Chapter Eleven

New Bethlehem, Ferris Fields

The next morning, 0848h

Jacob volunteered again to look after Alan while Brynn drove Miranda downtown in their car to use the public QEC. Oriana returned last night with a smile on her face. ExoGeni was exceptionally impressed with her intelligence as well as her demeanor; she was offered a mid-level position. Miranda knew that her sister would do well, and that the next time she came to visit this planet, Oriana would have this hamlet transmogrified into a metropolis. A tsunami of pride welled up from within her, a feeling that was reminiscent of when she had received news from Lanteia that Oriana was the valedictorian of her high school class.

"How does Jacob like living here?" Miranda asked Brynn once they got into the air.

"At first, I don't think that he liked it at all, but now, he says that the quiet is a very welcome change to his previous life. I was completely shocked when I heard him tell me last month that he wanted to start a weapons dealership here."

"Why? Jacob maintained all of the munitions and firearms for the Normandy on our mission to the Omega 4 relay. I never heard him complain about the work."

"Well, I thought that…perhaps he wanted to…join the security force that's here. I wish that he would actually take control over it one day. The current officer is a war veteran and does everything by the Alliance's book. In fact, he's so much of an Alliance zealot that that was another reason why I…well…-" she trailed off.

"You think that he would report you if he knew about your previous work?"

"If it would gain him some more weapons and funding, it's highly likely, yes. I used to think better of people…until I met Jacob. He opened my eyes to show me just how cruel and selfish the galaxy can truly be."

Miranda pursed her lips together as she organized her thoughts.

Sleep was again difficult last night. She dreamt that she was at a transport station with Alan. He was not merely eight years old but rather an adolescent and every bit as tall as she. As she was gazing at the departure board trying to decide their destination, he played a game on his omni-tool, and sighed with exasperation. "I'm getting bored as hell, Ms. Lawson," he told her. "You planning on picking some place to go while I'm still young?"

Miranda gave him an icy glare. "Your remarks are as welcome as that girl you brought to my house last night." Her tone was laced with cynicism.

"Then maybe I won't bother to come home anymore. Maybe I should just stay with her."

"Your future with that girl is about as empty as a singularity, Alan. How far do you think you'll get without a college degree? Do you think that those come without a price? Where exactly would you live with her?"

His cynical voice stabbed her with his venomous words. "What difference would it make to you, anyhow? You're never home for long."

Miranda charged up her implant. "This insolence is unacceptable, Alan, and I expect an immediate apology from you."

"Apologize for what, speaking the truth? Didn't you tell me not to waste my breath on people I don't think are worth a damn?"

His last question stung her into silence, and she returned her attention to the holo screen. None of the words or numbers made any sense…she couldn't read them, and suddenly, without a warning, the letters disappeared. An image of her father replaced them, and he stretched out his hand to point at Alan. He said nothing but shook his head; it was an expression that Miranda caught many times when she knew that she had done something to upset him. "Father, what're you…-"

At that point, Miranda awoke from her dream. She had no earthly clue what to make of it at the time, but now that she remembered the reverie, it became clear to her that she wasn't ready for this. Raising Alan by herself, without a father…Shepard would likely have "knocked him into the middle of next week" for talking to her like that. He probably would have taught Alan to apologize to people no matter what, whereas she, well…it wasn't a priority.

"I know that I'm being a bit forward, but might I ask you what you were thinking about, Miranda?" Brynn wondered.

"The future," the Aussie responded elusively. "I…uh…have something else to ask you, and I expect that you'd like to talk about this with Jacob before giving me your response. I'm finding it difficult to word the question."

"What is it?"

"I found Alan in London while on Earth, and while it's been a deep desire of mine to have a child of my own…now that I have him…I don't know what to feel." She leaned her elbow against the car's door and her chin into her hand with a sigh. "It's like a gift was given to me, one that I actually wanted…"

"There's nothing wrong with accepting a gift, is there?"

A part of Miranda wanted to answer her, but this was too much. Revealing such personal information was much too soon. She decided to steer this conversation in a different direction. "I don't know what Jacob told you about me-"

"He told me that you two had a relationship, that you used to work together, and that both of you severed those connections permanently. That's all I know."

"I never had a mother, and the relationship that I had with my father was…well, I immediately ran from him the moment I was able."

"Before last year, I would have said that your father was an exceptionally brilliant and talented businessman. After word got out about Sanctuary, though, I knew he had gone mad," Brynn commented. "Was he a good father...did he relate to you well?"

