damalur: (hawkeye comma riza)
no, use my SPACE name! ([personal profile] damalur) wrote2017-08-08 08:23 pm
Entry tags:

off the edge (mass effect, shepard/joker)

Title: Off the Edge
Characters: Joker/Shepard
Wordcount: 10k
Additional Tags: ME3, Pining, Mass Effect Big Bang 2017
Summary: What Shepard needed was an anchor.
Notes: See AO3.

-

The thing about the Normandy was that it didn't function like other Alliance ships. Oh, sure, there were the exotic killers — the assassins, the justicars, the vigilantes, the Shepard — that made up the crew, but even beyond the Normandy's, uh… special reputation, nothing ran the way it was supposed to run. For one, the commanders of starships were supposed to stay nice and safe in the CIC, not run around with a fire team shooting at robot zombies.

"So… is it always like this?" Vega asked. "Don't get me wrong, I heard the stories, but the reality's hard to swallow."

"Funny, that's what your mom said."

"Real nice, Joker."

"And yeah, it's pretty much always like this. Sometimes it's even worse. You'd think somebody up there would realize that this war is going down the crapper the second Shepard kicks the bucket, but no, obviously she's the only person in the galaxy capable of running milk errands. It's not enough for her to, you know, architect a peace treaty that ends a three-century war, or convince the salarians and the krogan to play in the same sandbox, or fight a Reaper on foot — no way, they've gotta send her on every bullshit extraction mission and depo resupply, too." Joker tossed back his shot and grimaced through the burn. "Whew. Where the hell does the doc get this stuff?"

It was late into the third shift, and the observation deck was empty except for Joker, Vega, and the bottle pilfered from Chakwas's private stash. Shepard wouldn't be happy if she caught them drinking, but they were both off-duty, and meanwhile she was probably busy washing all the bloodstains left by Cerberus goons out of her armor. Joker was never exactly going to regret hooking up with Cerberus, who had not only rebuilt his commander, his ship, and his skeleton but had also provided him with a pretty sweet chair, but if the Illusive Man dropped dead tomorrow, he wasn't going to start crying about it.

"She's lucky, man," Vega said.

"Who, the doc? Trust me, the ability to smuggle rotgut on board does not indicate luck."

"No," Vega said. "Commander Shepard." Vega got all funny about Shepard sometimes, which Joker figured was on account of hero worship — just about everyone in Shepard's orbit caught a case of it sooner or later except for maybe Joker himself, who had the advantage of a badass reputation of his own that predated his first meeting with the Alliance's favorite daughter. Vega might call Shepard "Lola" to her face, a nickname she tolerated with benevolent amusement, but when she wasn't in earshot he fell back into using "Commander" pretty damn quick.

"Shepard?" Joker said. "Lucky?" He picked up the bottle and squinted at the label. "Can tequila go bad?"

"I'm serious, pendejo," said Vega. "Look at all the shit she's seen. The Blitz, Torfan, the Eden Prime War…" He threw back his shot and then gestured expansively with the empty glass; his shoulders, approximately the width of a bulldozer, rippled with the motion. Meanwhile, there was Jeff Moreau, who was usually capable of walking from his bunk to the bridge provided he kept up with his drugs. Not the fun kind of drugs. The Alliance frowned on the fun kind.

"Right, 'cause going through all that definitely makes her lucky. Shit, by that logic I must be the luckiest guy in the whole damn fleet."

"Hey, I'm just sayin'," Vega said. "She's something else, that's all. Sharp, confident, good in a fight…"

"Yeah, that's kind of her thing," said Joker. "I'm not saying that her entire career is based on her leadership and combat abilities, but it is kind of right there in the job description."

Vega refilled their glasses with a liberal hand. Joker was almost (almost) starting to like the guy. Cortez seemed to think Vega was all right, at least, and Joker privately considered Cortez competent. A little dull, maybe, but competent.

"Come on," Vega said. "You can act unimpressed all you want, but even you've gotta admit that she's incredible."

Oh no, this conversation wasn't going anywhere good. That Shepard was impressive was a self-evident fact; Joker knew it a hell of a lot better than Vega, but he didn't see any reason to go around pointing it out unless he was pursuing free drinks at Purgatory. Why waste his breath? The Reapers were freaky, the Council was a bag of dicks, Shepard could kill a man with her pinky finger. No shit.

"You know she's not around to hear you, right?" Joker said. "You can stop kissing her ass, man."

Vega's eyes went a little unfocused. "Hey," he said. "Does she ever, uh…"

"Ever… what?"

Vega shrugged. It was like a mountain shifting. "You know."

"What do I — oh. Oh." Aw, fuck this, and fuck Vega, and fuck Shepard too for making Joker discuss her love life. "She's our commanding officer."

"So?"

Joker said it again more slowly for the idiot's benefit. "She's our commanding officer."

"But if anyone could get away with bending the rules, it'd be her, right?"

"Jimmy. Look," Joker said. "As far as you're concerned, Shepard is in a committed, lifelong relationship with her career."

