Shepard takes a step back, her eyes frantically mapping out Garrus' face. He's panting, hanging off James' shoulder, and indigo blood is pouring out of the cracks in his armour.
"You're the best friend I've ever had, Vakarian. Take care of my crew."
He swallows visibly and nods.
Vega grits his teeth and hauls the turian inside with him. "Give 'em hell, Commander."
"I will. Now go!"
As the shuttle starts to rise, Shepard turns around and faces the light one more time. There is only a handful of soldiers left and no guaranty any of them is going to reach it. No way in hell is she not giving it her best, though. Pumping every last drop of energy she has into her legs, she runs.
"Joker, you with me?"
"Just got the shuttle back, Commander."
His voice is unwavering, but distant, like he's holding on to his chair too far from the radio. She pants, avoids another flying bit of concrete, and keeps going.
"I'm closing in on the beacon. This is it."
"Kick some asses for us, Shepard. We're waiting."
She chokes on dust and the rotting smell of corpses, throwing herself out of the way of the Reaper's ray. It's any moment now and the last thing she wants is to enter the final round with regrets. She'll zap into the Citadel with a light conscience, or she won't.
"I love you, Joker. The Normandy is yours, now."
He's silent. She gives him a few seconds, hoping against every sign that tells her she made a mistake. And still he's silent. So she grits her teeth and she decides that at least, she was bravely stupid until the end. She took a risk, and now she reaps what she sowed. She refuses to let her voice break on the next words.
Then, a shadow grows over her head; she gasps, stumbling when she tries to step back to avoid the explosion. A second later, her armour starts to melt into her skin and Shepard screams.
When the monstrous child presents her with the choice, Shepard is overcome with an overwhelming urge to laugh. The amount of bullshit this thing managed to spew in less than a minute would put the Illusive Man to shame. If it thinks she's going to listen to it, it's in for a surprise.
“How about you die, you psycho piece of shit?”
She empties the barrel of her gun into the projection without thinking twice about it. That's what she's meant to do, shooting bad guys in the head, not deciding the future of the galaxy based on the condescending monologue of a reaper child.
“So be it,” the thing says.
This is not what Shepard fought for. She brought peace to the galaxy, cured the genophage, managed to get the quarians and geths to shake hands. This miserable excuse of a choice will never amount to the sacrifices she had to make before.
The Crucible is a weapon. She is, at her core, made to plunge her hands in wires and make things work. And work this will.
Shepard throws her gun on the floor and grits her teeth. With shaking breaths, she walks towards the display. The child is yelling something behind her, but she's been haunted by its voice enough. She refuses to listen.
She's about to put her hands in the wires, to figure out a way to make this work, when the idea strikes her. Shepard freezes before turning around, her eyes on the projection.
“Hey, you. If I go left, you're telling me I can control the Reapers?”
“Absolute control? I can tell them to do anything I want?”
The child seems satisfied as he answers. “Yes, you will control them completely. But it will destroy you.”
“Oh, who cares!?”
Without sparing the child a glance, she starts to walk. Slowly, literally one step at a time, the excruciating pain pulsing in every fibre of her body. The child is silent, walking beside her. It takes her precious minutes to reach the blue console, minutes when her friends are risking their lives on the ground. Until finally, she's here.
Shepard turns around and shows her bloodiest smile to the projection.
And she grabs the console, the blue light instantly latching onto her skin and burning a scream out of her throat. She can feel it, the consciousness, the awareness of every single Reaper carving its way into her mind. With every inch of will she has left, she pushes one thought, one single thought, until nothing else resonates inside her head.
The Normandy is barely avoiding a beam of red light when it happens. Earth's sky is orange, ships destroyed left and right and there's no telling if they'll be next. The helm is filled to the brim but no one is talking. They're all watching the Crucible light up with blue for one split second, before it starts.
A kilometre away, a Reaper explodes. Then another. Then a third one. After that, the sky turns red, Reapers reduced to rubble in seconds. Joker watches it happen from his seat, eyes unblinking, something ugly and hungry settling in his heart after all those months of battle. Someone shudders behind him and he can feel it through the leather. No one speaks.
EDI cut off the radio when it started. They watch, silent and unmoving, while the Reaper fleet is obliterated. Garrus and Vega are crawling back to them when the few remaining behemoths finish exploding. They smell like death and eezo and it makes Joker sick to the stomach. He refuses to think about Shepard and what she told him before reaching the beam.
The dead darkness of space puts out the last fires from the Reaper carcasses. Someone lets out a hysterical laugh. Traynor. Then Donnelly joins in. In a matter of seconds, everyone is barking like rabid dogs, shaking and crying, the sheer disbelief of what just happened finally catching up to them.
Joker doesn't laugh. Neither do Garrus and Vega.
Garrus is the first to wake up from the stupor.
“What?” Joker's voice cracks.
“Go back! We need to go get her!”
He swallows hard and tries to remember how to blink. Garrus is a talon away from shaking him, the only thing holding him back being the habits to stay away engrained in him after years spent together.
“Come on, Lola is waiting!” Vega is yelling in his ear.
Joker puts himself back together. Best pilot in the galaxy, right. Might be a good time to prove it, then. Slaloming between destroyed ships and pieces of Reaper seems infinitely easier than what the Collector Base had been. It doesn't take him half an hour to get to the Citadel.
It's a charnel house. Piles and piles of body, held back by the artificial gravity, when they're not floating between the arms of the Citadel. They have no idea where to start. The station is gigantic on a regular basis, when the Transports are working and they can get help from C-Sec.
Joker is about to call EDI, gone to the AI core to check on the Normandy, when they receive a geth transmission.
Shepard-Commander located at the Tower. We repeat, Shepard-Commander located at the Tower. We repeat, Shepard-Commander located-
It's enough for them. Ash and Liara get in the shuttle and Cortez flies them to the Tower. Garrus is glued to the pilot's seat, and any other day Joker would have thrown him out, but the bulking form on the turian at his back is more comfort than he expected to receive after today. Vega sprawls into the co-pilot seat and doesn't move, his breathing laboured.
They don't have to wait long, the screens showing what Ash's helmet is transmitting. The sight is nauseating. Bodies, everywhere, and the Keepers rummaging the corpses for pieces of... everything.
They're wary, walking slowly with their guns pointed to the floor. But nothing is moving, except for the Keepers and whatever they're dragging behind them at the time. The hallways don't seem to end, until they reach a wide entrance to something he's never seen before, a platform of some sort. It doesn't even have the same architecture as the rest of the Citadel.
He hears Ash's sharp intake of breath before the camera gets the right shot. Anderson is lying on the ground, dried blood on his fingers where they're resting against his stomach. The Illusive Man is a few feet away, brains blown out and cybernetics in plain sight. He looks almost peaceful, unlike anything a man like him should ever be allowed to look like.
Liara takes one look at the man, then one look at Ash, before kicking him right in the face. The noise is sickening but Joker shifts in his chair, suddenly more comfortable than he was a minute before. The asari moves to the console they can see at the edge, and there's blood on the ground, blood on the corners of the display, blood on the digital keyboard. It takes only a second for EDI to scan the fingerprints and confirm they're Shepard's.
