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rocketfic | reagent, chapter six

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


"Shit."

Under other circumstances, her language might have been more colorful, and certainly louder. Instead, in deference to the unconscious woman on the bed behind her, Jack bit back the stream of panicked cursing that wanted to claw its way out of her throat.

She paced in front of the enormous window, kept her eyes on the stars, fought the desire to check Miranda's vitals with her omnitool for the eighth time, and tried to wait.


A few hours earlier...

Miranda woke early, indulged in a lazy stretch under crisp hotel sheets, then undertook the usual task of locating her bedmate. Jack was by nature a restless soul who had trouble staying still, even in a hotel bed as comfortable as this one, with a naked former Cerberus operative as added incentive.

Miranda was learning not to take it personally.

She spotted Jack perched on the corner of the bed, with her knees drawn under her chin as she stared out the window that dominated the bedroom wall. Miranda had chosen this particular hotel on Omega for just this particular view, and she spent a moment enjoying the sight of Jack's deceptively delicate frame against the stars.

Slowly, making just enough noise so Jack could tell she was coming, Miranda shifted across the bed and settled behind her companion, dragging a sheet along with her to ward off the early morning chill.

"How can you sleep with all that out there?" Jack asked.

Miranda frowned as she tried to decode the question. "You mean the stars?"

Jack nodded and drew her legs just a little tighter against herself.

"Well, I've always liked looking out at the sky," Miranda said. "When I was a little girl, I would lie in bed under my big bedroom window and dream of escaping to wander the stars on my own."

"That why your quarters have windows on the Normandy?"

"Exactly," Miranda said with a smile. "I intercepted the ship's early designs to include them." For a moment she let herself wonder why the Illusive Man had allowed the frivolous addition.

"Windows bug me," Jack declared. "You see too much. Not enough. Something."

With that prompt, Miranda's enhanced memory flashed back to their mission on Pragia, where she had hung back a few paces while Jack took Shepard on a tour through the facility as remembered by a scared, angry little girl. There was the desk Jack would hide under. There was the bed with the restraints she'd practice escaping. There was the window, the two-way mirror she'd pounded on for hours on end, screaming for help, hoping for anyone to notice or care.

Not for the first time, her heart hurt for the child Jack had been, for the torture she'd endured and basic affection she'd been denied. Miranda sighed, then reached out and gingerly enfolded Jack into a hug, tucking the bunched sheet around them both in a safe, warm cocoon. Jack stiffened at first, not sure how to share this kind of embrace. Eventually she relaxed against the other woman with a shaky breath.

As different as they sometimes seemed, they had surprising things in common. They had both grown up in prisons of a sort, each with one window, one portal to the outside world. From her perspective, Jack had seen people who would only ignore and betray her; Miranda had seen endless freedom and possibility.

"I can turn up the opacity on the window," Miranda offered. "If that would help you sleep."

"Nah," Jack replied. "Sleep sucks. Dreams suck." She thought for a moment and shrugged. "Besides - might be nice to try to see it another way."

Miranda smiled, feeling the triumph of that particular breakthrough. She turned her head and planted a kiss just behind Jack's ear.

Jack scowled and kept her eyes on the window, fighting the urge to look back at the other woman. This kind of closeness felt nice and all, but it still seemed weird. It was antithetical to her mental insistence on defining their relationship as "convenient colleagues that fuck," and reminded her that she actually, truly, deeply cared. As a result she spent most of her time around Miranda teetering between some kind of bullshit happiness and unbridled terror.

"Bet Daddy would kick himself if he knew about that window," Jack said, seeking a distraction. "Maybe if he hadn't given you a room with a view you would've stuck around."

"Maybe," Miranda said. She propped her chin on Jack's shoulder and cast a pensive look out at the stars.

"'Course, the galaxy would be completely screwed right about now. That'd show him," Jack mused with a smirk. "When we're done helping Shepard with her love life, we should pay him a visit." For a moment she enjoyed the mental picture of his head exploding when Miranda introduced her heavily-tattooed ex-convict girlfriend, and didn't notice that Miranda had gone silent and very, very still against her.

Eventually, she threw a glance over her shoulder, spotting the other woman's preoccupation. "Hey," Jack said. "Why the hell do you still let him get to you?"

