He was running, tearing down the shattered streets of Earth to a specific destination. John knew he had to get there before time ran out for them all. He pumped his legs and arms, propelling himself to his absolute limits.
A cannibal jumped out from the right, appearing from a ventilation shaft. Without thinking John drew his shotgun, unloading a round into it's face. He didn't stop to check that it was dead, he knew had to keep moving no matter what.
After another few minutes of running down the long avenue he emerged into a square, one that looked vaguely familiar to John. Thanix missile batteries were strewn around, their crew lying dead in pools of blood next to the vehicles. That wasn't what concerned him though, it was the sight of the other three roads in front that worried John.
To his left, right, and dead ahead were row after row of Reapers troops, mixtures of cannibals, marauders, brutes, and every other he had ever fought. They advanced down the streets, pouring into the square to surround him on three sides. John checked his shotgun, noticing that there were only two rounds left. He was out of grenades as well, and concussive rounds would only do so much damage. He knew he had to get past them all, but he wouldn't be coming out of this one alive.
Without warning the Reaper troops stopped moving, all falling silent and perfectly still. The silence was disconcerting at first, particularly unnerving from such usually rowdy beasts. Then John heard a noise, a clicking noise coming from behind him. As it became more pronounced he realised who was making it, John's heart leaping at the only person who it could be – Miranda had come to save him! The clicking sound slowed and eventually stopped, causing John to turn his back to the enemies. He recoiled in absolute horror at what he saw.
It was Miranda, of that there was no doubt, but she had become something else. Her once beautiful face was contorted into a mask of rage, her features distorted by whatever havoc had been wreaked across her by the enemy. Scraps of grey and dead flesh peeled away from her eyes and her upper neck, betraying the glowing Reaper tech implanted there. Her hair was unkempt around her face, giving the appearance of a wild beast spoiling for a fight. Whilst this was bad, the worst thing for John was her eyes. The striking cerulean eyes were no longer present, replaced instead by cold, electric blue irises that surveyed him cruelly. John couldn't say anything, he couldn't even move. He stood stock still, wishing that he was able to tear his eyes away from the monstrosity in front of him.
Miranda raised a hand, he noticed the presence of taloned nails breaking through the skin of her fingertips, and gestured towards him whilst speaking in a voice of mockery.
"You failed me John."
Then her expression turned to one of rage as she descended upon him, charging towards John with a blood-curdling cry upon her lips. As she closed she raised back her taloned right hand, preparing it for the killing blow...
1st November 2186 – Crucible pulse + five weeks
John jolted awake, eyes snapping open instantly. He immediately began to assess his surroundings, checking for any threats. He groaned as he properly awoke, realising that it had only been a dream. He checked to his left, seeing Miranda sleeping safely by his side. She had an arm draped across his chest, gently pressing her body into his side. John looked down at his own form, his body was covered in a light sheen of sweat and his breath came in rapid gasps with his heart still hammering in his chest. He raised a hand to his face, rubbing the sleep from his eyes forcefully.
Slowly John extracted himself from Miranda's arms, rolling quietly out of bed. He walked from the bed over to the bathroom, not bothering to pick up his bath robe. He ran the cold tap on the basin slowly, cupping his hands and splashing the cool water over his face. John looked up, studying himself in the mirror above the basin.
The war had taken it's toll on him, psychologically, emotionally, and physically, and his face betrayed it. He looked tired, drawn out and weary. The dark bags underneath his eyes emphasised that, as well as revealing his recent sleeping habits. John hadn't been sleeping particularly well over the last couple of weeks, he had woken with various nightmares several times over the past fortnight. Each time he had woken Miranda up, and each time he felt more guilty for being such a problem for her. At least he hadn't woken her toni...
"John?" He sighed as he heard Miranda's voice, light footsteps audible as she padded across the bedroom.
"Sorry." John tilted his head to look at her naked reflection in the mirror, dropping it back down shamefully at the look of concern on Miranda's face. In response she walked forwards, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his cheek before whispering.
"You never have to say sorry to me."
"I...But I..." He shook his head, slumping his shoulders even lower. He knew that he should be better than this, he should be able to face up to his problems on his own. "I don't know."
