Joker keeps his mouth shut for all of two seconds after he sets foot in Shepard's cabin, and instead of something reasonable, like hey, sexy or you called? or even just hi, what comes out is "You really don't want me in here."
Which would have been more convincing five minute ago, before he dragged himself all the way up to the loft. Hell, five minutes ago he could've convinced himself that he didn't want to be in here right now either, sparing himself a lot of trouble and no small amount of pain. But it's been that kind of day, the kind where major lag in his common sense is the least of his problems.
And right now the biggest problem is Shepard.
"I could have sworn that I called you up here because I wanted the company."
"Yeah, well." Joker slumps against the bulkhead, trying to shift a little weight off the sore spots. But there isn't anywhere good to shift the weight to - just more pain, sharp stabs of it that radiate up into his hips and back. "Not to question your judgment, Commander, but I'm not exactly great company right now."
"Hey," Shepard says, gently - too gently - and Joker doesn't even have it in him to move away when she steps towards him. He stiffens under the hand she rests on his shoulder but doesn't shrug it off, can't. "I'm not kicking you out. I enjoy being with you, Joker, even when you're not at the top of your game." She could tame a pack of varren with just her voice, quiet and even; how's a guy supposed to stay mad at that? "But I'm not making you stay, either."
She means that, too. Shepard has a way with words to rival anyone Joker's ever met, but she doesn't use it to dance around the truth. People can believe what comes out of her mouth without shooting themselves in the foot by doing it. Joker can believe her, believe in her, and that's not something that comes easy.
He sighs and the last shreds of resistance drift away on his breath, because no matter what he tries to tell himself, he'd like to leave about as much as Shepard wants him to.
Crossing the room takes twenty agonizing steps, and each of them feels like it's sucking up the last of his dwindling energy. He doesn't bother with dignity when he gets to the bed - he just flops right down, gritting his teeth through his body's adamant protest, and stares at the view of space above him.
"You know I'm not moving anytime soon, right?"
"Guess I'm stuck with you, then." The bed shifts and Shepard pops into his field of vision, smiling and framed by stars. Her legs settle on either side of his, but she's bearing her own weight, hovering an inch above his thighs. He wants her closer. He can't have her closer, not tonight.
He puts his hands on her shoulders, skims them down to her waist but doesn't pull her down on top of him. "Damn it, Shepard," he mutters, and her smile goes a little sad.
"You're hurting." It isn't a question. She knows him better than that. "Should I radio Dr. Chakwas?"
Joker knows her well enough that he shouldn't be offended, but the offer still stings. He's already full of pain meds and stims (enough of both to be functional at the helm, never quite as much of either as he needs), so he doesn't need a doctor, and definitely doesn't need to sit on his ass in the med bay when the Normandy and her commander need him. "I can deal with hurting."
Shepard doesn't look convinced, so he continues, taking a sudden burst of courage and going with it. He owes his life to Shepard. If anyone deserves a look inside the fucked-up mind of Jeff Moreau, it's her. "I'm used to it, okay? I'm in pain every minute of every single day of my whole freaking life, and when I'm not in pain I'm too doped up to notice. And I can live with that. I've made pain my bitch."
"I believe you." Only three words, but they pack a hell of a punch; enough to make him feel guilty for getting defensive, and then guilty for feeling guilty, because he knows that's not what Shepard meant. Things are just fine with her, but when it comes to his relationship with his own brain he can't ever win for losing.
"I know." He grinds his palms into the knots in his thighs, which doesn't help, but at least it makes the pain different. "You're not the problem. Pain's not the problem. I just - "
Shit. Shit. He's already said way more than he meant to, more than he ever has to anyone who wasn't keeping him supplied with painkillers. This is unexplored territory, stuff he doesn't even know how to explain to himself - and he doesn't know if it makes it better or worse that Shepard doesn't mind listening. She has worlds, whole systems, and billions of lives to save. She doesn't need the half-baked ramblings of her helmsman on top of all that.
But she'll listen anyway, and knowing that is the push Joker needs.
