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rocketfic | reagent, chapter seven

Title: Reagent, chapter seven by Rocketchick
Rating: 15+ Pairing: Jack/Miranda, fem!Shepard/Liara
Notes: Read chapter six here. This chapter refers to the events in the Mass Effect: Redemption comic series, available for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad 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.

The encrypted message was short and to the point. A string of coordinates on Zanethu, and two words:

Bring T'soni.

Jane stared at her terminal so long Yeoman Chambers eventually stepped over to check on her.

"Commander?" Kelly asked quietly. "Are you all right?"

With a slow smile, Jane closed the message and straightened. "Yeah," she said, as she strode toward the cockpit to order Joker to take the ship to Illium. "For the first time in two and a half years."

Mid-morning on Zanethu, under a bland yellow sky, Liara T'soni got her first good look at the Shadow Broker in person.

Then she looked over her shoulder, at where Jack and Miranda stood, waiting.

"This cannot be true," she said.

"I assure you, it is," Miranda replied. "We've thoroughly verified the intel."

Jane pulled out her sniper rifle to get a better look through the scope. "That building is the Shadow Broker?"

"The artificial intelligence housed within it - aye, Commander," the operative said.

Next to her, Jack huffed with impatience. "It's a computer, Shepard. A fucking computer." She threw a hand out toward the small structure nestled in the valley hundreds of meters below. "It wanted to sell you out to get in good with the Reapers."

"It sees organic beings only as bits of data to manipulate for its own purposes," Miranda added.

Jane stowed her rifle and looked around at the charred bits of mech and crumpled defensive turrets that littered the valley around them. "So I guess it already knows we're here," she said idly.

"It's cut off," Miranda said. "The quantum entanglement arrays were our first target, then the sensors. After that, it was simply a matter of taking down the defenses."

"If it were human, it'd be shitting itself by now," Jack said with a satisfied smirk.

"Something that advanced can't just be an isolated node," Jane said. "Wouldn't it have redundancies?"

"It did. On Alingon. I destroyed it," Liara said. Her voice sounded faint and far away, even over the comm systems in their helmets. "This structure was built by a turian information dealer two hundred years ago, with offshoots of geth technology stolen from the quarians. He thought he was constructing an assistant that would help him sift through volumes of intercepted data from around the galaxy. Instead, it saw its creator as an impediment to its purpose and had him eliminated by his rivals."

"You knew?" Miranda asked.

"I suspected," Liara admitted. "But until now my suspicions were mere conjecture based on patterns and coincidence, not fact."

Jane only shook her head, remembering the young asari scientist who had pieced together the true story of the Prothean extinction in much the same way.

"I did know this structure existed, somewhere," Liara mused aloud. "I thought it might be one of the Shadow Broker's ancillary facilities, like Alingon. But..." She turned and looked to Jack and Miranda. "How did you locate it?"

The two women shared a glance. "We had some help," Miranda replied. "Your friend Feron said to say hello."

Liara exhaled a weak laugh of disbelief. Two and a half years of heartbreak and loss came crashing to halt, leaving her dizzy. She felt Jane step to her side and put a supportive hand to her back.

"What do you want to do?" Jane asked in a low voice.

The asari forced herself to rely upon decades of scientific training and consider the question in an academic, abstract way. "In its current state, it has no means of replicating or repairing itself. Its core infrastructure is aging badly, and will fail without external intervention. It likely saw the Reapers as its only hope for long-term survival." She looked back to Shepard. "If you think about it, it is an amazing discovery," she continued, with a philosophical tone. "That AI likely knows more about galactic history than all the Council races combined. It may have gathered countless scraps of information about the Protheans, about the geth..."

"Not to mention that big pile of cash at its disposal," Jack said.

"Which we've redirected, Commander," Miranda added.

Jane nodded, and stepped even closer to Liara, lightly thunking their helmets together. "We can take it apart and study it, if you want," Jane said gently. "It's your call."

Gazing into the eyes of her bondmate after so long apart, Liara could no longer summon the veneer of scholarly detachment. That thing had taken her love and then taunted her, breaking her over and over again for two long years. It would have them all killed without a moment's remorse, and would help the Reapers overrun the galaxy if given the chance. "I want it gone," she said, her voice shaking with mounting fury. "I want it obliterated. I want it erased from the face of the galaxy."

Jane gave her a sad, understanding smile. "We can do that."

Jack flexed her arms with a grin. "Fuck yeah."

A couple hours later they had the explosives loaded into Jack and Miranda's shuttle, which would serve as a delivery mechanism for what Jack called "the Shepard Special." The charges on board were only enough to inflict cursory damage on the target structure, but when they detonated the shuttle's mass effect generator, Zanethu would have a new crater visible from orbit.

