Disclaimer: I do not own Mass Effect or any of its characters. They are products of BioWare, EA and certainly not me. This fan fiction is for entertainment purposes; no profit or intrusion of copyright is intended.

A little girl with milky white skin and deep black hair sat on a medical table in a cold and sterile operating room. She sucked on her lower lip – a nervous habit as her fingers gripped the edge of the metallic table, tips tapping rhythmically as her legs swung forward and back in childish impatience. The door to the room swooshed open and a woman in surgical attire stepped inside, her face covered with a mask and gloves extending to the elbows. "Good Morning, Miranda. And how are we feeling today?"

The child scratched the flesh of her forearm, unaware of her actions as she shrugged. "Ok, I guess," she answered softly. "Do … do I really have to get another shot today?"

"You know it's time," the woman responded, coolly, no calm or warmth offered. "Now let's see your arm."

The child held her arm closer to her body in fear and uncertainty. "But I just had a shot."

"And it's time for another," the woman answered and reached for the nearby tray. She plucked the syringe from the tray and pulled off the plastic protection encasing the three inch needle. Stabbing the needle into the small bottle on the tray, the woman filled the syringe with a glowing blue liquid.

The child shrunk back at the sight, eyes transfixed on the unhidden process. "It hurts," she whispered.

"This is necessary," the woman stated, coldly, and pressed on the plunger of the syringe until liquid squirted from the needle.

"Where's Daddy?"

"Right through there," the woman pointed to a large mirror the size of a wall. "Just like always."

The child looked at the mirror, staring at the reflection. She closed her eyes, holding her arm tightly to her body.

The woman gripped the child's wrist and forced the arm to extend. "Relax your arm or it will hurt more. Do you want it to hurt like it did last time?"

"No," the child whimpered and released a long and heavy sigh trying to focus enough to relax her muscles.

The woman tapped her fingers along the crook of the child's elbow, drawing the vein to the surface. "Stop moving," she ordered, sharply and when the child froze, the scientist resumed her coaxing of the vein. With precision, she inserted the long needle.

The child closed her eyes and looked away at the stinging sharp piercing pain and squeezed her eyes close. Her lower lip quivered as a shaky breath expelled from her lungs. She pressed her lips tightly together as the searing hot liquid injected into her blood and the sensation of burning fire slowly spread from the injection point throughout the arm.

The woman removed the syringe once empty and placed it on the tray. Using a piece of gauze, she pressed the fabric to the injection point. Without prompting, the child held the gauze in place and brought her arm close to help add pressure to stop any bleeding. Gathering the tray, the woman left the room.

"That's a good girl, Miranda," Henry Lawson spoke through the intercom. "Daddy is very proud of you."

The child smiled at the mirror. "I didn't cry this time, Daddy." She whispered with a proud smile though her eyes glassy from withheld tears. "Just like you said." No further response came. "Daddy?" The burning in her arm intensified seeping and spreading at a glacial speed from arm into shoulder and then chest.

She ducked her head and her injected arm fell limp at the side, the gauze falling away with three spots of marring blood upon the sterile white. Her body trembled and twitched as the room grew cold and her skin boiled hot. Her blood pumped, quickening with each pounding contraction of her heart. "Daddy, it burns …" she moaned. "Worst than before."

The injection point swelled, tingling as if microscopic parasites gnawed at the opening, tearing it and shredding it. The child scratched at the point though with nails cut so short, it offered little relief. Sweat beaded on her brow and her breath quickened in panic. She slipped down off the table, landing on her feet then dropping to her knees at the three foot drop. "Daddy?" She cried softly, weakly. With knees wobbling, she pushed to her feet then swayed. Blood vessels swelled and tears dripped from her eyes. A faint blue aura pulsed around her, rhythmic and steady as it surrounded the body within a centimeter of the skin.

The child collapsed and in a primal response of retreat, crawled to the back corner of the room, whimpering and trembling. The aura encapsulated the body, slow and constant. Once in the corner, the child curled into herself, frightened, aching and pained. Every pump of blood burned her from the inside as her skin bubbled. Forcing her eyes opened, she stared at her arms – her body showed no outward signs of what happened within other than her aura. Sixteen injection points marred each arm at various stages of healing, some fresh scars, others recent punctures.

Scratching the new injection point, she cried freely as the burning intensified. The aura grew around her, intensifying with each passing minute until it reached an uncontrollable height. Pressure increased within the tiny body as the burning extended into the brain. She howled at the sizzling pain and gripped her head, ducking low in self defense.