"Look, I'm not going to push you into talking, but please don't think you have to keep this to yourself," Miranda rubbed her hands along his shoulders and down his arms. "It was another nightmare right?"
He sighed before replying. "Yeah."
John looked up, meeting her eyes with his own in the mirror above the basin. For a second her eyes were the cold blue of the dream before Miranda blinked, the vision in John's mind clearing and seeing them in their normal cerulean colour. He kept his face impassive but inside an argument raged, should he tell her or not? On the one hand he knew Miranda could handle anything, she would take it in her stride and reassure him that everything was fine. However, could he tell her that he dreamt of something that horrific? Looking back over the fate of Cerberus over the past couple of years it had been particularly close to that nightmare being a reality, if Kai Leng and The Illusive Man had been indoctrinated and implanted with Reaper tech then Miranda most certainly would have been.
"Some..." He resigned to keep it to himself, as he had done with all of his other dreams so far. "Some people died."
"OK, when you want to talk then just let me know," Miranda spoke softly, still massaging his shoulders. "Now, come back to bed."
He sighed again. "No use, once I'm up I'm up."
Miranda rolled her eyes, a mischievous grin settling across her face. "Not necessarily for sleep..."
"Heh," John smiled weakly, he understood Miranda's intentions but he couldn't get the image of his nightmare out of his mind. "I'm sorry but I'm really not in the mood."
"John Shepard turning down sex?" Miranda rested her head on his shoulder, leaning into his back. Her tone of voice changed from one of mischievousness to concern again. "Are you sure you're OK?"
"I'll be fine," He dropped his left hand from the basin in front, resting it behind him on Miranda's thigh. "I just need to work it out of my system, an hour of weights should do it."
"No way," Miranda tightened her grip on his shoulders, pressing herself closer. "You're going to overdo it, you spent long enough exercising yesterday."
He shook his head. "I still feel weak."
"You're only a couple of weeks out of Huerta," She ran a hand down his chest. "It'll take time to get back to your N7 fitness, regardless of the upgrades from the Lazarus project."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." He sighed in a resigned tone once more.
"Hey," She poked him in the ribs, speaking in her old 'Ice Queen' tone. "I'm always right."
At that John laughed, a genuine chuckle. Miranda began to laugh as well, spinning John around from the basin and planting a tender kiss on his lips. They parted after a few seconds, John tucking a stray strand of hair behind her right ear. She smiled at the gesture, placing her arms around his neck before speaking again.
"Well, if you won't come back to bed then I suggest you help me begin packing."
He raised an eyebrow. "Packing?"
"Yep," Miranda let go of him and turned around, sauntering out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom. She added a slight sway to her hips, actually achieving a reaction from him. "I've found us a proper house."
"Really?" He followed her into the bedroom, a bit of enthusiasm entering his voice. They had been living in Anderson's apartment in Tiberius Towers for the last few weeks and, whilst it was nice, neither of them envisioned it as a family home. Despite the damage they had decided that they did want to settle on Earth, and Miranda had taken up the job of locating a house for them.
"You'll love it John," Miranda walked to the side of the bed, picking up one of John's shirts that had been discarded the night before. She slipped it over her head before walking back to him. "Nice and quiet as I you wanted."
He gave her a smile and a quick peck on the lips. John had told her that he was happy to live anywhere, and that was absolutely true, but he had insisted on somewhere quiet and away from prying eyes – especially the press.
"I love you Miri."
She gave him a smile in return. "I love you too, now come and help me."
"So where are we going then?" He glanced over at Miranda as he spoke, watching her pilot the shuttle. She was dressed in a pair of tight fitting jeans on top of some brown leather shin high boots, a white t-shirt with a rather exquisite brown leather jacket over the top. He had to admit that she fitted the role of civilian brilliantly, as well as she had been the mysterious Femme Fatale before. Though she looked incredible in the catsuit, both had agreed it wasn't really suitable for everyday life. Instead it was kept neatly in a draw, ready for 'special nights' as Miranda had put it.
"It's a surprise," Miranda shook her head at John, speaking in a chiding tone. "You'll have to wait and see."