"Man, I cannot believe you never even thought about it." Vega rubbed the back of his neck in a way that suggested he was doing enough thinking about it for both of them. His too-tight shirt bunched over his too-large muscles, and for one picosecond Joker let himself think about Vega and Shepard and Vega with Shepard before he shut the idea down. It was ridiculous — Shepard really was in a committed, lifelong relationship with her career, and she really would treat any advances made by Vega with the same tolerant amusement she usually allowed him, and anyway, chain of command existed for a good reason, and that reason was to save whatever the war had left behind of Joker's sanity.

"Look," Joker said. "I like you, so I'm going to say it one more time: Commanding. Officer."

"Yeah, yeah, all right, I get the picture," said Vega. "Not sure that you do, though. At least I got my own private thoughts to keep my company."

"I'll let that slide, but only because we both know who's the top porn supplier on this ship."

"There's no porno that can compare with that, bro," said Vega. "You think otherwise, you're crazy."

And because Joker was exactly as lucky as he thought he was, the hatch behind them popped open. Vega twisted around to see who was entering, but Joker didn't have to; he could see Shepard's reflection in the viewing port. Her face was caught in the halo of a distant star.

"Mister Vega," she said. "Drinking on duty?"

"Aw, Lola, you know I'm not on duty," said Vega.

"Uh-huh," said Shepard. "That might change if you abuse your privileges any further. Don't you have first watch tomorrow?"

"Uh, yeah," said Vega. He straightened up and turned his shot-glass upside-down on the table. "Should probably be getting to bed. Night, Lieutenant. Commander." If Joker didn't know better, he'd think Jimmy was developing a blush. The guy was completely without his usual strut as he hustled past Shepard.

When he was gone, Shepard stepped inside and let the hatch close behind her. "Corrupting the lower decks, Joker?"

"You know me, Commander," Joker said amiably. "Gotta get my kicks somehow." He looked down at his little cupful of tequila; another shot was a bad idea, particularly if it interacted in a weird way with his medication, but on the other hand, sleep wasn't easy to come by anyway. Not in the middle of the night at the end of the world.

Shepard's soft footfalls drew up behind him, and then she walked around the couch and settled down onto it. Joker didn't say anything. They were in high orbit over some ass-end moon while they awaited the arrival of an Alliance courier, and the stars outside the ship moved in slow, grand arcs.

"You gonna drink that?" Shepard asked.

Joker snorted. "You need it more than I do." He halfway expected her to go for the bottle and Vega's vacated glass, but instead she reached over and took his own drink out of his hands. Whatever. He couldn't exactly begrudge her the liberty.

She threw back the shot with all the ease of a marine — a qualification that mean she was more or less an expert at hard liquor.

"Drinking on duty, Shepard?"

"I'm not on duty."

"You're always on duty," he countered.

Shepard laughed softly. "Point. All right, I'm counting on your discretion."

He finally turned his head to look at her. The dim lighting washed out everything except the blazing sweep of her hair and the bruise that was blooming on her face. It looked like a dark smudge against the sharp cut of her jawline. She was wearing her shipboard utilities, and her straight-backed posture had relaxed just enough to suggest she would fall over if he let her sit there another minute.

"Shepard, come on," he said. "Be serious. Me? Discretion? Are you kidding?"

"I haven't told the brass that you're dealing pornography on board an Alliance vessel," she said mildly. "That earns me a little leeway."

"Oh shit, you heard that. Oh shit. You heard all of that. Look, I don't know, uh, what Vega was — when he, you know — "

"Relax, Joker. I'm too tired to deal with the paperwork for a formal reprimand." She smirked down at her empty glass. Nah, that wasn't quite a smirk, but it was too crooked for a smile. "And we could all use a little relief, anyway," she added.

"Well… yeah. That's me. I'm a relieving kind of guy." Shit. You know, he had always wondered why the hell Shepard let him get away with as much as she did. Not that he wasn't the best damn helmsman in the fleet — a certification that meant he could and did circumvent certain customs and regulations, say for example those concerned with grooming and respect — but Shepard was also kind of a hardass. Which didn't mean that they weren't friendly; he just didn't like to think too hard about it. Better not to acknowledge that he and Shepard had any kind of shared sympathy outside of being two prisoners strapped to the same angry war-rocket. For the sake of everyone's… mental health, or something.

Even in his own head, that sounded ungrateful towards the woman who had sacrificed her own life to save his, but Alchera was just one more thing Joker didn't like to think about.

He also liked to pretend that he didn't like that Shepard let him see her this way. They'd never had a conversation about it and probably never would, but he suspected she didn't let her guard down around too many other people. Maybe his lack of hero-worship was actually good for something other than pissing people off.

"How's the ship?"

"Huh? Oh. Uh, ship's good," Joker said. "EDI's got everything under control."

"And you have EDI under control?"

"No way," Joker said. "She does what she wants. Kind of like you. She's been talking about adding more robot bodies, you know? We're going to have our own private mech army pretty soon."

"Traynor mentioned something about that."

"Ha. Yeah, I bet she did. You know she's got a crush on EDI, right?"

