Chapter 21

A/N: This chapter, like the rest, is M rated. This chapter is the most M of them all. Please be warned.

Nothing changed. Everything changed.

Miranda never considered herself to have many duties. Those few she has she has always taken seriously. With her work at the Institute on hold, now she has even fewer. Life is paradoxically simpler despite the outward increase in complexity. This will be her third time navigating the challenges of parenthood. Twenty years ago she would have been selfish, terrified, incapable. There's no question she would have failed. She only succeeded because of Jack. There are many human parents of asari children now, though few will share Naya's emotional issues. But she and Bashir have scaled that particular summit before. Together. Miranda will do the best job she is capable of, until Liara returns. If Liara returns.

Naya T'Soni is a gentle, fearless child. She's clumsy and cheeky, curious and cool. Frankie loves her. She has none of Shepard's DNA but she's inherited so much of her that Miranda sometimes marvels. Watching her play - all her toys are guns - Miranda is occasionally crushed by regret. Shepard should be the one watching her grow up. She comforts herself with the thought that without Lazarus, Naya would not exist. Without Shepard she and Jack would still be strangers. Or worse.

Unsurprisingly, Naya is reserved around people. She is at the beginning of a long process of socialisation. She'll inevitably progress at her own pace. That won't stop them from nudging her along sometimes. For her own good. But for now, their home is a safe space and they cocoon Naya inside, sharing their same small world.

She thinks of Jack. Jack is at base camp of a different mountain. A new face and a much steeper climb. With no work in prospect Miranda preoccupies herself with adapting their home; widening spaces, renovating bathrooms, adding a specialised gymnasium. Jack is angered by her changes even as she begrudgingly accepts their necessity.

She decides to avoid powered chairs in favour of wheels wherever possible. Miranda approves. Reduced mobility and suppressed biotics trigger a radical change in Jack: she obsesses over health for the first time in her life. Moving under her own steam helps. The day will come when a grav chair is inevitable but they'll fight it down to the last yard.

Typically, Jack makes it more difficult for herself than it needs to be. She chooses low slung, high backed chairs optimised for speed and agility, not comfort. Chairs she sits in, rather than on, are out: Jack refuses to look like a cripple. But she moves through familiar rooms uncertainly, as though trapped in a bad dream. Miranda tries to see the chair as a natural extension of Jack. Jack makes this impossible. She doesn't let Miranda touch it - at all. She is brutally ashamed of every knock, every collision, every fall. Miranda doesn't understand why she refuses her help.

Miranda wants to believe the cold shoulder she gets from Jack is a product of embarrassment. But the space between them grows wider each day. Miranda doesn't want to admit there's a problem. There is. The promised intimacy between them never rematerialised. Miranda yearns for it but Jack's placed it out of reach.

Jack spends more of her evenings hiding away in her gym. Miranda decides: that's going to change. Tonight Miranda heads there as soon as Naya and Frankie fall asleep. The room is spacious; one wall is covered with full length mirrors, another lined with a bank of windows looking out toward the relay. It's a beautiful room.

She finds Jack with her ankles strapped to her chair. She's dragged herself up into a semi-standing position, unsteady, fists clenched around hoops suspended from the ceiling. She's training with her own body weight. Veins bulge at her temples and neck; her lips peel back from her teeth. Jack is set on acquiring a gymnast's physique, at least for her upper body. She's well on the way to succeeding. Miranda admires the new strength coiled in Jack's arms. They're the last thing her mind settles on before sleep. But she drops back into the chair as soon as Miranda steps in, glares resentfully.

Miranda forces jollity into her voice. "The ankle biters are down, Jack."

Jack is resting but if anything she reddens further. She rubs sweat out of her eyes. "Jesus, do you never listen? I told you not to come in here."

"I wouldn't if you bothered to answer. I've buzzed three times." She sighs, folds her arms across her chest. She didn't come in to fight.

"Bash sent us some thessia red. It's a good vintage. I thought we could share it. I'd like that."

"Thanks, but no." Jack stretches her arms out above her head.