Liara types a few things, flinching when her blue skin comes in contact with the gooey blood left there. The platform shudders and Ash looses balance, hanging onto Liara's arm when it threatens to take her down. Then there is a whirling noise and something starts to appear from the ceiling.
It's a circular piece of whatever this place is made of, and it's lowering slowly before fitting next to where Anderson is lying.
Joker bows to the side in a rush, heaving. The high keening sound Garrus is making doesn't help a bit, nor do the string of curses Vega manages to get out of his dry mouth.
It's grotesque and cruel and sick but all Joker can think of is that Japanese animation from the twentieth century. How the robot ended up ripped apart, its arms torn off its body, head twisted to the side.
That's what Shepard looks like.
She's missing a forearm, wires hanging where nerves should be shrivelling. Her leg is blown off to mid-thigh, and there's more meat than metal there. Her skin... it looks like someone took a blowtorch to her face and decided to reinvent pyrography. He can't smell anything from behind a screen, but Ash's expression is enough to guess what they're missing from the scene.
Vega manages to get to his feet and literally runs away from the bridge. The door closes behind him with a woosh. Joker tries to shake himself from the sluggish feeling freezing him in place.
“Is she breathing?” Joker whispers into the com.
“Ash, is she breathing?” Garrus asks louder.
“I'm- I'm not sure, it's hard to tell with...”
“Steve, can you hear me? We need an evac!” Liara yells.
The shuttle doesn't take long to find them. Ashley puts her mask on Shepard's face, for the few seconds they'll be in space before they enter the shuttle. The visor hides the Commander's blank stare.
Joker turns off the camera transmission.
Time is relative. Especially now, with so many races coexisting. You ask a salarian what a year is, they'll tell you it's long. It's enough to do plenty of things. You ask an asari the same question? They'll laugh in your face.
It takes one year for Shepard to get out of the hospital. It's both terribly short, and incredibly long.
In the meantime, she isn't Commander Shepard anymore, she becomes Fleet Admiral and Joker can't believe they actually created a title just for her. She's fitted with prosthetics, her skin weave is put back together as well as possible, and her hair is growing back to a knuckle length.
The scars are new.
Even after Akuze and the thresher maw's acid, her face had been left alone, relatively speaking. A cut here and there. Now you can trace a map on her cheekbones of the victories won during the war. A chunk of her lower lip is missing. He hasn't seen her body since the rescue, but if Liara's ashen face is anything to go by, it's not pretty.
And that... that's just the body.
She won't tell anyone what happened. Some days, she claims she can't remember. The rest of the time, she simply doesn't talk.
The doctors say it's aphasia. They say she suffered a deeply traumatic brain injury, even if they can't figure out why. The amount of blood sloshing around in her skull was apparently unseen on a living person. It left marks. Deep, ugly marks into her speech pattern, her memory, her understanding.
She doesn't recognize faces anymore. Oh, when Joker enters the room, she knows it's him, but one time he goes to the bathroom and leaves it without his cap and suddenly there's a gun on his temple and a cold voice demanding to know who he is. Even if she saw him going into the bathroom two minutes ago.
Ash, she recognizes with the bun and the blue armour. Liara, with the shape of her head. Shepard can tell two asari apart from the other side of the Presidium thanks to that. James is the tattoos, EDI is the voice. She works it out. Sometimes she doesn't and they find themselves facing a gun. They adapt.
Her memory is... something else. She doesn't forget things anymore. Nothing, from the small talk Traynor has with her to what nail polish the patient's sister next door was sporting two months ago. But for knowledge to stick, she needs time, patience, and repetition. It's a curse, and a privilege. She can tell you what Liara was wearing six months ago but it takes her two weeks to learn how to button her pants.
The Alliance has a good psych department. Good, in the sense that it gives them the answer they want, whenever they need it. The therapist Shepard is seeing tells Hackett she's good to go a month after the one-year anniversary of the Reaper War. No matter how much Liara yells at them, they parade Shepard around for a few weeks before putting her back on the Normandy. And because they do, in fact, have a good psych department, they send word to all her previous crewmates that they have a designated spot on the SR2 if they want it.
Joker doesn't even read the email, he's already sitting in the pilot's seat when Shepard gets on board. One by one, the crew enters the ship, silent and focused, like they're taking on a particularly risky mission. James and Steve disappear in the cargo bay with Liara, while Chakwas stops by Joker's side. Garrus takes Tali, Donnelly and Daniels to the engines and Jack is brooding behind an uncomfortable Traynor and a grinning Grunt. It feels like coming home, and he can see how much it's affecting Shepard to see all her friends come back with her.
She walks to the Galaxy Map and faces the crew, Alliance blues and rested faces of people who don't have to worry about living until the next day. Joker watches the scene from his screens, the comforting presence of EDI in the seat next to him.
“Welcome back, to those who knew the Normandy when it was still shooting Reapers. The Alliance believes we still have asses to kick, so that's what we'll do. You all know what to do. To the others, welcome aboard. This ship has been my home for the most challenging years of my life, and I hope it will become yours. Remember who we fight for and why we're here today.” She stops, looks at them for a moment. Then: “Joker? To Hades Gamma. We have slavers to put down.”
It's something else, being all together again after a year apart. Joker finds himself seeking the quietness of the crew's quarters when his shift ends. He likes his friends, but he needs to figure himself out now that he isn't just the greatest pilot in the Galaxy. Saving the universe does that to a guy's reputation.
The first shore leave they take is on the Citadel. Like many other things, it's more a testament to what Shepard needs than to what is expected of them. The Citadel is still a complete mess of broken buildings and polluted waters. The Presidium has never looked more grim. Yet here they are, vibrating in anticipation as the shuttle descends.
Everyone is here, even those that aren't permanent fixtures on the ship anymore. Wrex is here, and so is Miranda. Even Samara has agreed to join them some time later, since she's already on the Citadel anyway. There is use for a biotic of her calibre in cleaning the place, and she seems to find some measure of honour in it because she hasn't complained about the task.
Shepard is smiling. It's worth noting, since Shepard doesn't smile. She smirks, she snorts in occasional laughter, but she doesn't smile. It's something private she offers to Garrus when they spar, or to James when she's bundled in his corner of the hangar bay pretending she isn't freaking out about one thing or another. Joker has, on two memorable occasions, warranted a smile.
But it's not something they're used to seeing anymore, and she offers it freely here. So they shut up and they enjoy.
They're Shepard's Crew, the heroes of the Reaper War. People give them a wide berth, respect lined in their every move. Children run up to them to make a holo in their company, and the parents brave the distance to shake their hands. Jack looks at the kids like they're going to bite her and Tali is awkward as hell, but they manage.
Shepard grins uncomfortably and nods when they speak to her, but she doesn't answer. Joker hates them for making the genuine smile disappear.
They get an entire corner of the Purgatory just to themselves, with three waitresses on call. In those circumstances, they have no other options but to get insanely drunk. It's one of the best evenings Joker's had in years (he's not counting the night after the Omega Relay. No one is. There is a promise going on about how much no one is counting it).
