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rocketfic | catalyst

Title: Catalyst by Rocketchick
Rating: 15+ Pairing: Jack/Miranda, fem!Shepard/Liara
Notes: Picks up shortly after my previous ME2 story, Reagent. This one will be less episodic in nature.

She'd read the same paragraph in the intelligence report eight times, but the words remained a meaningless blur. Frustrated, Jane tossed the infopad away, then pressed her hands to her eyes and sank back into the couch.

At the desk on the other side of the Loft's clear partition, Liara shifted in her seat, a tiny movement barely audible over the normal hum of the ship's support systems. Jane focused on the sound, savoring the presence of the woman sharing her quarters.

More agonizing than losing the original Normandy, she'd lost Liara. They'd lost two years together, and Liara had nearly lost her soul. After so long apart and the trials of finally reuniting, some part of her still feared that she'd never truly get their relationship back. There was only so much Cerberus could rebuild.

Still focused on the other woman's movement, Jane heard Liara shut down the computer station and stand, then step down into the living area. Jane opened her eyes to see Liara peering at her in concern. She reached out, which Liara took as an invitation to approach and kneel on the couch, straddling Jane's lap.

"You appear distracted, Commander," she said in a low murmur, settling in as she rested her hands on Jane's shoulders.

Jane directed a lazy smile up at her, realizing that her anxiety was plainly obvious to her bondmate. "I am. And it's your fault," she said. Her own hands rose to slide around Liara's hips, pulling her closer. "I'm so glad you're here."

"I am glad, as well," Liara said. "Though if I'd known your new quarters were such an improvement over the previous Normandy, I would have joined you sooner."

It was a pleasant lie, one that sidestepped two years of pain and separation. Jane sighed, and fought the urge to wallow in regret. "So, anything new out there?" she asked, with a tilt of her head to indicate Liara's ongoing research.

"Nothing in particular. Few suspect the Shadow Broker is actually dead, and even fewer care. Information flows as it always did, and now the Shadow Broker's remaining agents answer largely to me."

"And just like that, you turn the entire galactic intelligence industry on its head," Jane said, shaking her head. She was still impressed, especially knowing the burden Liara had borne to make it happen. "Amazing."

"Which is why, despite your distraction, you are fortunate to have me aboard, Commander," Liara said with a mischievous look. "I am very good at what I do, and I can make sure you don't miss anything important." She leaned in closer to tug delicate fingertips through Jane's hair. "Like the fact that EDI turned off the ship's internal alert protocols eighteen minutes ago."

"Mm," Jane hummed in agreement, as she turned into the caress. Then she blinked and pulled back. "Wait, what? EDI?"

"Go ahead, Commander," came the AI's immediate response.

"Why are the internal alerts disabled?"

"Internal alert protocols were deactivated under authority of Operative Lawson. No reason logged."

Jane's eyes narrowed. "And where is Operative Lawson right now?" she asked.

"She is on the Engineering deck, section six."

"Thank you, EDI," Jane said, dismissing the AI even though it never actually went away. She fixed her gaze back on Liara, who gave her a knowing smile in return. "Suppose I need to go check on things," Jane said.

"That would be prudent," Liara replied.

She sighed and reluctantly extricated herself from under Liara's warmth, then stood and smoothed the creases in her uniform. "Got any more information tucked away?"

"None that I am willing to share until I am properly compensated," Liara said as she sat with a prim look. "My services are not free, Commander."

Jane grinned, then bent to kiss her. "I'll think of something," she promised.

"I'm assuming there's a good explanation for this."

Miranda turned from the viewport over the hangar bay to face her commanding officer, automatically straightening to attention. "Commander," she greeted, not bothering to offer any explanation, good or otherwise.

Jane frowned and stepped closer, looking down at the knot of Normandy's crew as they clapped and cheered. In the the middle of the action, Jack and Grunt were squaring off in a battle of biotics versus brawn. "EDI tells me you overrode her alert protocol," she said.