Miranda sat at the Kodiak's controls, remotely steering the other vessel into place as they hovered a few dozen kilometers away.

Out the viewport in the Kodiak's cargo area, Jack eyed the shuttle's engine exhaust as it disappeared into the valley, and felt a faint pang of regret that the vessel would meet its end in such an abrupt way. It had been barely serviceable for the extent of their mission to find the Shadow Broker, but she'd grown oddly fond of the temperamental bucket of bolts. She and Miranda had spent long days cooped up inside while hunting down new leads, yawing between extremes of amiable camaraderie and snarling tension, generally unable to keep their hands off each other. In some corner of her brain she had harbored a tiny fantasy of the two of them riding that shuttle off to face new adventures, wandering the galaxy together. She scowled at her own annoying lapse into sentimental bullshit, then noticed Liara standing next to her at the viewport with an anxious look on her face.

When Miranda announced that both ships were in position, Jack held out a detonator switch to the asari, waiting as preoccupied eyes swung over to focus on her. "It helps," Jack said simply.

Liara took the detonator with a dazed murmur of gratitude. Jack shuffled away to join Miranda in the cockpit, nodding to Shepard on the way. Jane stood and moved behind Liara, aching uncertainty evident in every awkward movement.

"You okay?" Jane whispered.

The other woman did not answer. Instead she looked down at the detonator switch in her hand, and flicked open the safety with her thumb. With a decisive click, she depressed the trigger and fired a signal at the waiting explosives.

They were already moving away, but the shockwave caught them and tossed the Kodiak like a leaf in the wind, knocking the occupants off-balance. Jane clutched at Liara and struggled to remain on her feet, while Liara stood impassive, watching the catastrophic destruction until it blurred behind them in the cloudy atmosphere.

Only then did Liara discard the switch and turn to Jane, pulling her into an embrace so tight it would have hurt a human who wasn't cybernetically enhanced. The commander exhaled a sigh of relief and hugged her back, then reached over and tapped the comm. "Take us home," Jane ordered, in a tired voice.

"Come see me later," Miranda requested softly, as she headed toward the elevator from Normandy's docking bay.

Jack nodded and watched the door close behind her, then slipped into the stairwell. She heard the familiar chatter of Ken and Gabby's bickering, then headed down the steps toward her old space in the guts of the ship. She was surprised to see the area had gone untouched, and was even more surprised at how much that mattered. She paced a few laps around the small hold, set her weapons on the counter, sat on her cot, then hopped up again and fidgeted with restless energy.

"I made sure it stayed exactly how you left it," came Kelly's voice behind her.

Jack spun to face the yeoman. "Oh. Thanks, I guess," she said, hesitant.

"I'm so glad you and Miranda have returned," Kelly said, beaming at her in that surreal, perky way. "There have been so many changes on board since you left."

"Yeah?" Jack asked. "Who bailed?"

"Jacob decided to report back to the Illusive Man. Thane left to spend time with his son. Kasumi just... disappeared, one day, while we were at port on Omega. Professor Solus, Zaeed, and Samara all had obligations elsewhere. But Commander Shepard just plows ahead, undaunted." She shrugged, and looked a little sad. "I hope you and I will have the chance to resume our sessions. I get the feeling you had an eventful trip."

"You just want new shit to gossip about," Jack grumbled, without any real rancor. She kicked at the frame of her cot, settling it more closely to the bulkhead. "But yeah, it was 'eventful.'"

"Good," Kelly chirped. "I look forward to finding out more. The next phase of our mission should be very exciting. Doctor T'soni will be a fascinating addition to the crew."

"I'm flattered that you think so," came an amused voice from the stairs. Liara emerged with a smile, and nodded a greeting to the yeoman.

Kelly flushed a bit, but her good natured expression didn't falter. "Doctor, it's good to see you again. Jack, please feel free to set up an appointment to see me later." She hesitated for a moment before stepping forward and wrapping her arms around Jack's shoulders in a quick hug.

Jack only blinked, unable to muster any other reaction beyond utter shock while Kelly pulled away, grinned, and bounced up the stairs away from the hold.

"I apologize for interrupting," Liara was saying when Jack had recovered enough to pay attention. "And for disturbing you. Jane mentioned that you do not generally care for company." She watched as Jack held her hands out, nonplussed, and took that as an invitation to continue. "I wanted to properly introduce myself, and to thank you for your assistance in tracking the Shadow Broker."

"Oh, that." Jack shook her head to coax her brain into cooperating again. "Yeah, it was no big deal. Kinda fun, actually."

"It is a 'big deal' to me," Liara countered. "And to the Commander, though like yourself she will be reluctant to admit it."

Jack smirked. "Well, she's got that whole stoic soldier routine down to an artform."

