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A Star to Steer Her By

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For a moment, standing next to a living, breathing Shepard and gazing at the new Normandy, it felt like everything was alright again. For just a moment.

A wobbly view of a tiled floor, splattered with vomit. Charming.

Joker sighed and put his head in his hands. Keeping track of Shepard through her helmet cam was always a mixed blessing — watching a friend get shot at in real-time when you couldn't do anything wasn't exactly relaxing — but this vid was more disturbing than most. He'd gone well past the stage of being impressed by the sheer quantity of alcohol she could put away. Shouldn't the bartender have cut her off? "Put more stuff in the thing more stuff goes in" had to be one of the top ten 'this person should not be served more alcohol' signs.

He waited until EDI informed him that the Commander was safely aboard and it was clear they weren't leaving dock this shift, then went down to talk to Chakwas.

Garrus had gotten there first, and was getting the sharp side of the doctor's tongue.

"What did you think you were doing, letting her drink like that?"

The turian was slumped over with his head in his hands. "It never occurred to me that it'd be a problem. It's not like we've never stopped for a drink before." He looked up at the doctor apologetically. "She's not some irresponsible merc. This is Commander Shepard. In all my experience she's never been anything other than the epitome of self-control. She hardly let herself get tipsy when we all celebrated after Sovereign."

Joker remembered that party. The beginning of it, anyway. He wasn't a big drinker himself — too many unpleasant episodes with necessary painkillers had left him faintly repulsed by the idea of being nauseous and wobbly for fun — but the night everyone had been clamoring to buy a drink for the crew of the Normandy, that had been… well. A Night to Not Remember.

Shepard had somehow managed to keep herself almost sober without offending any of the celebrants, and while she'd always had a glass in her hand, the only sign had been a slightly easier grin.

Joker snagged one of the doc's chairs. "She had more than her usual at Afterlife, too. But, y'know, it turned out to be poisoned and now the bartender's dead, so I'd kinda forgotten about it."

Chakwas nodded. "I should have noticed earlier, as well. When she brought me the brandy we had such a good time. I didn't think anything of it, it was just nice to see her relaxed and real, but, well," she blushed. "She drank me under the table. Or onto it. Woke up hours later on my own examining bed, and she must have put me there."

Joker's eyebrows shot up. "You? She wasn't joking about her cybernetic liver, then. That's sick."

The doctor looked faintly embarrassed. The slight, elegant older woman had won more bets than he could count by calmly out-drinking stunned new-recruits, and had a quiet reputation as the hardest head on the Normandy SR1, saving perhaps Wrex. When questioned about it, she'd respond "Well, I am a military doctor."

Garrus sounded angry. "Did Cerberus do something to Shepard?"

"Well, besides the whole bringing-her-back-to-life thing."

The doctor shook her head. "She processes alcohol much faster, and her upgraded system removes toxins more efficiently, so it takes a lot to get her drunk and she recovers quickly."

She gestured at a med scan lying on her desk, one of her many attempts to catalog the various changes in their commander. "It's not like they physically installed vices. Maybe she just needs time. Brought back, put straight to work, missing two years… I don't have any experience to know how to help with any of that."

Joker snorted. "Yeah, psychological ramifications of being recently dead. I don't think they have that one listed in the DSM XVIII."

It was cold, bitter cold, and there was a roaring in her ears even though it was dead quiet, she was tangled and caught even though there was nothing around, nothing, nothing…

Shepard fought her way out of her restless sleep as she had every night since being revived, breathless, panicked, and drenched in sweat. She glared at the twist of sheets that entangled her. How did they get like that? Years of sleeping on the streets, barely covered by an emergency blanket, had conditioned her young — she hardly even twitched in her sleep, a habit reinforced by a lifetime of cramped military racks. If she'd dreamt, she didn't remember the dream. The drinking binge hadn't worked out as a sleep-aid. She'd have to try it in her cabin next time.

She peeled the sweat soaked layers away, stripped, and went to the head. A searingly hot shower woke her as much as she could be, then she stood staring at herself in the mirror.

She hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. She didn't need to. The cool light of the emergency strips blended with the faint red glow of the Cerberus scars to show everything she wanted to see. If she let her eyes unfocus, the fiery lines were all she could see. Her brown skin faded into the background of the ship, until there was no Rhi Shepard, only the marks of Cerberus. She ran her hands — smooth, uncalloused by a gun grip and unscarred by fights — over her sides, trying again to feel the cybernetics she knew were there.

