Jack/Anybody is a stupid pairing. Jack/Renegade Shepard is even stupider. Two broken things do not a whole thing make. I took that concept and mixed it in with how silly it is that no matter if you play a paragon or a renegade, everyone in the game either kisses your ass or can be killed/winsomely disrespected. Talk about a power fantasy. I think it would get to Shepard's head after a while.

There are times in these early days, every once in a while, between the fights and flights and walking the near-silent Normandy II's corridors, that Shepard misses Lieutenant Alenko. She would be absently stumping her way up from the mess hall and recall without any perceivable trigger how suddenly she'd feel his presence at her elbow. He'd be carrying a food tray in one big hand, stoic face cracked with that funny smile of his, the one that managed to somehow be simultaneously sheepish and cocky. It was a smile she felt a lot of men wished they could throw around as easily as he did.

Often she had wondered if he was after something else. It was seldom that a man would look at her face like that and not immediately associate her with a headline in a newsreel and proceed to address her with that one demeanor defining her as a soldier, a great soldier, and a woman second. Ordinarily she would crave that respect, demand it. Alenko had given it to her without fear or without kissing her ass in the process, and that had mystified her. A younger Shepard, the one with the red bands tattooed across her left shoulder and the scars she'd cut still livid on her face, would have put her fist in his eye and her boot in his gut and demanded it until his eyes stopped regarding her as an equal.

The Alliance Commander would have considered making the biotic her lover. She'd taken several bedfellows before she wore the Alliance uniform, but none of them left any lasting impression. She might have allowed Alenko to do that. But Virmire made a decision for her, and in the aftermath…

No, that was melodramatic as well as incorrect—Virmire had merely presented her with a choice, and Shepard had made the decision for herself. For the Butcher of Torfan, it was not an unfamiliar one. Before the search for Saren became a war against some machine race of eldritch abominations from beyond the Relays, Shepard had had moments when she wondered what she would do if the Lieutenant vanished. This was curious, as she did not have similar sentiments regarding her other crewmembers. It would be a blow to lose Wrex or Vakarian, certainly, or even that stammering Asari, but Shepard had never thought about what she would do if they vanished, aside from make a note of it in the logs and ensure that suitable posthumous arrangements were made. With Alenko, she'd thought about what she, herself, would do.

She thought she might miss him. She was afraid she would. Commander Shepard worried that he would simply be gone one day, dead or transferred or simply vanished from existence. It was a stupid, mind-killing fear that occasionally cropped up at night before she slept, or when he wasn't there, or anytime her fickle mind would begin to forget what he looked or talked like.

It was something of a relief, after Virmire, to go to sleep and have nothing to be afraid of.

She doesn't like how the Council looks at her. Something in the air there, cloying and ozone scented, like the backblast of an ejected thermal clip, takes her back to Torfan. Or at least it would if Shepard was the sort to allow that. The smell prods memories to life in her head, mostly disjointed images without feelings attached. Corporal Bradley's spine is more disjointed than most of them. He wasn't even under her command, the idiot. In the end he had been useful; the miniature fireworks of bone and vaporized blood and assorted slippery bits curling through the air had distracted the Batarian sniper just enough to prevent him sighting a new target quickly enough.

That ozone and iron stink got into the hardsuit filters after a few fights; there was no flushing it out afterward. She misses it in her new N7 suit. Cerberus made a valiant effort at recreating the original , but it's too shiny, too flashy. And besides, after a few months of Spectre duty she had the Alliance gear swapped out for a bold Colossus X hardsuit. She's ordered parts on Omega for a replacement for the Cerberus crap; they should be boxed nicely in her cabin. Come to think of it, there have been a trio of bulky 'THIS SIDE UP' and 'TEAM LIFT' crates stacked inconspicuously against a wall for the last…two weeks?

The Illusive Man could lounge about in that chair of his as emphatically as he want—Shepard is taking her time. There are profits to be made on a vessel like the Normandy II. She still has her clearance to access N7 beacons, even if Spectre business vanished from the radar after she metaphorically insinuated to the Council that it would be in her best interest if they went and fucked themselves.

