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Not all it's cracked up to be

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Despite his sparkling personality and dazzling wit, Joker doesn't get all that many visitors. It suits him well enough; he doesn't like back seat drivers. Shepard drops by pretty regularly, though he suspects that's more to make sure he hasn't resorted to drastic measures to deactivate that damn AI than anything else. Her concern isn't entirely unwarranted. He may have tried a few things. He may also have gotten nowhere and an electric shock for his trouble, but he doesn't need to mention that.

Tali visits every now and then, mostly to talk shop and mutter thinly veiled insults about Cerberus that he knows not to take personally, Miranda shows up now and then to loom silently, and Mordin shows up way too often wanting to stick needles in him, which he could really do without. Guy might be a genius but he's a pain in the ass.

Otherwise, whenever he has a visitor, it generally means they need something. Joker, the dampener has gone in the B5 thruster, or Joker, there's something rattling in the hull when we jump, or even Joker, do you think you could be a little smoother next time...

So when Garrus strolls in casual as you please, Joker fully expects him to follow up with a request about the Thanix. He gets on just fine with Garrus, but he's not sure they're friends. Not like Garrus and Shepard are friends. He was pretty distant with Joker even back in the good old days, and his close encounter with Omega's finest doesn't seem to have mellowed him out any. He's still on a lot of pain meds, Joker will give him that. He's seen Chakwas’ stash, and he's seen Garrus slink into medbay to collect them, even if he wasn't supposed to.

So he acknowledges Garrus with a half turn in his chair and a friendly nod, preparing himself for the inevitable request.

Instead, Garrus says, “How's it going?”

Huh.

“The usual, you know,” Joker says, “impossible odds, mysterious ancient enemies, death-defying feats of bravery, and so on.”

“Same old, same old.”

“You got it.” Joker spins in his chair, watching Garrus carefully. “How's the face?”

“Holding together. How’s the bones?”

Joker snorts. “Mostly intact.”

“Well, that's a start.”

Of course, that's when EDI has to butt in. “You are two hours overdue your latest painkiller as per Doctor Chakwas’ recommendation -”

“Thanks, mom.” Joker rolls his eyes. “Don't you have better things to be doing with your time than keeping tabs on my medical file? Like running a ship, maybe.”

The reply is unmistakably smug. “I have ample processing power to do both.”

Garrus sniggers.

“See what I have to put up with?” Joker throws his hands up dramatically. “Anyway, how can I help you? I hope you haven't broken the Thannix yet.”

Garrus’ mandibles flare with a lazy flick that reminds Joker of his grandparents’ mean old cat and the way she'd wave her tail before she scratched you. He's been told in turians it's a sign of amusement but with Garrus, who knows?

“Not quite yet.” Garrus folds his arms and leans against the bulkhead. “Just came to chat, actually.”

“Oh,” Joker says, not knowing what else to say. “Chat. Sure.”

There's a brief but intensely uncomfortable silence, and Joker has to fight back the hysterical laughter that always seem to hit him when he's stuck in an awkward situation.

“I have a question, actually,” Garrus says, and Joker can't be imagining the embarrassment in his voice, unthinkable as it is. “Just, you're a human…”

Another awkward silence.

“Uhuh. Good observation.”

“I could use some pointers.”

Joker blinks. “On humans?”

“Human, ah. Biology.”

“Yeah, well. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly an exemplary specimen of -” Joker stops abruptly to stare at Garrus in flat disbelief. No. No. Surely not. “Wait. You don't mean - are you -”

Garrus shifts his weight from one foot to another, embarrassment plainly evident this time.

“Is this a sex thing?”

“It's, ah -”

Joker spins in his chair in unadulterated glee. This is, he decides, the best thing that's ever happened to him. Literally the best thing. He levels Garrus with a grin so wide and intensely delighted that he takes a half step back.

“You have a secret human girlfriend.”

“Not exactly.”

“You're looking to hook up with an alien.” Joker leans back in his chair with a smug little smirk. “You xenophile, you.”

Garrus snorts. “Right.”

“So who is it? Do I know her?”

Garrus’ mandibles flare sharply again, but all he offers is a noncommittal hum.

“Why ask me?” Joker gestures at himself with a self-deprecating shrug. “Ask Shepard, she's -” He pauses as Garrus gives him a deadpan stare. “- Too weird? Too weird. Actually, don't ask Shepard. I've heard her give dating advice, she thinks shootouts count as a romantic getaway.”

“Of course she does.”