"You've been in here for hours. You'll injure yourself training like this."

"That's my call."

"You have to allow recovery time, Jack."

Jack glowers. "Why?"

Miranda reaches for Jack. She recoils.

"Don't touch me."


Jack says nothing. She won't meet Miranda's eye.

"Can we talk, Jack?"

"We're talking. What do you want me to say?"

"Whatever you want. I just -" Miranda is confused by Jack's hostility. She moves to touch the back of her chair but Jack jerks away. "Have I done something wrong?"

"Shit. No. Yes. I don't know."

"Please, Jack." A second attempt to touch Jack is rebuffed. Jack's more violent this time. She slaps Miranda's hand away. Miranda's lost. "I want to understand -"

"I'm crippled, Miranda. That's what's fucking wrong," Jack hisses. "I'm trapped in this useless meat sack. And you can't stop treating me like one. You're making it worse."

Miranda pales. That's about the worst possible thing she could have done. "That wasn't my intention."

"Look at this apartment. You've changed everything. Have you ever asked me what I wanted? Or even what I needed?"

"I'm sorry." Miranda realises the weight of her mistake. "I only meant -"

Jack sneers. "Just take your good intentions and - piss off. I don't need your pity. Leave me alone."

Miranda squares her shoulders. "No."

Jack knows she can't make her go. She yells. She's so angry she flares, despite the suppressants. She flings the unshed energy away in a surge of blue; and the bank of mirrors cracks, shatters.

Miranda turns on her heel, stalks out of the room.

When she's scared, she picks fights.

Miranda resolves to force the issue.

Their bedroom is dark. It's late. Jack's arms burn. Heat rises from her torso in waves. Sweat glistens in the hollow of her collarbone and the dips between her muscles. She looks meaner, defined. It's a pity that appearances deceive. She's an invalid.

Jack needs to shower; can't wheel across the floor without light. Shit. She flicks the dimmer switch on low. Contours of familiar obstructions jump into life.

Miranda isn't sleeping. She is lying in wait, prim, on the edge of a chair. Jack stops dead.

Her long legs are crossed at the ankle; knees pressed tight together. Breasts push at the fabric of her nightgown, glossy folds reflecting the soft glow of the room.

Their eyes meet.

A shiver shoots down Jack's spine, sparks at the tips of her fingers. Miranda sinks back, slow. Coy. She hooks a knee over one arm of her chair, half-smiles as she begins to stroke tight circles across the other.

Her nightgown lifts. Its just enough for Jack to glimpse the neatly trimmed triangle underneath.

Holy fuck.

Miranda knows Jack has seen. She calculates, takes a risk. Her hand delves between her legs.

Miranda is touching herself.

Her eyes lock onto Jack's with predatory intensity; everything else disappears. Jack almost moans. She's paralysed. She'll kill her for teasing this way.

Jack knows Miranda has needs. So does she. Her eyes are roaming all over Jack, feverish. She won't agree to a pity-fuck.

Jack clenches her fists together until they bleed white. Miranda's nipples stiffen under her nightdress. Her fingers quicken and Jack's getting hot watching, doesn't want to. Miranda bites her lower lip, inhales sharply. Her hips flex forward, inviting. Jack sees pink; her mouth falls open. She inches closer, despite herself.

Miranda raises her free hand, waves her index finger: left-right-left. Jack opens her mouth; Miranda places the finger against her lips. She smiles. Jack's cheeks heat. She's frustrated. Her hand slips beneath her own waistband. Miranda smirks, shakes her her head no.

Jack doesn't understand what this show is for - until Miranda begs.

I need to come with you inside me, Jack.

Jack's body floods with arousal; her mind cowers with fear. She's being ripped in two. But she's never been a coward.

She starts forward. Miranda's eyes narrow, flick to the bed.

Quid pro quo, Jack.

Miranda drives a hard bargain. If she fucks she must consent to be fucked. Jack can't agree those terms. Miranda's lips part in a slow sigh; she pushes a finger inside herself to the second knuckle, retreats. Watches Jack's pained reaction. That's reserved for Jack.

