Miranda Versus the First Kiss
Being told I am beautiful doesn’t have as much impact as one might think.
Of course I’m beautiful. Attractive, gorgeous, stunning, attractive, dazzling, lovely, hot and other descriptors have also been used. For normal people, that would be a compliment. For me, it’s just a fact. I was designed that way, after all. Father had analyzed every variant of every gene—on their own and how they would interact with other genes, proteins and so forth—to find the optimum mixture that would make me physically attractive, not to mention grant me genius-level intelligence, enhanced senses, superior strength, an accelerated healing factor and numerous other benefits. It’s hard to feel flattered when you are painfully aware of that fact, especially when your father and “creator” reminds you at least once every solar day.
It’s also hard to be flattered when you know most of the people who say those things only want to curry favour with your father, get into your pants or both. As I matured, I found that fewer people fell exclusively into the first category and more people fell into the other two. Perhaps this was empirical evidence of the potential of power as an aphrodisiac. Either that, or humanity had a suppressed streak of pedophilia in their collective psyche. Regardless, I resolved to use that physique as a tool. Clearly, my body was a source of distraction. The sooner I accepted that as fact, the sooner I could use it to my advantage. The more time they spent ogling me and generating fantasies, the less time they would spend noticing my efforts to manipulate them. In short, I could use my body to use them.
When I was with Father, I used clothes to manipulate colleagues and competitors—custom-tailored, hideously expensive and all on Father’s expense account. He knew that, of course, but that little act of making him foot the bill made my life slightly more tolerable. When I joined Cerberus, I was given an expense account as well—only with significantly greater funds and a notable lack of restrictions or remote monitoring. My first expense—or expenses—were another set of clothes. This time, however, I had a goal and purpose in mind: I wanted both the psychological edge from displaying my physical assets and the practical benefits of a military-grade hardsuit.
My Mark I suit—designed and tested in virtual simulations—was mostly focused on enhancing or optimizing the hardware of the best military-grade hardsuit available to special-op units at the time. It focused on the practical aspect at the expense of the aesthetic—which meant it looked like the standard “armour with boobs” available to women throughout the galaxy.
The Mark II prototype required more ingenuity, as the primary goal was miniaturizing the optimized hardware components into a more sleek and body-forming hardsuit. I eventually separated the various components and functions into separate layers. The outer layer was composed of a flexible ablative armour of my own design, one that would display my ample curves while dispersing biotic, kinetic or thermal energy —I found that using hexagonal plates provided the most efficient configuration. The second layer was a liquid crystal lattice that channelled the power requirements for all the suit’s functions—shield generation, computer processing and so on. It also had a port that connected to my biotic amp, along with a customized VI that would monitor the amp and automatically adjust its performance as necessary. I considered it a point of pride that I invented this feature two years before Alliance teams incorporated a similar aspect into their L4 implants and the Ascension Project. The third layer was another liquid crystal lattice. This one, however, was designed to amplify force, granting me all the increased strength and speed of a traditional hardsuit without the bulk. The fourth layer was basically a silk lining with a thread count of 2300, partly for moisture-wicking and partly for sheer comfort. A woman needed her little luxuries, even a genetically enhanced woman.
All my simulations on this model concluded with outstanding results, so I placed an order to manufacture it. The delivery arrived three days later, proof of how quickly even a cutting-edge piece of equipment can be manufactured and delivered without the unnecessary delays of bureaucratic red tape. It was still a prototype, mind you, so it looked like a silver jumpsuit rather than the black-and-white uniform handed out to Cerberus agents. Eager to test it out, I stripped out of my clothes—naturally, I had disabled the vid-cams beforehand to thwart any voyeurs and perverts who were looking for a free show—and put it on. I quickly discovered two things. First, the third layer was much more reactive than my simulations had anticipated. In fact, it was so reactive that a normal human would have shattered their bones with a single gesture. It was only my superior reflexes, enhanced constitution and years of training and discipline that saved me a trip to the intensive care unit.
Second, and more importantly, the suit generated a lot of heat and was unable to dissipate it as effectively as a normal, albeit bulky, hardsuit. Within ten minutes, I was mildly uncomfortable. Within twenty minutes, I had reached the point where a normal human would have fainted and was forced to restrict my movements to a minimum. Within twenty-five minutes, I was on the verge of passing out. Safety protocols kicked in at the twenty-six minute mark and shut down the suit before I collapsed from heat exhaustion or suffered brain damage.
Having gained an increased appreciation for the value of field-testing new and unproven technologies, I incorporated the lessons learned from the Mark II prototype into the Mark III suit. A simple modification of the tertiary layer retained the force amplification aspects while providing greater feedback control, which would allow me to move as freely as I wanted without fear of hurting myself. More importantly, I added a fourth layer composed of hydrostatic gel—composed of a unique mixture of my own creation—that would regulate both the suit’s temperature as well as my own body temperature. It also could be pressurized to a wide variety of conditions, from the crushing pressure found in deepwater trenches to standard atmospheric conditions to the vacuum of space. I also added upgraded software for several of the hardsuit’s programs. Finally, the primary ablative armour layer was modified to be soft to the touch and painted a brilliant snow white. As a final touch, I added a lining of full-grain, vegetable-tanned black leather—attached to the shoulders and sleeves—and a gold-orange Cerberus patch. Coupled with knee-high black leather boots that I ordered from a luxury clothing site on the extranet, and I had what unsuspecting onlookers would swear was a skin-tight cat suit that clung to every curve of my body and left nothing to the imagination. No one would suspect that it was fully capable of matching or exceeding the best military-grade hardsuit in a combat situation.