At one point, Garrus is seen teaching Grunt how to tie his shoes with Miranda draped over them like a fancy blanket. Both Donnelly and Daniels are trying to get Tali into their bed, possibly at the same time. Joker almost drowns in his drink when he gets what they're offering her.
Liara doesn't seem all that drunk, but then she falls onto EDI when she gets up to talk to a waitress and that's that. There is incredibly awkward flirting on Zaeed's part, but Samara is as blank as always. Joker is way more interested in whatever's going on between Ash and James. That doesn't look like it's going to explode, at least.
And then there is Shepard, leaning between Steve and Jack, a glass of ryncol in her hand (more like a mug but who's counting). Joker himself is half in Steve's lap, his head on Steve's thighs, because the guy is chill as fuck and Joker kind of needs it right now.
“Gimme that drink, Shepard, you can't handle it,” Jack snickers.
“Shut your face.”
“No, really, you don't look so good. Was the thirty-seventh too much?”
Apparently, they were counting.
“I'll chug it down your throat, Jack, see if you can handle it.”
“Eh, naaah, there are others things I'd rather have down my throat right now,” she laughs, somewhere between a snort and a damn giggle. Goddamn it they really ought to stop drinking soon.
“Please shut up,” Steve says, his fingers massaging his temples. “I don't want to know.” It sounds like it's physically hurting him. Joker can get behind the feeling. He absolutely does not snuggle closer. He doesn't. Just like Steve doesn't put a comforting hand on the back of his head, noooo.
(what's a little solidarity between pilots, right?)
“Pussy,” Jack spits. “What'bout you, Shepard? You getting lucky tonight?”
Joker doesn't move, but he does blink an eye open. He can feel her tensing against Steve, making the man shift and himself at the same time.
“I'd rather not,” she says, looking at the bottom of her glass like it holds the question to the life, the universe and fucking Jack herself.
“Why? Don't tell me you're afraid of rejection. I've heard Traynor complain about the number of mating requests she's filtering from the krogans. You're hot shit right now.”
Shepard shifts, again. She downs the ryncol like it's water and Wrex whistles in the background. Yeah, Joker can see where the requests are coming from.
The Hero of the Citadel, the Saviour of the Galaxy, bows her head like she's ashamed and mumbles something so low none of them catch it.
“I said I don't like it, Jack!” Well that makes all three of them blink. Even Steve looks surprised.
“What do you mean, you don't like it?” Jack asks carefully, like she wants to make it sound mocking but doesn't know if she toeing a line, here.
“Don't ask me, I don't get it. It used to be fun and now it's just gross. People touch me and I want to throw up and then there's the freaking body fluids and it's disgusting and I just want to crawl out of my own skin-”
“Wow, wow, breathe, Shepard. You don't need to explain nothing. More for me.”
Shepard falls silent. Joker carefully doesn't move, even when Steve goes back to the slight petting of his head. Shepard slowly relaxes, Jack pours her another mug of ryncol and Ash chooses that moment to punch James square in the jaw.
Wrex bursts into laughter, which makes Tali jump from where Daniels is mouthing at her neck, then Miranda is propositioning Jack, what the hell is going on.
What is it they said last time? What happens in shore leave, right?
It's not like he means to listen. Of course, he has ears on every part of the ship, because when Shepard calls him, he needs to be able to answer. Since EDI was installed, back during the Cerberus days, Joker can afford to skip some of the chatter, focusing instead on piloting or simply giving people their privacy. But he still needs to keep an ear out, just in case.
That's how he ends up hearing the conversation between Donnelly and Shepard, in Engineering. Honestly, he wouldn't even had paid attention if Donnelly's accent hadn't caught his ear. He's so used to the slight shortness in Shepard's speech, her French slipping through now that her brain is treacherous. The others, well, he's hearing them through the translator, so he's not even sure Garrus or Tali even speak like that.
But Donnelly? That's not an accent he has, it's a whole new tongue.
“Can I help you, Commander?”
Shepard doesn't answer. If the engineer's voice was enough to get his attention, Shepard's silence is what gets him to stay. It's never good when she can't answer.
“Ma'am? Everything okay?”
“Where is Daniels?” Her voice is low, her accent thick.
“Down to the cargo bay, she's doing the mandatory sparring with Vega. Why?”
Again, silence. Joker shifts in his seat, back straightening without even realizing. He's filtering everything else, entirely focused on the conversation.
When Shepard finally speaks, it's barely more than a whisper.
“I didn't catch that, Commander...?” She swallows hard enough for the mics to pick it up.
In his seat, Joker closes his eyes. He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to reign in the emotions.
“Don't worry, Shepard. I'll help.”
And then they're walking, Donnelly's voice lowering as he speaks what might be words of comforts, but could just as well be crass jokes. Anything to cover the fact that Shepard made her way down to Engineering and isn't able to leave.
It's well past the time he usually goes to sleep when he drags himself to the mess, after a long day at the helm. He's exhausted, but with the kind of tension that keeps you awake no matter what you do. They're approaching Tiptree, because they need to go to a nearby system, and he knows his sister is down there, in the makeshift hospital where she still hasn't woken up. He hasn't been able to visit her since being affected to the Normandy again and he doesn't know if he has the strength. Losing his dad was bad enough.
He's feeling guilty and selfish, on top of the frustration he gets whenever he thinks of the last few days of the war, when everything was so clear and focused on one goal. Now, he's just lost, waiting for orders like others drink their water after training.
Joker isn't surprised to find Shepard in the mess, drowning herself in the overly large mug of tea Grunt gifted her. Its original purpose was to pour the ryncol after a successful Rite, but Shepard has made it into a vacuum of hong cha since she brought it to the Normandy.
He gets himself a cup of disgusting coffee and sits in front of her, silent for once. He doesn't know what to say, if he's being completely honest. The galley is silent and she's watching, unblinking, the wall behind him like it holds the answers to the universe. His coffee is slimy and tastes like charred varren but her fingers are tapping a rhythm on the table and he focuses on the sound.
It's morse code. It's morse, and it takes him a few seconds to start recognizing what she's trying to tell the silence around them. Tap-Garrus, taptap-Liara, taaaptaptaap-Wrex. And so on. He swallows around the lump in his throat, the names of her crew crawling on his skin like a slug. Distantly, he wonders if she's trying not to forget them, now that her memory is failing her. He hopes it's not that. He really does.
So he drinks his coffee and he listens to her typing his name between Tali's and Grunt's. Somehow, the sludge is almost sweet on his tongue.
He wakes up in the crew's quarters and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Shepard carried him to bed. Because he's a coward and he'd rather think about literally anything else in the world, he doesn't stop to wonder what it means (because he knows, he knows and he's disgusted with himself and he can't be the best pilot in the Galaxy if he's weighing the pros and cons of shooting himself in the head).
Joker gets to the helm without crossing paths with Shepard and he's infinitely grateful for it. The seat next to him is empty and for once, he's fine with not knowing where EDI disappeared to. He has a course to plan and a sister's progress to stalk while pretending not to care.
Because the universe hates him, Shepard comes to stand behind him not even an hour after his shift started.
“ETA to the Relay?” she asks, her hand on the back of his seat.
“Thirty minutes, ma'am.”