Her eyes pulsed, bloodshot from the pressure and her teeth clenched. The aura exploded and the room shuttered, equipment flickering as unsecured items flew from their resting place. The child crumpled to the floor, still conscious but feeble, panting, sweating. She whimpered in relief after the explosion as the pressure disappeared though the burning remained. Arm twitching, she weakly scratched the bleeding injection point.

Henry Lawson's voice resounded through the intercom in the adjoining room where the woman in the surgical outfit watched through the small window of the door. The child heard only the garbled tone of her father as the door opened. Unable to resist, she lay limply as two strong arms lifted her from the floor and carried her from the room.

Aboard the Normandy, Miranda stood outside the medical bay in the dimly lit mess hall, staring in the window at David. The deck darkened as most of the crew slept for the night. David lay on the medical bed, his muscles twitching randomly as he muttered in his sleep, his body scarred and marred from the contraption in which he was held. Absently, she scratched at her left forearm. Her repressed memories repeated in haunting intensity. Her usual well placed mask fell away as vivid visions of the past flooded her mind, toying with her, testing her.

Shepard stood quietly to the side, unnoticed as he watched her expression with peaked interest. For nearly half an hour, she stood at the window watching David sleep. As time passed, her icy stoicism melted replaced with hurt, betrayal, uncertainty and even fear. He wondered what haunted her, what thoughts raced through her mind to cripple her but he resisted the desire ask, the act an intrusion.

She blinked quickly a few times, dampening her dried eyes and looked away to a random point on the floor, hand still absently scratching a point on her inner forearm. Shepard remained in place, not hidden but still out of view from her line of sight. Her emotions and uncertainty, loss clear in her expression and she closed her eyes in expert meditative persistence as she controlled the swelling memories. Slowly, her eyes opened and she saw Shepard.

Miranda willed her walls to erect however they lay in ruin from her recent memories and thinking herself alone, she was unprepared to recuperate so quickly. Opting for retreat, she turned from him and crossed quickly across the mess hall to her office. Unwilling to let her run, Shepard followed.

The lights dimmed low in Miranda's office, the only sound the faint hum of the ship engines vibrating through the walls of the hull, a faint din. Miranda sat on the bed, a silhouette in the darkened bedroom and far from the emergency lighting in the office area. Her shoulders slumped, she leaned over and though she moved slightly, Shepard paused, unsure as to her action. Slowly, she tugged off one boot and set it beside the bed. He watched transfixed as the silhouette carefully removed the second boot and she pressed her bared foot into the mattress, fingers rubbing at the toes.

"Just go, Shepard," she whispered softly, voice steady with strength despite its gentle tone.


"I'm tired."

"So am I."

"I want to be alone." She stood from the bed and turned her back on him, twisting at the waist as her fingers fiddled with the button and clasps on the side of her suit.

"Well, I don't," he stated and sat at the foot of her bed, facing the door. Leaning over, he unhooked the clasps of his boots.

She peered back over her shoulder at him, pausing her act of undress. "What is it?" Perceptively noting his discomfort and distraction.

"Should ask you the same thing." Head ducked, he pulled off one boot and dropped it to the floor with a thud. "You were staring into the medbay for half an hour."

"I was not," she replied, coldly, though the retort a weak and almost childish response. She shook her head, disgusted and unzipped the side of her suit from breast to waist. Shrugging out of the shoulders, she eased the suit down to her waist, bared back to him.

He pulled off his other boot and dropped it as well before gripping the hem of his shirt with crossed arms and tugged it over his head. He rolled the shirt into a ball and tossed it towards the chair. The crumpled shirt landed at the center, opening slightly mid flight and hanging half off the seat. "You were. Kind of dazed too. Like you were thinking about something." He stood and faced her as he fiddled with the buckle of his belt, eyes on the delicate line of her back and he narrowed his eyes in focus on the clasp of her bra before letting his eyes rise to the profile of her face.

"So I was thinking. Is that a crime?" Unashamed, she bent over and pushed the tight suit off her legs then eased each foot out. Carefully, she folded the suit and set it on the couch. Padding towards the small dresser built into the wall, she swiped her fingers over the sensor.

"Didn't say that," he pulled open the belt, the synthetic material whizzing through the organic loops. "Just seemed to be pretty intense is all."

"Sometimes thinking can get intense," she commented sarcastically and pinched her shoulders back, reaching behind her to unhook her bra then pulled it from her body. She folded it and set it in the drawer.

Shepard stared, eyes darkening and his hands paused on his pants. He shook away any desire and cleared his throat as he unbuttoned his pants. He leaned over to push his pants off then hooked his toes into the fabric to kick it off his legs. He left them in a pile on the floor. He stretched then crawled onto the bed, pulling down the covers. "You don't have to be snippy about it. I care, Miranda. You looked upset."

