rate, stress markers and so on are other good indicators of when someone is lying or hiding something. Most of her work is done outside of battle. Today is likely to be another of those days but she likes to be prepared for all possibilities.

The three of them sit in the shuttle in the darkness with only Miranda's amp providing light as she works. Shepard is next to Jack, reclining effortlessly against the uncomfortable seats as if they were only on their way to a nearby docking station. Fat rain drops pelt against the shuttle window, sliding diagonally.

The biotic amp reveals that Jack's heartbeat is elevated. She's pale and shaking. Her skin glistens with cold sweat, her muscles tense. She is stretched too thin. Her eyes are on the metal floor, curled fists resting tensely on her knees. Relax. Miranda doesn't voice the word but needlessly wants to. She returns to her omni-tool but not before looking over to Jack who tightens her jaw and looks out the window. No matter how angry she might be at her (isn't she always angry at everybody) nerves are taking over. It's fortunate that their destination is an abandoned facility. Miranda wouldn't trust anyone under so much duress at her back during a fight.

Jack can't get warm. She huddles over, sucking air in through her teeth. It slithers inside her like a snake, weaving in and out of her rib cage. Feels too empty, too cold. She brushes the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. Miranda's looking at her. She's the only light in the shuttle. The omni-tool illuminates Miranda's face in gold color, making her look uncharacteristically soft.

Jack forces her gaze to the window. Pragia is a jungle planet. Dense trees and overgrown vines encase it like a nervous system. She's been to other planets that are hotter, places like fucking Logasiri that are just as humid but she never experienced Pragia personally. Not for too long. Except for her mad dash to the shuttle when she'd escaped. That didn't matter. Her childhood was a fucking Cerberus facility. The only heat she remembers is that of blood of other kids on her fists, tiny and round, unscarred and innocent that would later go green and purple with bruises. There was other heat: the lamp burning on her face, sterile knives slicing into her during operations, wires biting into her flesh, the flush of drugs, the uncomfortable metal chair that clamped her wrists and ankles down.

Other stuff.

Jack pukes. It splashes on her hand, having realized too late what was going to happen. The bitter acidic taste fills her mouth and nose. She coughs, flinging the vomit from her fingers, wiping it off on her pants. Miranda doesn't react. Shepard looks at her. "Get a hold of yourself." The gruffness in her voice dampens. "It's an empty facility."

"I know that," Jack snaps shakily. She rubs at her forehead with curled fingers before scratching at it with her stubby nails. "Maybe this was a mistake." She says under her breath to herself. EDI comes online to tell them about heat signatures, stupid shit that doesn't matter. She exchanges some words with Miranda but all Jack can see is the helicopter landing pad getting closer. The last time she'd seen it she was sprinting, running so hard her knuckles grazed the metal ground. "It was a mistake coming back here, Shepard." They're beginning their descent. The shuttle slows and sinks. Everything outside the window is getting bigger. Everything is becoming realer. No more hiding. No more running. She takes deep breaths, tries, but she's verging on hyperventilating.

Shepard plants a hand on Jack's leg. Jack doesn't look at it. "No point in going back now. We're here." Shepard says. "We'll do what we have to and get out."

"Yeah. Okay." She takes a gulp of breath wanting to drown all the shit that's starting up in her head. What is that thing, digging its way out...? Fear. She's fucking scared. She keeps killing it but it won't stay dead. Everything from the facility is trickling back. Things she hasn't known in forever. All the things that helped make her who she is, all the things that made her cry, all the things that still haunt her. Fuck that. She's not scared of anything. She's not going to be beaten by a fucking empty building. Her heart beats at a million miles a minute. Miranda peers with some concern into her omni-tool. The bitch. Probably writing another fucking report for Cerberus. "Let's get on the ground."

The rain is colder than Jack would have expected, penetrating to the core of her. Jack holds her gun, ready to blast anything that could come at them. But what could come at them? It's an empty facility. What's she planning to hunt? Ghosts? She clinches her teeth, refusing to let them clatter. It ends now.

The Teltin facility in Pragia had proved uncomfortably illuminating for the two of them. Miranda drafts a report for the Illusive Man that she rewrites several times. What the hell happened in that facility? With the help of some workarounds she's been able to read the official reports that are buried in the Cerberus network. Even then they don't tell the entire story. Names have been removed and mass sections edited out. It is suspicious. Perhaps it is only an embarrassing footnote in Cerberus' history. The facility defected and went rogue. Cerberus can't be held accountable for every one of their individuals, even if she holds herself and others of the organization to high standards. Often times to get results you have to do the unthinkable. In the end what was done to Subject Zero was necessary. If they hadn't manipulated her, tortured her… then they'd have one less powerful ally to stop the Collectors. The ends justify the means. Is that wrong? She's a precious commodity for their mission. Just as Miranda was one for her father. Damn it.