"He was my father by genetic materials and nothing more." She glanced down at Brynn's enlarged midsection but then averted her eyes back to the sky once Brynn briefly looked at her. "Did you have a father?"

"I'm sure that I did, but I never was able to know him. My aunt raised me."

"She must have been kind to you. I've observed how you and Jacob interact together; you are to him what I could never be." She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "When compassion and patience are never shown to you, it's…very hard to give it to someone else."

Brynn began to make the car descend towards the town square. "Why're you telling me this? What're you asking?"

"I'm asking you to take care of Alan…until I find Shepard." Miranda turned her head towards Brynn, whose eyes briefly met hers. "I lack the compunction and complete dedication needed to be a good mother. One has to be…ready to give up everything for her child, and right now, I can't do that. It's not fair to him."

"For how long?"

"I'm hoping to find Shepard as soon as humanly possible, but…" Miranda's voice trembled and trailed off.

"What if you don't find him?" Brynn inquired.

"There's a reason why the Illusive Man put me in charge of the Lazarus cell, Dr. Cole." The warmth that had been in Miranda's voice disappeared. "Everyone said that what my team and I were going to do with Commander Shepard was impossible."

"There were people who said that we had no chance against the Reapers, too." Brynn guided the car down the street towards the public QEC. The line was thankfully not too long. "Looks like we've got a spot of luck today, or perhaps everyone already made their calls yesterday."

Miranda waited until the car halted and then opened her door. "I'll call you when I'm finished." She exited the car and took one last glance at Brynn.

The chocolate haired woman gave her a nod. "You're right, I'll need to have a word with Jacob first, but…I must know something."

"Yes?"

"I've only known you for a short while, so forgive my…hesitation, Miranda. I must know if you will ever come back for him, even if you don't find Shepard."

The Aussie's steel-blue eyes locked with Brynn's. "Yes, and that is a promise. Ask Jacob if I keep them." With that, she closed the door and made her way towards the queue.

The wait was about half an hour. Miranda spent about three-fourths of it on the extranet setting up various disposable email accounts, a task that she had previously been meaning to do but had no time to do so herself until now. She also moved some funds from the Milky Way organization into a "dummy charity". The creds from this charity would be the very foundation of Hyrde. The account's access was restricted only to her for now, but after she would make her call, Charon would also be able to get his hands onto it. Of course, that was assuming that he would even take the position of leading Hyrde. She could not predict what he would say or do; in fact, she didn't really have a backup plan if he rejected the idea. It was perhaps a long shot, but she would never know unless she made contact with him.

Hope he's still using the same IP address and gateway masking as before. I never told him that I would contact him again when I spoke with him last time.

She stepped on the QEC's holographic plate. As the entanglement reproduction camera began to map her digital image, she dialed in his codes. Approximately ten seconds later, the plate beeped, the LEDs flashed an emerald-green hue, and she exited the pad. The entanglement's receiver hummed as it uploaded the digital projection of her well-respected mentor and acquaintance Charon. "You are calling from an insecure connection and a conspicuous public location. I can only hope that we will be discussing social matters, Miranda," he began.

"My apologies, but would you prefer to meet me here, then? This is the best I can do for now."

"I'm quite comfortable where I am, thank you. Trampling around from cornfield to cornfield is not my idea of entertainment."

"Nor is it mine," Miranda hissed. "Doing business deals on Omega was more pleasant than traipsing about this hamlet."

"Since I know you despise making small talk, shall we get down to business?"

"Quite right." Appealing to his ego and desires would likely be my best opportunity to lay the ground work for my request. "You mentioned before that you were somewhat nervous to make contact with me. Have you managed to stay off of the grid and out-of-the-way?"

"For the time being, yes." His eyes narrowed. "Why don't you come out and ask me what you want, Miranda? I'm the one who taught you how to play a man like a violin. Did you honestly think that you would dupe me into that manipulation?"

"I did learn from the best," she admitted with a smirk. "Very well. I've been given an official pardon from the Alliance, and I'd like to extend that amnesty towards you as well provided that you take part in the organization that I'll be founding."

He folded his arms across his chest. "The offer is intriguing. Why would you do such a thing for me?"

"If you were to assume command of this syndicate, I'd be extremely grateful."

"Hmm. You're a strong and capable woman, Miranda. Why don't you want this position for yourself?"