She stilled, one hand still inside the drawer. "Just … a vivid memory. I'm fine." She replied, hushed and continued to fiddle inside the drawer. She pulled out a fitted short sleeved shirt and pulled it over her head, the fabric soft against the skin. She tugged the shirt down to her waist then walked to the bed.

He lay on his back in his boxers on the bed, feet crossed at the ankles and head lulled to the side to watch her. "What kind of memory?"

"Vivid," she repeated cryptically and tugged the covers down further before slipping beneath them and turned her back on him with a slow dismissive sigh, separated from him in the double bed.

He smirked. "I caught that. Vivid memory about what?"

"I thought you were tired."

"I am," he answered to her back and turned onto his side. Tenderly, he drew his fingers down the delicate line of her spine. "But I'm worried about you. I never saw you like that before."

"I'm fine." She shivered at the attention then stiffened to will her muscles to cease their reaction.

Frustrated but well controlled, he retreated from his current strategy and changed the conversation. "This week has gone so fast." He said, deeply and his hand slipped from her back to rest on her hip. He eased closer to her. "Everything with Samara and then David and Jack. We haven't had any time for us."

"The mission is more important than this distraction."

"You're more than a distraction," he admitted and slipped closer, pressing against her and his hand tightened on her hip to pull her back against him. When she settled back into him, he draped his arm around her casually, holding her. "That's why I'm worried. Just tell me."

"You're not giving up, are you?"

"No, and I have you in the perfect position," he said with an infuriating smirk. "You're half naked and barefoot which means escape is unlikely. So it is just far less energy on your part to tell me than for us to continue this dance. Don't you think?"

"You're annoying."

He chuckled and nuzzled the back of her neck. "One of my many charms."

She smiled at that and ducked her chin into her chest, stretching the tiny muscles at his affection and she sighed, resigned. "I was just thinking about my father." She admitted with reticence.

"Your father," Shepard repeated and his hand eased along her stomach in an absent and tender caress, slipping slightly under the shirt to touch flesh. His hand stilled then, content with the contact. "Why?"

Quiet for a minute, she hesitated to offer any more insight.

"I didn't fall asleep you know,"

"Damn it," she muttered. "Look, why is this so important to you?" She pushed up from the bed and twisted to lay on her back, lifting up to rest on her elbows as she looked down at him.

"Because you're important to me," He answered with a confused expression. "Is it so hard to understand why I want to know about you? Why I want to know what bothers you when you look upset?"

"I'm not upset." She responded, coldly.

He sighed, eyes half lidded in frustration. "Fine. When you're thinking about something that's distracting you. Trust me. I think I deserve that much."

"I don't trust easily," she answered, eyes searching his.

"I know." He sat up as well. "So just try."

She looked away from him and down at her arm; her right hand subconsciously scratched at her left forearm. She stopped.

"You do that sometimes. Is something wrong?"

"It's a long story."

"I have time," he countered and reached behind him for the pillow. He fluffed it then set it back against the headboard. With a pronounced sigh, he leaned back against the pillow, comfortably propped and he arched a brow in expectation.

She watched him situate himself then looked away to the door of her office. After a minute of quiet patient and persistent stares from her bedmate, she spoke. "After you left the observation room, I remained a little while. Just thinking about how much has changed." Eyes grew distant. "With everything. So much has changed, especially with me. Do you remember your psychological evaluations?" She twisted at the waist to look back over her shoulder at him.

"Which?" he laughed. "I've been subjected to a few."

"There is always a question. True or False. 'It is acceptable to sacrifice a few for the sake of the many.' How did you answer that?"

"False," he answered with ease.

She nodded. "Exactly. And if you answered 'True', your evaluation would have been flagged and it may have prevented your admission into the military, certainly your advancement and promotion. But in Cerberus, the opposite is true."

He watched her intensely. "So you would sacrifice the few for the benefits of the many."

"That is Cerberus doctrine," she replied. "And when I joined, I answered 'True' without hesitation."

"And you hesitate now?"

"Yes," she sighed the admission and looked away. "I never doubted it before. It made sense. Sacrifice the thirty here and save three thousand. Test a cure, a chemical …" she looked down at her arm. "And learn. And then use it to evolve. To advance."

"But it's not so simple," Shepard added. "The question is a trick question anyway. The options of true and false are both idealistic. The correct answer is False. To know that you would then sacrifice yourself to protect those that cannot protect themselves. But moving forward, taking a post of command there will come a time when you have to make that choice. And when you do, it's not supposed to be easy."

"So much has been black or white for me, Shepard," she whispered. "And recently … there has been so much grey. I don't like grey. It's like trying to navigate through fog that never clears."