The Mark III suit was a success off the battlefield. It provided the exact visual distraction I had desired, which contributed to my multiple successes in any number of tasks—from manipulating Cerberus colleagues to negotiating deals with outside parties.
It also elicited the usual amount of drooling, lusting and jealous commentary from my colleagues and associates. Things like “Fucking tease”, “Bitch doesn’t know how to have a good time” or “Must be a hellcat in the sack” or simply “Slut.” I brushed them off, or tried to. Ignoring the labels or comments was easy. Ignoring the fact that it set me apart from everyone else, kept me isolated and alone... that was harder. Like my genetic engineering, it was a fact I had to accept, but it was still hard to swallow.
Even my sexual encounters, such as on the occasional mission when I found some unwitting target attractive enough to indulge in a brief bout of physical release, were different than the average man or woman. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the rush of hormones as much as anyone else. But where any other woman would focus solely on how she felt, how her partner’s skin/features/etc. felt and so on, I did that while monitoring my environment for possible hostiles, planning the remaining stages of my mission—if I was on one—and the multiple short-term and long-term projects I was currently involved in or overseeing. Simple multi-tasking, thanks to my genetic engineering, years of training and absence of any distractions caused by romantic nonsense.
Still, in my moments of weakness, I found myself wishing that I could just relax. Wishing that I could simply enjoy myself without any concern or care other than the present.
Wishing that I didn’t feel so alone.
The Mark IV suit was designed during my mission with Shepard to fight and defeat the Collectors, thanks in part to his voracious appetite for new upgrades. A more significant factor was his rampant and seemingly insatiable predilections for kleptomania—in fact, his ability to acquire credits and technologies surpassed any of my projections. I seized the opportunity this presented to upgrade the software and hardware of my present suit and sent the requisition order when it was complete. On a whim, I expanded the black leather finish to cover the entire suit as an additional outer layer, with a few careful placements of gold-orange tubing and patches for aesthetics’ sake. As an added bonus, it arrived a week after I rescued my sister.
Another bonus was the fact that 69% of the funding for the Mark IV suit came from siphoning off credits from Shepard’s expense account, the one filled by Cerberus funding and Shepard’s illicit proceeds. I might have been able to fund its construction with more of Shepard’s credits if it wasn’t for the e-mail Ori sent after her rescue, which clued Shepard into the possibility that I had remote access to his private computer and accounts. That unintended consequence was more than compensated by the fact that I had saved myself a substantial amount of money and had rescued Ori from our biological father.
More importantly, I had established two-way contact with my sister after eighteen years, seven months and—at the time—four days. It wasn’t long before I was finding ways to become even more efficient at completing my work so I could devote more attention to—and derive more satisfaction from—what became a daily, hour-long, encrypted text conversations. The highlight of my day, much to my surprise and delight. Another reason to be grateful towards Shepard.
Not that I did nothing but chat during these hours, mind you. I still found time to multi-task. These tasks, however, tended to be more along the lines of ongoing computer simulations or data downloads. Something that could run unobtrusively in the background while I chatted with Ori about random aspects of her life, however mundane or dull they might seem to her. Her favourite academic classes. Her favourite genres of literature or music. What she liked to do in her free time. Her pet peeves. Little things that I may have suspected but never knew for sure until now. And it was all thanks to Shepard, who’d fought long and hard through Eclipse mercenaries to secure my sister’s freedom, then went above and beyond with the quiet support and subtle prodding I needed to finally meet my sister face-to-face.
The subsequent appreciation towards Shepard for all he had done, much without any prompting or manipulation, lasted much longer than I had expected. Just one of many little things that was unanticipated. Like the way the stark change in the Mark IV suit’s colour pattern was carefully calculated to draw even more attention from men and women in general—and, much to my delight, one man in particular. Like the way my reaction to his thrice-daily visits, and the subsequent adjustments to my schedule they caused, evolved from irritation and annoyance to anticipation and delight. At first, I ignored these emotions, as unusual as they might be. I had far more important matters—administrative, logistical, tactical and strategic—to attend to. These emotions persisted, however, along with a strange yearning and longing. Eventually, I had to stop, face the situation and analyze it.
To a normal woman, these occurrences might be a sign that she cared for someone. That she had feelings for someone. That she loved someone. But that couldn’t be what happened to me. I wasn’t normal, after all. I didn’t have time for lo—I didn’t have time to care for someone that way. I couldn’t become so emotionally attached to someone and risk developing blind spots or vulnerabilities that other parties might take advantage of. For me to actually have feelings for—
It was impossible. Shepard was my commanding officer. My incredibly competent, irritatingly mischievous, ruggedly handsome—
This couldn’t be happening.