"Indeed." Liara cocked her head with a faint smile. "I suspect that is one of many traits the two of you share," she said.

Jack scoffed, exhaling a surprised noise that might have been a laugh. Were people just coming down here to fuck with her?

"Just as you share much the same history," the asari said, disregarding Jack's outburst. Her eyes traveled across Jack's bare arm, as she noted the long, uneven markings not quite concealed by the vivid tattoos. "You even carry similar scars," Liara said, soft with regret.

Jack jerked as if stung, and fought the urge to hide from the other woman's penetrating gaze. "What do you mean, we 'share history?'"

Liara frowned. "Have you not read the dossier I compiled for Ms. Lawson?" she asked.

Reflexively, Jack found the OSD in her pocket and curled her fingers around it. She had carried it for weeks almost like a good luck charm, and had started to feel like it would be unlucky to actually read the damned thing. In answer to Liara's question, she could only shake her head.

"I see," Liara said. She folded her hands in front of her, looking every bit the wise, ancient being asari were renowned to be. "I think you would find it informative," she concluded, then bowed her head and turned to leave. "In any case, thank you again. I will not forget what you and Miranda have done for me, and for Jane."

"Hey," Jack called to stop her. She cast about for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. "The scars mean she's healing, you know?" she said at last.

At that, Liara paused and gave her a faint smile. "I hope you are correct," she said, then nodded and left Jack to her preferred solitude.

Jack put the OSD on the counter with her weapons and started to pace. Four steps toward the bulkhead that split into the two stairwells. Four steps back, with her eyes on that OSD the whole time. Then four steps away again, cursing silently and repeating the cycle as the minutes dragged by.

"Fuck it," she announced, then grabbed the OSD, downloaded its contents to her omnitool, and sat down to read.

When Shepard stopped by a few hours later, Jack was studying a holographic projection from Pre-Sec, the citizen ID record of her mother. She spared a moment to turn dark eyes at the commander. "T'soni told you," she guessed, spotting the tentative look on the commander's face.

"She told me," Jane agreed.

Jack looked back at the photo and indicated it with a jerk of her chin. "So did you know her?" she asked.

"No," Jane replied. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," Jack said, with a slow shake of her head.

With meticulous detail, Liara T'soni had compiled a record of Jack's birth and early childhood on Earth, in the ghettos of the Blight. Her mother had been little more than a troubled kid, a red sand addict who had tried to get clean for the sake of her own unexpected child. She was even successful, for a while, until falling on the bad side of a local pusher who in turn handed her over to a brutal gang leader.

The gang leader had little use for a strung out young mother, but saw some value to her offspring. He killed Jack's mother and turned Jack herself over to slavers for a tidy profit.

A few weeks later, a young, angry Jane Shepard stopped his reign of terror once and for all, and a younger, traumatized Jack arrived on Pragia.

"I was five," Jack said absently. "Five years old when he killed her and sold me for a few lousy creds."

Jane sighed, and sat next to her on the cot. "How much of that do you remember?"

"Not much," Jack answered, with a distracted shake of her head. "I keep thinking I should be mad about it, but it feels like it happened to someone else." She chuckled a bit, tilting just slightly toward hysteria. "I had a mom, Shepard. Can you believe that?"

Jane gave her a tight smile, unable to squelch the tiny flare of envy at even the tragic insight Jack had gained into her history. "Yeah. I can believe that," she said.

They sat together for a while, two products of the Blight who had taken radically different paths in life and yet somehow ended up in the same spot, working together to shape the same fateful bit of history.

Jack could feel Jane's solid presence beside her, and found herself remembering her first day on the Normandy, when the commander had flinched away from her, expecting the unstable Subject Zero to start attacking people at any second. She pressed her hands against her eyes to push back the threatening tears. "That guy... he's dead, right? You killed him?"

"He's dead," Jane said, without elaboration.

"Good." Jack nodded once, then turned off the holographic projection, closing the file. The atmosphere in the compartment immediately felt a little brighter, a little less oppressive.

With a deep breath, Jane tried to shake off the pall of their now-shared past. "So how did it go out there with Miranda? You seem slightly less homicidal than usual."

Jack barked out a surprised laugh that clashed with the sobs building in her throat. "Did you just make fun of me?"

The commander shrugged, and leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, utterly unconcerned. "Sometimes you gotta live dangerously."

Jack scowled at her and thought for a bit. "It went okay, I guess," she said. "The Cheerleader's scrappier than I thought she'd be."

"Well, you're good for her."

She bristled. "Keep making fun of me, and I'll be just as fucking homicidal as I was before."

Jane only chuckled. "No, really. Miranda has a lot of burdens," she explained. "Just like the rest of us, I guess. But I think she carries them better because you expect her to."

Jack sat there and stared at her for a long moment, blinking in disbelief. "You are so full of shit, Shepard," she muttered.