"Aye, Commander," Miranda replied. "On the condition that I maintain strict personal oversight during the bouts."

"'Bouts?'" Jane asked. She lifted her eyebrows in surprise, annoyed that she'd been oblivious to this sort of activity on her own ship. "As in 'more than one?' Does this happen often?"

"Only when there's a gap between near-death missions to save the galaxy," Miranda said with a wry look. "It helps the crew blow off steam, and some of the matches have been quite educational. Thane was especially instructive."

Shepard exhaled slowly and tried to set aside her pique to acknowledge her 2IC's intentions. She nodded toward the fight in progress below. "Is it really a good idea to put Jack in an arena again?" she asked.

"She volunteered for the very first match, back before the Omega Four mission. She's sparred regularly ever since."

"And you're okay with that?" Jane asked, guessing the answer from the sudden tension in Miranda's posture.

"Not entirely," Miranda admitted. "But I think she needs this, more than the others do." She canted her head, considering Jack's current opponent. "Except possibly for Grunt. They both require a similar outlet, which makes sense... They were both bred and conditioned to fight. It's who they are."

"Who they were made to be," Jane said.

"She is more than the sum of a few habituated responses," Miranda snapped, automatically defensive.

Jane raised her hands in apology, then leaned against a nearby bulkhead. "Of course she is. But Grunt? I'm not so sure. We're the ones writing the textbook on tank-bred krogan. Who knows how he'll react when he's provoked?"

"She can take care of herself," Miranda countered. She relaxed a bit, and watched as Jack danced just outside the radius of Grunt's limited reach, teasing the krogan while the rest of the crew cheered her on. "I actually think it helps her forget about Pragia," the operative said, quiet and pensive. "She forgets to worry that everyone's going to hurt her."

Confused, Jane shook her head. "While fighting an alien who could snap her in half?" she asked.

"I know that's counterintuitive, but the fights are very controlled," Miranda said, gesturing to the action below, where Grunt had lowered his head to charge. Jack rolled out of the way with a confident grin, then bounced up behind him and delivered a biotic throw that sent him crashing to the deck. "If someone gets hurt, they stop. If someone goes too far, they stop. If Jack feels threatened, she can walk away. It's not about rewarding relentless aggression. It's about trust."

Indeed, both fighters' movements were composed, almost leisurely, and Grunt's low rumbling laugh reverberated through the deck. "Well, it's unique, I'll give you that," Jane said. "Probably Kelly's idea," she added, under her breath.

Miranda smiled, remembering the day Chambers had indeed made the suggestion, along with bogus justification about Shepard's latitude for therapeutic exercise.

It had been an extreme gamble, sneaking around Shepard to let the crew beat the stuffing out of each other. Miranda almost regretted taking the risk, especially during the first match, when Garrus had tripped Jack with a surprisingly agile leg sweep, taking her swiftly to the deck. The moment drew out with uncomfortable strain while Jack lay there and blinked at Garrus in shock.

Miranda had tensed, ready to head off Jack's inevitable violent tantrum. She was already composing her apology to Shepard when Jack confounded all her expectations. Again.

With a shrug, Jack gamely pushed back to her feet and dusted herself off. "Well, fuck. I didn't even know turians could bend that way," she said, rolling her shoulders.

That startled a laugh out of Garrus. "Had an old friend who insisted on the benefits of being 'flexible,'" he explained.

"Sounds kinky," Jack replied. "Show me."

They'd settled in to a less intense exchange that was more about trading technique than it was trying to overpower each other. When they were both exhausted, Garrus dipped his head in respect and wandered back to his station, while Kelly and the rest of the crew who'd gathered to watch dispersed with happy chatter, analyzing the fight.

Before leaving, Jack stopped and gave Miranda an appraising look, then nodded in satisfaction. "Next time, I wanna see your moves, Cheerleader," she'd said, as she breezed past the operative on her way back into the bowels of the ship.