Something about this Cerberus agent business is very, very gratifying. Against her better judgement, Shepard can feel herself regressing. She hasn't returned Taylor's salute in a month or so. Occasionally people have difficulty maintaining eye contact; whether it is because they've inadvertently found their gaze drawn to the deteriorating cybernetic scarring along her cheeks or because they can't quite meet her unblinking stare, she revels in it like a rebellious child soaking up her parents' hurt anger after a tantrum.

It was like running with the Reds again, only better, because this time instead of being a stupid sixteen-year-old posturing small-time gangster, she's a thirty-six-year-old Alliance Commander with four billion creds worth of harder/better/faster/stronger jammed into her, not to mention a fanatically loyal crew. After all, she's Commander fucking Shepard. She had dragged herself off the streets and into the Alliance; saved a colony from Batarians and ordered hundreds of men to their deaths in the name of victory. She'd prevented an invasion of Reapers (sorry, Geth. Claims of the former had been dismissed).

Then she died and pulled a Jesus Christ on Death.

Hell, she could probably let the crew know about burning down the facility with the people still inside while going after Vido, tell them about the screams and the curses and the way that human flesh smells when it's gas-seared medium rare and stuffed out the windows of a building by an explosion, and they'd still hail her as their Wonder Woman. It is a little sickening. Alliance conditioning keeps a rein on her words, but she tests her people sometimes with little phrases and digs and hidden jabs. She wants to snap, lose her composure, drop the reins entirely to see if they'll perhaps look at her for once and realize what they are following. Or maybe it's like with drill sergeants—the old bastards can scream their lungs out and run you ragged, and afterward you hate their guts but all that loathing won't stop you putting your life in their hands in a heartbeat.

Shepard wonders what would happen if she closes her fists.

She wonders this while waiting for the Warden of Purgatory to open the doors. Lawson is suspicious and bitching more than usual (actually, that isn't very charitable – she's a helpful retainer, but everyone hates a pretty girl, and Shepard is hoping that with enough needling she'll eventually work the stick out of her ass and try to hit someone with it), and Massani is grinning in that loony cockeyed way he does when he knows something is about to go down.

It goes down fast and hard. The Warden is an idiot to think this plan of his will work. Shepard is a little incredulous that this situation is actually unfolding.

"Awright," barks Massani. He's a blood-red, white-accented smear in her periphery as he moves to cover in that graceful side-stepping slide of his that, on occasion, makes her consider sleeping with him. "Shepard, we going for the ship or for this shithead?" It's a good color scheme, definitely better than his old washed-out orange.

Lawson gets that he's referring to the Warden, and objects to this deviation from the schedule. "Commander, our first priority is retrieval of Subject Zero." The woman's like a talking Day-Timer.

But this Subject Zero is supposed to be a badass, some kind of super-biotic, locked up and experimented on. Shepard pictures a Sith Lord version of Riddick and V, or a mix of the two. Heh, maybe she could commission a Guy Fawkes design for a helmet faceplate. He probably wouldn't get the reference. Bah, concentrating is a bitch today. She's too calm, not icy enough, like she's waiting for something. It even shows in the placement of her shots. Massani shakes his head a little when she picks off a LOKI's leg for the second time and lets the toppled machine flop around on the ground for a while.

Right, now to appease her irate XO. "Thanks, Lawson. Get me an alternate route to Zero. We can pick him up on the way to the shithead."

Operative Lawson's expression is withering even from fifteen feet away behind an overturned crate in the middle of a firefight. Mentally, Shepard applauds her.