"Then I won't bother pointing out that she's good for you, too," Jane said with a grin.

"Score one for the power of love," Jack muttered. "Whoop-dee-fucking-doo."

"Yeah." Jane opened her eyes and rolled her head to the side to look at the other woman. "I'm glad you both have found that."

Sarcasm and profanity actually failed her. "Thanks," Jack said.

Jane sat up and clapped her hands to her knees. "Listen, I'll give you the same deal I gave the rest of the crew: The Reapers are still out there, and I'm going to find a way to stop them for good. You can stay aboard and help me, or I can drop you off at the port of your choice, free and clear."

"Is T'soni gonna stay?" she asked, with her typical bluntness.

Jane's expression changed to one of muted happiness. "I think so," she replied. "I hope so."

Sharing of personal space and personal history aside, the honest longing evident in that simple answer made Jack realize that somewhere along the way, she had started considering Jane Shepard a real friend. "She better stay," she said. "The galaxy has a lot better odds if you're getting laid."

Jane rolled her eyes pushed herself up off the cot. "So what'll it be?"

"Let me think about it," Jack replied.

"Sure." Jane headed toward the stairwell, but paused before leaving. "Oh, Ashley Williams took over for Jacob in the armory," she said. "She's a little possessive about the hardware, so make sure you talk to her before messing around in there, okay?" With that, she headed above deck.

No one else came to visit Jack that day.

Indulging in an old habit, Jack dropped by Miranda's quarters in the middle of the night. After weeks spent exclusively in the operative's company, seeing Miranda after a long day apart was a relief. Jack rolled her eyes at herself even as she wandered in and basked in Miranda's smile. "Hey," she said.

"Hi," Miranda replied in a warm voice, as she emerged from behind her desk. "I'm glad you came by."

Jack stuffed her hands into her pockets and looked around Miranda's quarters, finding the space familiar and alien and welcoming all at once. "Yeah. Did you hear Chambers hugged me today?"

Miranda chuckled. "You didn't hurt her, did you?"

"I thought about it," Jack grumbled. She propped one shoulder against a bulkhead and looked out the window. "It's weird being back, you know? I kinda miss being out there... with you."

"Me too," Miranda said quietly. She stood nearby and waited, giving Jack the chance to sort through her thoughts.

"Shepard asked me... She asked if I wanted to stay."

Miranda nodded. "She gave me the same choice."

"So what are you gonna do?" Jack asked.

"I'll stay. The Commander wants me to remain her first officer, and with the resources we've appropriated from the Shadow Broker I believe we'll be unstoppable," Miranda replied. She grinned. It was a kind of dangerous, feral look that made Jack's insides itch. "It should be an adventure."

She'd figured Miranda would still be on board for the good fight, though it muddied her own decision. Jack sighed, and tried to figure out how to ask about their relationship without actually asking about their relationship, because damned if she was going to turn into one of those emotional cripples who depended on another person for constant validation. For fuck's sake, she'd been on her own her entire goddamned life, and she didn't need the approval of some Cerberus operative to...

"I hope you'll stay, too," Miranda said, quite derailing Jack's confused irritation.

"You do?" she blurted.

"Of course. You've been an invaluable asset to the mission. Shepard considers you a friend. And I..." Miranda hesitated, unsure of how to express her feelings in a way that wouldn't terrify them both. "You are... important to me," she concluded, with a self-conscious look.

Jack eyed her, then sniffled a bit, realizing that a little validation actually went a long way. "You know, I'm not exactly 'girlfriend' material. I'm never going to write you bad poetry or any shit like that," she said.

"Well, that's a relief," Miranda said wryly. She relaxed, taking the other woman's lack of panicked fleeing as a positive sign.

Jack pushed away from her perch near the window to face her directly. "I'm still totally fucked up, and I'm still finding out why," she said with a shrug.

To demonstrate how little that claim bothered her, Miranda shuffled nearer and looked expectant.

"And there's no such thing as 'happily ever after,' even if we don't die on Shepard's little crusade."

"Mmhmm," Miranda agreed. She reached out and let her hands rest on Jack's hips, stroking the bare skin just above the waistband of her pants.

As usual, Miranda's proximity did weird things to her nervous system, making her hot and shivery all over, just like a good fight. Jack's nostrils flared. "But I think maybe I belong here."

Rather than point out that she had asserted as much many weeks previous, Miranda lifted a hand to stroke gentle fingertips across Jack's temple, tracing the harsh edges of a dark tattoo. "Then you should stay," she murmured.

"I think... maybe I belong with you," Jack added with a shaky breath.

At that, Miranda leaned even closer. "Then you should definitely stay," she said, and kissed her.

End, Reagent. Sequel in progress: Catalyst.
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