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rocketfic | reagent, chapter three

Title: Reagent, chapter three by Rocketchick
Rating: 15+ Pairing: Jack/Miranda, fem!Shepard/Liara
Notes: Read chapter two here.

Reagent (n): a test substance that is added to a system in order to bring about a reaction or to see whether a reaction occurs.

In the middle of the night, Jack liked to prowl the ship. She wandered around the CIC, entertained herself with Jacob's new toys in the armory, then made her way to the crew deck. The few people still awake left her alone, and Gardner tended to set aside some leftovers for her in the mess. She had not yet figured out why he bothered, but she didn't mind taking advantage of it.

This time, when the elevator opened on the crew deck, she was practically assaulted by the unexpected sound of laughter and jovial chatter. The crew - alien and human alike - had gathered in the mess for some kind of impromptu celebration. The reek of cheap batarian booze and Joker's colorful storytelling was thick in the air, as they all relived some glorious tale of unlikely survival by the grace of Jane Shepard's cunning.

Irked at the disruption in her routine, Jack paused behind a bulkhead and peeked out to observe the crowd, as if she were scouting enemies on a battlefield. From what she could see, the only ones missing from the little party were Shepard, Jack herself and... Miranda.

Reflexively, her eyes snapped across the deck, where she spotted Miranda standing outside her door. The operative was tucked behind a bulkhead much like Jack was, but she wasn't hiding. She was simply removed, set apart from the crew's camaraderie even as she smiled at Joker's antics, and the low raspy chuckle from Garrus that underscored the increasingly outlandish story. After a moment she ducked away and disappeared back into her office.

Jack scowled and found herself leaning further away from her cover to track the other woman's departure, before thumping back against the bulkhead in annoyance. She argued in her own head for a full minute before creeping out along the deck's perimeter, around the throng of people in the mess toward Miranda's office.

She wasn't sure why she was even bothering, but then, Miranda made her unsure of a lot of things she did.

She opened the office door and saw Miranda seated at her desk behind a stack of OSDs and half a dozen holoprojected computer screens. "Hey," she said.

"Hello," Miranda replied, with a friendly, if curious, expression.

Jack took that as an invitation to step inside and let the door close behind her, thankfully sealing out the noise from the mess. "So you're not indulging in the ancient soldier rite of making shit up?" she asked, with a toss of her head that indicated the confab without.

Miranda chuckled. "It didn't seem appropriate to participate. Although, with Shepard, it's hard to say just how much they're exaggerating."

"Hm," Jack grunted in vague agreement, as she eyed the information scrolling across the computer screens. "What are you working on?"

"A project for the Commander. I'm tracking the Shadow Broker's assets. I think that if we can disrupt the financial..."

Jack waved off the lengthier explanation, uninterested in the details. "Whatever. Need help?"

Miranda paused, then looked up at Jack in some surprise. The moment dragged out as they each measured the profundity of the threshold they'd reached. Even though their relationship had defrosted a bit since they defeated the Collectors, they were not exactly collegial. Most days, they were barely polite enough to overcome the prickle of ill-defined tension that always seemed to inhabit the air between them.

Finally Jack sighed. "Look, I'm bored and I'm good at hacking shit."

"All right," Miranda drawled. "I could use some help. Thank you." She smiled when Jack sat across from her, looking expectant and uncomfortable.

It took some jockeying before they found a complementary approach to their task. Jack preferred brute force, and had infinite patience for attacking the same network in different ways over and over again until its defenses gave way. Miranda was naturally more circumspect, but used Jack's approach as a cover for her own more surgical strikes. It was not unlike the style they'd cultivated in battle, and it quickly became a comfortable rapport.

Before long they were mapping the groundwork of a complicated organization of business fronts and hidden accounts that looked a great deal like Cerberus' own financial structure. Miranda found it fascinating, while Jack was enjoying the chance to undermine yet another powerful galactic entity that she didn't trust.

After a couple hours Jack stood and stretched, then crossed over to the door to key it open. She was relieved when only the normal low frequency whoosh of life support systems greeted her, indicating the crew had dispersed to sleep off their revelry. "Looks like the party's over," she said. "And I'm starving. Gonna go raid Gardner's stash."

"Oh, I wouldn't," Miranda called after the other woman, as she stood and followed her out to the mess. "Sergeant Gardner was 'experimenting' last night. Some sort of salarian sushi. From what I heard, it was rather... objectionable."

Jack was already shoulders-deep in the refrigerated storage, where she uncovered the noxious leftovers in question. She winced and careened away, propelled by the potent stink. "Ah, fuck. Would it kill him to make something humans could actually digest?!"

Miranda swept past her with a chuckle, then started digging through Gardner's obscure storage system and plunking ingredients on the counter. Within minutes she had a passable stir-fry simmering on the range.

"You're kidding, right?" Jack asked. She folded her arms and watched Miranda with a dubious look.

The operative only smiled, which did little to reassure Jack the meal would be in any way edible. When it was done Miranda doled out two portions and set them on the counter. "Would you like some tea?" she asked.

What Jack actually wanted was some of that batarian rotgut the crew had been passing around earlier. It might counteract the dizzy disbelief she was feeling as Miranda Lawson served her dinner, for fuck's sake. "Nah," she muttered, then sat and dug into her meal, which was surprisingly tasty. "Hey, not bad, Cheerleader," Jack said, though she couldn't resist the urge to snark. "So Daddy engineered you to cook, too?"