"Nothing is supposed to be so easy as black or white." He bent his knees, placing his feet on the mattress and draping his arms over his knees. "You're full of contradictions." He thought to the conversation a few hours prior and her rigid straight-forward and idealistic words regarding experimentation. He curiously wondered how long she struggled with a crisis of faith, a wavering in her loyalty to the Cerberus doctrine she easily spouted and yet found difficulty enacting.

"It's not a contradiction," she responded sharply though with little conviction. "It is just confusion."

Tilting his head, he carefully observed her expression, the focus of her eyes and the height of her shoulders, tension in her body. "You said you were thinking about your father. Looking at David reminded you of your father."

"Father was obsessed with perfection," she whispered, blankly staring at the door before releasing a sigh and ducking her head, eyes closed. "I know what it's like to be David. To be Jack." Silence lingered between them and calloused fingers brushed her back; she jumped but willed her nerves to still. "I understand. More than anyone knows. Seeing him in that machine just … refreshes the memories."

"How can you defend any experiments if you suffered them?" tone tinged with disgust.

She twisted fully to face him but hips still planted. "Because look at what I am, Shepard!" She extended a hand and biotics pulsed, her aura emerging to within a centimeter of her body at every position, growing like a second skin, protective armor. "What I can do." The biotic aura swelled and she reached towards him, pressing a cool hand into his chest and the biotics infused into him, stringing through the muscles in a warm deep penetrating massage.

He moaned, eyes fluttering at the sensation but as soon as it began, it ended. He forced his gaze to refocus on the woman sitting beside him, aura faded as she stared absently at her hand. He gripped her hand with his, encasing the cool flesh within his warm palm; it broke her revere and she looked up at him. He held her eyes. "Your father's experiments do not make you who and what you are."

"How can you say that?" She pulled her hand away. "My biotics, my intelligence, my looks, my strengths … he created everything. There is nothing about me that was not predesigned. He made me ensuring I would be destined for greatness! Everything I went through … it worked." she admitted with a confused expression. "I wouldn't be here. I couldn't be anything. This is all I know. It's what I am and I wouldn't change it. And I hate him for that. For what he did to give this to me … and then breeding another just like me so he could do it all again because I wasn't enough. Because I couldn't be controlled. Because I had my own mind."

"You rescued Oriana because you were jealous?"

"No," she shook her head, eyes blazing with intensity. "I saved her. I wanted to spare her what I went through to become what I am – the epitome of human existence. The pinnacle of what our own intervention into our genetic code can create. But I wasn't enough. And if I wasn't enough, I don't want to think of how much further he would have gone to perfect Oriana." She averted her eyes from Shepard. "I want Oriana to have everything that I cannot."

"What don't you think you can have?" he probed, voice gentle and nonjudgmental.

She searched his eyes then answered. "Real parents. A family. Marriage, Children. Peace."

"You're so sure you can't find most of those?" he asked.

"Don't be ridiculous," she scoffed with a shake of the head and turned from him to stare into the darkened office. "Even if we come back from attacking the Collector homeworld, the Reapers will be here. There will be galactic war on a scale never seen before. There will be no peace. No rest. Just strain … pain."

He shifted closer to her on the bed, arranging himself behind her so she sat between his legs. His arms slipped around her waist and his heels rested near her feet, legs bent slightly at the knee as he enveloped her in warmth. He pulled her back against his chest, his pulse constant, steady and calm. "I've been thinking of what will happen after the Collector base," he husked deeply in her ear, his words quiet, private and intimately shared. "We'll go to Omega first … drop off the unwanted." He grinned. "Trouble makers. You know the ones." At her smile and slow shake of the head, his hold tightened, hands slipping under her shirt to trace random patterns on her stomach with firm confident fingers. "Then maybe the Citadel. Drop off any others and get some supplies. But I don't think I'm going to repeat what happened the last time I saved the galaxy."

"Oh?" she tilted her head back onto his shoulder. "Which part? Destroying the council? Or being jettisoned into space forcing me to waste two years of my life to bring a hunk of flesh back to the land of the living?" She smirked, teasingly.

"Yeah, I think I'm going to avoid both of those this time around," he grinned and kissed her shoulder.

She sighed softly and relaxed back against him. "So now that you've decided you want to live, what will you do after you drop off the … how did you word it? Undesirables?"

"I don't know," he answered and tickled his fingers higher on her stomach then down again. "Was thinking of maybe a nice long extended shore leave. Then again, last time I did that got stuck in the middle of the Blitz. But I'll probably decide to do it anyway. I'm thinking of Nevos. Beautiful beaches … romantic twin moons." He brushed his lips up her neck and kissed her ear. "What do you think?"