She refuses to hear them call her Admiral. In another life, it might have been because she was too attached to her previous title and what it meant to her. In this one, it's a little more grim. She simply doesn't associate with it. Like she needs Joker's cap or Garrus' visor to recognize them, in her mind, she is Commander Shepard. Both her first name and her new title are foreign to her and she simply won't respond to them, like if someone was calling her the wrong name.
Not giving her the proper rank is a breach of protocol that they're all too happy to make to accommodate her. Living with Shepard is something they're all too grateful for to jeopardize with petty things like protocol.
“We're stopping on Tiptree, Joker,” she says, her voice unwavering.
He startles. “Ma'am?”
“You need to see your sister and my crew needs a fracture.”
He bites his lip and curses the Reapers once more, curses this war responsible for all the shit that happened to the strongest person he knows. It's simply not fair.
“Break, Shepard,” he whispers softly, his eyes on his scanners as to not see the moment she flinches when she realizes her mistake.
“My crew needs a break,” she repeats, before turning around and leaving.
He hates everything.
Sometimes, Joker looks at EDI and wonders. They're happy, he thinks, with the way things are. It's a strange relationship, built on hours upon hours of banter, of keeping each other's company; even before she had a body. It's also trust and respect, for the risks he took crawling through vents and unleashing her on the ship. It's like nothing he's ever had before, and yet, he wonders.
EDI asks confirmations and jokes awkwardly and questions her status. Her moral sense developed into something purely hers, not entirely the crew's morals but not simply cold, pragmatic realities either. She looks at the stars, often, when she doesn't care if someone is watching (she always knows, because she's everywhere, but she has learned that knowing doesn't equal confronting and she's getting better at it).
It's something so inherently human, so profoundly organic, that it's impossible not to mistake her for one of theirs. Then it takes a second to remember her joints and metallic skin, and another to realize that Garrus is as human as EDI and they still see him as their own. Then it's a quiet comfort and a private smile for the members of the crew and they turn around, letting her watch the stars all she wants.
What Joker has with her, no one else on the crew has. It belongs to him, to his memory and he's grateful for it.
And yet, he wonders.
EDI hasn't learned yet the intricacies of human language, how much you can communicate with a sharp intake of breath or the tilt of your head. She knows puns and teasing but she doesn't have the impulsive streak Joker shares when it comes to bad mouthing at his friends.
With what she still lacks, she hasn't been able to say things he didn't know he craved. It's a strange relationship, they have.
When he finds himself listening on repeat to those last words the Commander said to him, back on Earth, he curls himself in the seat and looks at EDI. With Shepard's voice telling him she loves him, in a confident tone she hasn't used since she woke up, he looks at EDI and wonders.
It's the first serving, 1700 ship-time, and Joker is questioning whoever thought they had any right to call the brown sludge on his tray 'curry'. He's saved from actually testing it by the loud entrance of their resident tank-bread krogan, followed by Liara and Ash. A second later, Shepard appears behind them.
She looks a bit crazed, regrowing short-hair a mess on her head. She actually pushes Liara out of the way to get to the counter. The asari doesn't say anything but Ash is whispering something to her and Joker would bet they're feeling more worried than offended right now. Shepard rummages through the cupboards while Liara and Ash sit down, Grunt leaning against the counter in uncommon silence.
Shepard rises from her crouch and glares at everyone in the mess. She's clearly expecting an answer. Liara is pointedly looking at him. With a grown, Joker pushes his tray away and calls Shepard.
“You're not speaking English, Commander!”
Shepard frowns, her mouth opening and closing like she's tasting something funny. The tilt of her head is confused, her prosthetic hand twitching.
“Right,” she says, then grimaces. “Right.” She takes a breath. “As I was saying, I'd like to know what happened to my tea.”
Grunt laughs, husky and low.
“That's not what you said, maman.”
“I finished your tea,” Grunt adds like she didn't say anything. “Traynor said there was a new shipment waiting on the next station.”
Shepard looks around, zeroing on Joker in a frightening way.
“Please tell me we're reaching the station soon.”
Joker grins. “I'm on break, ma'am, you should ask the copilot.”
“ETA is six hours, Commander.”
The look Shepard sends Grunt would have sent a lesser man – or krogan – crying for his mother. Unfortunately for Shepard, she assumed that role in Grunt's life and Joker is pretty sure the krogan is inherently incapable of crying. What a sane family.
The thought is so bitter Joker doesn't even wince when he digs into his plate.
Tiptree is a winter planet, the quiet kind. There are no snow storms and no blizzards, just the constant ballet of snowflakes silently covering the ground. There is a monsoon once a year, three months during which the snow turns to rain and the colonists start to work. They don't have much time, but they dig and they collect as much soil as they can, storing it in the large barracks they live in. When the snow comes again, they'll spread it inside the gigantic greenhouses they use to feed the colony.
The advantage of the almost permanent coat of snow is the reflection, and the light it shines through the unbreakable glass of the greenhouses. It assures them constant warmth to grow their food. Tiptree colonists are vegetarians, slim and tall with wired muscles they use to work the ground. Joker is no different, but years in space have eaten his strong tan and changed it into the pasty colour he's now harbouring.
It's alien, coming home after all these years, knowing his father won't be waiting for him at the station and Hilary won't pester him with questions.
Stranger, perhaps, is Shepard's presence behind him. She's in full armour, the Hahne-Kedar chestplate glinting in the blinding white light of the snowy landscape. The Black Widow is a familiar shape at her back, as well as Garrus and James. He doesn't really understand why she wanted to take a full squad, or even come with him. He's in no danger here, but he's not going to pretend he can grasp what goes inside Shepard's head now. He's not even sure she does.
It's both familiar and bitter, to navigate the docks until he finds them a shuttle to the heart of the colony. He bites back the remarks at the pilot's poor work and shaky landing and simply gets off before his nerves make him even more unbearable. His house isn't far from the clinic, good enough that he can drop off his duffel bag and walk. Shepard doesn't let go of her weapons. He very carefully doesn't comment on it.
The receptionist is a lady he knows, and she coos at him until he asks her, a bit briskly, if he can go see his sister. She nods, of course, and directs him. He's not even surprised to feel Shepard and her squad follow him silently, though they stop and stand guard at the door. It's ridiculous and comforting at the same time, so again, he stays silent. The still form of Hilary in the bed is incentive enough to stop thinking about it.
Joker sits down, because his knees are weak (it's Vrolik's, of course, what else could it be) and watches his little sister's chest rise and fall slowly. What used to be her pixy cut is a mess, long enough to snake around her head in a strange hazelnut halo. Her still limbs are the most disturbing thing of this whole scene, the usual jitter she displays reduced to this. He hates it. Not as much as he hates himself for not coming sooner.
The self-loathing is overwhelming and he thinks it's good enough an excuse to explain why he doesn't notice the presence in the room until there are hands on his mouth and nose and an arm choking him. His breath hitches, and he realizes instantly what's happening. He also knows he has an absolute negative chance to be able to fight them off. So he does the only thing that might help him. Putting as much force as he can into a kick, he hits the bed.