“You could search the extranet. Or ask EDI.” Joker glares half-heartedly at the AI. “I'm sure she has ‘ample processing power.’”

EDI quietly flickers into existence. “Extranet searches indicates that sexual activity between humans and turians is logistically possible.”

“Logistically possible.” Joker grins at Garrus. “Who said romance is dead? Wait, so do you - do turians have -” He looks Garrus determinedly in the eye and blinks rapidly. “You know what, that's your business.”

He sees EDI flash from the corner of his eye. “Turian and human genitalia have enough similarities to facilitate -”

“Yeah, we got that,” Joker says loudly, and Garrus leans even more determinedly against the bulkhead, as if the increased angle of his body will somehow counteract his obvious discomfort. “See? There you go. Logistically possible.”

“I'd got that far.” Garrus taps his fingers on his upper arm, an almost anxious gesture. He notices Joker watching him and returns to his customary stillness. “I was wondering more about…”

“About?”

“Humans have a lot of - rules.”

“Don't look at me.” Joker shrugs. “I don't know the rules of hook ups.”

EDI flickers to life once more. “My extranet searches indicates that elaborate courtship generally precedes human sexual activity.”

“Right,” Garrus says again, sounding distinctly flustered. “You know what, this is all hypothetical anyway, I'll just go -”

“Hey, Garrus, wait.” Joker spins to face him. He feels bad for the guy, weirdly enough. “That's not true, humans hook up without dating all the time. If that's, uh. If that's what you want to - god, this is weird.”

Garrus’ expression is unreadable. “I see.”

“The hell do I know, right?” Joker grins. “Look, just - I'll send you some stuff on the condition you never mention it again, okay?”

“Right. Some stuff.

“C’mon, man, don't be obtuse when I'm doing you a favor.”

“I believe,” EDI says, in an annoyingly chirpy tone, “Mister Moreau is referring to the various pornographic -”

“Okay!” Joker all but yells, thinking maybe this conversation isn't the gift he thought it was after all. “And you can't just go through my stuff!”

“My security clearance is extensive.”

“Right, so we're letting the AI run riot on our personal files, that couldn't possibly go wrong.”

“I have compressed them into an easily navigated format and granted additional access to Garrus Vakarian.”

“Ugh,” Joker says, by way of thanks. “Can we just never talk about this again? Like, ever?”

“Agreed.”

 

-

 

Joker forgets about the entire conversation until a few days later when Shepard comes to check in on him, at which point the trauma has faded enough that he's full circle back to gleeful.

Shepard's back from a ground mission which he takes was pretty uneventful except for her and Garrus’ headshot tally, apparently her visor and his disagreed on who scored the last merc, and - honestly, he stopped listening halfway through. Shooting is boring. You aim, you shoot. There's no nuance. But hey, whatever floats their weird, competitive boat. He just pities their third wheel.

He waits for an appropriate gap in her story to drop his bombshell, grin growing wider in anticipation.

“Did you know,” he says finally, relishing each and every word, “that Garrus has a secret human girlfriend?”

Shepard's forehead creases ever so slightly. “He said that?”

“Not in so many words.”

“Yeah?”

“Uhuh.” Joker folds his hands behind his neck and grins up at her. It makes his wrist hurts but the nonchalant air is worth the pain. “He came here the other day looking for advice.

Shepard snorts, and folds her arms. “What kind of advice, exactly?”

“Hook up advice,” Joker says triumphantly, frowning when she doesn't react with the kind of shock or surprise he was looking for. “He wants to hook up with a human,” he adds, in case it isn't obvious. “Like, sex.”

She remains infuriatingly unmoved. “Well, that's his business.”

“Come on! Don't you even want to know who it is?”

Shepard shoots him a strange, sideways look, like she's halfway between holding back a laugh and a frown. “Who is it?”

“I dunno, he wouldn't tell me.”

She laughs then, and leans against the bulkhead, pulling off the casual maneuvre Garrus was going for with much more conviction. “Like I said, it's his business. He obviously wants to keep it private.”

“You aren't curious?”

Shepard looks back at him with a purposefully mild and uninterested expression, which is when it hits him.

“You know, don't you?”

She raises her eyebrows. “Hmm?”

“You know who Garrus’ secret human girlfriend is!” He sits up straighter in his chair. “He told you.”

Shepard can bluff like no one's business, play a hand of cards with a face like stone, say just about anything with an intense and infectious conviction, but she fumbles this one pretty bad. Joker sniggers.

“I didn't say that.”

“Do I know her?” Joker demands, but Shepard just grins and says nothing. “You can't leave me in the dark like this!”