"Wielding that much power can beset corruption, and I don't feel that I could handle that much responsibility…for now, that is."

"Why just for now?"

Miranda hesitated before giving him her reply. Honesty usually is the best policy, but…I don't know who this man truly is. He's kept secrets from me much like the Illusive Man did. Until I know more about Charon-

"Never mind," Charon stated, and the corners of his mouth lifted upward. "I've come to…consider you to almost be my daughter in a way, Miranda. A long time ago, I did have one, and she was taken away from me by the batarians who invaded Mindoir all those years ago. You might recall a time earlier in your life when I was less forgiving than I should have been…-"

Miranda's mouth flung open with shock momentarily; she closed it about two seconds later. "You've never mentioned this before. Why now?"

"You and I came to be disciple and student once, did we not? If we're going to work together, we should trust one another. Colleagues shouldn't always keep everything hidden, should they?"

"I suppose not."

"Now, quid pro quo, Miranda." He paused to consider his words carefully. "You have an ulterior agenda, or else you would not be here asking me for my help."

She spotted a stray piece of hair upon her shoulder and with one quick but deft motion eradicated the imperfection from her clothing. "It involves finding someone very close to me, and I wouldn't be able to pursue this goal efficiently if I were the head of Hyrde."

"Hyrde, you say?" Charon tilted his head to one side.

"Yes."

"Consider it done." He straightened his vertebrae and gave her a slight nod. "Do you have any possible candidates for agents?"

"Yes, I do." Miranda folded her arms across her chest. "Remember your most recent protégé?"

"So you did contact Serena," he beamed. "A brilliant, bold, and daring young lady, is she not?"

"She is." Conflicting arguments ran through her mind regarding her decision to tell Charon about Serena' duplicity. If I tell him, he won't want her. If I don't tell him and he finds out later that I knew, I'm not sure how well he'd handle my mendacity.

"She's changed her extranet protocol address recently. I cannot contact her; I assume you have the means to do so," Charon told her.

"I do, but I wanted your approval first."

"I'm currently in Nos Astra on Illium; tell her that I'd like to make a rendezvous with the both of you in two days."

"Two days?" Miranda's eyebrows furrowed. She'd hoped to have a little more time with Alan as well as Brynn.

"I'd like to get started as soon as possible, and to do that, I cannot stay here."

"What if I were only able to make this rendezvous on the QEC or via omni-tool through a secure connection?"

"Physical presence has always been my preferred method of contact, Miranda, but…" He turned his head to stare at something away from the camera briefly. "I trust that you'll take the proper precautionary measures." Charon returned his attention to her. "If anyone can do the impossible, I know it's you."

"Thank you for your trust. I'm grateful for it." She crossed her arms about herself. "Guess I'd better get to work on making those assets I've set aside available to you now."

"I'll make some plans and forge a mission statement for our next meeting. Until then, Miranda. Take care of yourself."


About ten minutes later, Jacob arrived in the car with Brynn. Miranda slid into the back seat. Before she could utter one word of concern, her former subordinate cut her off. "We've got it covered, Miranda. Oriana's with Alan."

She nodded. "I take it that Brynn asked you to come so that I could explain my plans to the both of you."

"Pretty much. Brynn told me that you want to unload Alan to go out searching for Shepard."

"Jacob, that's a bit harsh. I thought I had said that Miranda asked us to care for him for a while," Brynn reprimanded him. "You're making her sound like Cinderella's insidious step-mum."

"If he's that much of a burden to you, then I'll take him and go," Miranda shot back icily. "I felt like an inconvenience to my own father, and I'd rather Alan not receive the same reaction from you."

"I assure you that he doesn't." Brynn shot Jacob a perfidious glare. "Since the Citadel was the last place we assume that Shepard or possibly Anderson went, it's logical that the master control unit was where he interfaced the Catalyst with the Crucible. Has there been any progress on the reconstruction?"

"News on the extranet says that it'll be open to civilian traffic through the Widow relay in about a month or less," Jacob stated.

"I'm not sure if this program that I'll be constructing will be able to allow you a backdoor into the system, though. The Reapers are the ones who built the Citadel originally, and well…I'm honestly doing my best guesswork with what little knowledge I have about their codes."

"The most difficult obstacle will be physically interfacing with the master control unit itself," Miranda observed. I would need top-level access to get there from C-Sec. Hopefully, Liara will have an inside agent. If she doesn't, I'll break down the damned door myself and do it.