Now, months later, Miranda recalled her sudden, unexpected jolt of answering attraction with a smile. Afterward, she'd let the fights continue, even though she pretended the effort wasn't strictly for the sake of Jack's approval.

Jane split her observation between the fight and Miranda, watching the evident pride and affection her first officer had for the woman playing to the crowd below. She couldn't dispute that Kelly's unorthodox suggestion had likely fostered a great deal of cohesion on an unorthodox team, but the subterfuge still rankled. "Miranda, I know you care about her," Jane said in a quiet, stern voice. "And I appreciate the lengths you'll go to for her, but if that makes you hide things from me on my ship, we're going to have a problem."

Miranda straightened, abashed and just a little angry. "It was never my intention to... I didn't..." After stuttering a bit she shook her head, dismissing her own excuses. "You're right. I apologize, Commander. It won't happen again."

Jane nodded and shifted back out of command mode, accepting her sincerity. "Good. Just make sure they don't do any serious damage. To each other or to the hangar."

"Yes, ma'am," Miranda said, risking a smile. "May I ask how Liara figured it out?"

She shrugged, and didn't even bother to pretend she had discovered the shipboard anomaly on her own. Miranda and Liara had a history she didn't fully understand, and since most of it had to do with the quest to bring Jane herself back to life, she didn't find it much worth worrying about. "If I had to guess, I'd say she hacked EDI's monitoring systems to watch what you're watching," she said.

"She's good," Miranda declared, with obvious respect. "Glad she's on our side." She watched as Shepard smiled, with that tiny look of contentment she always had when reminded of her bondmate.

The commander pointed down at the fight, where Jack had sent Grunt tumbling into a stack of spare power cells. "I'm glad she's on our side," Jane countered. "So long as nobody gets hurt." She winced at Grunt's crash and subsequent roar as she left her crew to their recreation.

Miranda watched her go, then folded her arms and returned her full attention to the fight. Despite assurances to Shepard, Miranda was well aware that people so skilled at violence did not always have the ability to restrain their instincts. More than once, Mordin had scurried down to the cargo hold to patch up a crewmate on the losing end of a "friendly" bout. In Mordin's absence, Miranda had stepped up her own vigilance, watching for signs of frayed temper or bruised ego that could lead to a dangerous mistake.

The trick was making sure neither combatant exceeded their threshold of sportsmanship. Jack and Grunt in particular had very finite limits, and if they were pushed too far, somebody could easily end up dead.

This time, her cue came when Grunt caught Jack with a wild elbow to the teeth, and Miranda jerked as if struck herself. She could see the anger coiling in Jack's posture, and she hurried to call the match before Grunt ended up smeared across a bulkhead.

"I am certain you all have duties to attend to," she called to the gathered crowd, sharp with authority. To their credit, the crew immediately snapped to, and filed out of the hangar bay.

Grunt paced and panted for a moment longer, letting the blood rage dissipate before he clapped his hands and followed them out, having sated his battle lust for the time being.

After he left, Jack wiped the back of her hand across her split lip, then looked at Miranda with an expectant smirk. "Aw, Mom, can't we play for a few more minutes?"

"Not unless you want to explain why the newest member of the Urdnot clan was ripped in half by a biotic field," Miranda said, folding her arms. "Grunt hasn't yet figured out when he's lost."

"That was pretty good, wasn't it?" Jack asked, bouncing a bit on the balls of her feet. "Did you see the part where I got him overbalanced and he crashed into the reserve power cells?"

"You did well," Miranda allowed. "But your left guard is sloppy. He almost flanked you twice."

Jack snorted. "Oh, whatever. Like that overgrown turtle is gonna get around me?"