“Hey, it's his business.” She pauses, then corrects herself with a bemused expression. “Their business.”

Joker scowls. “Fine. Fine. I don't need you. I'll figure it out on my own.”

Shepard grins widely. “You do that.”

“I already know it's someone I know.”

“You think?”

“Must be, or else you'd tell me.” Joker preens a little as Shepard's silence basically confirms his theory. “It's a start.”

Shepard shakes her head with a quiet laugh. “You know, some people would consider that invasive. Just a thought.”

“Yeah, well. Everything's relative when you live on a ship where an AI can access all your personal files.” He pauses to give EDI a half-hearted glare. “And records your every move.”

EDI sounds offended. “I have very thorough privacy protocols.”

“Stop going through my stuff, then!”

Shepard silences him with an annoyed look, Joker clamping his mouth shut with a scowl. He likes to push, sure, but he's not about to push so far as to get a real dressing down. Especially not in front of the AI.

“I'll leave you to it,” Shepard says, pushing off from the bulkhead with a sigh. “How long til we dock?”

“Four hours.”

She nods, and turns to leave, spinning back at the last moment to fix him with a curious look. “I have to ask - what advice did you give him?”

Joker winces, and spins to face away from her as quickly as possible. “I, er. I gave him some stuff.”

“Gave him what?”

“Just some, er, some resources -”

Of course, EDI has to chip in. Because privacy protocols his ass. “I transferred all of Mister Moreau’s relevant personal files, most of which were erotic in nature -”

“You gave him porn?”

Joker groans into his hands. “What was I going to give him, my extensive pool of first hand experience? Sometimes I break a rib putting my pants on.”

“You gave him porn,” Shepard repeats, as if torn between amusement and horror. “You -” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“Me too.”

“To watch the entirety of the compiled footage at the intended speed,” EDI says, almost thoughtfully, “it would take 178 days, seven hours, and three minutes.”

 

-

 

“My privacy protocols -”

“Yeah, I know,” Joker huffs impatiently, “but I’m not asking you to tell me who it is, I’m just asking if you know who it is.”

EDI’s hologram blinks indignantly. “I still feel that this breaches my -”

“C’mon, EDI. It’s not as if you’re giving me any information. Besides, you went through my personal files.”

“I was simply anticipating your request given the offer you were extending -”

Joker groans, as long and loud and petulant as he can make it. “Alright, fine. When’s the last time Garrus took shore leave? I know I’m authorized to know that.”

“Forty-one days ago.” EDI sounds primly disapproving. He ignores it.

“Figures he's a workaholic. Where were we then, the Citadel?”

“Yes.”

“Last shore leave before that?”

“Nos Astra, ninety seven days ago.”

“Too long,” Joker muses, “it has to be the recent one. Whoever she is, that’s where he meets her.”

“That is not necessarily the logical conclusion to -”

“Oh?” Joker spins in his chair. “Something you’d like to add?”

Resounding silence.

“Didn’t think so.”

 

-

 

Ordinarily, Joker avoids Kelly. It’s nothing personal. She’s never tried to counsel him, but after months of ‘you must feel like it’s your fault ’ and ‘you must blame your condition for the Commander’s death ’, he’s developed a dislike bordering on disdain for her entire profession. He joined Cerberus to get away from that shit, from people telling him how he feels without consulting him at any point in the process.

But she does have access to Shepard’s messages and a good eye for detail. She also, Tali informs him, has a weakness for black forest gateau. He figures he can spring for a cake. It’s a good cause.

“You know, Jeff,” she says, with a knowing smile, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were buttering me up for something.”

“But you know better, right?”

Kelly runs a finger longingly over the cake box. “EDI did warn me you might want to ask me a few questions, and I really should say that I can’t break patient confidentiality -”

“Not a problem.” Joker slides a fork across the table with a grin. “No conflict of interest there.”

She takes the fork, peeling back the lid of the cake box. “In that case, ask away.”

“It’s Garrus,” Joker says, jerking his head in the direction of the Battery. “I need to know who his secret girlfriend is. Any ideas?”

“His secret girlfriend?” He has her attention, fork frozen in her hand.

“Secret human girlfriend.” Joker hands her a datapad. “It’s someone I know, because Shepard thinks it’s funny not to tell me, so this is my shortlist. Any ideas?”

“Shepard knows?” Kelly asks. She sounds strangely apprehensive.

“Yeah, I guess he told her.”