"I don't get it, Miranda. Why do you want to access the master control unit to the Citadel?" Jacob asked.

"Because the system requires a user's biometrics, Jacob. Only Spectres and members of the Council would have access to it. She's trying to figure out what happened to Shepard," Brynn explained. "I must admit that I'm rather curious myself now." After a moment of silence, she turned her head to examine his eyes. "Don't you want to know what happened to your former commander?"

He took his eyes off of the road momentarily to meet her gaze. "I never told you what it was like when Miranda and I first found him before the team started to work on him, did I?"

"No, you didn't, but I don't understand why you're suddenly bringing that up instead of answering my question."

"It's because I feel like the same thing is occurring here."

"Don't be absurd, Jacob, it's not. Shepard isn't-" Miranda interrupted him.

"Maybe he is dead and you don't want to accept the truth because you're in denial." As they came to a red light, Jacob hit the brakes a bit harder than usual. He turned his head and torso around to give her his complete attention. "Let the dead bury the dead, Miranda."

"Your borrowed antiquated idiom is hardly appropriate, considering the preoccupation you had with finding out what happened to your own father. You spent two days obsessing over the mission on Aeia on the clock when you should have been doing weapon maintenance. I didn't tell Shepard about your indolence because Garrus came in during his breaks to do it instead."

"Don't try to turn the tables on me by changing the subject," he fumed. "You're gonna have to face the subject one day…might as well start now."

"Jacob, that is enough. Quarreling about this won't solve any of our problems, nor does it make our journey any less pleasant than it already has been," Brynn snapped back and sighed heavily. For the next half a minute, between the three of them, no one said one more word, and finally, Brynn broke through the silent barricade. "Will you be leaving us soon, Miranda?"

"Tomorrow."

"You gonna tell Alan where you're going?" Jacob demanded as they pulled into their pre-fab's carport.

Miranda removed her seatbelt. "I'm not going to lie to him, if that's what you're insinuating."

He grunted, shook his head incredulously, and waved her off as he left the car. "I am so done with this conversation. Brynn, I'll be back in a little while. I'm gonna take a run." He quickly broke into a sprint over the hill.

"But didn't you already take one this…-" Brynn protested but then stopped her question when she realized that he was no longer within an audible distance.

"Dr. Cole, before I go tomorrow, there is something that I must tell you. It has to do with Alan's health."

Brynn placed her arms on her back muscles to relieve herself from some of the discomfort she felt and then stretched them one at a time towards the sky. "Might I ask why you didn't bring this up earlier when Jacob was with us?"

Before she could answer, the pre-fab's door opened, and Alan hopped down the steps into the gravel. Angie followed him, and Oriana twirled her right fingers towards them whilst holding her two on her left. Miranda knelt, and he ran straight into her arms. "I missed you, Ms. Lawson," his high-pitched voice squeaked. "Your sister's nice, but she's not as fun as you. Can you throw me and Angie around for a while?"

"I'll think about it." His expression became crestfallen, and he pulled away from her arms. "That's because I'd rather show you some useful things I've learned over the years to protect myself." Miranda removed her omni-tool from her left forearm. "Hold your right arm so that it's parallel to the ground and stiff like a board. This is gonna feel a bit odd to you at first."

He obeyed her, and his fingers began to twitch spasmodically when she placed the device around his forearm. Minuscule levels of very low current gave him goosebumps, and the hair on the back of his neck stiffened. "New user detected," a synthetic male voice chirped. Alan jumped backward with a yelp of surprise, but Miranda steadied him and extended his arm once more. "Please do not move while I take your vital signs," the voice commanded.

Alan gave Miranda a pout, and she rubbed the back of his neck reassuringly. "This won't take long, I promise," she told him.

His eyes studied the omni-tool as it glowed for another few seconds. "Do I get to keep this, Ms. Lawson?"

"Yes. I'm going to purchase another one later today." The device chirped twice and became invisible. "Before we get started, you're going to have to make me a solemn vow." She arose, claimed his hand in hers, and partly turned towards the home. "Dr. Cole, I'll be back in a few hours. Please don't trouble yourself worrying about our dinner."

"All right, Miranda. I'd like to remind you that we have some unfinished business to settle before you retire for the evening."

"Right. I'll speak with you and Jacob after we return." She began to lead the both of them back towards New Bethlehem.