His ankle breaks on impact, his shout muffled by the tightening hands, but it's what he needed. The metallic sound is deafening and if it wasn't enough, the bed had actually rolled a bit and jolted his sister, causing a rise in the beeping of her monitor. As he feels darkness creeping in the corner of his eyes, the door slides open with a hissing sound and Shepard looks him straight in the eyes, her sniper rifle raised.
The arms drag him back but don't loosen their hold. He falls unconscious to the panicked confusion on Shepard's face when she realizes she can't shoot without hitting him.
“James!” she yells. “Get us a shuttle!”
She sprints to the window, jumping through without looking to make sure Garrus is following. She knows he is. The three men who took Joker are only a few steps before them, but they know where they're going and they're going fast. Those people are obviously familiar with the colony, be it by scouting or because they're from here. The Widow is strapped to her back and beats a steady rhythm against her hip. A steady...steady...rhythm.
She turns at a corner but slows down as she realizes she can't remember why she's running. Garrus' hand wraps around her forearm and tugs her along. Shepard doesn't question it, she starts running again. If Garrus thinks they should, then they will.
After another turn, she notices three men before them, one of them a familiar shape draped over his shoulders in a clumsy fireman carry. Her eyes fixate on the curve of his shoulders and she recognizes instantly the vision of a familiar back against a leather seat. They're trying to steal her pilot!
The rage is unexpected. Her moods are unpredictable at best but right now, she couldn't care less that the only thing on her mind is how slowly she's going to break them when she gets her hands on their slimy selves. Shepard snarls, her teeth glinting at the light reflected in the snow.
They're getting away from her. She doesn't know how they do it, because she has it on good authority that she's faster than any human should be. The snow is sluggish under her armoured boots and it's not hard to understand they must be walking on something else. Definitely natives. In any case, at that rate, she's going to lose them and she won't have Joker back.
The whooshing sound of a shuttle approaching is a welcome one. She doesn't slow down as it lowers itself and only runs faster, before jumping inside in one long leap. Garrus lands at her side and she stabilizes him when he stumbles. Immediately, the shuttle rises again and, after a sharp turn, gets on the men's trail.
The snow is falling steadily, covering their tracks. If that wasn't enough, they're losing pieces of clothing one by one, until they're mostly dressed in a white camouflage pattern, the few stains of brown blending in with the bare trees of the tundra. Only Joker's blue uniform stands out, and at the height the shuttle is forced by the trees, it's not enough to track easily. Then, something bluish flickers over the three men and in an instant, they vanish.
Shepard cries out in frustration, her fist gripping hard on the joints of her armour. The ceramic makes a pained noise but doesn't concede, so Shepard only grips harder. Her thoughts are running wild and she can't concentrate fast enough. James doesn't wait for orders and lands the shuttle, getting up quickly to strap his shotgun to his back, a rifle in hands.
“Come on, Lola, we're going after them.”
“Damn straight,” Garrus growls, a little more alien than usual, “like hell they're getting away with our pilot.”
She nods briskly. “Joker is coming back with us,” she says through gritted teeth, “or we're not coming back at all. Is that clear?”
“Aye, aye, Commander.”
The familiarity of the tone, of the language, is enough to kick her back into shape and she activates her defence drone. The snow crunches under their feet as they walk away from the shuttle and towards the place where the blue shimmer vanished.
There is nothing there, but the footsteps don't stop either. It probably was a cloak, but one that covered Joker too? That's strange. It rubs her in the wrong way, just like the ease these men have with navigating their surrounding and how well they blended in that Joker could only warn her once he was already in danger.
They manage to track the traces for about a kilometre before the new layer of snow covers them. Then they have to turn back, after leaving a location chip in a nearby bark. The trek back to the shuttle is a silent one, because Shepard has trouble finding words through the fog in her mind.
Garrus' large frame shadows her own and she likes it. It would look nice to have a constant shadow behind her. Maybe she'll ask him to follow her all the time, just to feel it. James is like a beat in the back of her mind, a repeating song stuck in her head in a nice way. The three of them are harmony when Joker's abduction is chaos. It makes her yearn for something to shoot, something to kill, something easy and comforting like plunging her blade through Kai Leng after he killed Thane.
Inside the Normandy, no one dares question them on their dark expressions, until EDI sways in their direction and picks up the line in Shepard's shoulders. One of her primary protocols now is understanding what's going on in Shepard's mind so she can help the best way possible. That, that's guilt, and fury, and bloodlust, and fear.
So EDI asks, and because Shepard doesn't always remembers that social norms and behaviours are coded by morals and compromise, she spits out a few curses and rages on for a minute before breaking down in ugly dry sobs, the panicked kind that doesn't look like she's crying and more like she's drowning.
It's heartbreaking, because Commander Shepard would never have broken down like this in the CIC, where everyone can see and hear her, and get worried about her. Fleet Admiral Shepard, on the other hand, is a little too rough around the edges for the job she's been fitted with, and it shows.
When EDI finally understands what happened and she has thoroughly interrogated both James and Garrus, she helps Shepard up and walks with her to the co-pilot's seat, where she collapses in silence. She's still shaking, but it's adrenaline-fuelled, the kind that will make her go run laps until she can't remember how to count in English and has to revert back to her native French.
The silence at her side is horrifying in its stillness, its emptiness. There has never been a time where she found herself alone at the helm, without her pilot to make a sarcastic remark at the situation. Even at the end, when all that was left to fight was a Reaper guarding a beacon, he was barely a comlink away.
She expects the shape at her back, because despite everything, she still knows her crew. It's not welcome, not in the way it used to be, but she does find some measure of comfort knowing one of them came to check on her. However, the body sprawling on the control board in front of her is nowhere near the one she thought would be here.
Jack looks at her through narrowed eyes, legs open and levelled with Shepard's face in her usual provocative way.
“Scale of one to Akuze, how fucked up are you right now?” she asks bluntly, her hooded eyes unwavering.
Shepard wants to chew her own tongue when the words escape her. She settles for something simple, something she's screamed enough through her nightmares.
“Alchera,” she manages to rip from her own throat.
“Shit.” Jack's hand lights up blue and the doors lock instantly. “Do you need to punch something? Scream?”
There is a response in the back of her mouth but her thoughts are scattered like the pieces of the SR1 and she can't find the words. She growls in frustration, but all it does is make her even more tense. She can't remember how to say-
“Shepard, look at me, fuck,” Jack says, sliding from the control panel until she's crouching in the tiny space between the co-pilot's seat and the commands.
She looks but she can't speak and it's terrifying. There is a hand strangling her mind and it's making her tongue sluggish. It feels like morphine and a concussion, like the drugs she used to sell in the Reds, like the hangover at Purgatory and Aria's heavy stare when she woke up on the couch.
“Fucking hell, I hate everything,” Jack snarls, more hurt than angry, “you don't deserve this shit.”
Her hands are tightening on the seat, she can feel speech taking shape in every corner of her mouth, she wants to speak, she needs to explain-
Jack takes one of her shaking hands and puts it on her left forearm. It's covering a colourful tattoo of a woman's face. Shepard almost wishes she was in its place, a still image, unchangeable.
“Squeeze one for yes, two for no. You fine with me being here or you need someone else?”
Jack snorts. “Who would have thought,” she states dryly, but there is something soft in the curve of her jaw now. “I'll list emotions and you squeeze if it's what's going on inside of you, yeah? Good.”