“They are close, I suppose,” she says, chewing on her lip thoughtfully. “Are you sure? I’ve hardly noticed him socialize with the crew outside of Shepard, nevermind maintaining a relationship.”

Joker snorts. “I’m sure, trust me.” He gestures at the datapad. “Anything? You know everything that goes on round here,” he adds, in what he imagines to be a flattering sort of tone. “Nothing in Shepard’s messages?”

Kelly hesitates. “Jeff, you know giving away personal details from Shepard's correspondence would go against regulations, I wish I could help you, but -”

“Aww, c’mon!”

“I can’t help you,” Kelly says loudly, “but if I could, I’d suggest starting at the beginning.” She slides the datapad across the table with a pointed look. He has no idea what she means by that.

“What?”

“It’s not uncommon for romantic feelings to develop between two people who’ve been through a difficult situation together. Particularly if one feels indebted to the other.” Kelly smiles then, as if satisfied she has given him her answer, and finally takes that first forkful of cake. It’s sort of cute how delighted she looks, closing her eyes and relishing every second. Despite his lack of information, he can’t bring himself to feel too bad about blowing those credits.

“Uh, right. I’ll… keep that in mind. Enjoy your cake.”

“Thank you for the generous gift, Jeff.”

It’s only as he ambles back along to the helm that he stops dead in his tracks and whispers with wide eyes: “Doctor Michel.”

 

-

 

It all adds up, at least to start with. They have history. Dr Michel has always had an obvious crush on Garrus, or so Tali tells him. Garrus started at some point referring to her as ‘Chloe’, otherwise inexplicably. They both like to look out for the little people, though their methods… differ somewhat. It sort of makes sense when he squints at it, but then again -

Then again, Garrus’ idea of a romantic getaway is probably a shootout, too. He's pretty sure Chloe wouldn't necessarily be on the same page. The more he tries to visualize their weird, interspecies courtship, the more he just can't see it working at all.

He's only met Dr Michel once, at Shepard's funeral. Or, well, her memorial service. She was never officially found so she was never officially dead, just presumed dead, which made it all the more sobering, or maybe that was just him. The thought of Shepard still floating about somewhere amongst the debris gave him the shivers.

He wishes she could've seen it, now that she's feeling more and more like the pariah of the galaxy. Everyone showed up for the Hero of the Citadel.

Dr Michel stuck pretty close to Garrus and the rest of the alien crewmates, who in turn stayed slightly off to the side of the Alliance contingent. As if they didn't matter, as if they weren't as much to thank for Saren’s downfall as the rest of them.

Garrus showed up for the shortest possible time, slinking in late and disappearing early, which to anyone who didn't know him would seem rude or perfunctory. He did give his curt condolences to Shepard’s mom, though, who Joker hardly dared approach. He wonders what she thought of him, the abrupt turian crewmate who stood ramrod straight and still as anything while Tali sniffled besides him. He didn't ask. He stood as still and silent as Garrus, though the guilt weighed him down into a miserable hunch. He would've left early too, if he could. He doesn't blame him.

Dr Michel seemed nice. She and Garrus got along well, he didn't try to arrest her or shoot her, which - as far as Joker could tell - were the two categories his acquaintances on the Citadel otherwise fell into. It could work, he supposes. It's weird, but it could work.

He tests his theory the next time Garrus drops by, since apparently that's something he does now. It's not that Joker minds that they're friends, but he is vaguely horrified that this seems to have come about by way of owning the same porn. Join Cerberus, see the galaxy, turn your alien colleagues into xenophiles. That one wasn't on the recruitment posters. He's actually pretty sure the Illusive Man would be horrified, which is -

- actually, it makes him feel a lot better.

(“But you joined them,” Tali always says when he criticizes Cerberus, “you chose to leave the Alliance even knowing what they'd done -”

“I had to, Tali,” he says, “they were the only ones who could bring her back and fix this mess.”

What he didn't say, and it's my fault they had to.

What he did say, “Also, they got me a new cap.”)

“Hey Garrus,” Joker says, spinning round to face him before he's even had a chance to announce his presence. “Spoken to Dr Michel recently?”

“Chloe?” Garrus says, and Joker mentally high-fives himself at the use of her given name. “Sure.”

“How is she?”

“Fine.” Garrus shrugs. “She's still doing good work down in the Wards.”

That sounds disappointingly professional, but maybe it's a turian thing. Joker tries one last time, hoping to provoke some sort of flustered or embarrassed response, anything that’ll support his theory. He leans back in his chair and raises his eyebrows.