"A vow…what's that?" Alan demanded.

"A very serious promise, and I'm going to make one to you, too."

Alan's face twisted around slowly as he pondered what she had in mind. "Okay, but we have to do it with ice cream cones."

Miranda's forehead wrinkled upward to the heavens. "Ice cream?"

"Yeah, the kind that comes in waffle cones. My mum took me to America once, and I had one there." He squeezed her hand affectionately. "We made vows that day, but my mum didn't call them that."

"I can't promise what we'll find in any of the stores downtown, Alan, but I'll do my best." She returned his gesture and even gave him a legitimate smile.


A few hours later…

After Miranda put Alan to bed, she came back downstairs. Jacob had not said one word since she revealed the truth about Alan's condition. That was over thirty minutes ago, and now she found him talking in hushed tones with Brynn as they finished doing the dishes from dinner. She tapped him gingerly on the shoulder as she heard Miranda's heels cross the kitchen's tiled floor. Jacob made a motion with his hand to her. "Let's head outside, Miranda. The sunsets here are really something during the summer months."

Her eyes shifted uneasily towards Brynn. "Will you be-"

"No. Jacob said that he'd prefer to speak with you alone." Brynn planted a chaste kiss on his lips. "I'd better turn in early tonight." Her eyes suddenly bulged as she lurched forward and placed a hand over her abdomen. "Ooh, Amanda's probably getting knackered, too."

"Good night to you, Dr. Cole," Miranda acknowledged her, traveled to the front door, and waited for Jacob to join her before she walked outdoors.

The cool breeze of the evening sent shivers down Miranda's spine, and she wrapped her arms around herself protectively. She did have to admit that Jacob was right; watching the sun set while the moon simultaneously rose was enchanting. "How cold does it get here?" They both journeyed down the steps together but stayed close to the pre-fab unit.

Taylor's eyes followed his fiancé's actions as she closed the pre-fab's aluminum shutters. "During this time of the year, probably in the pre-teens. This planet has four seasons, so Alan will definitely be doing his share of leaf raking." When Brynn finished her chore, Jacob faced Miranda. "So this next treatment isn't for another month, right?"

"No, it's in another two months, and I'll take him back, I promise. I just…-"

"You deserve some closure. I get it," he said with a nod. After a beat, he continued to speak. "I've got a story to tell you about him. It happened before…well…" The former Alliance soldier nervously scratched at the back of his head. "I'll say that it took place before he boarded that dead Reaper."

Miranda's forehead sank as did her eyebrows. "Why tell me this?"

"Because dead or alive, I have no regrets that I served with him. I think I owe you some honesty because I also respected Shepard."

She rotated herself in his direction but still kept her arms about her waist. "Please, go on, Jacob."

"Okay. We went for a quiet drink at the Dark Star not too long after he helped you with Oriana."


Dark Star Lounge, Level 28, Citadel Wards

"First round's on me, Shepard," Jacob announced and smacked Shepard on the back as they headed inside. "Been waiting for some shore leave. Getting Engineer Donnelly out of that shaft he got himself stuck in really took a toll on my amp."

"No kidding. My arms are still sore from all that lifting we did this afternoon while we were installing that Cyclonic barrier. Glad that I bought some more rations for Gardner's grub today. Everybody could use some more decent chow." Both men eased themselves on the Dark Star's all too comfortable couches. "Uh-oh. Standing back up might be an issue."

"Yeah, and speaking of comfort, I'll bet Miranda went to go get a massage from one of those spas," Jacob remarked and shook his head. "Biotics or not, she's still a woman who likes to be spoiled."

"Wouldn't be a woman if she didn't like it. When I first met her, I almost thought she was going to confess to being a man in a previous life."

Jacob laughed and motioned to a server that he wanted her attention. The waitress came over to where he and Shepard were lounging. "Pick your poison, Shep," Jacob offered.

"Got a special of the day?" Shepard wondered.

"You name the drink, we'll make it. If we don't have what you want or can't make it, the tab's on the house for the first two drinks," the asari replied with a wink.

"If you've got it, a shot of Corazon Blanco. Doubt you'll have it here, though. Comes from Earth, though I was able to get some with the Alliance occasionally."

"What is it?" Jacob inquired.

"Tequila…wouldn't say that it's luxurious, but it pours itself nice and smoothly down the gullet."

"Make it two-a double, in fact, for both him and me."