I mean, he wouldn’t even admit he was part of Cerberus, even though we had given him resources, a crew, a ship and—most importantly—brought him back from the dead. He kept saying he was working with us instead of on me—for us. For us. Shepard insisted on correcting anyone who might say otherwise. With that deliciously warm, deep, sexy—
What was I thinking?
Yes, he had been quite agreeable in taking the time to rescue my sister and her adopted family. He had been instrumental in reuniting me with my sister. He had helped me deal with the betrayal and subsequent death of Niket. So maybe I felt grateful. That didn’t mean I had feelings for him. Just because I was willing to share a little bit of my first conversation with Ori with him didn’t mean I cared for him. Just because I had this sudden urge to place a hand on his arm, feel its warmth through the sensors installed in the fingertips and palm of my new Mark IV suit, only to pull back at the last moment didn’t mean I actually—
No, no, no, no, no.
These observations, and the reactions they provided, might seem like love, but it couldn’t be. It was impossible. It must be. I was Operator of this particular Cerberus cell and my duties and responsibilities were clear. Crystal clear. If there was any possibility, even the faintest iota of a suspicion, that my opinion and feelings regarding Shepard had moved beyond the realm of professional interaction or even casual friendship, it would mean that my objectivity and operational effectiveness had been compromised. I would therefore be obligated to report this development to the Illusive Man, request a replacement as XO of the Normandy and senior Cerberus officer, remove myself immediately and... and never see Shepard again. I did not want to do that. I did not want to go away and never see Shepard again. Imagining the scenario, no, imagining the multiple scenarios that might end in that particular outcome made my lip tremble. It caused my heart rate to decrease by... by a lot. It instilled this horrible, sickening void somewhere inside me. So, quite obviously, whatever I was experiencing was not—could not—be l... it couldn’t be love. I was so relieved when I had arrived at that conclusion. The possibility of that had caused me a significant amount of distress, and occupied far too much of my time, but now that logic had proved beyond all doubt that I was safe and had not been compromised, I could focus on my duties. It was a great comfort to have logic on my side.
That sense of relief and calm lasted... well, it lasted quite a while. Every time these... emotional occurrences came back, I had only to repeat my analysis to recover my equilibrium. To borrow an aphorism, all was well with the galaxy. As well as possible considering bi-daily brushes with death and the grim duty of preparing for a suicide mission, anyway.
Then Shepard and I kissed and logic got flushed out the airlock.
It started when Shepard went to retrieve the Reaper IFF. A little early for my liking, but he later assured us that he wasn’t planning on going straight to the Omega 4 relay. Just as well—we had a few pressing matters to attend to and the Reaper IFF proved to be more difficult to integrate than we expected.
What was more surprising was that we received assistance. From a geth. A single geth operating without any backup. Yet somehow it was capable of higher reasoning, complex thought and detailed analysis that should have only been possible with a large group of geth. Furthermore, it could talk. Compared to that, the large hole in its chest and the N7 shoulder pauldron it sported were almost inconsequential.
Naturally, Shepard wanted to talk to it. He wanted to talk to everyone. I think he’d talk to his fish and his hamster if he could. Well, the hamster at least—I joined Shepard on the elevator ride down to the shuttle before we boarded the derelict Reaper. He said the fish had just died and he didn’t want to waste time travelling around the galaxy looking for replacements, so he decided to acquire the Reaper IFF instead. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if he was joking or actually being serious. Knowing him, it was probably both.
My curiosity was more focused on the idea of a single geth that was somehow capable of performing tasks that should only have been possible with a group of geth. Was this specimen a statistical outlier or the next step in geth evolution? Whatever the reason, it presented an opportunity. This geth might go a long ways to appeasing the Illusive Man’s concerns.
I should explain that.
Shepard might have been willing to accept Cerberus intelligence and resources, and he wasn’t going around sowing seeds for a revolt against Cerberus, but he wasn’t exactly going out of his way to assist us either. The most notable sign of resistance was when Cerberus requested that Shepard retrieve one of our operatives—or his data, if he had been killed—from an Eclipse base on Lorek. Shepard hit the base, eliminated the mercs, confirmed that the operative—a man by the name of Tyrone Rawlings—was dead and retrieved the data. Rather than send it to Cerberus Command, though, he chose to transmit it to Councillor Anderson instead. The Illusive Man was not amused. Initially, he left it alone, no doubt hoping to pass it off as a lone act of rebellion. But his private e-mail to me after the Lorek assignment was quite telling:
From: Illusive Man
EDI has informed me that Shepard chose to send Rawlings’s data to Councilor Anderson instead of Cerberus. I don’t believe any disciplinary action is necessary at this time. However, I would like to reiterate your objectives:
Primary Objective: Identify the party or parties responsible for the attacks and abductions on human colonies. Stop them by any means necessary.