She shifts, her legs accommodating to the uncomfortable position.
“Anger. Disgust. Resentment.” Squeeze. “Fear. Exhaustion.” Squeeze. “Guilt.” Squeeze. “Panic. Confusion. Frustration.” Squeeze.
“Ok, fuck, that's not good. You sure you don't want to punch something?” Shepard manages to shake her head, her tongue twisting against her teeth. “Shit, fuck. Contact is good?”
This time, there is one long, hard squeeze, and Shepard's breathing quickens.
“Yeah, okay, get up. Come on, hurry the fuck up.”
There is something in the way Jack helps her up, in the way she starts pressing at all the pressurization points of her armour until it's falling to the ground piece by piece. The biotic almost rips apart the chestplate when she throws it off. Shepard is left in only her undersuit, but the Widow is leaning against the seat, easy to reach.
Jack doesn't stop there. Her top, a concession to the Alliance regs, joins the armour on the floor. She unzips Shepard's undersuit and rolls it down until her chest is bared.
“Yeah, you're good, come on, we're sitting down.”
She leans against the back of the co-pilot's seat, knocking down the Widow, and Shepard sits between her legs. Tattooed arms wrap around her toned waist and Jack's blunt nails dig into her skin, sending a jolt through her skin weave receptors. It's anchoring her like only pressure can do it, and pain on occasion.
She shakes once, a long tremor coursing through her body, and Jack tightens her grip on Shepard without making a sound. Distantly, Shepard knows that Jack is doing something exceptional for her, that the biotic would never do normally. It doesn't mean she can handle Jack letting go.
“They took Joker,” she manages to get out, her voice raspy and unsure. “Put him in a...”
She has to stop, again. She can't remember the word. She hates it, hates this, despises the very memory of those speeches she used to be able to give; the ones that would inspire loyalty even to people like Jack, make them a part of her big family, making them feel like they belong enough to offer to strip down and hug her back to normal.
“Put him in a... around the neck, to cut the air. Pour étrangler.”
She pauses, the word escaping her already. She does her best to hide the whine that comes instead, but the way Jack tenses proves that she failed.
This time she mouths it at the same time and it helps, somehow. It doesn't stop the wave of frustration from making her feel like a child in a street gang all over again.
“Put him in a chokehold. Too fast. Vanished.” She swallows, her heart beating hard in her chest. “Without Joker, 'm not worth it. Need to get him back, Jack.”
“I'd miss the bastard and EDI would be insufferable. 'f course you're getting him back.”
“Not strong enough, not anymore. I'm damaged goods.”
“Shut the fuck up, Shepard,” Jack growls. “Do your fucking job and trust us to have your back, that's it. Joker will sit down in this fucking seat again or I'll have his head.”
Shepard frowns. “You can't own his head, Jack, it's his. Can't pilot without it.”
The tension is back but Jack only presses Shepard harder against her chest if it's possible.
“Means I'll kill him, Shepard, not that I'll take his head from him.”
“Oh. But you can't kill him, I need him at the helm, he's the- the... the driver.”
She swallows the bile rising in her throat. It sounds final. Shepard feels like throwing up. At her back, Jack rubs her forehead against Shepard's shoulder blades. She breathes.
Joker wakes up to a world of pain. Considering what his life had looked like the past four years, he isn't precisely surprised. To say that he's happy about it, however, would be a big, fat lie. His ankle is pulsating steadily, beating in synch with his heart, but he soon realizes that both his fibula and left radius are broken (or maybe shattered, in the radius' case).
He always knew that, were he to be taken instead of his captain, it would be as good as a death sentence. Serving under Shepard is another thing entirely. On the Normandy, he feels invincible, comfortable in the knowledge that no one would dare going against the Commander. He should have known that, for that exact reason, he would be a prime target. No better way to get Shepard to come out and make reckless mistakes than to steal one of her own.
The ground is cold as fuck and Joker shivers, the tremor making the pain flare. He winces and tries to sit up against the wall. It smells of moss and lichen, two things that shouldn't be able to grow on Tiptree. It's too dry and too cold, so he's either deep underground or they took him off planet. He fucking hopes it's the latter.
His uniform is fitted with a tracking chip, like every other, and EDI would do a marvelous job at finding him and bringing the Normandy to his location. If he's still on Tiptree, he's fucked. No one on the crew knows the colony and it's a fucking mess if you're not from here. The facility he's in might even be out of range, which would render the chip useless.
It doesn't look like a cell, more like an old room in a stone building. Something like a castle? Except, again, no lichen should be able to grow on Tiptree and he has a hard time imagining a castle underground. Then again, he lives in a world of giant killer machines and monsters hiding in the abyss, so he's not going to throw out the idea just yet.
He has nothing on hand to wrap his injuries except for his clothes and he doesn't want to risk them. If they're still in the colony, that's the only thing protecting him from the freezing cold and he's not going to bet on his attackers providing with warm clothing. It means letting the breaks go without even wrapping them and he's already in pain thinking about Chakwas breaking the bones again to set them right if they start to heal before Shepard finds him.
Shepard is going to find him. She has to. He won't last an hour if they start beating him and she needs a pilot for her ship.
(again, he refuses to think about what she told him, an eternity ago in a devastated city, just before running to her death without looking back. He's not thinking about it because he needs to stay focused and he can't afford the whirlwind of emotions drowning him every time he so much as peeks at the idea of thinking about it)
Nothing else. Just a pilot.
She gathered everyone in the mess. It's one of the only places in the ship that hasn't changed since the SR1 and the familiarity is like a balm on her frayed nerves. Some are sitting at the largest table, others are leaning against the wall, paying close attention to the ideas coming and going. Shepard is one of them, well aware that her words might not want to come out when she needs them to, so she listens to the propositions and she builds a strategy based on them.
Garrus is pressed against her side, his talon brushing her hip in a steady rhythm, grounding her. James is cleaning her Widow, sitting cross legged on a chair. It's warmth and trust and comfort to see him taking care of the weapon responsible for saving her life, so many times before. She turns back to the table, where Tali is discussing tracking with EDI and-
In an instant, her hand is wrapped around her Carnifex and she leans into Garrus' space.
“Garrus, there is a quarian on my ship. How come no one told me about it?” she whispers.
His talon moves to her other hip, his arm circling her waist. “Loose the gun, Shepard.” Then, raising his voice. “Hey, Reegar! Care to report whatever your girlfriend is plotting?”
The quarian turns around and nods once, moving to come closer. Shepard tenses but Garrus doesn't budge, his arm still wrapped around her. His suit isn't cream anymore, coming closer to gold now, but the red is still on every wrap and every detail.
“They're saying the tracking ship isn't responding but they have the location of the last transmitter it emitted from,” he explains. “They're trying to decide if it's worth mentioning it to you, ma'am,” he adds while looking at Shepard.
Slowly, she relaxes. She can't quite place him, but he's familiar and feels like safety on the battlefield. It's enough to allow Garrus to raise his talon until it brushes her ribs, enough to let her focus on what the quarian is saying because it sounds like he might have a way to help. Then the last bit registers and she frowns, detaching herself from Garrus' side.