The next wave of LOKIs goes down without incident or fanfare—"Stop muckin' about, Shepard!"—and the three-man team abandons the room and flits into the corridors, swinging a quick right after plugging a few rounds into a pair of startled Turians. The Purgatory security system seems to have malfunctioned and tripped the fire control valves; the air is filled with some kind of fog that obscures the guards' vision as much as it does the Normandy II fireteam's. Every few minutes, Shepard has to awkwardly swipe a gauntleted hand across her visor to scrape off residue,

The fight to Zero's cryostasis chamber is punctuated by more rooms full of arbitrary chest-high crap to crouch behind and increasingly panicked exclamations from the Warden over the intercom. Massani's grenades are muted sunbursts behind the vapour plumes, little flickers of orangey-red joy dispersed in the fog. "Get 'im out, Shepard. These bastards are persistent."

Persistence is the only virtue of the useless grunts being tossed at them. It's a little like low tide on a sea wall, except with less poetic beauty and more corpses piling up in doorways. Shepard's Viper spits intermittent lighthouse beams while Turian hardsuits and Turian blood hit the ground. She considers the situation. Lawson's hacking the door, but it's not…no, there it goes, slipping shut like the lids of parasite-choked eye. Breathing room. Massani's last grenade pops in the air, a muffled bass drumbeat on the other side of the door.

The Warden really is an idiot. Even the name of his stupid compensating prison facility reflects this – Purgatory, an indecisive halfway point. Just go ahead and name the damn thing Hell already. Or Hades. That would be mildly delicious in its irony: Cerberus in Hades, right at home here in the middle of his fancy floating prison rock.

But she has to admit that the gigantic red button in the middle of the room is hardly indecisive. "Nice design choice," says Shepard.

"Very subtle." Lawson agrees, in a tried tone of voice that suggests she's trying to present a good example by not being sarcastic while on duty, and is merely pointing something out in a totally matter-of-fact fashion. This is an improvement, Shepard thinks. Eventually she won't need to bother with the façade.

Of course the button gets pressed. It's a massive get-out-of-jail-free card for every psychotic son of a bitch in the entire facility. Shepard likes to think this means she's not alone now; after all, she's killed more than most of these people put together. They get cells and cryo tanks while she establishes a cult of personality. There is no difference between us, she thinks, except that I am stronger. You never learned to let the rules hold you up. Lean on anything long enough and you can form it to the curve of your actions. You never learned to harness the madness, did you, or bend it to your will. You'd say I'm an Alliance dog, yeah, but that's no truth. I'm only the dog until their hands stop feeding me.

Zero's tank rises. He will be a tool, some over-wrought construct of his own idiocy, blind puking drunk on rebel spirit. Shepard knows she herself should vomit any day now. The return to sobriety will not be pleasant—Cerberus serves shots in quick successions and she has taken them all, the selfish child in her rising to its Butcher role once more. It's a comfortable place to be, free of extraneous considerations. She is tired of Zero. Already she despises him, looks at the rising shaven head with loathing. Perhaps he will be weak and infirm, or better yet, uncooperative. Her frayed irises clench; inhuman pupils dilate as she takes in harsh breaths. Stop, she reminds herself. You are no longer a child.

It feels like being tied down, only both ends of the chain are in her hands. Calm down. Stop. Does she feel these things, or are they only manifestations of her impatience? There is no drive to act on them, only a rabid scrabbling against the inside of a skull that might belong to her. She has found Zero, she holds him in contempt, will treat him as a checkmark on the Illusive Man's stupid list.

She knows what to think about him, but she has no opinions on the woman who hangs there instead. For a moment, Shepard's lungs stop and time runs backwards.

Zero opens her eyes. They have no color from this distance, from behind this glass, but the panic and anger does not need a color to be conveyed. She convulses in her bonds, a whip-thin branch of bone and sinew and line upon line of ink and scar. At some point she had begun to scream. It stops whenever she breaks a manacle or clamp, dulling to a growl, but she is only completely silent while going after the choking band around her neck. Shepard feels nothing in the protective shell of her hardsuit, but she knows that the air in the room is crushing inward, pressure building from the lancing arcs of vitriolic blue crackling along Zero's scrawny limbs. Alenko could generate fields like that, but this had none of his control or precision.