"My pleasure, sir. I'll be back as soon as possible," the asari smiled and typed the order in on her data pad.

"You don't fool around, do you, Taylor?" Shepard laughed.

"If you say it's good, then I believe you." Two Asaris in rather revealing and skimpy outfits sashayed over to their couch. "Nice that the music isn't too loud."

"Looking for a little relaxation, soldiers?" one of them asked.

"How you do know we're soldiers?" Jacob's eyebrow raised with intrigue.

"We weren't born yesterday. Both of us saw you walk in and thought you looked a little lonely," the other gave him a cheeky smile.

The black man grinned. "Got a friend here that might be a bit lonely, too. What do you say, Shep?"

Shepard shrugged casually. "I just came here for the drinks, but all right. I'm game."

As the Asaris flanked both of themselves to either soldier's side, their drinks came with their server. "Corazon Blanco-no charge. Someone said that they owed you these."

"Me? Who owes me a drink?" Shepard asked.

"A Turian gentleman over there, by the name of Lorik Qu'in," the waitress told him and pointed across the floor. "He says that as long as he's here, you can have all that you'd like on him."

"Thanks. Down the hatch." He and Jacob accepted the glasses, threw the shots down, and returned them to the tray.

"You ladies want something?" Jacob queried.

"Two cosmos as quick as a blink," the waitress droned as she rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Be back in just a flash."

"Maybe I'd better go say hi to him," Shepard said and started to get up.

"And leave me alone?" the asari in the rose-colored outfit pouted. "Thought you wanted me to join you."

"How much have you had already, or have you got separation anxiety?" Shepard rolled his own eyes. The asari ran her hand up and down his bare arm, making the hair on it stand up.

"I just like to make every moment count," she also stood and whispered this into his ear.

"First time I've ever heard an asari say something like that. You all live for so long…I thought you like to take your time with everything."

"When we see that something's worth taking, we go for it. We're not all that different as your species likes to think."

"Okay, just for a while." He sat back down to relax and as the waitress returned again with the next round of drinks as well as their companions' drinks, Jacob held his glass up in a toast.

"Here's to looking forward to kicking some major ass in the future, no matter who it might bring," he said.

"And then some," Shepard chuckled. They downed the shots again, and Jacob gestured to the server for another round. The Asaris chose to sip their drinks leisurely instead of gulping them.

The asari sitting near Shepard inched closer to him so that their bodies were just barely touching. "Shaved for me tonight, didn't you?" She ran a hand down his cheek.

"Ah, not really," he smiled briefly and shied away from her touch.

"Well, then, who? Most human men don't like to shave every night, isn't that true?"

"Guess it's an old Alliance habit," Shepard shrugged.

"No one to go out on the town with and paint it red? I meant, well, no one special?" The asari took another sip of her drink, nearing the bottom of the glass.

"She's having some fun of her own right now."

"Oh, what she is missing…" The asari's courage grew and before he knew it, her arm slipped around his shoulder. "Bet you have all the ladies crawling over you, don't you?"

"I'm not like that." As the next shots came, he downed his just as quickly if not faster than Jacob. "Think I'll take a break for a while," he told the waitress. "Go ahead, Jacob."

"Come on, Shep. What're you made of?" the ex-Alliance soldier teased. "Heard you were the ultimate man of steel back at the Academy. Combat records aren't the only things people talked about when they spoke about you."

"We have an early morning-I'd rather not face it hung over."

"Then drink tons of water, man! Come on, what are you, some sissy from the Presidium?"

"You're on, then, Taylor." Once more, the server left to get some more alcohol.

His companion continued to pour silky words into his ear. "I like that you're not a…a…what do you humans call it? Casanova?"

Shepard gave her no answer and stared straight ahead.

"But since your friend isn't here…" the asari suggested, put down her glass, and got up to sit on his lap. "She wouldn't mind if I did this, would she?"

"Uh, maybe."

"Well, then…maybe she wouldn't mind this either." She ran her free hand along his pectoral muscles and down his abdomen. The asari became even more bold and moved herself directly on him.

Shepard's eyes became full of discomfort. "This isn't very relaxing."

"How about something to make it even better?" The asari removed a cylinder from the necklace she wore and removed a pill from it. "This'll help you, I promise."

Shepard swallowed a lump in his throat nervously and shook his head. "No, I won't do that to my body."

"Then do you mind if I do?" she cooed. Before he could say anything, she already shoved one into her mouth and let it dissolve.

