A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed. Rather embarrassing mistake about Shepard's last name fixed. Working my way through the other women in Shepard's life now, which makes it a little harder. In case anyone's interested, this follows the storyline I ended up with after playing long enough to get the "best" I could: Thane and Mordin are dead, obviously, and Shep romanced Ashley in ME1 but switched to Miranda in 2 and 3. No offense to Ash, just the way things ended up for me, and the next chapter will talk about why. And now, back to our program.
Four hours after the Normandy shifted over to evening watch, Miranda still couldn't sleep. The morning would bring another mission, no different from the dozens she'd embarked on from this very ship. Except, of course, that on previous missions she'd only had her own life to worry about. This time it was John's. And she didn't know how to do it.
Too soft, and Marlow would escape before they closed the net. Too hard, and he'd wipe the data before they could get it. And he'd been part of the Lazarus Cell, so if he got so much as one look at most of the crew he'd be gone in a flash. She couldn't square the circle, and in less than six hours she'd have to, for the highest stakes she could think of.
She turned over in bed, pillowing her chin on her hands and sighing. Dammit, having the emotional range of the average software agent had been convenient at times. Loveless Lawson had been able to curl up in her office chair or a quiet corner and drop instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep with no more effort than a computer dropping into standby. She'd never lain awake wondering what the next day would bring, because she'd been in control of everything, always. She'd never felt the cold, empty dread that could only visit you at 0200 and there was no light or sound to blank out visions of what could happen in a few hours' time. She'd never had memories full of warmth and light twist sideways and become reminders of what she didn't have. What's more, she'd never imagined those things even existed, so it would never have occurred to her to miss them.
For a long time Miranda had defined happiness as the absence of pain. By those standards, ignorance had been bliss.
With a sigh of annoyance Miranda rolled out of bed and pulled on a set of old Alliance blues, tucking her hair back into a ponytail and striding out of her quarters on Deck 3. She wandered aimlessly, trading greetings with the night shift as she went. She paused outside the biolab, watching their pet Elcor work over a culture dish while John's body lay on the table behind him. Miranda put up her hand, ready to press the door control, but after a moment she dropped it. Going into the lab wouldn't help. It would probably make her worry even more. So instead she crossed to the elevator shaft and punched for engineering. Once the doors closed, she took advantage of the slow cycle and sat down, wrapping her arms around her knees as she thought.
She'd never known what, but something had made Shepard care about her. And once that had started there was no way of stopping it. No matter how out of control he'd made her feel in those talks in her office, no matter how earnestly she'd pleaded that she didn't even know what this was. He was the first man who'd refused to stay in the neat little box she'd put him in, to keep him at a safe arm's length even when she took him to bed. Miranda smiled at that, a little. She'd like to think that made her special, but if she was being honest the single thing that made Shepard Shepard was an absolute refusal to take the universe on anyone's terms but his own. A man who could face down a race of billion year-old death machines and tell them to fuck off, and she'd thought she could dictate the terms of their relationship?
Not likely. The Alliance had to throw him in prison to make it stop once. The Reapers had to kill him to make it stop twice. And she was going to make damn sure nobody got a third chance at it.
The Tantalus core was oddly relaxing to look at as she leaned against the console. It was only when she was half asleep, listening to the engineers talking about some detail of the ship's drive in the next compartment, that she realized it was the same place she and John had made love the night before going through the Omega-4 relay.
Miranda's cheeks flushed a bit, but any trip down memory lane was brought to a mercifully short end when she heard a clattering from behind her. Whirling around, she saw Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, holding up her hands in front of her.
"Sorry." Tali bent down and scooped up the multitool she'd dropped to the deckplates. "I can never sleep right before a mission, and so I noticed that the portside alignment matrix was operating at a slightly lower efficiency, and you never know when we might need everything we have to get away from Omega in a hurry. So I came down, but you were here, and you startled me, and-"
"It's allright, Tali." Miranda forced a smile. She'd spent most of her life thinking of quarians as the bottom-feeders of the galaxy, and no matter how many times she'd been shown that wasn't true the habits of a lifetime died hard. And there were other reasons she'd been avoiding Tali. "I was just…thinking."
"Thinking? Or remembering?" Tali's voice was a little sharp, and Miranda's hand brushed against her throat.
"How did you-"
"Oh, come on." Tali put her hands on her hips. "Did you really think you two could do that in my engine room and I wouldn't notice? The deckplate harmonics were off afterwards by nearly three points, I could smell something off in the main engine working fluid, and I couldn't get EDI to stop snickering for a week."