Secondary Objective: Evaluate and determine whether Shepard would be amenable to formally joining Cerberus.
Previously, he had focused his attention on the primary objective. The fact that he felt it necessary to bring my attention to both objectives indicated that he was concerned of Shepard’s compatibility with our cause.
Shortly after the events on Horizon, I got this e-mail:
From: Illusive Man
In light of the information we have received from Horizon, I am revising your objectives:
Primary Objective: Stop the Collectors by any means necessary.
Secondary Objective: Evaluate and determine the best way to win Shepard’s loyalty for Cerberus.
I had already taken steps towards the secondary objective by leaking intel through our Alliance contacts, suggesting that Cerberus was behind the abductions, had selected Horizon as the next target and that Shepard had faked his death to join our ranks. While this intel is obviously false, it succeeded in driving a wedge between Shepard and the Alliance. Use this opportunity to determine whether Shepard is now more open to our goals and objectives.
Unfortunately, Shepard maintained the same neutral and mildly disapproving position that he had presented from the beginning. It didn’t help that the falsified intel that drove a wedge between Shepard and the Alliance also caused a similar rift between Shepard and Cerberus as a whole. The Illusive Man was less than pleased.
From: Illusive Man
Your reports indicate that we may have more difficulty winning Shepard to our side than we originally anticipated. Please redouble your efforts towards the secondary objective. Shepard has proven to be a highly effective asset, and it would be a shame to lose him after all the time, resources and manpower we have devoted.
I had warned him earlier that this development might occur. In fact, I had calculated that the likelihood of this scenario coming to pass was at least 78.4%. Needless to say, I declined to say anything along the lines of “I told you so.” Possibly because I didn’t want to know exactly what the Illusive Man had in mind when he ordered me to ‘redouble my efforts.’
It was with this e-mail in mind that I suggested that Shepard deliver the geth to Cerberus, both as a valuable piece of rare technology and as a peace offering. Shepard ignored my hints. I had anticipated this possibility, so I moved to my backup plan: talk to him in private and make him aware of the Illusive Man’s concerns.
Of course, he decided to keep Cerberus at arm’s length and make a joke about it—something about being in trouble because he was tardy in submitting a membership application to Cerberus. I could have continued trying to get him to change his mind. There were several more paths of dialogue I had planned... but... what was the point? He would keep resisting and, for some reason, I didn’t feel all that motivated to press him on the subject. We only had fifty-nine seconds left before the electronic countermeasures I had deployed would shut off. That wasn’t enough time. Yes, that was a reasonable excuse—explanation. A reasonable explanation for backing off. I mean, I did try after all.
Just before he left, he paused and turned to me. “Thanks for the heads-up, Miranda.”
At least he wasn’t keeping me at arm’s length. In fact, he sounded grateful. For some reason, that fact gave me this warm, tingly feeling. “You’re welcome, Shepard,” I replied, shooting him a brief smile.
His eyes lit up. That warm, tingly feeling intensified, along with this strange gnawing sensation.
I suddenly realized that I might have a problem.
It was easier to focus on the gnawing sensation than the warm tingling, so that’s what I did. I analyzed that feeling while Shepard re-activated the geth and pestered it with questions. No doubt a synthetic would have infinitely more patience than an organic. Not that it mattered: Shepard seemed to be very good at extracting intelligence. I’d never given him credit for that. I’d never given him credit for a lot of things.
Maybe that was why I was feeling so uncomfortable. Shepard deserved to know how my opinion of him had changed. How my respect for him had significantly improved. I’d told Garrus how much I appreciated his work, after all. I had done the same with Jacob. Surely I could do the same to Shepard, once he—
—once he walked through my door. I motioned for him to sit down. “Well?” I prompted.
While I disabled any security protocols or surveillance devices that might have somehow been installed while I was absent, Shepard proceeded to give me a detailed summary of his meeting with the geth. A geth that was part of a faction of geth that opposed the Reapers. In fact, the majority of geth opposed the Reapers. Of course, the geth had determined the best way to do so was to join Shepard.
"And you're all right with the idea of a geth running amok," I stated more than asked.
"Yep," he said smugly.
"Of course you would,” I muttered to myself. Suppressing a sigh, I gave in. "As long as EDI keeps a close eye on the geth—"
"Legion," he interrupted.
I looked at him blankly. "Pardon?"
"It—or they—have accepted the name 'Legion',” Shepard explained. “We might as well observe the proprieties."
He had given the geth a name? What the—I gave in. Again. This was very unusual for me. I’d have to explore this in greater detail once Shepard left. “Fine,” I sighed. “As long as EDI keeps a close eye on Legion, monitors the integrity of our firewalls and is prepared to lock the doors to the AI Core on a moment's notice, I suppose we can give it a trial run."
"Agreed," Shepard agreed. "Now that that's dealt with, do you have a minute?"
He always asked that. Didn’t he have anything more original to say? Still, I did need to talk to him, so I suppose a minute or two of time would be required. “Of course. I’d been meaning to speak with you, in fact.”
Shepard looked surprised. Good. That gave me the advantage. He looked at me expectedly.