She swallowed the moan in the back of her throat at the pressure from his hands. "I think you make a tempting offer. And what would we do with beautiful beaches and twin moons?"

"Before or after I tie you to the bed for twenty four hours," he growled in her ear then grinned.

She laughed and shook her head, snuggling back into him and her hands slipped along his arms, coaxing his hold tighter. "That sounds relaxing. Usually I jump from assignment to assignment. How will we find downtime with the Reaper threat so close?"

"I want time with you. We can take a week, maybe two. We deserve it." Fingers continued to trace idle patterns on her stomach then abandoned the flesh to rest on her thighs. "It's alright to have a change of heart about things. Even things that you once really believed in. We change as we continue to experience. That's not a bad thing."

"Of course, it is," she countered vehemently. "How am I supposed to perform a task or continue with my work if suddenly I find the need to challenge some inherent core belief or purpose behind a project?"

"I don't know," he answered softly. "How did I agree to help Cerberus? How did I let the Council die? Sometimes, we just do what we feel has to be done and we stick with our gut. At least that's what I do." At her silence, he pressed. "So do you still agree with Project Overlord?"

"It's complicated," she leaned forward as if to put some distance between them. "I don't know. I'm just exhausted. Things will be clearer after I sleep."

He eased back from her and stretched out on the bed. Laying on his side, he waited for her to join him and then slipped behind her, draping an arm over her waist.

Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes and her fingers slipped along his. "When this is over, will you stay with us? With Cerberus?"

"If I don't, would you come with me?" He responded and tightened his arms then whispered in her ear. "Don't answer that. Just think about it."

"Where would you go? Back to the Alliance?" She peered back at him. "I'd be shot on sight. You realize this don't you?"

"I could stop that. I could protect you from that. You have so much information that would be valuable." When she offered no response, he sighed. "Just think about it."

Miranda lay awake even after Shepard fell asleep, unable to still her thoughts enough to rest. After an hour, exhaustion finally won and she succumbed to a light sleep.

Waves crashed against the shore, pushing the black and brown kelp further up the sand with each swell as the tide rose. Receding, the waves drew out the fine grained sand and shells, relentless in assault and power. Four legged arthropods scurried along the shoreline, some tossing in the rising waves, caught in the current. The sun warmed, intense in its direct heat though little humidity hung in the air. Rhythmic and lulling, the ocean pulsed, calming despite its violent nature.

Shepard knelt and picked up a perfectly rounded pink tinged stone, turning the smooth rock over in his hand before dropping it into the surf. The waves swept over his armor plated boots, drawing the sand around his feet then ankles in perfectly circularly patterns. His armor and the water reflected the sunlight and he squinted, lifting his hand over his brow to shield his eyes. No weapons weighed down his back though a pistol sidearm strapped firmly to his waist. Turning his back to the ocean, he gazed up the shore, focusing on the small bungalow at the edge between the forest and the sand raised on wooden pillars.

Standing on the deck of synthetic wood, Shepard gazed out to the crashing waves. He wiggled his bare toes, curling and straightening them on the deck. He looked down at his feet then turned to the house, the entire front wall of the bungalow clear glass. Sleek edged furnishings decorated the inside. Stark paint tinged the walls of the otherwise colorless abode. Inside, Shepard called for Miranda and explored the three room bungalow.

Chilled air brushed his bared feet and hands and Shepard walked through the closed door at the end of the corridor. Inside, the XO Normandy office. The lights dimmed low, Miranda twisted at the waist beside the bed, her back to the door as she zipped up her honeycombed catsuit. Sheets lay rumpled on the bed, untucked at one corner. Leaning over slightly, she adjusted the side of one of her boots then tugged on the waist to straighten the fabric. He smiled and wordless closed the distance between them, slipping his hands over her hips.

She jumped at the contact but laughed and twisted to look back over her shoulder. With a shake of the head, she turned in his arms and met his kiss with eager greeting, her hands cupping his cheeks. Easing back after the moment, she spoke, her lips moving though no sound came out. As if knowing the words, Shepard just chuckled and teasingly eased her back towards the bed. She pressed her hands into his chest, offering a half hearted warning. He kissed her again; a slow and searing embrace, he released her mouth and nibbled a trail down her throat. She murmured in his ear and he smiled at the suggestion.

She sat, fingers tickling down his chest as she tugged at his belt. The lighting changed in the room, brightening as warning alarms on the wall flashed, and spun. She frowned and stilled her task then pushed him back by the hips. Rushing to the door, she grabbed her pistol from her desk. Shepard followed.

The door opened; war erupted.