"Fine then." He put a hint of sadness in his voice, playing up as a child would. His tactic paid off as Miranda relented.
"I'll tell you that it's in Italy, you won't get anything else out of me though."
"Nice," John looked over to her and spread his arms theatrically, putting on a pretty poor version of an Italian accent. "Italia!"
Miranda let out a laugh at that. "That's a crap accent John, but yes – Italia."
"Well, at least I know that you're not just taking me to a random mountain somewhere." John gestured to the mountains they were flying over, the immense and snow covered peaks of the Alps spread out around them.
"Like a private science facility? Could you imagine the headlines?" Miranda gave him another glance, flashing a cheeky smile. "Galaxy's saviour disappears with evil ex-Cerberus officer to unknown mountain facility where she has her wicked way with him."
"Heh," John laughed. "It would be funny, though I wouldn't really be bothered."
"Really?" Miranda put a hint of challenge into her voice, raising an eyebrow but maintaining her attention on flying the vehicle. "I'm pretty sure my 'wicked way' would be pretty scary!"
"You've never scared me that much Miri."
"What about just before the engine room?" She countered him quickly. "You gulped rather nervously when I gave you that offer!"
"Well..." John struggled for a reply. Whilst he had been looking forward to that night before the Collector Base for a long time but he had been surprised at how forward she had been outside of the elevator, and how incredibly sensuous she had been. "I was worried you were a lot of woman to handle."
Her head flicked to face him, a hurt look plastered across it. "Are you saying I'm fat John?"
"What? No, definitely not..." John was stammering as he sought to explain, they hadn't had many major arguments yet and he was hoping to keep it that way for a long time. He trailed off as a grin broke out across Miranda's face, realising she was winding him up. "Not funny Lawson."
"You're so easy to fluster, it's actually pretty cute," John huffed, shaking his head at the description. She merely gave him an innocent smile. "But you are right, I am a handful when I want to be."
Then they lapsed into silence for a while, John reclining the leather flight chair and smoothing out his own leather jacket. The vehicle they were travelling was actually a modified Kodiak shuttle that Miranda had procured. Rather than the normal military specifications it was outfitted for civilian duties, primarily the transport of dignitaries or rich politicians. It was a very comfortable place to be in with soft leather chairs in both the cockpit and transport bay, extranet connected televisions, a small area for food preparation, and modified inner workings for a smoother ride. It wasn't a cheap vehicle, in fact John wasn't sure quite how Miranda had bought it.
"How did you afford this Miri?"
"The Kodiak? Just one of many belonging to my father," She shrugged in indifference. "He had a couple dotted about his primary business locations, including the Citadel."
He raised an eyebrow, he was surprised that Miranda would be willing to use her fathers possessions. "So you liberated it then?"
She shrugged again. "Oh, not just that."
"Erm..." Shepard raised the chair back up again. "What else have you...liberated?"
"His entire business empire."
John's jaw dropped, he knew that would be an incredible amount. Henry Lawson was a very, very rich man. "Just how rich are we?"
"Around...Eighty nine billions credits plus billions more worth of assets," She turned and gave him a grin. "We'll never have to work again."
John furrowed his eyebrows, thinking of all the possibilities with that much cash. Though the idea of being immensely rich and never having to lift a finger again was somewhat appealing, he didn't really want that. He wanted a few months of peace of course, but soon he'd have to find something to do.
"That's great, but I'm not sure I would want to do that," He tucked a hand underneath his chin. "I know I'll want to do something in the future, though I'm not sure what."
"Well I wasn't sure whether to mention it...but," Miranda sighed and shook her head. "The council will approach you about being humanities new councillor. Probably not for a while, they'll need to sort out other things first, but they will ask you soon."
"Yeah," He had thought about that before now himself, though had not come up with how he would answer. To be honest he couldn't be bothered to think about that just now, he would consider his options if and when they asked. "Well we'll work that out if and when the time comes. Anyway, when I say something to do in the future I mean something like setting up an ice-cream shop or a café."
"You and me, running an ice-cream shop?" She laughed again. "That would be quite something. However I don't plan on just lounging about either, for a start I've got a science project."