Oh. Right. My move. Um…
Feeling suddenly warm, I retreated—moved—to the back half of my room, the part dedicated for my personal space. I sat down on one of the couches, near the end. He followed me and sat down on the other end. At least he gave me some space. Now what was I going to say?
I took a deep breath. Here goes nothing: “I… wanted to apologize.”
Shepard didn’t have a heart attack. The Normandy didn’t spontaneously explode. The Reapers didn’t drop out of FTL right on top of us. These were all good signs, so I continued. “I didn’t fully believe you’d be up to the task… and it seems I was wrong. Frankly, based on what I’ve seen, I wish Cerberus had tried to recruit you earlier.”
“Apology accepted,” he said. “Look, Miranda, I might trust you. But I don’t trust Cerberus. Your experiments cross the line.”
He trusted me. He trusted me. He trusted me. This was good. Very good in—wait. He said he didn’t trust Cerberus. Right. That was a problem. What did he say? The experiments crossed a line. All right. I decided to go with that. “All the time, yes. But I recall a Spectre who crossed a few lines while hunting down Saren and the geth.”
“Only a few,” he shook his head. “Not the ones that matter.”
“See?” I pounced. “Right there: the fact that you can recognize that distinction where it counts and stand by it instead of indulging in hypocritical behavior is why we’d be lucky to have you. Too many join us out of simple xenophobia. They fight without knowing what they’re fighting for. We need more people here for the right reasons.”
I meant every word I said. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the benefits of running the Lazarus Cell was the chance to get away from all the idiots who thought it would be a good use of Cerberus resources to sneak nuclear devices on non-human worlds and set them off or blow up laboratories and corporations that worked with aliens. Such crude, virulently xenophobic tactics wouldn’t work. That was why I had worked with the Illusive Man to carefully handpick every member of the Lazarus Cell, as well as the crew of the Normandy. To get away from such blinkered foolishness and convince Shepard that not every member of Cerberus was like that. It would be easier to get Shepard to join Cerberus and make the changes that were needed if I could demonstrate that there was still something worth salvaging and saving.
That was months ago, however. Things had changed. Now, it seemed easier to just get away from the worst parts of Cerberus than to get Shepard to come and fix them. Or maybe just get away. I don’t know. Shepard had a way of confusing things—oh. He was still talking. “—‘right reasons’ being the promoting, supporting and advancing humanity’s interests. With your intelligence, you could have done that anywhere. You could have landed any job you wanted to pursue those goals. Why choose Cerberus? Was it just to protect Oriana?”
My mind flashed back to the past. Of a younger me. So young, barely a woman. Looking to save my sister. Looking for something more than continuing Father’s dynasty and furthering his precious empire… “It started with safeguarding my sister,” I began. “I weighed all the options and Cerberus was the only organization that met my requirements. But… even after Oriana was set up safely on Illium with her foster family, I stayed because I still envy the time Mordin spent with the Special Tasks Group.”
“Sneaking around where they’re not welcome and doing impolite things,” Shepard smirked.
“Working with people as smart as he was, with the manpower and material to do what had to be done,” I corrected him, keeping the note of exasperation out of my voice. Honestly, was everything a joke with him? “Cerberus never tells me that something is impossible. They give me my resources and say ‘Do it.’ And they’ve given you even more. A new life, a new ship, the Illusive Man’s personal attention…”
“That’s nice and all, but the best thing he did was to add you to my crew,” Shepard interrupted. “I couldn’t have accomplished all this without your help.”
Now he was being kind. Too kind, because that wasn’t true. “You’d have done fine without me,” I told him. “I may not have believed it before, but… I don’t have what you do—that fire that makes someone willing to follow you into hell itself.”
I got up and walked to the window, watching as the stars flew by. “My father gave me the best genes money could buy,” I said, not caring how sad or bitter I might sound. “Guess that wasn’t enough.”
There was a bit of reflection in the window, enough to see Shepard frown. “You always bring up your genetic tailoring,” he observed. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it?”
Because that was what defined me. Every time someone admired my body, they were admiring the result of all the genes Father selected. Every time someone complimented me for making some brilliant discovery, finishing a series of calculations or completing some analyses, they were really complimenting the tailoring that made me as intelligent as possible. I could go on and on, but... just once I’d like to hear a compliment or feel good about something without wondering whether I’d actually earned it or whether I was just coasting on my genetic potential. “This is what I am, Shepard,” I finally replied, too tired to bother repeating out loud what I’d silently wondered all these years. Too tired to care that I’d never admitted this out loud to anyone. “I can’t hide it. The intelligence, the looks, even the biotics… he paid for all of that. Every one of your accomplishments is due to your skill. The only things I can take credit for are my mistakes.”
“Don’t you think you’re giving your dad way too much credit?”
Now there’s a question I had never been asked before.
“Following that logic, you could say people who haven’t received a lot of genetic enhancements can only take credit for their successes and not their mistakes—and history has shown that there are a lot of bone-headed mistakes that have been made over the years,” he pointed out.