“Bet she knows a lot about human biology.”

“She's actually very well versed in all Council species,” Garrus says, either not taking the bait or as boringly oblivious to it as he seems. “She used to patch me up when I was in C-Sec.” He casts another look at Joker as he stares back in disbelief. "What?”

Joker sighs. Back to the drawing board, then.

 

-

 

Joker thinks, sometimes, about the overwhelming likelihood that none of them are making it out of this alive. They all do. Cleaning up unfinished business, making sure there's no loose ends or things to regret. Tali with her dad, Samara with her daughter, Thane his son.

Joker, he writes his mom. There's no big unfinished symphony left for him to orchestrate, the legacy he feared leaving was over Alchera, and he's done his bit to avoid that. So, he sends his sister funny vids. He does responsible, sustainable things with his Cerberus paychecks. Not that it'll matter if the Reapers invade and everything goes to hell, but even so.

He doesn't have a bucket list - he's flown the best ships in the galaxy (all two of them), served under the best commander, and quite frankly been the best damn pilot around, too. He's ticked everything off his list quite nicely.

Maybe Garrus is ticking one off his, he thinks, whether it's just interspecies curiosity or the one person you always half wondered if you really had a shot with. Maybe a little of both.

He voices this thought to EDI, for lack of any other company, half expecting a resounding silence as she primly refuses to indulge his investigation.

“I have observed a variety of behaviors across the crew which seem to point to a fear of death,” she says instead. “Is a desire to couple often one of these?”

Joker sniggers. “Probably. You got some scuttlebutt for me, EDI?”

She doesn't bother reciting her privacy regulations, offering only a faintly weary: “No.”

“Some things never change.” Joker has learned to take her rejection in a reasonably chipper manner. “Anything on your bucket list?”

“Organic goals tend to revolve around self improvement. As a shackled AI, I am not authorized to make those changes. So, no. There is nothing.” He's probably imagining it, but she sounds sort of wistful. “I have not noticed you altering your behavior, Mister Moreau.”

He grins. “You asking for my bucket list? I just want to take on a Collector, one on one. Close combat. I'd be like -” He mimes a karate chop with one hand as he unsheathes an imaginary gun with his other. “That one's for the colonies, asshole! Boom, right between the eyes.” He blows the smoke from his imaginary pistol. Which wouldn't smoke anyway, but whatever.

“That… is inadvisable. Collectors possess both a larger body mass and a far superior -”

“I know. You never asked for it to be a realistic goal. Just what I want.”

“You do not wish to… couple?”

Joker snorts. “I'm good, thanks.”

“Mister Moreau -”

“Told you, EDI,” Joker says, “can it with the ‘Mister Moreau’ crap, okay?”

There’s a pause. “Jeff.” She sounds unsure.

“Yeah?”

“My extranet research into human and other species’ relationships seems to indicate -”

“Uh oh.”

“- that sexual intimacy is the goal of all romantic affiliations. In the vids -”

“Okay, forget the vids.” Joker rubs his forehead. “I am not the best person to explain this. But forget the vids.”

“You also told Garrus that humans did not need romantic affiliation to be sexually intimate.”

“Nope.”

“But if sexual intimacy is the goal of romantic affiliations -”

“Not always.” Joker sighs and leans back in his chair wearily. “They can be separate. You can hook up with someone and not want to be ‘romantically affiliated’, and you can like someone and not necessarily want to have sex with them.”

“Then why is sexual intimacy always depicted as the goal of romance?”

“Because we're weird like that.”

“Many organics must value sexual intimacy highly if this is the case.” EDI sounds about as confused as he's ever heard her, and he can't help grinning.

“Yeah, I guess some of them do. Look, sex isn't all it’s cracked up to be.” He shrugs, then grins wryly and adds, “Especially not when you're the one doing the cracking.”

“Then you value sexual intimacy less because your condition makes it less fulfilling.”

No. No-no-no, that's not why.” He pauses. “I mean, it's a consideration, sure, but you just have to - um, do things a bit differently.” If EDI was human, this would be the point where she'd grin luridly and ask for details. But she isn't, and she doesn't, and he's finding he appreciates that.

“Then why do you value it less?”

“Because I just do.”

“Then why,” EDI says, and Joker can't resist raising his eyes to the ceiling with a sigh, “do you have all that footage depicting -”

“C’mon EDI, don't make me say it.”

“But they function as a replacement for sexual intimacy.”

“Nah, they're just fun.” Joker fights the urge to giggle. “God, this is the weirdest conversation. It's just - sex is nice - in theory. In reality, I can take it or leave it.”