She reclines in her chair, unsure. She thinks of Oriana and the lengths that she's gone to keep her safe. Admittedly what her father would do to her isn't as bad as what was done to Jack. But Oriana isn't a biotic. If she were…? Would Miranda be so cavalier about her treatment?

The doors to her office open and Jack strides in. Miranda hadn't expected her. She saves the reports she's working on, closes it and rises unnecessarily. Jack isn't a superior officer but she is full of resolve. "Jack." She waits a beat. "What can I do for you?"

Jack paces for a minute, her fingers rolling and unrolling, running a hand through her cropped hair before stopping. "Maybe I didn't have it all right." She's still defensive. Miranda recalls Jack in the facility, questioning every revelation, her confidence broken a piece at a time. "Maybe I wasn't…" she looks to Miranda and then away. Shakes her head, crosses her arms. "Maybe I wasn't the only one to suffer. That Aresh guy…"

Miranda thinks of Aresh, a man aged prematurely by his experiences. Another sociopath and casualty of the experiments. How many children died at Teltin? She doesn't know. There is a lock on that data. She'll try to find yet another workaround though she knows that the Illusive Man would object to her dedicating her energies to what is officially a dead project.

"Fuck," Jack sweeps an arm through the air and a stack of books on Miranda's desk fly to the floor. "None of it was what I thought it was. And that guy— how many kids died there to make me, me?"

"I don't know."

"You're lying."

Miranda retrieves the stack of books that Jack knocked to the ground, lining them up perfectly just the way that she'd had them. "I'm not."

"It's all fucked up. How can you work for them? How can you be proud of Cerberus? Don't you see how many lives they destroyed? How many kids they killed, all those things they did to me," she slams a hand down on the desk. "You can't deny it anymore, Cheerleader! You saw what they did! They had a morgue! You may not give a shit about me but is it really for the benefit of humanity to take poor kids and subject them to hell for what? For this!" She sends out another wave of biotic power, knocking the books that Miranda has just replaced on the desk back on the floor.

Miranda watches them blow past her. "Think what you will of Cerberus but you wouldn't be who you are now if it weren't for that facility. The Illusive Man had no knowledge—"


"Of what happened there nor would the organization ever condone or fund such immoral experiments."

"What do you know about morals?" Jack spits.

"A good deal." Miranda picks up the books again and sets them on their sides, not bothering to arrange them again in case Jack has another outpouring of biotic rage. "But I'm wise enough to know that allowing morals to interfere with science would leave humanity at a great disadvantage. Cerberus isn't made up of saints. It's made up of people who will get the job done. We have to reach the pinnacle of our potential—it would be a disservice not to. If a few people have to suffer for our race to advance then so be it. Sacrifices are the cost of all progress."

"As long as those sacrifices are poor fucks no one gives a shit about. You're just a stupid Cerberus bitch after all. I was an idiot for thinking you might be different. I'm fucking outta here."

"You're an important part of this mission." Is she backtracking? She doesn't do that. No. She's only trying to simplify the situation for Jack. Jack has never seen the bigger picture. "If what happened to you hadn't we wouldn't—"

Jack rears on her. "So that makes it all right? That makes it worth it?"

"Yes." She can't lie. "The lives of the human race are at stake. What happened to you was…inappropriate. I won't say that Cerberus did it. We didn't. But we need you. We need you exactly as you are." Just as they'd needed to bring Shepard back exactly as she was, no changes. "You wouldn't have your powers, we wouldn't have a chance if it wasn't for that."

"You'd have it all happen the same way again."

"Yes." The flare of hurt in Jack's eyes is evident. Miranda is surprised and doesn't react. Then she reaches for her. Jack recoils violently. Jack is too emotional. She doesn't understand that they need every resource no matter what mean was used to temper it. They have Jack now. They know what she's capable of. If Cerberus were to think of launching into such extreme experiments now with only theoretical results she would disagree but Miranda has seen the payoff. "Will you just listen?"

Jack lifts the office chair and flings it at her. "Touch me and I will smear the walls with you, bitch!"

It's ironic that Jack can't appreciate that she's complaining about the very powers she's using to try to murder her. Miranda sidesteps just in time to see Commander Shepard walk in. The chair falls with a thud to the ground. Lovely. She hadn't wanted for Shepard to get involved in any of this. She'll have to speak with Joker later about interfering in her private affairs. His leash is too long. It's time someone reined it in. But that's for another time. Shepard is demanding explanations.