Miranda managed a faint smile, not needing to explain the burden of childhood inadequacy. "Sometimes I imagine trying to tell him about what I've done, who I've helped. Then all I can hear is his litany of disappointment and betrayal."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Jack snarled. "You saved the goddamned galaxy, and survived shit no other human could have. He couldn't make you do any of that. You're brave and smart and tough all on your own." Agitated, she untucked her legs and turned within Miranda's embrace, then grabbed at her with an intense look. "He doesn't deserve that part of you. Don't give that to him."

"Sorry," Miranda replied, ducking her head. "Old habit."

Jack held herself still and tried not to lose her temper. While she considered it a sign of personal growth that she hadn't yet stomped around the room and broken something, that only left her with a lot of frustration and no obvious way to vent it...

... except for the part where they were both already naked and in bed together. That certainly had possibilities.

She yanked the tangled sheet away from their bodies and lunged, knocking Miranda backwards onto the mattress. Miranda panted out a surprised chuckle and looked up at Jack as the other woman arched over her, pinning her arms down.

From that vantage point, Jack paused for a moment to study her. The operative's dark hair splayed against the bright white bedding, and her pale, unblemished skin stood out in stark relief against Jack's own mottled tattoos. Most striking - and most beautiful - was the expression on Miranda's face, which contained equal parts amusement, arousal, and trust.

Miranda took advantage of Jack's momentary distraction, loosing a tiny biotic burst to overcome the grip on her wrists and flip them both over, rolling into the middle of the bed so that she was stretched out on top. "She who hesitates is lost," Miranda purred, with a predatory gaze.

"Yeah, sounds right," Jack agreed, without a hint of protest. A sick feeling of helplessness knotted in her gut, but not from the position she was in, and not because she felt threatened by Miranda seizing control. Instead, she had the distinct notion that this depth of emotional attachment was stupid and dangerous, especially because she found herself craving it more each day. She looked up at Miranda and waited, half expecting to be used and tossed aside, again.

As if recognizing the rare moment of vulnerability, Miranda gave her a gentle smile, then dipped her head to claim a proper good morning kiss. Eventually her body relaxed and pressed into Jack's with soft weight, and all dread of emotional weakness fled Jack's mind. Besides, she thought, as Miranda's hands roamed her bare skin, if Jane Shepard could be the biggest badass this side of the galactic core and still spare the time to moon over some asari, maybe the whole "relationship" thing wasn't so pathetic after all.

Somewhere in the midst of overheated skin and slick friction, Miranda realized they would be late for their planned rendezvous with yet another agent of the Shadow Broker. She mentioned as much in a breathless gasp, prompting Jack to pause and give her a wicked look before resuming the activity that had made Miranda breathless in the first place. Spurred by Miranda's groan of approval, Jack redoubled her efforts and drove them both harder and faster, all in the interests of obliging the schedule.

Oh well. The bad guys weren't likely to notice a few extra bruises, anyway.


In the shuttlecab, Jack stretched out with a satisfied grin and propped her booted feet on the dash as the spires of Omega's most expensive hotel receded behind them. Miranda steered the vehicle away from the station's high-end district and toward the tangled remnants of mining infrastructure that protruded out the bottom end of the asteroid.

Their mission for the day was to crash a data drop, a trade set up between Miranda's old colleague Ish and a mercenary rumored to be high on the Shadow Broker's payroll. It was the latest step in their investigation, each tiny bit of progress bringing them closer to pinpointing the man himself.

If he was a man at all. Jack wasn't convinced.

"So T'soni thinks the Shadow Broker is just some guy, like the Illusive Man," Jack said, speculative.

"She's not the only one. Cerberus intelligence also concluded that the Shadow Broker was most likely a single individual," Miranda replied. "If instead there were a cell of information traders sharing the designation, they would have been far more easily exposed."

"Yeah, but I don't buy it. The money trail stretches back to dummy corporations established two hundred years ago. Who just hides out and meddles in galactic politics for that long?" Jack scowled. "Maybe he's not a 'he' but like some series of people who pass on the title when they find a worthy successor."

Miranda cast an amused look her way. "Perhaps. Do you want to be the next to inherit a vast information-dealing empire?"

"Only if I could change the name," Jack replied, with a disdainful sniff. "'Shadow Broker' sounds like a pussy."

"And I suspect you wouldn't take well to a life of meddling anonymity," Miranda said with a chuckle.