Frustrated, she pulled on a shipsuit and did up her hair.

You have a job to do. Figure out what's bothering you; deal with it.

It wasn't an impressive mantra, but she wasn't much for spiritual crap. She paced to the center of the room, folded herself down onto the soft deck matting, and began the process of controlling her breathing.

The silence in her quarters was uncanny. The old Normandy had captain's quarters on the crew deck, where it should be, where she could hear the constant murmur of activity, of crews coming off shift, laughter or swearing muffled by heavy bulkheads. It had still been too large for her comfort, but it was a damn sight better than this isolated palace. She glared at the empty aquarium. Who decided to spend credits on that?

Not working. Breathe.

Even if she was on the crew-deck, it wouldn't be her crew she was hearing. It wouldn't be Alliance crew, the organization that had given structure to her entire adult life. It would be Cerberus people, Cerberus employees eating, drinking, playing games to pass off-time, complaining about racks.

So make them your people. Talk to them.

How could she make that bond when she wasn't even sure of the people she already knew? They'd changed by two years, and she hadn't. Chakwas had joined for Joker, and Joker had joined for…? He'd been nonchalant about it, as if joining a terrorist organization was a natural career move, and she realized she desperately wanted there to be more to the story. Was he really that shallow? Damn it, Joker, I trusted you…

No, don't prejudge. Make them your people. Start with the ones you know.

She pulled herself off the floor and left the cabin.

It was a dead shift, late ship's time, when the commander came to visit. She didn't say anything at first, just collapsed into the empty co-pilot's chair. Is she sleeping at all?

"Hey, commander."

"Hey yourself."

The silence stretched out. She'd sometimes come up to the cockpit of the old Normandy for quiet, but this didn't feel the same. Too much tension for it to be companionable.

"Talk to me, Joker."

"Should I start reading off our engine performance stats or were you thinking of something specific?"

He heard her shift in the seat. "I need to know why you joined Cerberus."

He occupied himself running a report that he didn't actually need. "Told you. They let me fly."

"That was it? No worry about Kohaku, or all those people they killed through negligence?"

He answered brusquely. "I'm a simple guy, Commander."

"I need to know, Joker."

Shepard's "command voice" could stop a Krogan in it's tracks, but this wasn't it. She spoke softly, with a hint of desperation, and she sounded exhausted. It took him a long moment to respond.

"I was… I was in a really bad place. Made some stupid decisions. Got grounded. It started looking like Cerberus was the only option. And they were real persuasive."

He didn't like to think about that year. The endless psych evaluations from the alliance. The hints and half-explained offers. The seemingly inevitable choice between taking a gamble with Cerberus or a short walk off a tall apartment complex.

The figure in the copilot's seat didn't respond, but he could feel her eyes on him. He stared straight ahead, thankful for the anonymity offered by the darkened cockpit.

"After I'd been there awhile I kinda thought better of it. These guys killed a lotta people. I looked into bailing and getting back to Arcturus. They got wind of it and…"

"And?"

He glanced quickly back at her, but she was looking up at the blue flicker outside the Normandy's windows.

"And they told me what they were trying to do. With you. I didn't believe 'em. Even with pictures. Thought it was some freaky bad-guy psychology trick, y'know? I mean, if anyone's gonna figure out how to harness human angst as an energy source, it's gonna be Cerberus, right? But I figured I didn't lose anything by hanging around to find out. Just in case."

She sighed and seemed to relax into the chair. "I'm glad you did, Joker. Thanks."

"Yeah, me too, but don't go telling them that. Even if they make good chairs."

"You said you saw… pictures?" When he looked back she'd squeezed her eyes tight shut. "Never-mind. I don't want to know."

"No. You really, really don't."

He tried not to think about the Lazarus project. There were still nights he woke in a cold sweat, cursing Cerberus for ever showing him those holos. And talking to Miranda was already uncomfortable enough, without being reminded that she saw his commander as a science project.

"Two years..." Shepard mused. "Everyone's grown by two years but me. As far as I'm concerned, we were hunting Geth last week. I need to get my bearings." She yawned and stood up. "I've got a few more errands to run station-side tomorrow, but afterward I was going to ask Chakwas and Garrus up to my cabin for drinks. You'll come too, I hope? I've lost a lot of time, and I'd like to catch up."

I'm not a people person...

"Please?"

"Of course, commander. I'll be there. Just send me the time."