Fucking assholes. What did she expect? Maybe she's just as dumb of a bitch as Miranda is to think that Shepard wouldn't sell her out. Everyone loves to kiss the Cheerleader's ass. Whatever. She'll tear them both apart as soon as the mission is done if they think of getting in her way. Besides, they're not the ones that really matter.

It wasn't Cerberus. Not really. But clearly you were a mistake.

The words keep creeping into her head, the superior way Miranda had said them. She shakes thinking of her. She should have snapped her neck the first night in engineering. Maybe then… No. What the fuck. That isn't what's important now.

It's been days but she keeps thinking about it. She's still trying to clear out all the shit that happened in Teltin. It's just a crater now. Not worth thinking about. And the only other survivor is Aresh. Fuck. She should've killed him. What if he tries to do something else somewhere else? The guy is crazy… crazy as she is. Maybe because… Fuck.

She's happy that the Teltin facility is gone. She can stop going back there. She won't become that fuckhead Aresh. But now everything else is up in the air. They'd been trying to make her perfect. Like the goddamn Cheerleader. Different methods but the same goal. Except she's like her fucked up shadow. The Cheerleader is meant to save humanity. Jack's meant to destroy everything else. That isn't what Shepard or the others would say but why else would those Cerberus assholes do that shit to her?

How many kids died because of her? How many kids did she kill thinking they hated her? Not that she blames the poor fucks for wanting her dead. That hadn't made sense at the time. She'd killed them. Hated it at first, then after a while took satisfaction in it. They hurt her by ignoring her; she hurt them in the arena. They took her pride, she took her lives. How old was she when she started thinking like that? She wasn't even in the double digits yet. All this time she'd thought she was so fucking tough but if it wasn't for all those little kids who had to die so she could be stronger… "Fuck it," she says. Fuck what? What's she going to do about it?

She's still uneasy. Killing, meds, drugs, those are the only quick fixes to everything. She wishes she could kill Miranda and Shepard. She hates what they do to her head. Maybe afterward, she's not sure yet. See how she's feeling about it. She'd have asked Shepard to join her on a new piracy career but fuck that bitch.

Speaking of which… "I got nothing to say. Why don't you go talk to Miranda?" Fuck Shepard. She'd helped her and taken her to Teltin. That was cool. She'd made her think that maybe she was more than some fucked up killer for a millisecond, told her she was better than that shit Aresh. Told her to let him go. But when it came down to it, she fucking sold her out to Miranda.

Shepard does a little song and dance about how they need Miranda's contacts and her network. Makes it seem like Miranda's got no other uses. Makes sense. So Shepard had just lied her ass off to Miranda to get what she wanted. She likes that. "You could have just said so," Jack says. "That shit really pissed me off. Don't do it again." She looks to Shepard's face. Her cheeks are in rough shape, the skin separating and glowing red in the darkness. Her forehead doesn't look much better. Jack doesn't know why she doesn't just get herself stitched up. Maybe she likes looking like a bad ass. Her eyes stare eerily at Jack though her smile is welcoming, charming in its own asshole way. Jack looks off before feeling Shepard's gaze on her and looking back at the woman. "We've already talked. What do you want?"

Shepard walks closer becoming more than a color in the dim lighting and a disembodied voice. Jack stands up and creates some distance. Shepard chuckles. "Why do you keep looking at my face?"

Jack's seen a lot of fucked up shit in her day. All kinds of ugly, all kinds of weird aliens, guys who look like mutations, people who aren't whole anymore, scarred and missing pieces of them. Shepard isn't missing anything. Except maybe a piece of humanity. Maybe that's what happens when you're brought back from the dead. Maybe that's the reason I look the way I do. Doesn't have shit to do with the haircut or the ink. "You look like a monster." Jack says easily.

"Is that a turn on?"

"Not often I find people who look as fucked up as I do." Jack steps closer and moves around her, circling like a scavenger looking for its next meal, wanting to find the timing, needing to get it just right.

"I may look 'fucked up' but we're not the same." Shepard crosses her arms. "I didn't do this to myself. Hell, most people consider me a goddamn hero. I am a goddamn hero."

"What are you saying?" Jack asks quickly. What the fuck is Shepard talking about? Cerberus made them both who they are. In a way… maybe they weren't responsible for all of it. Fuck, just stop thinking about it.