It's not that she doesn't want to. She can't. She's trapped in a body that no longer obeys. Jack's skin prickles. She's approaching panic. Rejecting Miranda now could put their relationship beyond repair. Jack searches for any sign of pity on Miranda's face, finds none. Her eyes blur with unshed tears. She blinks them away, angry.

Miranda is close. Eyes cling to Jack, won't leave her. She flares. The tempo of her hips changes. Her neck and chest flush. Her moan is plaintive. Please. Please, Jack.

Jack shifts in the spotlight of Miranda's gaze and she realises: she isn't the audience here.

She's the star.

Joy shines in Miranda's face as she closes the distance between them. But Jack winces. She doesn't want to be lifted and deposited on the bed.

Miranda doesn't do that. She leaps onto Jack, straddling her, scattering kisses in her hair, across her forehead. She pulls Jack into a deep, soft, hungry kiss. Jack's alive: she floods with heat as Miranda wraps her legs around her hips, crushing their bodies together. Her hands caress Jack's biceps and chest through her vest. No time to take it off.

The kiss Miranda drops onto her wrist is urgent. She sucks the sweat from two of Jack's fingers. Jack squeezes Miranda's bare ass tight, holds her steady as Jack slots her hand into the space between her legs. Miranda cries out as she corkscrews down onto Jack. She's so wet she takes all Jack's fingers at once.

Miranda flings her nightdress over her head. She fucks Jack with abandon, centre grinding into Jack's open palm. Her hair falls over both their faces, tickling Jack. They laugh together. The chair rocks backward with every jerk of Miranda's hips. They both grin as she gropes behind them for the lock. Jack can't; she has her hands full.

Jack puts her back into it. Her arm muscles flex and ripple as she thrusts into Miranda, relentless, fingers working inside her.

Enhanced upper body strength has unique perks.

Jack kisses her rough, tongues her breasts. Miranda times her own rocking to multiply the force. This is the harshest Miranda's ever been fucked.

Miranda's getting off on her, the possibilities of her changed body. She's digging her nails into the bicep driving into her. Nothing has ever been so liberating.

Her entire body trembles as she comes into Jack's hand, breathing ragged, lips crushed to Jack's.

Jack wraps her arms around Miranda as she collapses down into her lap, rubs her back. Their breaths fall into rhythm. It's a while before she looks up. Jack kisses her possessively when she does.

This love's still solid.

Eventually, Miranda peels herself off Jack's lap, sways unsteadily towards their bed. She curls up at the top, strokes the space in front expectantly.

Jack's there like a shot, dirty grin smeared across her face. Miranda's eyes gleam as her tongue traces across the swarm of Jack's tattoos, drifting steadily downward.

Jack was woken by the buzzing of her omnitool against her wrist. A message. Encrypted. Blinking, she raised her forearm above her head and opened it with stiff fingers.


Vega's signature, obviously sent in haste. Clever boy had addressed it to both of them this time. You could teach an old dog new tricks.

Miranda shrank away, rolled, and then pitched back into sleep. Jack wasn't surprised. 0800 was hours away. Pointless to wake her now.

Jack slept lighter these days.

She pivoted, holding her body upright off the bed on two fists. She was pissed at being awake and worse, she could feel her quads swelling, splitting. She had forgotten her meds. Fucking stupid. Anger settled across her shoulders, turning them to concrete as she swung out onto her chair. Jack's spine popped and her body protested, but she managed with only a grunt and one or two squeaks from the seat as she shifted.

There was a time that move would have woken Miranda, but Jack was improving. She shivered with pride.

What a fucking joke.

Face haloed by the light from her omni, Jack inched her way forward until her treads ran onto tile. She closed the door, flicked the light on. She ignored her reflection in the mirror, keyed the code to her med cabinet, and swore under her breath as she shook out different ampoules.