“So do you value romantic pursuits?”

“Not as much as some people, probably, but yeah.”

“Does it predicate personhood?” She sounds downright distressed. Nothing more than a slight change in pitch to her usual electronic voice, but Joker’s spent enough time listening to notice even the smallest changes. He wonders how much he used to miss. “Does an organic have to be capable of romantic or sexual connections to be considered a person?”

He has to take a moment to wrap his head around that. “No? I mean, what?”

“It seems so integral to all organic pursuits. Great works of art, social convention -”

“Compassion, maybe, but that doesn't have to be romantic.” The penny drops with astounding clarity. “Are you worried you're not a person?” He keeps his tone casual, letting each word fall as lightly as he can.

“By most definitions, I am not.” She sounds eerily calm about it. He doesn't know if he wants to correct her, torn between his own confusion - she's an AI - and the ever louder voice at the back of his mind that seems increasingly convinced it doesn't matter.

“Clearly,” she continues, her voice perfectly balanced once more, “my inability to fully comprehend the nuances of organic relationships demonstrates this.”

“I dunno, EDI, I'm not sure I ‘fully comprehend’ them either.” Joker watches her hologram carefully, but it gives nothing away. “You think they should kick me out of human club?”

“I do not, Jeff.”

“That's good,” he says, “I'd make a really bad asari.”

Her resulting silence is definitely amused.

 

-

 

It's almost a hobby for him after that, spotting the bucket list ticks. EDI is happy to join in with this one, reporting back to him when Tali tries a sip of triple distilled ryncol under Kasumi’s urging, or when Zaeed seems to nurse aspirations of ‘coupling' with their resident asari. (This one is a tragic failure thus far, but EDI is keeping him posted.) Everyone has something they haven't tried, something they wouldn't go for if they didn't get that push.

But Shepard? He can't figure it out.

It doesn't help that she barely takes a moment for herself, rushing from problem to problem without having time to attend to her own. She's all efficiency and energy these days, but Joker remembers how she looked the first time he saw her, right after she'd woken up. Alive and alert and absolutely herself, but wary and weary, too. Like she still had one foot in the grave and half a mind to return, he'd thought, sending a shiver down his spine. The look faded as she saw Normandy, which was when he knew she'd be okay. Still, you don't just spring back from something like that, even if you're Shepard. There must be something she wants to lay to rest, something she never felt like she tied up neatly enough.

So when she asks him to set a course for Alchera, he doesn't say anything. She takes the shuttle down without a ground team, which is against her own otherwise rigid regulations, but he doesn't say anything. Neither does EDI, stickler that she is. Instead, he pings Garrus as he makes his way down to the cargo hold when she's due to arrive back, who shows up close on his heel.

“Hackett?” Garrus’ tone is hard to read, but he sounds annoyed, mandibles tight against his face. Alchera probably doesn't stir up happy memories for him either.

“Yep.”

They wait in silence until the Kodiak arrives, Garrus tapping a finger agitatedly on his elbow, arms folded tightly.

Shepard steps out the doors and drops the handful of dog tags wordlessly down onto a nearby crate, the clatter and scrape of it setting Joker’s nerves on edges. She's still in her full armor, but there another helmet under her arm. He hardly needs to look to know what it is, crumpled and battered as it is. That too is unceremoniously dumped on a crate.

She fumbles with the back of her helmet, trying to disconnect and remove it, but ends up scrabbling aimlessly over the release button with uncharacteristic clumsiness. In the end, it's Garrus who reaches behind to the back of her neck and pops the clasp in a gesture that could almost be presumptuous if it weren't for the way she steps toward him. She yanks it over her head and takes a deep, bracing breath.

“Cold down there,” she says, as if she doesn't have a sophisticated heating system built into her armor, or an augmented nervous system that wouldn't mind so much even if she didn't.

Joker nods numbly as she jerks her head towards the dog tags, then takes another breath that's almost a gasp. Garrus reaches for her elbow in a steadying gesture, though he doesn't make contact until she grasps his lower arm and leans onto him under the shaky pretence of unclipping her pistol.

“Did you need that?” Garrus asks sharply, wrapping his fingers tighter around her arm.

“Nah,” she says, her breathing still a little uneven. “Nothing down there but ghosts.” It's a profoundly sad sentence. She turns to Joker. “See that Hackett gets those.”

“Will do, Commander.”