"I think you know." Shepard says. Jack's eyebrows narrow. She looks away. There it is again. She never lets down her guard but people hammer away at her anyway. Every time she forgets for a second what she is someone always rushes in to remind her. She and Shepard have made their own decisions. They're not just products. Shit. What is it with her lately? Sitting around bitching, acting like a pussy. "Relax, Jack. I'm not here to judge. I'm pretty good at reading people. A minute ago you were eager to hop into bed with me. Where'd all that edge go? Am I that intimidating?"

Jack shoves her. Shepard doesn't stumble. "You're a fuck."

"Mh hm," Shepard grabs Jack's chin and pulls her in for a kiss. Their mouths meet voraciously. Jack lets Shepard take point before slamming her against the wall. Shepard laughs. "I knew you wouldn't be boring."

"There's nothing boring about me, Shepard." Jack keeps a hand around Shepard's throat. It's weird how much she hates her right now. Or maybe it's herself she hates. She doesn't know anymore. Things are starting to get fuzzy again.

"Kelly warned me about you. Do you know that you approach sex casually but push others away?" Shepard's imitation of Kelly is spot on, down to the scientific, frank analysis paired with a faux tone of caring. Jack thinks it's funny. "Do you want to talk about your feelings?"

Jack slides her hands beneath Shepard's shirt. She finds the differences without knowing she was looking for them. "What feelings?"

"That's what I said." Shepard tugs the leather suspenders away.

"Kelly's a bitch." She angles her head to the side, giving Shepard access to her neck. Her eyes narrow thoughtfully at the warmth Shepard presses to her skin. Feels good. Can't say she'd ever thought she'd let the Commander have her way with her. "She just wants you for herself."

"Everybody wants to fuck the dead spectre." Shepard says, droll.

Jack grins, letting Shepard trail her lips and tongue along her neck some time further before taking Shepard's face in her hands. "You're sick." Jack kisses her again. When Shepard lifts her off the floor, Jack wraps her legs around her waist. Shepard carries her to the table. Jack flips them so that she's on top looking down at her breathlessly.

"This is important to you for some reason," Shepard lets Jack yank the clothes from her. "So go ahead and be on top. I get tired of doing all the damn work anyway."

"Shut up." Not here to talk.

Sex: the other drug. They don't say another word.

Miranda turns off the camera feed to engineering. She is still before lifting the glass she keeps beside her computer terminal. She stands. She collects and deposits a number of ice cubes into her glass then fills it a third of the way with hard liquor. Alcohol doesn't affect her the way that it does other humans. Much higher quantities are needed for her to react to it. Her tolerance is beneficial. She gets more work done and doesn't suffer from hangovers. Others don't know that and think to take advantage or underestimate her. She will use every weapon in her arsenal.

It does make self-medication difficult. Not that she does that. That's a coping mechanism for those who aren't strong enough to find an alternative.

Miranda knows her limitations (or lack thereof) despite not knowing a time in which she's wanted to alter her perceptions. She has studied her own medical records in depth, eager to know what she is, what she was meant to be, what she is capable of. Even after escaping her father, she's never been more than mildly inebriated and never to the point where it's affected her thinking processes or reflexes. She's used to the illusion of perfection and employing the necessary means to achieve it. Her father would disapprove of her wasting her talents on the sophomoric games of common people. He would be furious with her for wanting a taste of normalcy. A sliver of guilt slips into her as she holds the glass in hand. Even now she feels as if she's disappointing him. What could possibly appeal about not being at one hundred percent and clear headed?

She looks back to the blackened monitor screen and touches a hand to her temple as if recalling something but she's recalled nothing. She takes a careful, measured drink. She'll go for a walk around the ship. She ought to get out of the office every now and then. Now would be a fine time; she's at a good stopping point in her work.

Jack isn't modest. Nothing to be modest about. When you take every shred of pride from a person there's nothing left to lose, nothing to be ashamed of. But this time Jack dresses in quick, haphazard fashion. She goes back to her cot and takes her usual seat. Shepard slides off the table, examining the scratches and bite marks along her. Teach her to think she can push her around. "Thanks, Shepard. Now get lost. We both got what we wanted and we don't actually like each other so let's not waste any more time. You're shit to talk to."

"Since when do you talk to anyone, Jack?" Shepard retrieves her pants and steps into them one step at a time. They're loose, easy enough to remove. Unlike…

"Fuck off." The whole thing had been fucking pointless. It was all right while it lasted. Sometimes sex helps take the edge off but not this time. She feels shittier than before. She's never had the high wear off so quickly. Doesn't make any sense.

"What were you expecting? Cuddling?"