Mortars descended upon a scarred and burning planet with whistling crescendos. Buildings crumbled, fires burning the remnants. Blackened char marred the bark of trees, their leaves scorched and blowing through the air as flakes of ash. Corpses littered the ground; soldiers in armor held positions unsuccessfully as swarms of husks overwhelmed them in waves. Shepard crouched low and rushed to a fallen stone pillar, diving behind for cover.

Miranda followed, quickly pressing against the pillar beside him. Screams of innocents rang through the city park. Collectors trapped civilians in stasis then placed them in cocoon-like pods. Shepard peered over the top of the pillar then ducked low again and met Miranda's eyes. Sharing a moment of worry and camaraderie, he leaned towards her and captured her lips in a searing kiss goodbye.

She cupped his cheek, matching his desperation. When the kiss broke, he growled intensely. "Stay close." Nodding her agreement, she readied her pistol and pulsed with biotics. He set the clip firmly into his rifle and pulled the butt into his shoulder. Swinging the gun around, he emerged from cover and pressed into the firefight. Aiming down the barrel of his rifle at an approaching husk, he pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He jerked on the trigger again, attempting to force the gun to fire. Four husks neared and Shepard dropped the rifle, pulling the shotgun from his back. Gripping the stock tightly he jammed it against the husk's head. He punched the second and slammed an armored elbow into the third. The fourth husk leapt and Shepard leaned back, catching the decayed and twisted human corpse then tossed it to the ground. Aiming the shotgun, he pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Growling his frustration, he stomped his heel onto the husk's head. Blood splattered at the impact, the skull bursting under the power of his boot, coating his armor and spotting his face. He wiped the residue from his lips with his fingers, shaking out the hand as he looked around his surroundings.

Silence lingered, the sounds of war gone. The fires dimmed and extinguished replaced with smoking and smoldering rubble. The distinct scents of burning metal, scorched flesh and wood lingered then overwhelmed him. No husks, no enemies, no birds, no people.

"Miranda!" he called out and crossed through the rubble back to the area he last saw her. He called her name again, looking left then right in an attempt to find her. Rattling and rhythmic metallic clacking sounded in the distance. He jogged towards the sound however his pace moved slowly. He pushed harder, trying to run and yet he moved no faster.

Finally reaching the road's end, he turned the corner and paused. Giant metallic spikes pierced the streets, extending thirty feet into the sky and impaled upon each, a body. A forest of Dragon's teeth blanketed the roads with each victim in various stages of conversion – evolution. Bodies hung limply, face bared to the sky as organic and synthetic slowly merged.

He weaved through the giant spikes, eyes on the corpses and he soon stopped, swallowing hard as he recognized the body hanging and Joker's hauntingly vacant face staring back at him. Shaking his head quickly, he turned away and looked to another spike and Dr. Chakwas almost fully transformed, her eyes glowing blue.

Blood swirled down the next spike in spiraled patterns. Shepard touched his finger tips to the dried blood coating the metallic spike. Atop the spike, Miranda Lawson's limp body, her mouth opened in silent cry, eyes blank and lifeless. Blood stained her white suit and the spike sizzled with electrical current, forcing the synthesis between synthetic and organic. Roaring with rage, he punched an armored fist into the joint connecting the spike with the contraptions base. The spike shuddered but remained.

His fingers quickly slid over the top of the base, searching for some trigger to lower the spike as he previously witnessed. The spike spun forty-five degrees then descended into the base, finally disappearing. Miranda's body lay bent back over the base, pierced through the torso. Her features twisted, gnarled and corrupted but he recognized her. Whispering her name, he reached for her.

The body lurched, a deafening high pitch shrill ringing from its throat as it rolled off the base and turned to him. Shepard stepped back, swallowed hard. "Miranda," he instinctively raised his gun, pointing the pistol at the husk. Miranda's body contorted, head tilted fully onto its shoulder as it leaned towards him, arms extended and shrieked again. It lunged.

He couldn't pull the trigger and the husk of Miranda's body slammed into him, sinking cold metallic fingers into his neck as it tore the flesh from his throat.

Shepard's eyes opened and he blinked twice, staring up at a darkened metal ceiling, swirling serpentine piping following a flowing pattern from one wall to the other. His breath raced and fabric clung to his sweaty legs. Lying on his back, he swallowed the nausea rising to his throat. He lifted up, resting on his elbows as he looked around the room, taking in the familiar sight of Miranda Lawson's private office. Sighing with relief, he sat up fully and planted his heels into the bed, draping his arms over his knees. He ducked his head and closed his eyes in an attempt to clear his mind and rid his memory of the vivid nightmare.

Miranda stirred as the bed shifted and she stretched her legs, pointing her toes as she peered back over her shoulder at the man behind her. Shifting onto her back, she reached out, splaying a palm on his lower back. He tensed at the touch then exhaled and leaned back into her touch. Her thumb brushed the flesh as her fingers pressed into the muscles along his spine.