"I could," Jack protested. "Hell, that's what we're doing now, and it's pretty okay. Right?" She glanced sidelong at Miranda, hating herself for the insecurity that prompted her to ask.

"Better than I expected it to be," Miranda admitted. "Considering we haven't tried to kill each other yet."

"Well fuck, now you've jinxed it."

With the expected snort, Miranda focused her attention on locating their landing zone, off a seldom-used dock near the ore processing plant. They disembarked and headed down a twisting corridor to a dank, cavernous warehouse filled with large pieces of machinery in various states of disrepair. Some bits still groaned along in their appointed tasks, sorting chunks of rock to be refined and processed elsewhere in Omega. The fitful emergency lighting only made the air seem hotter and more stagnant.

The two women snuck in unnoticed, took cover behind a pile of abandoned industrial equipment, and settled in to wait. After weeks spent on this little hunting trip, the whole setup was so routine that Jack actually yawned.

This latest rendezvous came about like a dozen had before: They found someone who knew someone else who had traded information once or twice, and eventually Liara T'soni could link that contact to a vast network of agents all employed by the mysterious Shadow Broker. Their current target was some batarian referenced in a number of recent high-end deals, a merc who specialized in intelligence about Alliance fleet movements. Miranda had manufactured a bit of convincing data for Ish to sell, and upon purchase the batarian in turn would be forced to confirm its authenticity. Once the embedded data flag made its way to his source and phoned home to Miranda's logs, they'd have a new target, presumably even higher up the food chain.

Even better, once the batarian had performed his prescribed task, they could detain him and "induce" him to share any other information he knew. That was Jack's favorite part.

The whole investigative process was fairly tedious, and Jack was surprised to find she enjoyed it. There was undeniable satisfaction in reading Miranda's daily progress reports as they uncovered more and more of the Shadow Broker's organization. Plus, she got to beat up criminals and their asshole associates on a regular basis. All new do-gooding impulses aside, a bit of violence still made her guts warm in a way few other things could.

From around the rusting edge of their cover, she spotted movement on the far end of the warehouse, and signaled as much to Miranda.

"That's Ish," Miranda confirmed under her breath.

They watched as Ish made his way across the room. He looked nervous, which was not at all unusual for a salarian, but it put Jack on edge.

"Easy," Miranda whispered. "He knows what he's doing."

"Then where's the batarian?" Jack whispered back. She scowled and drew her pistol, unsurprised when Miranda did the same.

"Over there," Miranda said, pointing to movement in distant shadows. A moment later, they heard the distinct sound of large metal doors sliding shut, as all the exits from the warehouse sealed in unison.

For perhaps the first time in her life, Jack decided profanity was actually gratuitous. She only sighed and waited to see what was going to go wrong next.

Ish made a valiant attempt to proceed with the deal as planned. "Hello?" he called, peering into the jagged darkness. After several seconds the scurrying in the shadows resolved into a dozen vorcha, who took up defensive positions across the far end of the warehouse.

"Shadow Broker not stupid, salarian," hissed the vorcha leader. "Know you're working for humans. Place bounty on humans."

Miranda scowled. "Well, at least we've finally got his attention," she said. "We can use that to our advantage."

"Sure, right after those vorcha slaughter your friend," Jack muttered.

They watched while Ish spread his hands wide and professed complete ignorance, then dove for cover. Several of the vorcha charged, moving right into Jack and Miranda's line of fire.

What followed was the standard, by-the-numbers merc assault, loud and explosive as biotics and more conventional weaponry clashed in the enclosed space. At one point Jack slid behind a massive storage container and stopped to watch Miranda fire off a precision shot that ignited one of the vorcha's pyro tanks. She couldn't help but admire Miranda's deadly efficiency; the operative had a brutal kind of intensity that Jack found almost elegant. Miranda took the violence Jack herself was conditioned to enjoy and turned it beautiful, like some kind of twisted, savage art.

Miranda noticed Jack's attention and grinned back, tilting her eyebrows in a suggestive way that stirred memories of how they'd spent their morning.

It was ultimately that moment of distraction that cost them the battle. Even as the last of the vorcha fell, another shadow rose unnoticed behind Miranda, then suddenly the batarian mercenary emerged with a roar, smashing the butt of his rifle into the operative's jaw when she spun to face him.