“Look, your dad may have given you gifts, but you were the one who developed and honed them,” Shepard continued. “You were the one who chose to use them. You were the one who decided how to use them. Don’t you think you can indulge in a little pride over what you’ve done with your talents? If nothing else, you directed the team that brought a man back from the dead.”
It would be nice to believe that my choices had something to do with it. Even if my genetic potential gave me an advantage, even if my upbringing and environment had nurtured and developed all of my gifts, it would like to believe that I had the final say. If nothing else, Shepard was right: I’d never really had a chance to feel pride over bringing Shepard back. That was the main impetus in accepting the Illusive Man’s offer, after all. But I’d never been able to bask in that accomplishment, what with Wilson’s betrayal forcing me to accelerate the Lazarus Project to a hasty conclusion. “I suppose you’re right…” I conceded.
“Damn straight I’m right,” Shepard declared. If I can see it, surely you can… hey. Hey, that’s it! It’s not that you can’t see it—you don’t want tosee it. You’re jealous!”
What. The. Hell?
I turned around slowly. Here was Shepard, who had done everything I’d asked of him, helped my sister, said the things I wanted to believe and might actually be able to believe… only to jump to this fallacious conclusion. Where did that come from? “What?” I burst out. “Don’t be absurd!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he replied, with this infuriating smirk. “The genetic mutt that the Illusive Man put in charge? That must sting.”
“First, it’s not a competition,” I corrected him. He was still smirking. I really wanted to wipe that off his face. “Second, based on your combat records, you’re practically a perfect bloody human specimen!”
Too late, I realized what I said. Sure enough, he let it go to his head. “‘Perfect human specimen,’ huh?”
“Don’t get cocky,” I snapped back. Maybe later I could thank him, but right now he had to be put in his place. I took a step forward and glared at him. “I’m the one who put you back together, remember? And I do damn good work.”
Shepard took a step forward. Just a step. So how were we suddenly so close? I was now acutely aware of his closeness, the warmth of his breath, the warmth in his eyes. “You certainly do,” he said softly.
The next thing I knew, we were kissing. Not like my usual kisses, adjusted based on prior observations of my target to compensate for height, weight, amount of pressure and countless other variables. All I could focus on was his mouth was meeting mine, so deliberate and sinfully lazy and deliciously hot. Somehow my arms found their way to his neck, pulling him closer so this would never, ever stop. His arms grabbed me by the hips and pulled me closer, pressing me against his body, tingling with the promise of so much warmth and comfort and support and demanding nothing in return. I could just let go at last and relax.
Before I knew it, it was over. We were staring at each other, gasping for air, hearts pounding, minds racing over the…
Did I just…
Did I just do what I thought I just did…
Oh God, oh God.
Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God...
“What the hell was that?” I managed at last.
Of course, Shepard had a reply. “Back in my day, before mechs were all the rage and everyone was toting these new-fangled thermal clips, we called that a ‘kiss.’”
This was a disaster. I had to fix this. Or salvage something from it. Or something. “Oh God, this, um, okay, this doesn’t mean anything,” I stammered. “We just—God, I need to, er, think. Yeah. I need—work. Right, lots to do, you know, what with, um, stuff and… things. And think. Wait, I already said that. Oh God, I need… I’ll talk to you later.”
I had never—I repeat, never—stammered like that. Never been so unprepared. Never been caught so off-guard. I had to get back to work. There must be some report to file or article to read. Something that would make sense. Something…
Something that wouldn’t have such a smug grin running from ear to ear! “And stop smiling, damn it,” I finished, glaring at him before sitting down.
He ignored me for a split second, grinning at me. Then he froze, as something occurred to him. I saw a look of panic entered his eyes, just before he bolted from my room.
Alone at last, I breathed a sigh of relief and ran a hand through my hair. I’d never lost control like that before. Never had so much trouble formulating a coherent plan of action. Never stammered or stumbled so badly. Never been so open about what I felt.
What was I going to do?
After two weeks, six days and nineteen hours, I still hadn’t arrived at any explanation as to what had happened. At least, not any explanation that helped—I knew that we had kissed. I knew that that meant something. But what would we do next? What did this mean for our working relationship? For that matter, would we be able to keep working together or had we been irrevocably compromised?
I hadn’t found an answer to any of those questions when Shepard dropped by. That in itself wasn’t unusual—he’d continued his daily visits, as if nothing unusual had occurred. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, as if nothing unusual had occurred. But that incident, that experience… we hadn’t really faced it yet.
So I didn’t really have a plan in mind when Shepard came in and asked “Hey there. You have a minute?”
“I do,” I nodded slowly. All this tension was killing me—killing both of us, judging by the look on Shepard’s face. “I suppose we should talk.”
We stood there for a few seconds, just staring at each other. “Well—” Shepard started.
“I don’t know what this is,” I interrupted, standing up and gripping her chair tightly. “If this is stress or blowing off steam or…”
“I don’t know,” Shepard shrugged, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t mind.”
“It was a mistake,” I blurted out.