Her hands tighten around nothing, her jaw clenching at the same time. She doesn't pay attention to the call behind her as she marches up to Tali and EDI. Tali startles badly when she hits the table with her palm.
“Shepard! You scared me!”
“Right,” she growls. “What is it that I hear about withholding information?”
EDI seems to stand straighter if it's possible. “Commander, I assure you-”
The silence is deafening. No one is speaking in the mess besides her, now, everyone listening in on the confrontation. She doesn't care. Somewhere, she's aware that this is one of her moods, brought by the brain trauma. At the same time, she believes that's exactly how she would have reacted before. She doesn't want to think about it in any case.
“In what universe did you think you could keep that from me? I am the authority here! If you have the smallest bit of information, you are under orders to give it to me and I can't even comprehend how you could have read that as permission to make decisions of that scale!”
Tali is shaking. EDI is frozen in place, not even pretending to blink or breathe like she usually does. Nothing really registers to Shepard anyway; she's seething in anger.
“Next time anyone pulls this shit I'm sending them through the airlock. Est-ce que je me suis bien faite comprendre?”
She waits for everyone's answer before leaving the room without looking back. There is an exchange of looks but no one goes after her. She needs to cool down because she won't welcome any of them in this state. The silence is broken by the quiet sound of Tali crying. Kal goes to her and kneels in front of her seat, a gentle comfort as the others go back to discussing what they need to do in order to find Joker.
His absence is paining all of them in different ways, but no one is unfazed to enduring the Normandy without its pilot. It's tiring them in a way Shepard hasn't managed to in the few months they've been back on the ship. Then again, Shepard is the glue that keeps them all together, while Joker is the stability at the end of the mission. They don't fill the same role but they complement each other and to see Shepard so unbalanced when she's already half destroyed by her broken brain is painful in a way none of them expected.
If they don't get Joker back, they're all going to fall apart. They can't afford that.
Shepard doesn't, in fact, find him. Or at least, not before the three bastards who took him come back. No matter how much he stares at their faces, he doesn't remember seeing them anywhere. He simply can't imagine what sort of grudge they can have against Shepard to think this is a good idea. He has a hard time comprehending how anyone could hate Shepard after what she sacrificed for the galaxy. The Alliance certainly doesn't let anyone forget it when they use it for their propaganda.
And yet here they are, tense and wary but standing tall above him. He's certain they're not after him, he would remember them otherwise, and it sort of makes sense, in a way, to take him in order to weaken the crew.
“We're not going to threaten you, 'cause you're Joker of the Normandy and ya'll saved our asses back on Terra. But don't think we ain't gonna shoot ya if you don't do as we say.”
Joker blinks in surprise. Bastards with a sense of honour, apparently.
“We need you to fly us through the Omega Relay and back,” the tallest man says bluntly.
Joker can't help it, he laughs. It jolts all his broken bones and ends up in a hiss of pain, but he can't even repress the snickers going through his body.
“You're all insane if you think I'm ever going back there. What do you even want with the Relay, assholes?”
He probably shouldn't provoke them, but this is just too ridiculous. Who's crazy enough to want to go through this shit when it's common knowledge that no one ever came back in one piece from the Relay? Even them, the legendary Normandy Crew, lost Jacob in that fucking place.
“It's none of your fucking business. We're leaving now. If you don't want to take us, we're shooting ya in the head.”
“And then no one will take you,” he mutters, but doesn't resist when they pull him to his feet.
He needs to buy himself some time. It's obvious wherever they are is blocking the tracking chip because Shepard would have already barged in, Omnitool blazing, if it wasn't the case. When they get him out of here, the chip will start emitting again and they'll be able to come for him. And for that, he needs to not be shot in the head. Hence the lack of resistance.
They drag him through a corridor that looks a lot more like what he's used to on stations or colonies. It leaves him to wonder if mist is purposefully introduced to the room he was in in order for lichen to grow. That would be unnecessarily petty but who is he to judge; he's watched Shepard push a guy through a window because he was badmouthing her and Joker cheered in her earpiece.
Finally, they reach a hangar, small in size but well organized, with a Mark 1 F-35 Chasseur in the centre. Joker frowns. That's a ship they shouldn't have gotten their hands on. It's practically museum level now and in no way adapted to flying through a relay, let alone the Omega one. Which means he has to get them to talk soon. No way in hell is he flying this antiquity anywhere.
“Where did you even find this?” he asks, blatantly mocking. “My grandma didn't even see one of them fly.”
“Shut up,” the blond one growls. “You flyin' this for us or what?”
“Do you want to die?” He pauses. “No, that's not a trick question. Do you want to die? Because if we're taking this shit through a relay, that's exactly what's going to happen.”
He sees them falter. Good, let them be afraid, that's exactly what he needs. The longer they take, the better. He simply hopes the chip is transmitting now that he's out of the room. If those guys can't afford a better ship than a F-35, he doubts they installed dampeners everywhere.
The smallest of the guys is hissing something and the blond one looks like he's grasping at straws to make his argument. The tallest is silent, arms crossed, and his eyes are going from his two friends to Joker and back. Joker stiffens; that's probably the one he should be the most worried about.
“Yo, Joker, what chances we got if we do it?” the blond one asks.
“Of the ship getting through in one piece? Fifteen percent, at most. Of us surviving the ship getting through? Two percent, and I'm being fucking nice.”
He's not even making it up, is the best thing. They genuinely have close to zero chances of living to tell the tale if they do it. Not without shields and ship armour, and that's without taking into account how much engine power they would even need to make the jump.
“I'm not doing it,” the smallest one says softly. “I'm not.”
“You can't stop so close!”
“Man, I got a kid and a husband, I ain't riskin' it.”
The tallest one glowers. “And why do you think we're even doing this in the first place? Do you want your girl to starve to death when you can't bring back the money?”
Joker wisely stays silent, but he's listening intensely. This seems a lot more complicated than he first imagined. Those men don't sound like they're just doing this for the thrill.
“I'm sorry. You're doing this without me.”
“Shit,” the blond guy spits out. “I get why you're doin' it but fuck, I don't have to be happy about it.”
“I hope you guys come back. We all need it.”
He's already cursing himself before he even opens his mouth, but Joker can't keep quiet anymore.
“How about you tell me the whole story? Maybe I can help. And I mean, really help, not sending us all to our death.”
They freeze, before looking at him like they forgot he was even here. Which they probably did, judging by how tense they are.
“I'm Joker of the Normandy, you said it yourself. We saved the fucking galaxy, it's our MO to help people,” he insists, hoping it will be enough. The married guy bites his lip, before snorting, “fuck this.”
He walks up to him and untie the ropes around his wrists.
“The fuck you're doing?!”
“He can't run away, he's got the bone disease!” Joker tries not to look too offended. He fails.
“Look, man, it's either we tell him or we're on our own. Two of us, against the Hunt? I'm not betting on it,” the blond guy says to the tall one.
“Fine.” He sits on a crate, the angle of his body outlined by his shirt. He's... gaunt, now that Joker takes the time to look at him. “You're from here, right?”
“Yeah. Born and bred on Tiptree.” It's public knowledge, in his online file.