"I'm just scared."
He takes it as a good sign that Shepard doesn't laugh in his face. Instead she slides over to sit beside him, taking his hands and gently coaxing them up from his thighs. "I'm listening, Joker."
Cerberus tasked her with saving the whole damn galaxy, and she's still willing to sit and listen to a single person's problems. Lying here with her, Joker can almost believe that there is no galaxy - no Collectors, no Reapers, nothing and no one but the two of them and Shepard's warm hands squeezing his. He squeezes back, then pulls his hands away so he can prop himself up on his elbows.
"I can walk now. Unassisted, I mean. No crutches, no braces - I'm not going to be running any marathons, but I can get around the ship on my own. You've, uh... probably noticed." That sounds even more pathetic out loud than it did in his head, but Shepard just nods. "Well, my body didn't just decide to get its shit together while you were out cold. It was Cerberus. All of it."
"I figured." Shepard's not smiling anymore, and Joker knows the grim expression that's taken all the brightness out of her face. It's her I'll accept your help, but I don't share your goals look. I didn't ask for this, it says, and I don't owe you. "If they could bring me back from the dead..."
"Yeah." He doesn't like that expression much, he realizes. When Shepard smiles she's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, but when she's upset, he just wants to make it better. And here he is making it worse. "Three hours after Cerberus contacted me, I was having lunch with some of the best doctors money can buy. They showed me all kinds of stuff - treatments I'd never been able to afford, surgical tech I didn't even know existed. One guy flat-out told me he could cure Vrolik's. In hindsight, I probably should've left after the bone weave crushed my fibula."
Shepard looks appropriately horrified, which makes the story a little less excruciating to tell. It's not often he gets to see her stunned into silence, after all. "You're kidding," she finally says, somewhat weakly. "Joker, that's horrible."
He's not quite prepared for the way that word hits him. His first thought is to argue; "horrible" is getting spaced and coming back to remember it, or the way Shepard's been used by the Alliance and Cerberus alike. Being used as a human guinea pig is - okay, not great, but still nothing compared to what Shepard's been through. Besides, they fixed him up all right in the end. It's not what Cerberus did to him that's got him freaked out so badly. Not really.
"I guess." He clears his throat, and pats Shepard awkwardly on the shoulder. She still looks kind of scandalized. "The surgeries went okay once Bone Weave Guy left. Most of it was for intramedullary rods - big metal things screwed into my bones for stability. Rehab was pretty intense, but my legs are more or less weight-bearing now. Which is kind of important, for legs."
"That doesn't sound like cutting-edge tech."
"The rods aren't. I had 'em as a kid, actually - Cerberus just upgraded me to a newer model. But they're just the backbone of it all, no pun intended. My legs can support my weight with the rods, but my muscle tone's shit, and my posture's all wrong. When you're a cripple your whole life you mess yourself up without even meaning to, just trying to avoid the things that hurt."
He's not bitter. He's absolutely not bitter at all that half of what's wrong with his stupid useless body is his own fault. "So they wired in a support structure for the parts that don't work right. Kinda like how the leg braces used to work, but this is smart tech. It lets my muscles do as much of the work as they can instead of completely taking over and creating weak spots. Pumps in medi-gel, too, when I need it. Pretty neat stuff."
When he says it like that it almost sounds like a great deal. He could easily let himself think that Shepard might see it that way, and forget that he brought the subject up framed with hurt and fear. Maybe they can just drop this and his issues can be his own. Like they should be.
Then she takes his cap off, runs her fingers through the short mess of his hair; "What didn't they tell you?" she asks, and he knows he's out of luck. It was stupid and selfish to think that Shepard wouldn't understand. If anything, she understands too well.
He leans into her touch until they're forehead to forehead, her arms around his shoulders both to hold him and to hold him up. "No one told me how weird it would be. Everything's tied into my nervous system, but when the robotics kick in, it's like telling someone else to move my legs. My brain sends the signals and it's not my muscles that respond. It's a total mindfuck. And Chakwas - she's a great doc, but this is out of her league. Most people this bad off don't serve in the damn military."