YMIR mechs enter and Zero exits, a blaze of howling light that scorches the walls and pulls smaller fixtures to the floor in puddles of deformed slag. One of the YMIRs is still sparking.

Massani blinks. "That bitch is going to be a piece of work," he remarks. He's grinning. That makes it ok to smile, too, Shepard vaguely thinks. She had better be more genuine than he is, but since when has she followed his lead? Since when has her reaction to anything been gauged in comparison to that of those around her?

"There's only one way out of here." Lawson to the rescue. "There are now convicts on the loose throughout this facility. Subject Zero will mostly likely be headed towards the docking bay."

"Move out," says Shepard. Something in her is shaken. It's reaching up from her belly, forcing its fingers through the coils of her organs and up her esophagus. She gasps. At some point she had been holding her breath. What is this? Stop, Commander. You need to stop.

She collects her senses like an animal licking its wounds. There's ice in her veins now, cold and impassive. Her vision cuts to the side like lasers, expanding into the lifepulse of the room's lurid neon lights. It's a dance floor, a private dance party for all of them and their guns and quarry. That's better. "Move out."

They do.

Zero's trail is easy to follow, partially because she's burnt great swathes of distended black into the walls, but mostly because quite often the trio runs across such things as a Turian guard, stripped naked, whose internal pressure had been raised to such a point that he had evacuated his internal organs through his mouth and anus in a slurry of chunky grey and blue bile. "She's mad," Lawson says grimly, tightening her grip on her repeater pistol. "Completely mad."

Shepard remembers Bradley's spine again. His family had been told it was a Batarian sniper who had claimed him, the one in the harsh green armor with the dull yellow highlights whose eyepiece Shepard had stolen and modified afterward. The sniper hadn't known quite what to do when his target had exploded a few milliseconds before he could pull the trigger. It had taken Shepard only slightly longer to sight her second target and liberate that eyepiece from its owner.

Nobody has ever called her mad. Daring, yes; cold and calculating and willing to pay any number of brutal prices, always phrases with an undercurrent of grudging hero worship. But then again, nobody had been privy to that little combat threesome, both snipers trained on one stupid man caught in the middle without cover. Shepard suddenly wishes they knew.

The Warden dies like the imbecile he is. His death is not spectacular. For the first time in her life, Shepard wishes she was a biotic.

An animal tracks back and forth in the bay, clutching its head, each step forced through muscles clenched with rage. Zero's arms shake with the effort of not exploding. "Cerberus!" she screams. "Fuck shit."

Miranda attempts to explain. Shepard considers laughing, but chooses not to, as the resulting exchange is just too priceless. "Cheerleader?" She repeats, almost chuckling. "That's kinda perfect."

Kinda? What is she, fourteen? This is not funny; this is a fight ready to happen. But Zero gives her a crooked semi-smirk, and it's worth the embarrassment of her words. You are like me, Shepard thinks, in some white-hot blinding bit of her brain that forces its thoughts out so quickly it drowns out everything else. You are also mad. Can you see me? Can you see the madness in me too?

But Jack isn't thinking. She's not hiding the madness, not analyzing her every motion, not leaving wants and needs to rot inside the bone-cage of her skull. They are not the same. The non-congruent edge cuts into Shepard somewhere, and this discordant note jars her into the world.

The corridor had stopped. Somewhere along the line in the sterile stillness a conversation had begun and been carried out. "Give her the files, Lawson," says Shepard, because she has followed the entire exchange and words come out of her mouth and the fetterd clawing at the inside of her head, behind her eyes, is not something anybody else can see.

Zero doesn't look at her or anyone when she makes an exaggerated crouching leap, on all fours, into the Normandy shuttle. Twisted around her limbs like a quadruped spider she turns back for a second to see if they're coming, one arm raised to rest on her knees like some big feral dog lifting a foreleg in contemptuous curiosity. Shepard wonders how many more animal similes she can work around the scrawny convict. Probably a lot.

Most of them are complimentary.