The next round of drinks couldn't have come any faster. Shepard downed his, as did Jacob, and gestured faintly to the waitress to bring back some more.

"Mmm…you like your friend?" the asari went on and changed positions so that she could straddle him. "What kind of things would she do for you?"

The alcohol began to inhibit his judgment as he tried to think. "She's very…different."

"You can say that again," Jacob laughed.

"Would she like it if I danced with you?"

"Probably not like this, no," Shepard stated and glanced at their current position uneasily. As their server came back this next time, the asari grabbed the two shots. She took one for herself and poured the next one down Shepard's throat. The waitress sighed angrily, knowing that she'd have to go get some more again, and hoped that her tip would be decent tonight.

Jacob seemed to be enjoying himself as well, although the Asari that was sitting next to him was being slightly more tame. She must have been older than the one that was in his lap. "Great. Why do all I always get the wild ones?" Shepard murmured to himself. The asari in Shepard's lap began to move upon him slowly, and the tequila was going straight to his head. "Look, I uh…should take a break," he stuttered.

"That's exactly what I had in mind," she responded and continued to rock herself on him.

"I meant…well…" The sensations of her alluring perfume, the music's bass, the tequila, and her actions were all too disorienting. He didn't like losing control of his faculties unless they were by his own terms. "I'm sorry. I can't." Shepard gently shook his head 'no' and pushed her away from him just as she came within literally centimeters of his lips.

"Mmm…" She purred and continued as if he had said absolutely nothing.

"I said I'm not interested," he said a bit more firmly and got up.

She instantly sobered, gave him an annoyed look, and walked away. "Let's go," was all she said, and her companion went with her as well.

Shepard winced; he didn't know that both of them were going to leave and sat back down. "Sorry, Jacob."

"No biggie, Shep. We're just out enjoin' the good life tonight," the black man slurred. "Kinda wish that I'd had your asari instead of mine. She just wanted to talk and cuddle."

The server returned with four shots on her tray. Once she noticed that the other two Asari had left, she shook her head sarcastically. "Fabulous. You two gonna be okay with these for a while?"

"Just leave 'em here and bring us some water," Shepard garbled. "Thanks."

"When's the last time you actually had a good night out, Shepard?" Jacob asked.

"Probably two years. Spent one with Alenko in a little cantina on Noveria. Dirty place but had good booze."

"Yeah, I woulda said that we should go have some drinks on the Normandy in that port observation room, but I thought we needed to actually get off of the damn ship." Jacob stroked his beard thoughtfully. "You know, Shep, some of the crew's been talking recently…that Kasumi…in particular."

They clinked their shot glasses together again and downed one more shot. "What's the latest scuttlebutt?"

"Well, it's about you. You and…Miranda."

"You didn't wanna talk about her before, Jacob. Why start now?" Shepard frowned.

"I ignore it unless it has to do with me, but that was before I saw one of her reports to the Illusive Man."

"Yeah?" He leaned forward slightly with interest.

"There were both spelling and grammar errors in it."

"Not drawing a correlation here, Jacob, sorry." Shepard shook his head 'no'.

"Don't you ever read them? They're sent to you as carbon copies."

"Those interest me about as much as watching a bunch of people flopping themselves about on a stage for three hours. I can't believe they call 'ballet' entertainment."

Taylor scooted himself on the edge of his seat. "Okay, well, just so you know…she never does that. I don't remember how much paperwork she's sent out in the past, but every single "t" was crossed and every "i" was dotted."

Shepard sighed and bit his lip. "Then since we're getting personal, I'm gonna ask you something."

"You got it, Shepard. We're in this for the long haul."

"Two weeks ago, after we went to Aeia…we had a talk with the Illusive Man. And we found out that Miranda had…" he burped…"'Scuse me. Miranda had sent you that intel."

"Yeah?"

"She mentioned some kind of promise. You ever figure out which one she was talking 'bout?"

"Nah, don't care to remember anyway. We never would've worked out our problems. Think she's happy with you, though."

Shepard replayed the moment in his intoxicated mind over again. "But I…well, I acted and she didn't…well, I didn't get thrown across the room like a piece of meat…"

"I rarely got her to smile, even after we had a dinner and a helluva lot of alcohol. We tried to talk, but we both couldn't trust each other enough with our issues." He scoffed and returned himself to his previous position. "Both of us had one thing in common-our fathers. Hers was too hands on and mine was too hands off."