“You remember, two decades ago, the batarians who came to sell us slaves?”
Joker frowns. “I think I remember the leaders sending them away.”
“They did, and they didn't show up again. But then the Reapers came and destroyed everything. The asari sent some of their people to help, and they stayed a bit, but when your Admiral saved our collective asses, they went back to Thessia.”
The man gestures around him, showing the crates and the ship.
“That's all we have left. The batarians came back, call themselves the Red Hunt. They set up base around our fields and we have to pay them every day to access them so we can grow food. If we don't pay, they let the crops die. We've tried calling the Alliance for help but they're too busy rebuilding elsewhere. We don't have the money to hire people to help us. We're on our own.”
“We all heard what you did to the Collectors,” the father says. “They said you found a graveyard, on the other side. Spare parts are expensive as fuck, so we thought, if we can bring some back and sell them on the black market, we could hire the Blue Suns and kick the Hunt out off our planet.”
Joker doesn't know what to answer. It's a pretty good plan, all things considered. If they had a better ship, he might even have said it was solid enough to work. The batarians know they don't have enough money to get help, so an old ship flying off wouldn't bother them. He remembers enough of ships from the relay to know they could have made a fuckton of money selling what they found.
But those three men are farmers, with a ship older than them that doesn't even work on eezo. He might be the best pilot they'll ever find, but he can't do miracles.
Shepard, on the other hand...
Well, Shepard barges into the hangar, Omnitool blazing, just like he predicted. She is somewhat surprised to see him (mostly) standing and free, without any signs of being threatened by the three men with him. She barely gives them a glance once she's made sure they won't be a problem. Then she's running, her Widow retracting with a hissing sound.
She stops a step shy of him, close enough that he can feel the panicked hitch in her breath. Her hands hover around him without touching and he can almost hear the way her brain shuts down her access to words. So he takes her hand and squeezes it once, looking her straight in the eyes.
“I'm fine, Shepard.”
She deflates, taking a step back that almost makes her stumble. James is quick to put himself at her back in case she does drop. Garrus takes one look at Joker and tsks before sitting him down on a nearby crate.
“We need to help those guys, Vakarian,” he mutters under his breath as the turian secures a splint around his ankle. “They're being blackmailed by a group of batarians, and they're starving.”
Shepard crosses her arms, looking at the men while she answers him.
“We killed the batarians. They were trying to arrest – no, to stop us. From getting you behind. Back. Getting you back.”
“What?!” the blonde guys says, startled.
“We were asking questions while Scars was tracking you down when the batarians came and told us to leave. Hum, you can guess how Lola responded,” James shrugs.
“Holy shit. We're free. The Hunt are gone.”
They look baffled, but then again that's usually the effect the Normandy Crew has on people. When it doesn't look like they'll be stopped, they get out of the hangar running, probably to announce the news. Good for them, Joker can't help but think. They might have roughed him up a little, but they had a good enough reason that he can't be mad.
Joker does his best not to think about the pain in his limbs, then looks up at Shepard. She's standing a few steps away from him, not quite fidgeting, but he can tell something is wrong with her.
Somehow, that's the worst thing, realizing he knows her so well he can tell from the way her jaw is gritted that she's feeling guilt and frustration at the same time. Joker doesn't want to think about how much he knows Shepard and how much she means to him, because it's remembering her words and everything she lost in that last fight. It's making him face how much he screwed up and wonder if he had a hand in how fucked up she is now.
Her left hand is twitching, the prosthetic making a strange sound with how hard she's tensing the wire inside. That's his Commander, his Admiral, the captain of his ship, so he extends a hand in her direction and squeezes hard when she takes it.
“I'm fine, Shepard,” he says again, because he feels that she needs to hear it. Or maybe he does. Everything is a bit blurry, right now.
Garrus rises up from his crouch and rests his hand on the small of Shepard's back for a moment, before going to the other side of the hangar. James follows, his arm brushing Shepard's hip as he walks by. Joker can see how much it's relaxing her and he's relieved to see that she seems more at peace with her words than before. She doesn't look like she's struggling to even open her mouth, at least.
Her next words are still a battle, teeth bare and brows knitted like she's about to snarl.
“You can't – disappear again. I can't get up- no, fuck, shit, I can't stand to lose you.” She's breathing hard. “I am nothing without my ship, Joker. Without you, I have no ship. You can't ever- I thought I was going to die,” she chokes on a dry sob, her eyes closing like she's in physical pain. She turns around, her back the only thing he can see, but his mind is foggy and he can't think, what she's saying...
“I know, I know you remember. I'm not- je ne suis pas – not who I used to be. I'm- tiny pieces, all over the place, how do you say that, fuck. Je suis détruite, éparpillée.” She faces him again. “I don't want you to fake, right, but I need you to understand how – how hollow I am and you're, you're..” She's crying. His breath catches in his throat, because Fleet Admiral Shepard, Saviour of the Galaxy, is crying in front of him and he can't deal with that. “You're the most- the most, like a diamond, fucking hell, the most precious thing in the world, to me.”
He stares. Shepard is panting, her tears an angry thing on her pale face (not the ship kind, where you don't see enough sun, but the sickly, grey tone she's been sporting when she's exhausted). He stares and he takes in her scars, her short hair only growing back where her skin isn't burned, the twitch in her prosthetic. He takes in the waver in her voice, the way her words don't quite work together, the way she's constantly watching his eyes and his beard like they're helping her remember who he is.
He takes all of it in as he rises from the crate and looks up into her eyes, looks up like he's looking at the stars above his head when he's flying the most beautiful ship he's ever seen. He wraps his arms around her neck, tugging her down until she's staring right back at him, the whimper in her harried breath breaking his heart.
“I can't find the word, it's warm and it hurts and I want to break things, I – putain de merde,” she pants. “How do you say, comment ça se dit – so full and safe, tastes like cinnamon–”
He closes his eyes, swallowing hard because that's the scent of his shampoo. She's tense under his hands and he wishes Vrolik's didn't make him this short so he could hide her from the ugliness of her own mind.
“I love you, Shepard,” he whispers against her jaw.
“Yes! Yes, that's the- the word, love, Joker, I love you, I love you.” Then she freezes. He's so close he can feel her stop breathing. Her voice cracks on her next words. “What did you say?”
“I love you, Shepard,” he repeats, feeling weak and safe, just like she explained it.
She doesn't move, her arms at her sides and head still facing behind him. She doesn't speak. She doesn't breath.
Then, slowly, she raises her arms until they're wrapped around his waist. Her head bows down and she buries her nose in the side of his neck. Her tears are cold against his sweating skin.
“Bring me back to our ship, Commander,” he breathes into her hair.
She moves her head just enough to look at him. He always thought he'd retire after a great accomplishment, something big enough to have his name in history. Now, Shepard is looking at him and there is a galaxy in her watery eyes, filled with promises of adventures and travels, of worlds they'll save with the crew at their back.
At that exact moment, he knows, intimately, that he'll die at the helm of the Normandy to protect this woman and the family he found amongst turians and krogans and crazy biotics. Shepard smiles at him, sharp and terrified and confident.
He'll die at the helm of the Normandy, and he's okay with that.