Miranda blushed a bit, but laughed. "Should have known better." She looked up at Tali. "I'm sorry." For a lot of things.
The quarian sighed, and walked over to lean against the panel next to Miranda. "Don't be. Shepard made his choice, I've made my peace, and Garrus makes me happy. I didn't get what I wanted, but how many of us ever get what we want at twenty two?"
"I wouldn't know." Miranda bit her lip and looked into the drive core. "As best I can recall at twenty two I didn't want much of anything, other than for my father to say he was proud of me. Or that I'd done well. Or just all right."
"Your father." Tali was silent for a long moment. "Miranda…when did you know you were free of him?"
"Um." Miranda tried to hide her surprise at the question, then shrugged a bit. "I'm not sure. To the best of my recollection, it was sometime after I shot him."
"That would do it." Tali looked down, her hands gripping the railing tightly. "I keep thinking I should go back to Rannoch, feel the wind on my face, and build the house my father always talked about. But then I don't want to, because it was his dream and because of what it cost him. And Garrus is here, and he'd go crazy on Rannoch, and-"
"And you're vas Normandy. Like the rest of us." Tali looked over at her, and nodded.
"Yes. And that's worth wearing the mask." Miranda nodded in turn, then felt it. The click in her mind that made all the pieces fall together like a card trick, with a perfection even John at his best was sometimes in awe of. She felt herself smile, then grin, looking at Tali.
"Oh, nothing." Miranda leaned against the console with one elbow, grinning impishly. She couldn't help it. "I know how we're going to get the data away from Marlow. It's a bit weird and a little risky, but I think it'll work."
"Really. Weird and risky." Tali crossed her arms over her chest, but Miranda somehow guessed she was smiling. "As opposed to all the conventional, safe plans we usually try here aboard the Normandy?"
"Point. Now go wake Garrus and Grunt." Miranda turned, Tali one step behind her. "This long night is going to turn into a very short one, because we have a lot to do."
"So you see." Quinn Marlow was a squat man, square-faced with a close crop of black hair and a perpetually suspicious look on his face. Behind him in the cheap rented conference room in one of Omega's warrens, a mixed squad of drell and batarians were doing their best to look like bloodthirsty killers instead of the mid-priced hired muscle they were. "Terabytes of data, and it's all bleeding edge. Worth every centicredit of the asking price, especially in these times. It'll be years before research gets even close to what it was before the Reapers, so ten years beyond the state of the art then will be decades now. Worth quite a bit to your employers, miss."
"Actually, I don't see." Tali leaned forward, pointing a finger at him while Grunt shifted into a more menacing pose behind her chair, dropping the bag that supposedly contained their payment and opening it to let Marlow see the contents. "I see a bunch of storage disks and a lot of empty words. If you think I'm handing over a cool quarter million worth of platinum because of your tall tales, you can think again. I want to see the data, or there's no deal."
Watching through her omnitool, Miranda smiled. Marlow had been Cerberus, the same as she had, and one of the perils of being a human supremacist was that they usually weren't good at telling aliens apart. That went double for quarians, especially with a few cosmetic changes to Tali's suit, and krogan, whom even the most enlightened humans thought all looked like dinosaurs with equal parts gland and attitude problem. It had worked well enough to get them a meeting with Marlow, and that was half the battle. Well, a third maybe. Call it a good solid quarter.
"Of course." Marlow smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I can transmit the file headers to-"
"Not good enough." Tali shook her head, with just the right mix of hope, greed, and suspicion. "I've seen the old blank headers trick, thank you. I'll need to see the files themselves and compare checksums. Did you really think we'd want any less?"
"Not really." Marlow's smile had gone sour, but he triggered his omnitool and pushed a couple keys. "Transmitted, but I warn you. Try to go beyond the file checksums, and those files are surrounded by viral guardians. First they'll delete the files, then they'll wreck your omnitool, then they'll tell me what they did, and then I'll get angry. We clear?"
"Crystal." Tali's fingers worked over her omnitool, light reflecting off her visor as they moved almost too fast for Miranda to track. Working checksums, and at the same time hacking her way around Marlow's sentry programs just enough to search for the data they really needed. Miranda whistled as Tali's fingers moved with confident precision, never missing a keystroke as she multitasked among three top countermeasure programs.
"God damn, she's good." The other being in the hide one building over grunted without looking up from his sniper scope.