Judging by the hurt look on his face, perhaps I shouldn’t have phrased it quite like that. But things were so… so complicated now. It was simpler, albeit in a headache-inducing kind of way, back when Shepard was just an expert tactician with an unhealthy compulsion for helping half of the galactic population out with their problems and stealing from the other half. “Oh don’t look like that,” I sighed, walking back to my bed. Maybe some distance would make this easier. “You know it was a mistake. This is no time for emotional entanglement! You and I know more about the Collectors than anyone. We know how unlikely it is that we’re coming back alive! That... that kiss... I shouldn’t have done that.”
Shepard wasn’t buying it. “If it was that big a mistake,” he snapped, “then why the hell did you kiss me? Because you were bored?”
This wasn’t going the way I’d planned. “No, I—”
“Because you wanted to fool around with my head? What—all that time spent putting me back together wasn’t enough?”
Probably because I never really had a plan. “No, it’s not that—”
I needed to get a handle on the situation before I said something I couldn’t take back. “Well—”
“BECAUSE I WANTED TO!!!”
What had I done? This was… how could… did I actually…
At some point, I must have sat down on the bed. “Did I say... I didn’t mean... oh no. This is... this is ridiculous. Absolutely... what idiotic bunch of hormones thought now was a great time for lo…?”
It took me a moment to realize that was me saying, or whispering, those things. I just stared at Shepard, a mix of panic and tension and unfamiliar emotions rushing through me. The wide-eyed, slack-jawed look on his face suggested he was experiencing the same thing. After a minute and thirteen seconds, he finally spoke.
“Look, I want this. I want to see where it goes. I want to see how far it’ll go. And I think you do, too. At least, I think you do. You do want this, don’t you? I mean, okay, on a scale of one to ten, where one is you’d rather stick your head in a blender and ten is—”
“Yes,” I interrupted.
I was just as surprised as he was. “Yes. Ten. Whatever.”
I took a deep breath and quickly considered how we had gotten to this point. The speed at which I came to a conclusion startled me. “I meant what I said earlier: I want this. All of it. It’s like… I wanted to ensure Oriana’s safety. Her future. Her life. But I didn’t realize I wanted to actually see her. To talk to her. To get to know her beyond hacked vid-cam recordings and official records. I never realized how painful it was to watch her from a distance but never be a part of her life until I heard her talk. Not just some recording of her in a random conversation either—she was actually talking to me. And all of a sudden, I wanted a real connection with my sister so badly. I guess… I guess I want this too.”
The speed at which I blurted all that out startled me too.
“Good to know,” he said simply.
This stunning display of repartee and verbosity was followed by an equally impressive silence. “So now what?” I asked, having decided that it was my turn to start the conversation again.
Shepard shot me a blank look. “Um… most people go on a date. Or grab some coffee.”
“I’d rather keep this between us,” I admitted, biting my lip. “It’s, well, I’m a very private person.”
Shepard raised an eyebrow. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Clearly, that was a joke. I kept my response down to a slight twitch of my lip. After all, I couldn’t have him thinking I’d react to anything and everything that came out of his mouth.
“I don’t want to broadcast this over the extranet or anything either,” Shepard replied. “But you do realize we’re on a ship, right? Scuttlebutt’s going to pick up on this and spread it around sooner or later.”
Based on the secondhand evidence I’d accumulated over the years, he was right. “I know,” I sighed, “but I’d rather go for later. If nothing else, it might distract them. Which is another thing—”
Shepard knew what I was thinking. Much to my surprise, I found that fact to be more relieving than alarming. “Our personal… whatever-this-is can’t interfere with day-to-day operations, command decisions or the overall mission,” he finished. “Agreed. Anything else?”
Actually, there was. On the one hand, it was good that we had finally identified and accepted the change in our relationship. On the other hand, it still left the matter of the next step unresolved. “Only that I have no idea what to do next,” I shrugged. “Normally, I’d suggest what you did—a date. A cup of coffee. Something. But all of that will raise too many questions. If we’re going to do this, I just want something quiet. Just the two of us, without witnesses.”
We sat there for another minute, considering various possibilities. Actually, I was trying to think what most people would do for a first date. My experience with such matters was rather limited. So it wasn’t that shocking when Shepard came up with a viable option first. “I have an idea…” he said.
All I had to do was find some cups and plates—which I retrieved while downloading some maintenance and status reports to a datapad for Shepard. It only took me ten minutes. I may have spent another ten minutes resisting the urge to change—it’s not like anyone would see us. Besides, I was sure Shepard would appreciate my present attire. I settled for quickly running a comb through my hair, just to make sure I looked my best.
His choice of drinks and dessert was a little odd. Jasmine tea and chocolate-dipped, triple-chocolate brownies don’t usually go hand in hand. Still, the tea did smell good. And Gardner’s brownies were impressive—even more so considering his lack of formal culinary training. I handed Shepard the datapad while taking a sip of the tea anyway. He sat down, took a bite of the brownie and started filling out reports.
“Thanix cannons are installed and operational,” Shepard said. “Apparently it’s doubled the power draw of our weapon systems.”