"I knew you wouldn't want to just sit around."
"Yeah, and just to let you know the money is all in your name," She gave him a wink. "I reckon you'll get a tax break for your achievements and I don't want to have to pay billions in inheritance text."
Again they lapsed into silence for another few minutes, watching the terrain fly by. Miranda began to drop the shuttle downwards, descending gradually. Soon she slowed the speed as well, dropping to a very low level. Eventually the shuttle practically stopped, Miranda lowering it down onto the ground and switching on the external cameras to give John his first view of their new home.
The surroundings were incredible, picturesque in fact. To their right was a large lake, about a kilometre from one side to another, and they were placed on it's west bank. John could see pine woods surrounding the lake on the other three sides, a light dusting of snow on top of the canopy. On both the east and north sides there were large mountains behind the forests, their snow capped peaks rising majestically into the distance. The south side slipped downwards, giving an incredible view of a valley snaking off into the distance.
John then turned his attention to the side of the lake they were on – the east side. In front of them, with more mountains rising behind, was a large timber house. It gave the impression of an old hunting lodge, though he suspected that it was built with modern foundations and techniques. The main part of the house had three levels, the top two with balcony's stretching around them and the top floor with an overhanging wooden roof. To the right of the house a large single level garage was attached with a gravel track trailing off down towards the south and out of sight. The garage was easily big enough for the shuttle and a couple of sky cars as well.
John suddenly realised that he had been staring around for several minutes, Miranda intently watching him. She wore a look of anticipation and even nervousness, waiting for him to say something. Despite having changed an awful lot John knew she still struggled with certain issues, and the desire to impress was still a major hurdle for her. As a child she had been expected to please, and that was a habit that had continued into her adult life. He placed a hand on her thigh, giving her a wide smile.
"It's absolutely perfect Miri." He leaned in for a kiss, capturing her lips lightly but not expecting such an enthusiastic return from Miranda's own lips. Leaning back he saw a huge relieved grin across her face.
"I was pretty sure you'd love it," She pressed another button, cycling down the core of the shuttle. "But just wait till you see the inside."
The pair headed out of the shuttle, grabbing a few bags as they left. Two stone steps lead up to the front door, Miranda pressing on a keypad by the oak door. A light buzzer sounded as the locks disengaged, the door swinging open noiselessly and admitting them to the house.
The hallway was luxurious, marble floors with antique furniture stretching back to French doors at the back. About halfway into the room on their left was a large fish tank, reminiscent of the one on the Normandy. John noticed that there weren't yet any fish in it, clearly Miranda was going to leave the collecting to him. Opposite the fish tank was a large spiral staircase heading both upwards and down.
"So Mr Shepard," Miranda dropped the bags down, linking her arm within his own. "Would you like to start with the upstairs or the downstairs?"
"I'll let you decide."
She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before walking, leading him towards the staircase. They headed downstairs first of all, descending one level. On the way down the smell of chlorine caught in John's nose, the temperature rising slightly and lights dimming as they went down. They emerged into a large, warmly lit room. There was a large pool to the right, surrounded by tiled walls and beneath a tiled ceiling. To their left was a glass wall, a gym with various machines and weights visible through the other side. The atmosphere of the room was rather romantic, and John had to admit that the whole area looked rather inviting to him.
"This is just awesome."
"I thought so, but this isn't an excuse for you to go nuts in the gym!"
He sighed. "Meh, if you say so."
"I do," She took his arm again, wheeling him around. "But you missed the other door."
"This one." She took him back to the foot of the staircase and indicated a thick metal security door, just to the right before the stairs began. She swiped her palm over the keypad, the door opening to reveal a rather surprising sight.
"Wow, so this is where the magic will happen." He looked around in amazement, checking out all of the complex equipment laid out neatly on the desks. Glass cabinets lined the walls, filled to the brim with various chemicals and substances. He didn't dare go in yet though, he knew she had probably ordered everything immaculately to her preferences.
"Sort of," Miranda cocked her head, checking her equipment around the lab. "Not quite as... romantic... as the normal of conceiving."
"Hmm, I'm sure we can get around to that as well though." John nudged her as he said this, earning a smile from Miranda in return.