"Yes, she is, and I wish to the spirits she hadn't volunteered for this shit. We all owe Shepard, but this is-"
"Working." Miranda flashed her fingers over as her omnitool lit up and the appropriate files started to transmit. 9%…17…29… "It's working."
"Marvelous. Now tell me when Tali's done with that snake, and then I'll relax." Miranda turned her attention back to the download, then flipped back to the telemetry from Tali's drone. Marlow was talking.
"-sure you'll find everything in order. Miss?"
"What? Oh, yes." Tali was only half-listening, her fingers still working over the multitool. "In order…so far everything seems."
"Hmmm." Marlow pursed his lips, and Miranda didn't follow his motion until too late. Before she could say anything Marlow had run his hands over the top layer of platinum in their chest, disturbing the ingots and revealing the plain lead ballast that had substituted for the metal they just didn't have. His face registered surprise, then rage as he reared back, pointing at Tali.
Before he finished the sentence, Miranda was out the window. She hit the street three stories below in a biotic-cushioned tuck and roll, up and on her feet before the report of Garrus' first shot had died away. She threw herself across the street, drawing her Carnifex in one smooth motion and blasting the lock off the door to Marlow's building. She could hear shouting through the thin walls inside, shots, and her chest tightened in fear for an instant before a voice cut through them.
"I. AM. KROGAN!"
Marlow's hired guards had the only door into the room covered, but that didn't turn out to be a problem. Miranda simply sidestepped the wailing airborne batarian who'd crashed through the wall a couple feet from it and ducked into the room, tapping off two quick bursts from her Hornet that sent a pair of mercs sprawling to the floor. Urdnot Grunt held the center of the room, laying about the room with his shotgun and his armored elbows alike as he stood between the remainder of the mercenary squad and Tali, who was still working at her omnitool. Marlow was in the back of the room, trying to work around to the door, but then another report sounded and the batarian next to him suddenly gained a fifth eye and lost the back of his head. The man dropped out of the line of fire and put his hands over his head.
"Tali!" Miranda grabbed one of the mercs and slammed him to the ground with a pulse of biotic energy, trying to scan the room for threats and hold herself out of the line of fire at the same time. "Do you have the data?"
"One second…" Tali stabbed her finger down onto her omnitool just as the lone remaining pair of mercs in the room took aim at her. Another thunderclap from outside, and one of them sank to the ground, most of his head above the jawline missing. Almost absent-mindedly, Tali flipped her shotgun off her back and blasted the other before looking up at Miranda. "Got it. His sentry programs were a little inventive, but nothing I couldn't handle. We're good to go."
Miranda smiled and hauled herself to her feet, crossing the room to Marlow. The little man had stopped cowering and looked up at her, his eyes going wide.
"Lawson? Lawson!" He sprang to his feet, ignoring Grunt's shotgun as it swung to cover him, and jabbed his finger at her. "I knew it'd be you, Lawson. I knew ever since I got out from under your so-perfect nose that you'd be after me. That you'd stop at nothing to find me. I hid for so long, but I knew when I had to sell the data you'd be on the scent. Well, you got me. But I beat you, Lawson! For years and years I beat you!"
"I wasn't looking" Miranda's lips curved up into a smile, and Marlow looked at her google eyed.
"Poor little man." Miranda's voice was cold as ice as she held her submachine gun on him. "To you, the day you scraped up the guts to plant a knife in my back was the bravest and proudest day of your life. But to me? It was Tuesday. I didn't give a damn where you went, and I wouldn't now if you didn't have something I wanted. Now do fuck off."
Marlow's eyes got wider, which Miranda would have laid long odds against being possible. "W-what?"
"You heard me. You're not threatening me or mine and you don't have a weapon. Once upon a time that wouldn't have mattered except for making it easier to put a bullet in you, but then I fell in with a warrior who didn't particularly care for killing." Miranda raised her SMG and pointed it at the door. "Now go before I change my mind."
"That was unexpected," Tali commented as Marlow sprinted for the exit. Miranda shrugged.
"What can I say? Shepard's contagious."
"Miranda, if Shepard has anything contagious I don't think I-"
"Save it, you two." Garrus' voice was absolutely flat, with no trace of his usual post-mission jibes. "We've got a convoy of aircars headed this way. I recognize the model." His voice got even grimmer. "Aria's here."
Inside the building, the three teammates looked at each other. After a moment, Miranda spoke for all of them.