Shepard twisted at the waist and reached for the sheets covering her body. He tossed them down, exposing her and with a deep sigh, he stretched out on his side, propped up on an elbow as his free hand rested on her abdomen. Without asking permission, he pushed her shirt up to just below her breasts and traced his fingers over the smooth skin of her stomach. Her fingers slid through his shortly cropped hair at his intimate gesture.

His eyes searched her stomach, reassuring himself of her safety, a ridiculous need considering his conscious awareness of the nightmare. Licking his parched and dried lips, he kissed the flattened flesh of her stomach, fingers toying with the band of her low cut panties.

Miranda's breath hitched, air sucked sharply in between her teeth and she scratched the base of his skull at the hairline; he growled. She hummed, shifting at the attention. His lips pursed again, savoring her. She asked nothing of him but instead soothed, a single hand stroking his hair then his shoulders.

Pillowing his head on her stomach, he gazed down the long length of her body, the smooth and curved lines of her legs and the sensuous contours of her hips. When she continued to stroke his hair, he toyed with the lace band on her lower abdomen. He relished the silence, the calming rhythm of her heart, the gentle touch.

Finally, she spoke, her voice deep from sleep, slightly husked, "As nice as this is, it's cold."

He smiled at the teasing tone and nuzzled her stomach affectionately, his day old stubble scratching the perfectly smooth skin. Reaching down, he grabbed the sheet and pulled it back up to her hips, draping it gently. Gazing up into her eyes, he searched her expression. "Sorry. I just needed to … feel, I guess." At her understanding nod, he tickled along her waist. "So just nice?"

She arched a brow and smirked slyly. "Tolerable."

He chuckled and shook his head, eyes downcast on her abdomen. "Tolerable. You're hard to please."

"I expect the best," her tone flirtatious as she tickled her fingers along the back of the shell of his ear.

"The best huh? Pretty high standards." Shrugging casually, he shifted on the bed and stretched out on his back, staring at the darkened metallic ceiling. "Good thing I'm the perfect human specimen." After a minute of silence, he glanced to his side, curious. Had she fallen asleep?

Miranda lay on her side, facing him. Icy eyes observed him with inquisitive intelligence as she tucked her arm under her head, pillowing on the crook of her elbow. Shepard noticed the expression often, usually when she gauged situations, like scanning a battlefield or making a judgment about an individual. Always perceptive, she came to a decision faster than most and often stubbornly clung to her belief – right or wrong. As the months passed aboard the Normandy, Miranda changed; Liara was right.

Situations, once black and white and clearly defined became grey just as she had admitted and yet the grey proved confusing. She still quickly judged yet waivered when evidence or opinion challenged her own. Not to suggest that she changed views so easily, but that she opened herself to other possibilities, solutions and a deeper less clear resolution to situations. She struggled initially, vehemently defending her beliefs and her stance no matter its extremes or rashness. Often, Shepard conceded, she was right. He found her quick impulse trustworthy and soon followed her advice more often than not, especially when faced with unfamiliar situations. He trusted her intuition, her judgment.

Her stark stances with no room for sway proved more difficult to adopt with sensitive political situations or when trying to forge alliances through coddled egos. Miranda never coddled. She never could forge and maintain the team aboard the Normandy. Within Cerberus, she demanded respect and due to her position few resisted or openly defied her. She kept a vast collection of contacts from various cultures, species and systems. But to maintain those contacts was far simpler than keeping peace aboard the ship.

She admitted a jealousy at his ability to lead and motivate, though she refused to use the exact words. She struggled with an identity, attempting to explain her abilities, intelligence and successes without honoring her father's exacting input on her genetic code. No words alleviated her insecurity. He arched a brow at her searching stare. "What?" he questioned, probing her and trying to force the question resting on her lips – a question he knew she refused to ask. She prided herself on her ability to read a person; he enjoyed challenging that ability.

"Nothing," she quickly responded and though her expression remained searching, she asked nothing.

He tucked his arms behind his head, turning his eyes to the ceiling and focusing on a random bolt as if to give the impression of thought. "You know, most people would just ask me what I was thinking. Or what was wrong."

"Why? Is something wrong?"

"Just stressed," he answered cryptically. He wiggled his toes and pointed them, stretching out the muscles of his legs. She eased closer to him, lifting up a little and pillowed her head on his shoulder, resting a hand on the center of his chest. Surprised at the gesture, he lowered his arm closest her and wrapped it around her torso, hand splayed on her hip. He tightened his hold, possessive. "We'll be there soon," he finally said deeply, absently. "Boarding a derelict Reaper. And as if that wasn't insane enough, we're taking a piece of it to bring back onto the Normandy."