Miranda crashed to the ground with a sickening thud, as Jack cursed the dirty haze of battle that obscured her line of sight. She scrambled behind her cover to find a better angle.

The batarian was enormous even for his species, bristling with armor and bad attitude. He kicked at the fragile-looking human sprawled before him, flipping Miranda over and taking feral satisfaction from her dazed moan. Convinced that she could not possibly be a threat, he snarled and grabbed her by the neck, pulling her tightly against his own body as a living shield. He peered into the charred, smoking remnants of the recent battle. "So where's your friend?" he asked conversationally.

"All those eyes and you can't see a bloody thing," Miranda grunted, as she clawed at the massive forearm pinned across her throat. "She's already gone."

In her hiding spot, Jack restrained a growl of frustration. She'd been expecting a coded plan of attack, but not that one. Miranda was telling her to escape while she could.

The batarian's many eyes narrowed, and he fired a few indiscriminate rounds into the smoke. "I don't believe you."

"You idiot. She has no reason to stay," Miranda said as loud as she could, fighting for breath and willing Jack to get the hell out. "Besides, she knows the bounty is worthless if you only capture one of us."

Jack heard her loud and clear, and understood the subtext of unspoken orders as well: Find Ish. Find an exit. Get the shuttlecab. I'll get the information we need and meet you later.

It was their standard fallback plan, and it was a good one. If they got separated, one would try to complete the given mission, and the other would make sure an escape route was clear. It made enough sense that Jack had never argued about it, despite her natural tendencies to argue about everything.

Except now that she was faced with the reality of walking away from Miranda Lawson and leaving her in the hands of a violent mercenary, she just couldn't go. She shut her eyes and let her head loll against the crate. Fuck, Kelly Chambers was going to get a kick out of this. Emotionally-stunted Subject Zero had actually found someone she couldn't leave behind. And what a glorious time to have that particular revelation.

Rather than dwell on it further, Jack grit her teeth and swung away from her cover, pointing her pistol at the batarian's enormous head. "Let her go, you son of a bitch," she growled. "Or I paint the wall with your brains."

He actually laughed. "Oh, look. There's the rest of my bounty," he said with gleeful menace. He tightened his chokehold on Miranda, pulling her even tighter across his body. "You humans are so predictable."

Annoyance with Jack's inability to follow orders warred with the effects of dwindling oxygen in her brain, and Miranda summoned the last of her strength to act. She curled against the batarian's grip and drew up her legs before rearing to deliver a hard heel to the anatomical equivalent of his kneecap, hoping other bipedal species had the same general vulnerabilities humans did.

He yowled at the unexpected pain and hurled Miranda away. She collided against a nearby crate and crumpled to the ground, while he promptly lost most of his cranium courtesy of Jack's pistol.

Jack shot him a few more times for good measure, then jogged over to check on Miranda. A quick scan with her omnitool found nothing life threatening, so she stepped back over to the batarian and hacked his hardsuit, extracting volumes of encrypted information they could pore through later.

She knelt at Miranda's side just as the operative stirred and tried to get moving under her own power. Jack pulled Miranda's arm across her shoulders and hauled her upright, then steered them both toward the exit. Miranda uttered an incoherent protest that might have had something to do with the mission taking priority, but Jack didn't feel like sticking around to address that and possibly meet any of the batarian's friends. She headed out the way they came in, ran into a panicked Ish along the way, then bullied him into helping her get Miranda back to their vehicle.

Once back at the hotel, Jack decided they were reasonably safe. No one had pursued them through normal station traffic, and none of the hotel staff seemed overly bothered by the battered pair limping along to their room. On Omega, a scruffy, barely-dressed ex-con dragging along a barely-conscious beauty queen hardly warranted notice.

She muscled Miranda onto the bed, activated some aggressive medigel treatments, then backed away, skittering into the shadows in the corner of the room while Miranda dozed into a healing sleep.


An hour later, Jack was starting to get twitchy.

"Shit."

Under other circumstances, her language might have been more colorful, and certainly louder. Instead, in deference to the unconscious woman on the bed behind her, Jack bit back the stream of panicked cursing that wanted to claw its way out of her throat.

She paced in front of the enormous window, kept her eyes on the stars, fought the desire to check Miranda's vitals with her omnitool for the eighth time, and tried to wait.