"No," Miranda replied. "But it seemed like an important skill to learn, once." She carried her tea over to the table with a frown, while her enhanced memory offered the unblemished recollection of endless hours of toil in the kitchen, trying to perfect her father's favorite meals, followed by his inevitable dissatisfaction.

Jack scowled, reading the other woman's wistful expression. "Hope the bastard starves to death," she grunted out as she chewed.

Miranda raised her mug in a toast of wry agreement, and they ate their meal in hospitable quiet.

In contrast to the crew's earlier gathering in that very spot, the two women had little to say. They had no need to swap soldier bluster or spin yarns of certain doom. At Shepard's side they had saved the galaxy itself, earning each a mutual, if grudging, respect from the other.

On the other hand, Jack found herself wrestling with things she wanted to say, but couldn't. After their return from Pragia, she'd gone to Miranda's office seeking... something. Understanding, comfort - she still wasn't sure. In the end she'd lacked the vocabulary to even ask for the resolution she sought, got frustrated, and threw some things. It was a fairly standard tantrum as far as she was concerned, but some nagging corner of her brain insisted that Miranda hadn't deserved to bear the brunt of it. Shepard agreed, and had nudged her to explain, to absolve Miranda of the anger she felt at Cerberus as a whole.

So she sat there and ate her dinner, while the things she couldn't quite express itched inside her brain.

When she'd cleaned her plate and she couldn't avoid talking any longer, Jack took a deep breath and dove in. "So. Thank you. For dinner."

The words tripped out of her mouth with an awkward cadence that made Miranda wonder if she'd ever spoken them before. "You're welcome," she replied. "Thank you for your help earlier."

Jack nodded, glad to have the damned niceties out of the way. By then Shepard's admonition was knocking around loudly in her head, and it was pissing her off. She heaved a frustrated sigh before leaning forward. "Yeah. Listen. You..." She stopped, and eyed Miranda closely. "You're not wearing Cerberus' insignia anymore," she blurted in realization.

The other woman immediately pressed her fingers to the spot above her heart where the emblem used to reside. "No," she said, looking a bit flustered. "I did resign, after all."

"I thought you believed in all their 'galactic good by human dominance' bullshit."

"I may have believed it, once," Miranda replied. "I'd like to think I've learned a few things since then." She watched Jack with an even, calm expression that belied the wash of profound doubt and righteous anger she'd first encountered in the overgrown ruins on Pragia. In an vague way, she'd long been aware of the atrocities Cerberus had committed in the name of human superiority, but walking those hallways had turned abstraction to abhorrent reality.

"Well, as long as you didn't quit on my account," Jack said.

"Why not? It's as good a reason as any." Miranda stood and collected their dishes, using the motion to vent her sudden nervousness. "The facility on Pragia might have gone rogue, but Cerberus enabled the research in the first place. They're responsible." She crossed the mess to clean up, and tossed a hesitant glance over her shoulder. "I want you to know I know that, and that I'm sorry."

Jack stood up so fast she nearly knocked over her chair. "Well, it's done, right?" she said. "And none of that was your fault."

"Wasn't it?" Miranda asked softly. "I turned a blind eye to the worst things Cerberus did, because it served me well to do so."

At any other time she might have agreed, but right then Jack couldn't muster the spite to say it aloud. "But not anymore," she said instead.

"No," Miranda said, turning back to look at her with a stormy, intense gaze. "Not anymore."

And there it was - exactly what Jack had been seeking from Miranda in her office that first time, when everything had turned angry and broken. She'd only wanted Miranda to give a shit. Now that it was quite apparent she did, Jack wasn't prepared for how much that mattered.

"Okay then," Jack said. "Later." She turned and stalked toward the elevator, almost tripping when she heard the soft words behind her:

"Good night, Jack."

Inside the confined safety of the elevator, Jack paced in small circles, trying to sort out what the hell had just happened. Something about Miranda alternately agitated her and soothed her, abrading her nerves in a way that was not altogether unpleasant, even if it was confusing as hell. Something about Miranda prodded her to do things she normally wouldn't, say things she definitely shouldn't, and feel things she promised herself she'd never feel. She cared, much as she wanted to pretend otherwise. She wanted. And she was pretty sure Miranda did, too.

"Fuck it," she muttered, as she spun on her heel, left the elevator, and barged back into the operative's office.

Miranda was standing by the window, looking out at the panorama of the nebula beyond. She barely reacted to Jack's entrance, though her breath caught when the other woman took hold of her wrist and spun her so they faced each other.

Jack's eyes were wide and wild, searching Miranda's for something she couldn't name. She could feel Miranda's breath against her skin, could feel the strain in taut muscles that weren't sure whether to push her away or pull her closer. She realized that they had always been like this - the constant tug between resistance and capitulation, the constant argument that their bodies perpetuated even when language abandoned them.

The kiss started out clumsy; they collided somewhere in the middle, all teeth and noses and bad angles. In a moment it gentled, and a moment after that Jack lurched away, unprepared for the rush of sweet heat the contact had provoked.

"Jack," Miranda whispered, as she shuffled closer.

At that, Jack let go of Miranda's wrist and fled.

Miranda watched her go, then turned back to the window and wrapped her arms around herself with a sigh.

Continue to Chapter Four.
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