Wasn't expecting anything. People always want to fuck her. See what she is. Think they can figure her out. See what makes her tick. "Didn't want anything from you, Shepard."

"You wanted something. You didn't get it. I helped you out at Pragia. You thanked me. This was fun." Shepard slips the shirt on over her head. Then her voice grows soft and caring. Jack reacts to it the same way she would to screeching, twisting metal. "I can't give you what you need."

"Yeah." It's easier than saying 'I don't need anything'. She just wants Shepard gone. After asking if Jack will be okay (Jack will never understand her fucking 180s) she gets on her way. Jack remains still feeling a pressure mounting inside of her, countdown until detonation. She doesn't move until it's too much and she's filled with it. She jumps to her feet, eyes sharpening, growing wet. Everything's a blur.

She pummels her fist over and over again into the steel wall, denting it. Her grunts of effort are indistinguishable from howls. She pounds the wall until she's depleted and can't manage another hit, breathing hoarsely. She hides her face in her hands before collapsing against the wall and sliding awkwardly to the floor. Her fists pulse with pain, biotics, blood. She's numb and hurt. She always thought she knew what was up, what she wanted but she's not sure anymore. She's drowning in aimless anger. In emptiness. What the hell is the matter with her? She got everything she's ever wanted. She took out every fuck who's ever messed with her. Why isn't she happy? Can she ever be? Would she even know it?

"Happiness is overrated," she mutters.

Maybe once the Collectors are gone she can relax. She can… nothing to move on from. She thinks of Murtock. The only person to ever give a shit about her. He was fun. She wasn't planning on forever. Never knows what day it's just going to end. He'd wanted a lot. A lot for her, from her. Like he expected her to be better just because he thought she was better. But he never gave her shit about it. He just waited. Just…accepted her. Then he went and got himself killed to save her. The dumbass. Like that meant anything. He was stupid. Wasn't going to transform her or anything. That isn't how it works. People don't just change. Can't.

She bites her tongue to keep from crying.

Miranda arbitrarily switches the grainy camera feed back on. Jack is on the floor with her head in her hands, huddled into herself. Miranda reaches a hand to the picture before jerking it away at the last moment and turning the monitor off.

She should get some sleep. She lies in bed for hours before abandoning the notion. She picks up a novel but can't read more than a sentence before her mind drifts to other matters. Jack. Other matters. Work.

She gets up and works but she doesn't bother changing out of her robe. There is one advantage to working so late in the night and having the office in her quarters. There's never a short supply of work to be done and it's to her advantage to push ahead. A crisis could rear its head at any moment leaving her with a seemingly infinite amount to wade through.

Every time she thinks of Jack she sends out five emails. Two hours later she's sent out a great deal of them but at least has gotten a substantial amount of work done. Her alarm goes off in the other room (not that she needs it, her body has provided the greatest, most accurate clock that she has known) and she stands from her chair, switches the alarm off, showers and gets ready for the day. She's rarely tired but makes it to the small mess hall (fittingly located next to the medical bay) to grab a cup of coffee. The technology of the Normandy SR-2 is top of the line. It's unfortunate the same can't be said of the food or the coffee. Miranda sips on her coffee bitterly, thinking of the finer delicacies available on Illium. Maybe a budget could be drafted so the crew (or at least she) can reap the benefits of a finer meal. She doesn't trust Gardner to provide them.

Shepard brushes past her and Miranda stiffens at the touch before forcing her muscles to relax. The commander is grabbing a cup of coffee, pouring the liquid into a mug in a showy fashion. Shepard doesn't do anything by the book. She throws the rulebook out the proverbial window and gets results because of it but Miranda won't forget her many transgressions just because she's good at her job.

Yes, you will because she's doing her job and she's doing it well. That can be questioned. Miranda dismisses the thoughts. They're catty and it's only the unfamiliar fatigue dogging her that is making her question Shepard.

"Oh boy. What'd I do now?" Shepard asks. She takes a drink of the coffee, makes a face and takes another gulp. "Are you going to keep clanking that spoon in your coffee?" she nods at the spoon Miranda holds. Miranda stops stirring, not having realized she was doing it. "Out with it."

"Fraternization is strongly discouraged between the leading officer and the crew." It's discouraged between all crew members, actually. It's scarce for anyone to follow the rule and even the most ardent advocates soon give up after spending months in space without shore leave. Her own record has been immaculate. She follows the rules. Except… for the last two times. They don't count, really. Her work has been unaffected (if anything, she's been more productive) and the encounters were nothing but a series of one night stands. If there is no emotional involvement, there is, in turn, no issue.

"Ah. You've been spying on me."