Sometime later Miranda woke and sat up, though Jack made no move to help her. They simply eyed each other and weighed the building tension in the distance between them.

"So, that could have gone better," Miranda said dryly, as she swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood, the stiffness of her motions belying the remaining pain of her injuries. "Did you forget our fallback plan?"

"No," Jack said.

"I didn't think so. Listen, I am aware that you don't appreciate concepts like 'chain of command' or 'following orders from the Cheerleader,' but for this mission I thought we had agreed I would take the lead." She flung out a hand in frustration. "Which is why it went to hell when you didn't bother doing what I told you."

She was tempted to point out that it had gone to hell when they'd been distracted by each other. Instead Jack only nodded, trying to keep her composure. She crossed her arms and huddled a little more deeply into the corner.

It was far from the reaction Miranda had expected, but the dull throb from blows she'd taken during the fight sidetracked further consideration. She shut her eyes and worked her jaw gingerly, then pressed a few fingers to the spot where the merc had caught her with the butt of his rifle. "Well, that will be a lovely bruise," she muttered, as she queued up medigel on her omnitool to take care of the worst of it. She sat back on the corner of the bed with a sigh, and braced the palm of one hand against her aching ribcage. "I almost prefer being shot," she said, annoyed.

Jack stepped out of the corner and knelt at the side of the bed, gently pulling Miranda's hand away. In its place, she pressed her own fingers, flaring with a low level biotic field that penetrated Miranda's skin and sent a warmth deep into bruised tissue. Miranda shuddered a bit before slowly relaxing against the touch.

"Why aren't you arguing with me?" Miranda asked, canting her head to one side with a wince.

"Because you're right," Jack answered, surprising them both. "I fucked up. You're in command." She stared determinedly at a distant spot on the floor, avoiding Miranda's curious gaze. "I knew this was a bad idea," she announced.

"May I remind you, this entire mission was your idea," Miranda countered.

"Not the mission. This," Jack snapped, pointing between them with her free hand. "This was a bad idea."

Miranda sucked in a slow, measured breath, fighting pain and impatience. "Only because you don't follow orders," she said, her voice strained.

"It was a stupid order," Jack argued, forgetting that she hadn't meant to argue at all. "I wasn't going to leave you behind."

The operative shook her head with faint annoyance. "You know I can take care of myself."

"Not my goddamn point." Jack shifted to sit on the edge of the bed beside the other woman, keeping her hand in place against Miranda's side. She'd reached the limit of her communicativeness for the moment, and knew if she was pushed she'd just get pissed off and say something stupid. She silently willed Miranda to drop it and move on. Otherwise she might have to explain the life-altering conclusion that was busy roaring through her brain, that she'd actually found a person she couldn't just abandon.

Speaking was painful, so Miranda was happy to sit in silence for a while and let the medigel and Jack's gentle, awkward touch take the edge off her injuries. After a few minutes she cast a look over her shoulder. "The mission is more important than either of us," she murmured.

"No. It's not."

Miranda exhaled a faint laugh. "Then you're right. Maybe this was a bad idea." She stared out the window at the stars, remembering how they'd looked just that morning. "I wouldn't have left you behind, either," she admitted in a soft voice.

Jack fought off the angry wash of instinctive denial. Other people had made claims like that over the years - men and women, friends and lovers. Hell, even Shepard had made a couple overblown speeches with the same general notion. It had always been bullshit, and Jack knew better than to hope it was sincere.

This was so stupid. This was the risk she never needed to take, with the absolute last person she should ever trust. It was time to bolt, time to cut ties before she got hurt. She could run, she could ditch Miranda and Shepard and this idiotic mission, she could disappear into the underbelly of the galaxy, and no one would even be surprised. She could fend for herself and be alone and free.

All she needed to do was pull her hand away from Miranda's soft skin, stand up, and walk away. All the stars were still out there, outside that huge fucking window, and she'd just pick one and hide there Miranda would never find her... presuming she even bothered to look.

Jack fought in her own head for a long moment, but ultimately remembered that running was always a miserable, shitty plan, and it never went the way she hoped it would. Maybe it really was time to try seeing things another way.

She reached up with her free hand, ran her fingertips through Miranda's hair, and took a chance on something even scarier than Shepard's suicide mission. "Yeah, I know," she said.

She even believed it.


Concluded in Chapter Seven.
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