"Oh there will be," She steered him around, walking back out of the lab. "Now lets look around the rest of the house."
John had to admit that the rest of the house was just as perfect, the exact kind of place he would have chosen for them himself. The downstairs had a large, functional kitchen with smart cupboards lining the walls. There was a big dining area behind it with an oak table and chairs in the centre, a door from that area leading to the back of the hallway. The back of the dining area had floor to ceiling glass windows in a complete contrast to the traditional front, giving a view of a garden patio behind the house with the beginnings of the mountain range behind that.
On the other side of the house was another three rooms, the first of which being the living room. It was a large but cosy room, a thick red carpet along the ground. It was another room with an intimate atmosphere, caused by the soft lighting and dark furniture. A large holo screen was on the far wall, several leather sofas angled to view it. Around the room were wooden shelves, mostly empty but with room for lots of possessions such as holo-vids and books. Miranda had clearly put thought into how to deal with his kleptomaniac tendencies.
The next room along was a far smaller study, a couple of desks at the end of the room. The walls in here were also lined with shelves, presumably for the storage of files. It seemed like an ordinary study at first but then John noticed a ring in the middle of the floor, indicating the presence of a QEC.
"We have a QEC in the house?"
"Yeah," Miranda gave him a look of indifference, shrugging as she spoke. "We're just that cool."
John raised an eyebrow at her. "Erm...What was that?"
"Well, I..." Miranda turned a slight shade of pink before sighing. "Fine, Oriana's been trying to get me to use stupid phrases like that, attempting to ''normalify' me as she put it. A disgraceful abuse of the English language if you ask me."
A massive grin spread across John's face, it was a pretty funny concept. Miranda narrowed her eyes at him, prompting him to move swiftly out of the room and into the final one of the downstairs floor.
The back room was a sort of recreation room, dominated by one big object in the middle of the room. It was a large piano like the one in Anderson's apartment, but it was clearly much older. The wood was a glossy back and John saw the words Steinway printed in gold lettering across the key lid, a name that he was sure he had heard once before. Miranda walked up to it, giving him a smile.
"It's beautiful isn't it."
"It's impressive," John scratched the back of his head. "But I wouldn't know the difference between this one and the one in the apartment."
"Trust me, this one is amazing," Miranda softly pressed down a few keys, the exquisite sound filling the room. "It dates from the late nineteenth century."
"Wow," He was amazed that it survived for so long, in fact he was amazed that the entire house was in such a pristine condition after the war – he made a note to ask Miranda about that later. He turned his attention back to the piano. "Now I can play my one piece in style."
Miranda laughed. "You sure can, though I was thinking of starting to play again as I did use to enjoy it."
Then she led him upstairs, taking John around the first floor. It contained five bedrooms, all of a decent size, with two bathrooms. They were outfitted like the rest of the house, a combination of modern and traditional styles.
Finally she led him to the top floor which contained three rooms. At the top of the spiral staircase was an open landing area surrounded by bookcases. To the right was a large, spacious bathroom with a jacuzzi and shower unit. To the left was the master bedroom, yet another beautiful room.
The bed was on one side of the room, lying underneath skylight windows similar to the ones on the Normandy. On the other side was a pair of large wardrobes, John in no doubts as to how quickly Miranda would fill hers. At the far end was a set of French doors, opening out onto the balcony he had spied outside the house. The view was simply stunning, incredible in every way, and light streamed into the room from the weak winter sun. Miranda came and stood next to him, leaning into his shoulder as he slipped an arm around her waist.
"So, is it OK?"
"Miri, it's perfect," He squeezed lightly on her hip, earning a kiss on the cheek in return. "Just what we need."
"Good," She extracted herself from his grip, walking backwards away from him with a cocky grin on her face. "Now, shall we break the bed in?"