She hummed, nodding her agreement. "It does seem madness follows you everywhere."

A corner of his lip tweaked with a smile and his hand rubbed her hip in slow and absent comfort. "Yeah. It does. And we're gonna do this." He stated confidently then quieted before adding. "It's what you have to believe. You believe you will succeed. That's how people get behind you, follow you to the gates of hell."

"Your rally cry," she whispered, fingers slipping and combing through the bristled hair on his chest. "You're a born leader, Shepard, whether you want this responsibility or not. It doesn't matter now. It fell on you and you've carried it better than anyone else I could think of. I don't accept failure and I would not be here with you if I thought we would fail. We will succeed because there is no other option."

"I know. To fail means we die. And I don't know about you but I sure as hell am not ready to die yet."

She shook her head, her hair soft against the skin of his bared shoulder. "No. No I'm not." Her eyes closed and she exhaled slowly, sinking into him. She didn't ask about his nightmare, didn't pry or try to pull anything from him he didn't offer freely. "We'll be there soon. You should try to get some more sleep."

"I don't want to sleep," he responded coldly and the fine muscles along his jaw tensed.

Her fingers trace patterns on his chest, toying with the hair. She stared at her fingers in thought then confessed. "I dreamt of my sister a few nights ago. She was at a colony and I was there as well, why I have no idea. And the Collector's came. I watched them, frozen in stasis as they placed her in a pod and took her to their ship. Her eyes on mine. And I couldn't stop her. I couldn't save her." She sat up and stared down at him with wavering strength. "It's only a matter of time. If it's not the Collectors, it's the Reapers or my father." She sighed. "I can't protect her here."

"We're helping her now by going after the Collectors." He reached up, slipping a hand along her cheek to cup her jaw. "And after the Collectors, we'll protect her by going after the Reapers. Or we can go to her and hide her again, make sure your father can't find her."

She tilted her head into his palm, holding his eyes. "I can't ask you to do that. You have so much more to do." Resolved, she backed away from his touch and lay on her back, distancing herself again. "If we even make it back from the Relay."

"We'll make it back."

"You don't know that," she shot back.

"No, I don't." He admitted and turned onto his side, pillowing his head in his hand to watch her. "I saw you impaled on one of those spikes. Like I saw on Eden Prime where the geth were turning people into husks. I couldn't save you from it." He brushed his finger tips down her arm, starting at her shoulder then down to her elbow. "You were a husk. And I couldn't stop you when you attacked me. It was just so vivid, you know?"

"The dreams we remember always are," Miranda turned her back to him as he moved closer and she settled back into his chest when he pressed to her, his arm draped over her waist. Her fingers slipped along his; she gripped his hand. "Don't let them take me, Shepard. Collectors, Reapers, Geth. I would put my own pistol to my head before letting them turn me into one of those creatures. Indoctrinated and a shell of myself."

"I don't know if I can do that," he replied softly.

"If you cared, you wouldn't hesitate."

He tightened his hold, molding to her as the haunting words hung between them. "I want you at my side," he said deeply in her ear. "But to put you at risk … bringing you on board that derelict Reaper. One of us needs to be alive. You should stay here on the bridge."

"You've been using that excuse for months. It's getting old," she stated flatly, muscles tense defensively.

"It's not an excuse." He pledged intensely. "I'm protecting you."

She hummed. "Mmm, I see. And who will protect you?" She peered over her shoulder at him. "You realize there will come a time when you are just going to have to trust me."

"I do trust you," he rubbed his thumb on the back of her hand. "I trust you with this crew, the ship. To keep them safe. To run everything from here while I'm not on board." He released her hand to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Plus, you'll be in my head. The cameras, the earpiece. You'll be right there with me."

"Who will you bring then?" her head shifted at his touch, shaking slightly to rid the hair from her eyes.

"Garrus," he answered without hesitation. "He's been everywhere with me. Hell and back a few times. I trust him. And probably Tali. She was with me nearly every time I was planet side before."

"Arrival in two hours, Commander," EDI announced over the intercom.

"Thank you, EDI," Shepard said but still held Miranda, didn't release her.

She arched a brow, curious and shifted against him. "I believe that means we get up now."

"Give me a minute," he said, eyes closed as he held her. Her scent lingered, the comfort of her and the warmth of the bed. He memorized every aspect of her – the feel, the scent, the sensation. He wanted to remember, keep it filed away. Savoring the moment, he finally released her; she was gone, the bed shifting as she stood.

Note: Thanks for reading. Sorry this took so long but I haven't given up on this story or any of my future ones. Keep reading and by all means, please review. I read them all and do take them to thought.