Shepard's arms tighten just a little. "Joker -" she starts, but Joker shakes his head - he's not done yet, and it doesn't feel good to spill his deepest insecurities like this, but somehow it feels necessary. Maybe if he gets it all out he'll find some kind of peace, or at least the right kind of pissed off, something that doesn't tear at him and try to eat him alive.
"The worst part, though - the worst fucking part - is that I'm scared shitless of my own stupid body, worse than I've ever been scared of anything. My own damn body freaks me out more than the Reapers! At least before I knew how broken I was. Now all I know is my legs practically yank themselves out from under me whenever I try to move."
Maybe if things had gone according to plan, if Shepard hadn't woken up early, there would've been more time for PT - but as it is Joker's stuck teaching himself how to walk all over again, a couple decades too late and with much higher stakes, and he didn't do so great the first time. "Before the surgeries," he tells Shepard, still so close that he can feel her breath ghosting over his cheek, "before Cerberus got their hands all over my business, I was okay with falling. Chakwas can fix up fractures like it's nothing. Now there's two million creds of tech fused to those bones, and it's not like I can just take a month or two off to get it fixed. Or even get it all yanked out again. And it's just - what good's being able to walk across the ship if one false step leaves me even more screwed than before?"
It's a rhetorical question. If he doesn't have any of the answers, why would Shepard? (That one's rhetorical too.) It doesn't even feel good to get all this off his chest, because it won't change a damn thing. He's still stuck with the brittle glass bones that surgery can't make stronger, and the muscles that never stop aching no matter what he does to try and strengthen them.
Other people, normal people, think pain is something transient, just a nuisance that can be chased away; they take their perfect bodies for granted, like none of them were ever a single genetic quirk away from being born into hell. They don't want to understand.
"I don't know, Joker" Shepard says, "but I love you anyway." No I'm sorry or that must be so hard or any of the other useless shit well-meaning people say without thinking. But then, Shepard's not exactly a normal person. He wouldn't be here - in her cabin, on the Normandy, maybe even alive - if she was.
Remembering that brings with it the relief that venting alone didn't, a weight the size of a small planet lifting right off his shoulders. He lets his head slip down to rest on her shoulder; soaks up the scent of her, soap-clean, warm and his; and adores her just a little bit more. So he's stuck with a lot of shit that he'd rather not deal with. Maybe it's okay, if that means he's stuck with Shepard, too.
Positive thinking. Chakwas would be thrilled. Which is why he's never, ever going to tell her.
"Love you too, Shep. ...and thanks. For everything."
They sit in comfortable silence for a minute, but soon even sitting up starts to take more energy than he has to spare - and wrestling off his boots (because like hell is he dragging himself down two decks to his own bunk) feels like it should be earning him a medal. Dealing with his clothes isn't much easier, and when Shepard reaches over to help him with his shirt he doesn't stop her. That one's less about trust, and more about the amount of energy it would take to come up with a witty complaint. But Shepard doesn't need to know that.
Her hand lingers on a red, angry scar on his thigh, and suddenly she looks very far away, her face settling into an odd expression Joker doesn't know how to read. It's nothing secret, certainly not anything she hasn't seen before. But he lets it go. She knows a lot more about that scar now than she did half an hour ago, and he's not about to pry.
She snaps out of it too quickly for him to ask questions, anyway.
"I've got some things to take care of. Need anything before I go?"
Instead of answering, he leans up to give her a kiss. "Don't do anything exciting," he adds as an afterthought. "No geth. No Collectors. If another krogan follows you home you can't keep him. ...and if you get a chance, tell Chakwas I'll take a look at the PT stuff she keeps nagging me about."
Cerberus didn't give two shits about making sure he was okay with their shiny new tech. But he probably wouldn't've liked it if they had, and anyway, Shepard isn't the only girl they gave him back; they gave him the Normandy, too, and the friends that come with her.
He'll learn to walk again. And he won't be doing it alone.