"Everybody used to call her the ice queen-I remember hearing it come from that Wilson's mouth first."

"True enough. But she's different now-think you're bringin' out the woman in her. The woman that she never had as a mother or a friend."

"On Freedom's Progress, I found her rather dull and nearly thought that Cerberus was making androids now. You know, Quarians made the geth…Cerberus makes a countermeasure to that…robots."

"Hah! One popular joke when I joined up with them at first was that the Illusive Man wasn't really a man. Most Cerberus agents thought that he's a fictitious person and that Miranda ran it all. She does to a degree, but…"

"This is getting really close, Jacob. You wanna change the topic, but I gotta know something…" Shepard handed his friend another shot. They made a silent toast and dropped the tequila down their throats again. "When you two…were uh…together…who was on top? You know, most of the time?"

The black man let out a huge round of laughter. "Try not to think 'bout it all that much. Another reason why we didn't work." He paused to calm down a bit and ponder the matter for few seconds. "90% of the time, she was."

Shepard joined him and burst out a loud guffaw. "Maybe she really was a man!"

"How 'bout now?" Jacob pressed. "You think you would really let her do that? I mean…I didn't think you'd like that."

"There's no wrong way to get the train into the tunnel," Shepard announced with a cheeky grin and ran a tongue over his upper teeth.

"Yeah, guess you're right about that." He grabbed some of the water that their waitress had delivered long ago and started to drink it. Shepard did the same. "I think you're just the kind of man she needs right now."

Shepard gulped down some more water. "I must either be the most stupid man or have the worst timing in the galaxy."

Jacob shook his head and crossed one leg over the other. "You'll never know if you don't go back to that office and talk about it with her."

"Just what the hell is this feeling? It can't be love, can it? Or maybe it can. Just one look at her, and I couldn't help but get lost in that solitary smile she gave me after we talked about Oriana in her office. That mouth of hers…damn." He slowly rose to his feet, finished off the glass, and set it on the table. "Well, I'm already going into the jaws of death. What's one more suicide mission?"

"Oh, good luck with that, bro. I might not be joining ya, though."

"Gonna stay here for a while?"

"Yeah. Think I could use some more relaxation."

Shepard chortled to himself and punched Jacob in the chest. "I'll send over that horny Asari who was trying to lay me 'fore I go. See you in the morning."


Miranda began to stomp her booted feet onto the gravel to try and recuperate some of her lost body heat. "That explains why I smelled alcohol on his breath that evening."

"I hope you do find him, Miranda, but…just be ready to let go if…-"

"I'm sorry that I didn't tell you earlier about Alan."

"Better now than never," he said with a shrug. "Oh, and Brynn says that she'll have what you asked for in two weeks."

"Excellent. Tell her that the problem she was concerned about will be dealt with after I receive her crack key."

Jacob's eyes pierced directly into hers. "What problem?"

She uncrossed her arms and steepled her fingertips. "I visited Gunnery Chief Sherman Durano's enterprise this afternoon. He's got an impressive arsenal, but he would fare even better if he would accept alien technology."

"Getting involved with this colony's politics would be a bad move, Miranda." His eyes narrowed. "Didn't you want to stay off the grid?"

"The less you know about the matter, the better."

He held his hand up and waved it in the opposite direction across his chest. "Then you can cross the both of us off of your list of prospective agents. Brynn is doing this favor for Shepard…or to honor his memory, and I'm not gonna be some pawn on a chess board again."

"It was merely an offer, Jacob." Miranda's hands went to her hips.

"Then I think we'd better get some shut-eye, because I've got nothing good to say about the matter any more." Taylor climbed the stairs, tapped his soiled boots on the welcome mat, and walked back inside his home.


**Author's Notes**-I've been exceptionally busy for the past year and attempting to put my life in order, so please do excuse the exceptionally long silence. There is an end to this story, and I promise that it will come. Thoughts and reviews are very welcome (including constructive criticism). For those of you who might wonder who is responsible for the cover art to a couple of my other novels, it is Kellysmygirl. I am grateful to this person for his/her talent and eye for detail. He/She is also working on one for this story as well. My book "The Edge of Obliteration" is still for sale on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It it a mix of suspense and sci-fi set in the future. If you like "The Bourne Identity", then you'll like this. Thank you to all for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I made it longer than others to make up for lost time rather than split it up into separate ones.