"Since day one, Shepard. You know that. Cerberus outfitted the Normandy with the latest technology. All at my disposal. I answer directly to the Illusive Man. As such, I'm expected to have answers. You may make the decisions but it doesn't mean I won't keep an eye on things." When Shepard continues to stare at her Miranda sets her cup down. "Subject Zero is emotionally volatile. You don't want to do anything to endanger her state of mind."

Shepard sighs. "It's too early in the morning for this." She pours more coffee. "Everything you just said now… Is that Miranda speak for being jealous?"

What? No. "Don't be ridiculous." She's fired the words off before she realizes that Shepard had been joking.

Shepard arches an eyebrow delicately and pours herself another cup of coffee. "Don't waste my time. Jack's ready. When we're up against the Collectors I know she's going to clean house. Maybe I should be concerned about you. I came onboard to this operation once I had your word you'd follow orders."

"I said I'd follow orders, Shepard. I never said I wouldn't question you."

"Don't question me. That's an order. You're second-in-command. Start acting like it. Is that understood?"

Miranda speaks through clenched teeth. "Yes, Commander." She flushes with shame. The Commander is right, of course. They're both adults free to make their own decisions. It's not her place to interfere, despite wanting for the mission to succeed. Shepard has proved herself. Jack has too.

"Good." Shepard shakes her head. "If you want to apologize to her, it's as easy as 'I'm sorry'."

"With all due respect, you weren't brought back to dispense advice on interpersonal relationships. I have work to do, Commander," she bows her head to her and returns to the office. She won't apologize to Jack. There's nothing to apologize for. It's only unfortunate that Jack can't overlook her dreadful history to focus on the greater good.

Admitting what happened to Jack was wrong would suggest that Cerberus is the terrorist group others claim they are. As a high ranking official it's unthinkable to state such a thing. She will not question the organization she believes in ardently for Jack. Doing so would send moral quandaries rippling throughout the accomplishments of the agency, that despite its many discreditors, has done more for humanity than any other human interest group.

Maybe she is a bitch. It'd never mattered who thought it before. It still doesn't but now it's creating complications. It's her job to state unpopular opinions but no one ever sees that. Making nice won't get anyone anywhere. If it were up to the Council and the Alliance they'd propose drawing up a peace treaty to offer to the Collectors. She won't delude herself into thinking that anything besides war will stop them.

Miranda reads the collection of news feeds that have come in since she went to get coffee and sighs. Maybe she will apologize to her. She begins to stand before sitting again. There's still work to do. Later. She'll apologize to her later.

The bandages are snug around her rib cage making it hard to breathe. It could be that she's not used to wearing a shirt anymore. Or maybe it's the cracked ribs she suffered on the last mission. The Collector ship had been fucked up. She doesn't know how they'd gotten out of there. Those Collector bastards and that chatty fucking stalker Harbinger just kept coming. So that's what they're up against. All those weird cockroaches planning to take out humanity. Shit, they've got the room to do it. But she's not going to let that happen. She's not into being a hero or anything like that. Who gives a fuck about other people? But she's not going to be taken out by those ugly assholes. Still… whatever it is they're doing to people, she wants to make sure they don't keep doing it.

Chakwas told her to get rest so she'll get rest. She hadn't dispensed any medication, citing the amount needed to dull the pain coupled with Jack's tolerance for drugs and known abusive tendencies would not be wise. She'd given her an injection with a needle as long as her forearm and sent her on her way. Far as Jack can tell, it hasn't done shit aside from make her sleepy. She's drowsing in and out when she hears Miranda's voice, directly in front of the table across from the cot.

"Nice work on that Collector ship."

She thinks about pretending to be asleep but doesn't bother. "Yeah, feels good to earn my keep. Your Illusive Man laid out a pretty nasty trap. I don't get you. Are you fucking that guy? Why are you always defending him?" Jack turns on her side to face the wall and a burst of pain flares in her ribs. She bites on her lip to keep from making a sound. The Illusive Man sold them out. Big fucking surprise. She doubts the Cheerleader cares. Shepard was pissed; it reassured Jack. She's starting to come around to her. "EDI took all the data or whatever so if you're here for some report intel you can get it from her." She and Miranda haven't talked in the weeks since Pragia. No reason to start now.

"I'm not here for a report." Miranda says. Jack yawns into her hand loudly and hopes that Miranda will get the message. She doesn't. "Everything is rushing to a head. I don't know how much time we have left anymore." Jack rolls onto her back and turns her head to look at her. "So I'll get straight to it. I'd like it noted that I'm speaking on behalf of myself and not Cerberus but… I apologize if you were offended by my words the last time we spoke."