“Will they be a problem?” I frowned. Stronger weapons wouldn’t mean all that much if our power grid overloaded or collapsed.
“Nah,” he shook my head. “Ken said something about tweaking the forward capacitors to compensate. I’m surprised we don’t have the same issues with Tali’s shield upgrades.”
I had the same concern myself before taking a look at the schematics Tali had submitted. Say what you will about quarians, but they know their engineering. “Actually, those upgrades had built-in capacitor sub-systems, so any additional power draw would be minimal.”
“That’s what Ken and Gabby said,” Shepard nodded. “Though that means we won’t be able to take on an entire fleet and survive.”
And that was a bad thing? “Exactly. As befits a stealth ship, the shields were designed to deflect any attacks the Normandy might take during insertion or extraction. This upgrade simply means that we’ll be able to deflect stronger attacks now.”
“As long as that includes anything the Collectors can throw at us, I’m fine with that,” Shepard declared.
Having finished the more pressing reports, I opened my e-mail. Deleted the odd junk mail that had slipped through, adjusted my filters, quickly scanned through the e-mails that I was expecting. One of them I was not expecting. For once, that was a surprise. I finished that e-mail and glanced up. Shepard was looking at me. Actually, he was staring at me. “Something I can do for you?” I asked.
“You were staring,” I explained.
“I was?” Shepard asked blankly.
“Oh. You were smiling.”
I hadn’t realized that. “I was?”
“Oh. Crewman Rolston sent a thank-you for my efforts in expediting his family’s relocation,” I shrugged.
“Right,” Shepard nodded. “They were on New Canton—oh geez.” His eyes widened as he straightened up. “The Collectors hit New Canton. Did they—”
“They were relocated in time,” I said. It wasn’t surprising to see his concern, but it was reassuring. In the midst of all these adjustments, it was comforting to know that some things hadn’t changed. “Their shuttle touched down in San Francisco a week ago.”
Shepard breathed a sigh of relief.
“Rolston attached an audio clip,” I added, double-clicking on the link. Kelsey, Rolston’s one-year old daughter, began bubbling and giggling over the speakers. “That’s kinda cute,” Shepard said.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “It is.”
We sat there quietly, long after the clip ended. “What about the armour upgrades?” I asked. “Did they require any adjustments in the Normandy’s operations?”
“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Something about the added weight throwing off the gravimetric profile, but it was fixed with some Gilbourne and anterior intakes.”
Thankfully, I knew what he was talking about. “Rebalancing the Gilbourne coefficients and adjusting the anterior intakes on the second tier stabilizers?” I interpreted.
“Yeah, something like that,” Shepard nodded. “Hopefully whatever they did worked.”
“If not, Mister Moreau will have something to do besides surf the extranet for porn,” I sighed, rolling my eyes.
Shepard jerked his head up and stared at me in disbelief. “You mean you know about that?”
Why was that such a surprise? I just raised an eyebrow and gave him a look.
“Right. Of course you knew. Never mind.” He returned to scrolling through the datapad and signing off on reports. “I don’t know why he bothers,” he said idly. “Couldn’t he just fill out a subscription to ‘Fornax’ or something? It only costs four creds per issue.”
“I’m delighted to hear you’re so knowledgeable about that,” I said slowly.
“I’m not,” Shepard replied. “That’s the price quoted on Marsh’s kiosk back on Omega.”
“I’m not into that sort of thing.”
“Seriously. Hanar don’t turn me on.”
“Good to know.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“Well? Are you?”
I just gave him a sweet smile. Let him interpret that as he liked.
I think it just made him confused, though. Fair enough: he wasn’t the only one. I mean, I was actually on a date. Well, a working date of sorts. And it wasn’t that bad. It was fun, in fact. More fun than I expected. Mind you, none of this was expected. I didn’t plan on any of this, yet I wanted it. I wanted it more than I had realized. Which... well, it scared me. I managed to ignore it during our date. Afterwards, when it was just me and my thoughts? That feeling rapidly grew into this black hole of panic inside me, crushing my insides with terror.
Just before I logged off, a new e-mail arrived.
‘FYI?’ What was that supposed to mean, I wondered. I opened the audio file that was attached. A woman’s voice poured out from the speakers.
this battle in a box
With my military thoughts
And the days where I was almost at my end.
“Seems to me quite clear now,
Now that you are here, how
Easily I could begin again.
“I'm still bloody from last year's war.
With liars and lovers untrue.
And hey you, with your stars out,
I have no angry words for you.”
the song continued, the black hole slowly collapsed. It seemed like Shepard was also petrified
with the change between us, the way it snuck up on us without either of us
knowing and how both of us were just fumbling around, hoping we didn’t make a
mess of things.
“I'm still bloody from last year's war,
But no longer drowning in the flood.
And hey you, with your stars out,
You've kissed again, don't you see, you've already won.
“You're still bloody from last year's war.
Your bandages, your bullet holes like mine.
And I'm here with my stars out.
You say you're scared, well, so am I.”
At least I wasn’t the only one.