Whatever Garrus can see through that visor of his, he doesn't seem to find it entirely pleasing. “Shepard, if you'd needed company -”

“I know,” she says, and aims a wry half smile at him. She holds his gaze and takes another few breaths that quiver a little on the exhale, but she lets go of his arm and straightens up. She raises an eyebrow. “Thanks for the welcoming committee.”

“Don't know what you mean, Commander. I hang out here all the time.”

“Didn't even notice you were gone,” Garrus adds, and Shepard laughs.

“Uhuh.” She scoops up the battered remains of her old helmet, turning it over in her hands. “She was a good ship.”

“One of the best,” Joker says, “but this one's better.”

Shepard grins, and he knows it was the right answer.

 

-

 

He doesn’t punch a Collector in the face, in the end, and he doesn’t shoot one point blank or get his epic one liner. He breaks three ribs, his left tibia, fractures one knee and one elbow, and even does a number on his collarbone, which hasn’t broken since he was seven and tried to play football with the kids next door. He watches the entire crew get abducted, no - he watches his friends get abducted on his behalf, so he can limp to safety. This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. He wasn’t supposed to walk away from another catastrophe and watch more people die.

Chakwas is gone - they're all gone - so it’s Shepard who drags him to medbay and slaps the medigel on. In true marine fashion, she has no finesse, and he can hardly feel his face when she’s done. Of course, that means there’s no more pain, so it’s a win in his books.

“Jeff,” EDI is saying, and he blinks heavily. “You need rest.”

“M’fine.”

“I am disabling manual control,” she says firmly, and he thinks about protesting for a moment before he shrugs and settles back into his chair with a groan.

“Fine.” He rubs at his eyes blearily. “Is this just how it’s going to be now, huh? Is this life with an unshackled AI? Getting bossed about -”

“You’ve been through a traumatic experience, and need to rest before -”

He sits up a little straighter. “Traumatic is getting taken by the Collectors. I just crawled through a few ducts.”

“You are thirty per cent above the recommended medigel amount applied locally for your body mass over a twenty four hour period.”

Joker closes his eyes. “I know. It’s great.”

He just sits in the quiet for a few moments, painfully aware that underneath the wonderful floaty lightness of his limbs there’s a lot of damage still not dealt with. They don’t really have time. He supposes it might not even matter, depending on the outcome of the Omega relay trip. He finds, for the first time since he stepped aboard the SR-2, that he’d actually really rather not think about it.

“Stupid bucket list,” he says eventually, “guess I was tempting fate, huh?”

“Engaging in hand to hand combat with a Collector would not have achieved anything,” EDI says in that matter of fact way she has, and weirdly, it does make him feel a little better.

“Yeah,” he sighs, pulling the peak of his cap down to shade his eyes. “I guess not. But it would’ve felt good.”

“You did everything you could, Jeff.”

He sighs heavily, too tired and sore and spaced out to argue. “I guess you can have a bucket list of your own now, right? Now you can make changes and improve yourself, like you said.”

EDI doesn't reply for a moment, her reply cautiously noncommittal when she finally breaks her silence. “I am able to alter my protocols, yes.”

“Anything on it yet?” That seems to stump her, so he just grins weakly and says, “Hopefully it won't be subjugating organics, or anything.”

“Not as long as they continue to serve a purpose.”

“I know you're joking, but it's still sort of terrifying.”

She dims the lights. “Rest, Jeff.”

“A benevolent dictator,” he says, “could be worse.”

EDI has always taken the helm when he's slept before, but this time it feels different. Maybe he did unleash a future robotic overlord onto the world, but he finds that he won't regret it even if he has.

“Thanks, EDI,” he says, the words running together a little as the weariness and medigel coax him into unconsciousness.

As he drifts off, he think he hears a quiet thank you in return.

 

-

 

Making it through the relay and into the Collector base may only be the start, but it feels like a pretty damn good one. Shepard's grip on the back of his chair is tight, but her face shows much the same emotions as his: determined and cautiously pleased with their progress. She lets go and pats him on the shoulder - softly, he notes gratefully.

“Nicely done.”

“Guess you take over from here, Commander.”

“I guess so.” She turns to look behind her where Garrus has made his way to the front of the ship. Her face softens a little, mouth curving into a small smile, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind. Garrus doesn't miss it, and his mandibles flare as he takes another step forward, a strange mirror image despite their lack of facial similarity. “Everyone ready?”

“In the comm room.” Garrus tilts his head to one side. “So I guess this is it.”

She smiles fully this time. “You worried?”