Jack laughs dryly and winces, her ribs reminding her of her injury. She drapes an arm along her forehead and takes in slow breaths to fill her lungs tentatively. "Don't apologize often, do you, Cheerleader? Your apologies could use some work."

"Chakwas mentioned you sustained some injuries."

"Nothing that hasn't been done worse before." She pauses, smiles sardonically. "Thanks for the concern, Cheerleader." Miranda's eyes stray elsewhere. "This was you, could you brush it off? You've got the mods, right? Superhuman or some shit? Super human. Right. Shepard's the superhuman."

"I can't argue with that."

"You want to?" Jack sits up with some effort. It wasn't an invitation but Miranda moves to take a seat next to her.

"No. Shepard's impressive in just about every way. She's got something that many don't have. Something I obviously don't." Her smile becomes bittersweet. "It was the right decision for Cerberus to bring her back. Even you can't dispute that."

Jack scoffs and plays with a frayed string on her pants. They're pretty banged up from the Collector ship. She'll get some new ones eventually but it isn't on her priority list. "Don't compare us to Shepard. And don't fucking act like what was done to either one of us is the same damn thing as bringing her back. Shepard didn't turn out the way she did because of fucked up experiments and modifications. She didn't go through the years of bullshit we did so we could be fucking useful to someone who'd pay for our 'talents'. She was valuable before that." Miranda's quiet. "She's not the fuckup we are. I was made to kill. You were made to be perfect but you aren't, even with all those mods. Tough life. Face it, Cheerleader: beneath that gleaming sterile shine of yours, you're just another fuck up like me. I'm just more honest about it."

"I am advanced. No use hiding it. I'm not sure that I could if I tried." Miranda's so fucking earnest that Jack has to roll her eyes. "But I never claimed to be perfect."

"Good, cause you aren't. Could've told you that from the beginning."

"That isn't to say that I didn't try. I did, often. I always fell short. Never by much, though my father wouldn't agree." Miranda crosses one leg over another and leans into the wall. She looks out of place. That classy sort of elegance doesn't belong in the hole of engineering. "But I imagine this is coming across to you as more of that 'poor little rich girl' bit. That isn't why I came down here."

"Why are you here?"

"To apologize. I said so, didn't I?" Miranda looks at her when Jack huffs. Jack pulls her legs onto the cot, stretches her neck, hears the bones pop. "Clearly you're dissatisfied."

"It wasn't an apology, asshole. Don't bother. You really don't give a shit either way so why don't I take my space back and you can get back to blowing the Illusive Man. People like me don't get apologies. I know that."

"People like you?"

Jack stays silent. Fuck the Cheerleader. She doesn't owe her answers. "You know." Jack says blankly. Her eyes don't focus on anything. She can't say the word 'monster' in front of the Cheerleader. If Miranda made a joke about it she'd have to kill her. Or… or who knows how she'd react really. She wonders what was really in that shot that Chakwas gave her. She's not used to being so fucking chatty. "Just get out of here."

"I'm not finished." She brings a hand tentatively to Jack's knee. Jack tenses but she doesn't look at her, doesn't speak, doesn't notice right away that she hasn't taken a breath. "Look. Apologies are clearly not my strong point. They're typically the result of mistakes and I'm very good at my job. I don't have anything outside of work, really, so I have to be good. If I weren't, the Illusive Man wouldn't have picked me to lead the Lazarus Project and be Shepard's second in command. I can only count a handful of times when I've had to apologize. Unless you're talking about my father—those apologies are endless. Eventually he got tired of hearing them and our interactions were limited to reports sent to him by other scientists. Sometimes he'd have me write them personally, find the mistakes and return them, but even those stopped when he saw I wasn't worth the effort. It didn't stop him from having hopes for me. He'd spent a lot of money. When there was a new procedure available, I always had to be the first in line to have it. And he'd be excited, after he'd found out I'd survived whatever operation. He always waited until I was fully healed to visit me. But the results were never good enough. I always disappointed him. Ironically, I spent a lot of time feeling worthless. Then I found out about Oriana and… I knew what would happen. To the both of us. I suppose I shouldn't complain. All my genetic modifications did get the attention of the Illusive Man. I doubt he would have hired me on faith alone."

Jack nearly asks where the apology is. But she gets lost in all that other mess that Miranda's rattled off. Miranda's weird. She can talk about that shit in such a detached way. The only indication that it's at all upsetting to her is in her word choice, a tiny, nearly unreadable current of emotion in her voice and the tightening of her hand on Jack's knee. Her face doesn't show any of it. So Miranda's just like her in a way. No one would give a shit if it weren't for all the extras. "Sounds shitty."