Jack could live with the raw ache in her arms. The self inflicted damage to her muscles was a promise to herself; they would heal stronger than before. The tiny knots of hot acid studded through her legs were different. They spilled streaks of bright agony into her veins. The fuckers burned like ground glass when they died, each spent nodule fossilized, marking damage beyond repair. That pain was much harder to live with.

Her hands shook as she loaded two fresh hypos. The dull smouldering in her legs was threatening to spark and ignite, and if that happened now she would howl like an animal. Miranda would come running and in the state she was in, Jack would lash out; her patience with Miranda's cosseting was eggshell-thin as it was. Jack didn't want that. She didn't want to fuck anything else up.

The suppressant went into her thighs; the painkiller into her neck. Both steeped into her veins like cool water. Jack groaned with relief. The combination would make her queasy, wired but it sure as hell beat the alternative. Not like she could try to sleep now, anyway.

She returned the rest of the ampoules to the cabinet. Her heart skipped before she recognised what she saw. She swept the contents of the shelf aside, gripped the packet with both hands. Jack's old meds were nestled behind a clutch of new boxes and blisterpacks. Her stomach turned somersaults. That shit was pride and power and passion; they sang sweetly to Jack as she cradled them in her lap.

Jack clutched her head in her hands, raked her nails across her scalp until they broke skin. The price of admission was too fucking high. She knew it. Last time it was her legs. It was nearly her life. Jack knew next time would kill her. Fucking poison.

A familiar, unearthly voice whispered into her ear. Do you care, Jack? Her throat knotted. She couldn't answer. Did she care? A large part of her wanted to say no.

Before she could think she smashed the ampoules open, flushed them away.

Then she spun from the room as if chased by a ghost.

Jack stopped in the passage linking their bedroom with the living area, heart scudding in her chest and arms clenched tight. The rims were cool along her palms. She steadied herself with long, even corridor was filled with wan, silent starlight, bright enough to see by. Jack cast a dark shadow as she made a slow traverse. The chair made no sound.

She would talk to the Academy. If Miranda thought Jack's retirement would be filled with cocktail hours, dinner parties and Skyllian Five she could fuck off. If they wouldn't take her on as a consultant - and with Miranda unofficial queen of the station they'd likely be too fucking pussy to defy her - she'd go freelance. Become a contractor. She might be a cripple, but she wouldn't be a sponge. No damn way.

Jack stopped when she reached the girls' room. The door was open. Datapads were strewn at the foot of the two beds. Naya slept curled into a ball on the closest, thumb in her mouth. Jack often came past this door to find Frankie fast asleep and Naya, curled protectively into her blankets, peering out at the stars visible in the passageway. Small and innocent. Tonight she clutched something tight, glinting in her fist.

How the hell did she get Shepard's tags?

Had to be Frankie. She'd talk to her. Jack didn't want to take them from her but Naya was too young to keep them. Not yet. She prized them from the child's fingers. The clinked together as they slipped from her hand. Naya stirred but Jack soothed; she just hitched her breath and burrowed tighter into the bed. Jack grazed a hand over her forehead before returning the way she had come. She turned right, steered onto Miranda's oversized new ramp, and glided down a floor.

There's no reason I'm alive. But I am.

In the depths of the night cycle, the living area was dark but bathed in milky, pale glow. Jack picked her way across the floor. The ache in her limbs was now only a distant pain. Ahead of her, by the couches, Jack saw the wine, opened, and two glasses. Red residue pooled in the bottom of one. Jack filled the other and balanced it precariously in her lap while she moved, stem tucked between her thighs. She took it to the window and looked out onto the spatter of a million solitary stars.

Jack thought of Liara. They had respected each other but they had never been close. Funny, really. She had been in a chair when Liara had invaded, called her out on her bullshit and changed her fate. Jack was relieved to settle that debt. It was somehow fitting that Jack was in a chair again now. Today they'd know who owned these tags. For Naya's sake Jack hoped Vega had good news. Even so she suspected Liara would be too batshit crazy to take Naya back. At least short term.

Crazy bitch got to believing her own hype.

Jack sipped the wine. She regretted not joining Miranda earlier.