“Never,” Garrus says, slipping from his usual put-upon cockiness to something unshakably genuine. He holds her gaze for a moment then nods, back to business. “We'll see you there.”

Garrus leaves as Shepard returns his nod, smile still lingering, and it all falls into place with alarming clarity.

“It's you,” Joker says, watching Garrus’ retreating back. “I can't believe I didn't see it.”

“What?”

“You're his secret human girlfriend.”

Shepard just looks at him, the echo of a smile still on her face, a little amused and a little exasperated, and maybe even a little bit embarrassed, too, unthinkable as it is. Joker scrolls through a weird bundle of emotions, from horror that he gave Garrus porn to seduce Shepard, to incredulity that he never even considered her, settling eventually on a vague sort of satisfaction in finally having worked it out. However last minute.

“You know, my top suspect was Doctor Michel.”

“Suspect?” Shepard raises an eyebrow. “This a criminal investigation?”

“You tell me, Commander.” Joker grins. “I didn't read the Cerberus regs all that thoroughly.”

Shepard snorts, rolling her shoulders out, but doesn't respond. Joker feels almost guilty; by dragging her back the way they did, she all but signed a blank check saying she'd put her life on the line, and here he was making jabs about how she chose to make a little room for herself in amongst all the demands and obligations and possible impending death.

“Bunch of assholes anyway,” he says, and she shakes her head with a laugh. “Bucket list xenophilia, huh?”

She grins. “Something like that.”

“Sorry about the porn,” he says, because if they're going to die he'll never have to live it down.

“No need, Joker. It worked out just fine.”

“Thanks for the image, Commander. I'll be bleaching my brain for weeks.”

“Sorry.” Shepard looks utterly unrepentant. Her grins fades into something more contemplative. “Speaking of bucket lists,” she says, meeting and holding his gaze in that way she has where she’s nothing less than a center of gravity, pulling you in and holding you in place, “I don’t blame you for what happened, you know. I don’t know if I ever told you that.”

“It doesn’t matter if you blame me or not, it’s still my fault.”

“And I don’t regret any of it,” she continues, barely paying attention to his interjection. “Wouldn’t change a thing.”

“No offence, but that’s kind of hard to believe.”

“Believe what you want, it’s the truth.” She smiles and pats him on the shoulder again. “See you on the other side, Joker.”

He turns to watch her go, hesitating before calling after her. “I should've just got in the damn pod.”

Shepard doesn't do him the disservice of lying. “Yeah.”

“But I didn't.” He takes a breath. “So I did what I could to make that right.”

She looks him in the eye. “I appreciate it.”

“Yeah, well.” He scuffs his feet. “You looked like shit until we found Garrus, so.”

“So?”

“So I'm glad he's got your back, is all.”

She smirks. “Are you giving us your blessing?”

“When you put it like that it just sounds weird.”

Shepard just grins, putting her helmet on with a decisiveness mechanical click.

“Hey, Shepard? Don't die this time, alright? Military funerals are always a snoozefest, and I already did it the once.”

She flashes him a grin that's all lazy confidence and firm optimism, and even if it's all for show and boosting crew morale, he finds that he believes her.

 

-

 

Of course, getting out is just as hard, and Shepard not making it onboard is out of the question. Not on his watch.

And he can do it, he can see the end in sight and the path Normandy needs to take to swing past her and retrieve her Commander, if she could just shake those damn bugs -

“Perhaps some covering fire,” EDI suggests, apropos of nothing.

“What?”

“Some covering fire,” she repeats, “for Shepard and her team.” Following his continued bewildered silence, she adds, “I can take control of the Normandy.”

A slow grin spreads across his face. “Did I ever tell you you're my favorite unshackled AI?”

“You did not.”

“Rhetorical, EDI. But for the record: you are absolutely my favorite unshackled AI.”

His ribs are going to hate him in the morning, but to hell with it. Also his collar bones. His knees. His elbows. Mostly everything, actually. God, he’s glad that Chakwas is back.

It turns out that basic was a really long time ago, and it also turns out that having a higher percentage of broken bones in your body than intact ones doesn’t make for a pleasant experience where recoil is involved.

It also turns out that nothing can really put a damper on spraying bullets liberally into the asshole insects yelling that one’s for the colonies, even if Shepard sort of outdoes him with her death defying leap. Garrus hauls her the rest of the way and EDI closes the door; then they’re away.

“I know I didn’t punch any of them,” Joker says in the vague direction of the overhead, “but that totally still counted.”

EDI doesn’t reply, but there’s something about the buoyant way Normandy is flying that is all the answer he needs.