"It was." She smiles palely. "Thanks for saying so. It's strange. There was a time when I might have suggested someone like you wasn't owed any apologies. I've always been accused of being condescending. Maybe that's true..." she falters then shakes her head. "I was wrong when I said you were a mistake. I'm sorry I said it. You aren't a mistake—but what was done to you was." Her fingers tighten gently before her hand slides along Jack's leg and falls back beside her. She rests her arms along her own legs in the same nonchalant manner as before. "If there is a monster in this scenario it isn't you." She sighs softly. "This is complicated. I'm used to having a plan for every situation. I never had one prepared for you."

Jack doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. Can't believe she apologized like she actually meant it. Not sure if she buys it—no, she does buy it. If she didn't she'd have kicked her ass out already. "My plans tend to involve killing everything in sight. Doesn't work so much anymore. I'll save it for the Collectors." Jack doesn't want to think about whatever it is that Miranda meant.

"How are you?" Miranda asks.

Jack looks at her stupidly. Nobody ever asks her that. She's so inexperienced with the question that she doesn't know she can give a default, generic response if she wanted to. Hasn't figured out that sometimes people don't care to hear the response. She dumbly asks what the fuck Miranda's talking about. Miranda clarifies, asking if there's been any closure surrounding the Teltin facility. Jack shrugs. "Every time I think I've solved it all there's something else left that's… Maybe I should've killed that guy Aresh. Maybe that would have been… I dunno… nicer? If it weren't for that guy though, where would I be?" So much for thinking she got out because she was tough shit. She got out because she was fucking pampered at the expense of everyone else. Goddamn it. "It's better now. I'm glad that place is gone. It helps. But all that shit inside my head is still there."

"Give it time. Maybe those feelings will change."

"Have they changed for you?" Jack only gets another elusive smile from Miranda. "Time. I guess we might all be dead soon anyway."

"Maybe. I'm not planning on that. If I've done my job, no one will die."

Jack turns to her sharply. "It's not all on you, Cheerleader. Shepard's running the show." Jack notices how Miranda's eyes wander at the mention of the Commander. "You can't take responsibility for everything that might happen."

"That's my job."

"Then cut yourself some fucking slack. Be more than your job and your 'enhancements'." Is she actually having this conversation? "We all have jobs here. It's up to all of us if we want to get out of this mess. Shit. Why are we sitting here talking?"

"Why not?"

"It's weird."

"Maybe I should get back to work."

"Yeah, maybe." Jack slaps a hand down next to her only to have it hit Miranda's. Jack looks down, curls her fingers and makes the conscious decision to withdraw them. She stares at her tattooed hand, D E A T H scribbled on the digits. Miranda's own hand, flawless and without a mark. Jack doesn't realize she's frowning. She looks up, forgetting to pull her hand back.

Miranda kisses her soft on the lips. Jack goes rigid. The kiss is unexpected. She should hit her. But her cheeks go warm. She doesn't respond, or doesn't think she does but her lips part. It's like their first night in engineering, it looks exactly the same but it's something else. It's too soft, too new, too easy to break. It freaks her out but she doesn't know how to stop it. There's coughing on the intercom. Miranda pulls away. Jack is left freefalling. Her heart beats too quickly. She's breathless. This is bullshit.

"Uh." Joker's voice. "Miranda, the commander would like to see you at the bridge. But uh, if you need to finish up, no rush. Take your time."

Miranda swears. "I'm on my way."

Jack wonders if that fuck was spying. Everything she's heard on him tells he spends a lot of free time on freaky extranet sites. Why's he always jumping into their business? Miranda's leaving when Jack calls out to her. "Is this another one of your games, Cheerleader? What are you doing?" Why is she always asking her that?

Miranda slows her steps, crooks her head to the side but doesn't turn. "Good question. I don't know. Making a fool of myself, it would seem." She touches the wall, finds the dent in it that Jack had beat in. Their muscles go taut. Miranda talks to the wall. "I don't typically let myself get carried away like that. It isn't a game." She takes a breath. "Shepard's waiting." She starts to go.

Jack listens to the retreating footsteps, climbing slowly before she stands painfully and goes to the foot of the stairs to look up at her. "Miranda." The Cheerleader waits, an eyebrow cocked questioningly. "I'll see you later."

Miranda narrows her eyes on Jack, trying to see her more clearly. Maybe she only squints because of the darkness. "Of course. Until next time, Jack."