Without Liara's intervention, things would have been different. More fighting. Fewer strings. She and Miranda might finally have killed each other. That life struck Jack now as sterile. Alien. As impossible as breathing without air.

She relaxed into the chair, holding Shepard's tags loosely in one palm. They reflected silver-white light. They drew her gaze away from the starscape ahead, held her transfixed.

Shepard's life had been a meteor - bright, clean, sharp. Simple. Until the Pulse Jack had expected that fate to be hers. A part of Jack still wanted that. Not the messy, painful bullshit she was left behind to cope with. Misery began to unfurl, cool and comforting, across Jack's chest. She found herself wanting to cover herself with it. To forget everything else. She closed her eyes.

Time bled away.

Jack gradually became aware of being watched. Cold gusted across the room, as though a door had been thrown open. Hairs stood up at the nape of her neck, along her arms.

She froze.

Her eyes were still unfocused but at the edge of her vision, reflected in the glass in front, Jack made out a shadow looming at her back. A force. She knew if she looked straight at it the form would disappear, like the faces that appeared in the stars, or in the clouds on a clear day.

She was no more real than her hidey hole, no longer womb-red but a blue-white space she had to endure being ripped apart, over and over in her dreams. But that didn't stop Jack holding her breath.

Hey, Shepard.

She leaned back on her heels, silent, arms crossed in that unmistakable, sceptical way that had always pissed Jack off. Standing there she looked real enough to touch. Jack bit the side of her cheek to stop herself from sobbing. She forced herself to keep her eyes cast downward.

I'm so damn sick. So damn tired, Shepard.

Shepard was motionless. She was the woman Jack first met, not the husk she became before she was killed. The first to really figure Jack out. The first to try. The first to want to. She could feel her gaze resting on the back of her neck, exposing her heart.

The unvoiced terror always at her core that if she became a burden, she would find herself alone.

Shepard cocked her jaw, as if waiting for an answer to a question Jack did not know she had been asked.

Stay. Or go.

Shepard was the Big Bang that stopped the clocks and started them again. Part of the past. The slow smile Miranda wore for her tonight filled Jack's mind.

Shepard was the cause. Liara was the catalyst. Miranda was the reason.

Jack had her answer.

Get your shit together, asshole. Pity party's over.

To Jack's surprise, Shepard smiled. Jack grinned back, snapped around.

Nobody there.

Fuck off, Shepard. I've got nothing to say to you.

She looped the tags around her neck and against her skin, drained the wine. The next time they met, Jack would greet her as an old friend. That would be soon.

But not tonight.

End of Part One

To be continued...

Author's Note:

That's the end of Jack and Miranda's part of the story. But Liara's still out there. Will Ashley rescue her, or die trying? What will Tali and Traynor uncover about the Darkness that Must Not Be Breached? And what will Vega find on Tuchanka?

All will be revealed in Part Two - Sinchi: Downfall.

(Breitve, Kasumi will make an appearance, thanks to you.)

So - first I would like to thank everyone for sticking with this story (especially given its slow buildup). It's a major suspension of disbelief to accept MiriJack as something remotely functional but I wanted to see if I could make it real. And also finishing something because I am terrible at follow through. I can only hope people enjoyed reading it half as much as I have enjoyed writing it. It has been an incredible challenge and incredibly rewarding.

Thanks also for all the reviews and the kind messages that people have sent my way. It really is fantastic to hear when people are enjoying something! (And also, sometimes, when they're not.)

I should also acknowledge the deep influence that works by fantastic writers like the subverter, Owelpost and Midnight Lion have had on this whole story - firstly, for inspiring me to write; and secondly, for continuously coming out with awesome writing and characterisation that mades my jaw drop. Seriously, if visitors are not already familiar with the Loyalist & Convict stories, Glacial Fire, Pressure (or, on that score, Once More Unto The Breach by HugoCogs or Control that Which You Cannot Destroy by Jay8008) then go! - check them out! - you will have your socks blown off.

And finally. HugoCogs, consummate storyteller and generally amazing person - thank you.