They had started circling each other, and Jack lifted her hands a bit in reflexive defense. Miranda gave her a sly smile, feeling the familiar spark flare between them. In another life, Miranda might have been disturbed by the notion that violence would spike her hormones. In this life, she'd seen and survived enough that it actually seemed logical for two warriors to consider fighting a form of foreplay.

"Maybe he wouldn't have taken advantage. But I know all your weaknesses," she said.

"Name one," Jack said with a sneer.


Jack barked in laughter. "Bring it, Cheerleader."

In answer to that challenge, Miranda lowered her shoulder and charged, unleashing a biotic blast that Jack easily deflected. They whirled and traded blows in an almost static battle of will, straining against each others' defenses without pushing too far.

Finally the operative ducked around an attack and cast out a hand, tossing a small biotic throw that pushed Jack backward into a stack of storage crates Grunt hadn't toppled. Miranda advanced, calculating their exposure to prying eyes from the windows above and the security cameras in the bay, and figured they had a few minutes of relative privacy.

Jack stayed still as she approached, breathing hard as Miranda's scent and heat inflamed her senses.

"You still never see me coming," Miranda growled.

"Bullshit," Jack said with a haughty grin. "I see that every day."

Miranda was already leaning in, and exhaled an amused noise just before their lips met. In its own way, the kiss was simply a continuation of the duel. Every advance met a defense, and every push met equal resistance. At some point they shifted, and Miranda found herself turned and pressed between the unyielding composite of ammo storage and the sinuous strength of Jack's embrace. It occurred to her to fight back and reclaim the upper hand, but instead she indulged in rare surrender, pulling the other woman closer and sinking into the heady sensation as Jack braced one hand against the ammo container while the other curled at Miranda's hip.

It was Jack who ultimately broke away, looking dazed and a bit embarrassed by her own enthusiasm while they both regained their breath.

"You're not the only one who gets warm feelings from a fight," Miranda admitted, with a leer. She ran a thumb across the faint smear of blood Jack's split lip had left behind.

Jack frowned, and would have backed away if not for the operative's gentle hand still at her back, keeping her close. "You realize that's pretty twisted, right?"

With a shrug, Miranda dismissed the question and set about adjusting her hair and clothing to look slightly less ravished.

Jack turned her gaze to the windows above them. "Did Shepard give you a hard time?"

"A little. But I convinced her that the fight was actually an exercise in team building and trust."

Jack finally slipped away to grab the towel she'd brought with her. She slung it around her neck and wandered toward the exit, pausing to make sure Miranda was going to follow. "Do you think she'd buy that shit if it was anybody else but me?"

"Possibly," Miranda said. "Does it matter?"

"I dunno." She wandered off course a bit, pensive as she wrapped her fists in the ends of the towel dangling over her shoulders. "I just don't like being the fragile nutjob who gets special treatment 'cause she might snap and kill everybody."

Miranda stepped closer and gave her a steady, honest gaze. "That's not what this was about."

Jack snorted and looked away, indulging in a skeptical pout. After a moment she freed one hand from the towel and reached out to hook her fingers into Miranda's, tugging the other woman closer to study the contrast of tattooed skin against glove.

Miranda wound her fingers around Jack's and enjoyed the incongruent moment of closeness. Jack's occasional shy vulnerability was oddly charming, as she cautiously learned to tread the space of human intimacy that spanned between the extremes of fighting and fucking.

"You're not fragile, and you're not actually a nutjob," Miranda said quietly, hoping not to chase off the mood. "But even if you did get special treatment, so what? Shepard cares about you. She'd do a lot more than bend a couple rules for your benefit."

Jack heaved a sigh, but didn't respond.

Miranda reached up with her free hand to brush gentle fingertips across Jack's temple. "Meet me for dinner later?" she asked, deciding the topic was best set aside.

"Yeah, okay." Jack released her hold and stepped away, but stopped one last time before descending the steps toward her makeshift quarters. "Having friends is weird," she declared. "You know?"

"It really is," Miranda agreed with a smile.

To be continued...

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