John stood outside on the balcony of their room, leaning on the rail in front of him. His gaze was focused towards the south, staring down the valley and at the occasional lights that were dotted away from the house. He was deep in thought, mainly about the dream from the previous night. Without the immediate fear from the experience he was able to think more clearly, to rationalise everything he had seen. Bad dreams were nothing new to him, he had been through plenty after Akuze and during the war, but it was the specificity of the dream that worried him. He had never dreamt about losing particular people that were so close to him before, it was only since the end of the war that he had done this. And now almost every night brought a new horror, depicting the treatment of his friends at the hands of the Reapers. He knew he should do something, but he had no idea what. Maybe it would pass in time though, there was no need for him to concern Miranda with something that was likely temporary.
John was so deep in thought that he didn't hear the doors behind him opening, footsteps padding across the balcony towards him.
"John," He turned to see Miranda heading over to him, dressed in only one of his own shirts. She had been showering, but damp hair hardly detracted from her sheer radiance. She placed herself by his side, wrapping an arm around him. "It's cold out here, come inside."
"Yeah," He had to admit it was rather cold, he was only wearing a t-shirt and boxers. He hadn't really noticed it during his silent reflection though. "I was just thinking."
"Well," He paused. "The house. Was it your fathers?"
She studied him for a moment, clearly seeing through his flimsy attempt at masking his actual thoughts. But true to her words earlier, Miranda didn't push the subject. "No, it belonged to another businessman who died during the war. If it was my fathers I would never have wanted to live here."
"Fair enough," John knew that any house that Miranda had stayed in as a child would probably have been a place of bad memories to her. He remembered a question he had made note of earlier. "How come this place is in such good condition? And the village down there seems to be fully functioning as well."
"It's an amazing story actually," She shook back her hair, replacing several strands that had come out of place. "As soon as the villagers knew about the Reaper attack the mayor gathered them in the town hall, almost all two thousand of the population went. He said that people could leave if they wanted to but otherwise people had to follow the advice the local police gave."
John could guess where this was going as Miranda continued.
"About three hundred people left to make a mad dash to the nearest star port in Milan, and none of them have been seen since. Everyone else here survived," John sadly shook his head, it seemed that very few people managed to escape Earth as the Normandy had. "Essentially the villagers cut themselves off from the outside world, severing communications and utilities, not using any sources of light during the night time, and setting a guard up with the police and also the local farmers who could shoot."
He furrowed his eyes. "The fact that they were that switched on is incredible."
"Well, desperate situations can bring out both the best and worst in people," He nodded, John knew all about those sentiments. "Of course it helped that they were so far out of the way of the towns, but their actions meant the Reapers never knew they were there."
"Anderson said something similar," John recalled one of his conversations with the Admiral. "He said the Reapers were focusing on the major population centres, that the countryside was a better place to lie low."
"Absolutely, though they would have gotten around to moving into the countryside eventually," Miranda cupped his jaw, gently moving his head to gaze at her. "But because you did so well they never got the chance."
"Thanks Miri." She gave him a quick kiss before letting go, returning her attention to the view in front of them.
"The even more amazing thing is that there are a large amount of similar stories from all over the world, survival against the greatest odds," Miranda leaned back into him. "It just goes to show that we are a great species, despite the beliefs of other races."
"Yeah, guess you're right."
"Uh-hu," They stood for a few moments in silence, just holding one another. Then Miranda shivered slightly, making John feel suddenly guilty. He was about to suggest going inside when she beat him to it. "Now, I have a cooker to master – annoyingly I may need your help."
He couldn't resist having a little jab at Miranda's lack of domestic skills."Ha! I guess I better make sure you don't poison me!"
"Shut it wise guy!"
A/N So I'm back guys and really looking forward to writing this fic. Just a few things to mention really. Firstly, I set the date of the Crucible blast as the 25th September 2186 – Not sure why but it just seems like a nice day for it. All of the timings in this (and the last chapter of NTE) run from that day. Secondly, I have a plan for this fic and I know exactly how I want it to start and end BUT not very much else is actually set in stone. If anyone is reading this story at some stage and has an idea they would like to see included then I'm up for discussion and trying to get it in, just let me know.
This kind of fic might not be everyone's cup of tea, but hopefully you guys enjoy it and I haven't read any similar ones for this pairing. As with my last work, your views are really important for me – whether you think it's drivel or a decent piece of work please share your thoughts.
Should be updating about weekly, so I'll be getting on with chapter 2!