"Yeah," said Shepard. "She told me so."

"You're kidding."

"Not even a little." Shepard leaned her head back against the couch cushion. "Got herself all worked up over EDI's voice."

"Man, I wish I'd seen that. Traynor's all right. Not exactly the hardened battlefield engineer I was hoping for, but you work with what you've got."

"Story of this war," Shepard said. "And Traynor's coming along. Give her a few more months."

"That implies that we have a couple of months to spare. I hate to be the one to break it to you, Shepard, but we're probably all going to be Reaper goo by then."

"Goo? Last week you said the Reapers were planning on locking you up and studying you."

"Did I?"

"To try to replicate your piloting techniques," Shepard confirmed.

"Well, at least you'll have a neighbor," Joker said. "They'll definitely want to study you. I mean, if they don't kill you first. Personally, I would rather be goo than a test subject, but hey. Just my opinion."

"Maybe we'll be lucky. Get picked up by Cerberus instead."

"This whole damn crew has a funny idea of luck," Joker complained. "And see, the thing about Cerberus is that they don't know when to quit. For a human supremacist group, you'd think they'd be less worried about killing actual humans like us and more worried about killing the giant tentacle monsters trying to wipe out the entire human race. Now that's a misplaced priority."

"Oh, I don't know," Shepard said. "At least we know Cerberus would give us a cell with a view." A starfield, she meant; Shepard had a streak of romanticism about the night sky that she thought was well-hidden. Maybe it was hidden from everyone who wasn't dumb enough to have their own poorly-disguised squishy feelings about starlight. Joker wouldn't know.

"A view like this one with some peace and quiet?" he said. "Sign me up. Shit, I'll turn myself over right now."

"That is one trip you're makin' without me."

"What, not excited to turn yourself back over to Comrade Illusive Man?"

Shepard almost looked like she'd fallen asleep, but her eyes still peaked out from beneath the fringe of her lashes. Joker figured she'd given up on the conversation by the time she finally said, "I still wonder if we did the right thing by working with them."

"Sure we did," he answered. "It wasn't like we had a lot of choices, and I don't know if you noticed, but the Alliance didn't exactly welcome you back with open arms."

"We had a choice," Shepard countered. She frowned. "You had a choice."

He'd signed up before they'd brought her back to fight the Collectors, was what Shepard meant, but whatever — she didn't have the full story. "Not… really," he muttered.

"'The Alliance took away the only thing that mattered to me. Hell yeah I joined Cerberus,'" Shepard said. It took him a minute to catch on: she was quoting his own words back to him verbatim, repeating exactly what he'd said to her when Cerberus had handed over the SR-2. "Guess there wasn't much of a choice for you. They knew you wouldn't be able to resist flying the Normandy again."

"Uh… yeah. That's what I meant." He cleared his throat and thought about reaching for the tequila, but that would require sitting forward, and his body was not sending the 'all clear' signal for any kind of movement. "You know they hired me as a consultant, right?"

"A consultant?"

"Yeah," Joker said. "I knew they were building a warship, and I knew they wanted my perspective, but I didn't know it was another Normandy. They never let me see the whole schematic."

"Thought they wanted you for a pilot."

"Sure. I mean, I guess they did, but they didn't tell me that until right before I saw you rise from the grave. Anyway… you know that giant port right over — " Your bed, he almost said. "Right over the, uh. The bed in the captain's quarters."

"Sure," said Shepard.

"Apparently the engineers put that in without Miranda Lawson's approval. Crazy, right? She probably even supervised them while they — uh, nevermind. She didn't find out until they were almost done assembling the ship, and man, she was ready to tear the project leader a new one."

"Why?"

Joker shrugged. "Some psychology crap. She thought the last thing you needed to see before you fell asleep was vacuum. After… well, you know. She pulled me into the meeting because I was supposed to be able to 'provide insight into the Commander's worldview,' whatever that meant."

"Yeah?" Shepard said. "What did you say?"

"Told 'em to keep it in," Joker said. He'd been flying from instinct on that one, but he was pissed and Cerberus still hadn't produced Shepard and he'd figured… what the hell, he'd figured that either Shepard would appreciate the view or else that whatever Cerberus brought back wouldn't be Shepard at all.

Shepard grunted. "You were right."

"Do me a favor. Don't tell Lawson."

"Your secret's safe," Shepard said. "But I thought you liked her now."

"What, you mean now that she cut ties with Cerberus? Come on, Commander, you know me better than that. I don't like anyone."

"Not even me?"

He snorted. "You? You're all right, I guess. When you're not trying to undermine my porn ring."

She laughed softly. "Whatever you say, Joker."

Conversation gave way to an easy silence; the only audible sounds were the sounds of the ship, all the quiet and not-so-quiet mechanical noises that meant the Normandy was still in the sky. Joker was betting that Shepard was too professional to fall asleep on a couch in next to a bottle of tequila, but she was wearing thinner and thinner these days. Actually, it might be kind of funny to send Vega or Traynor to wake her up if she did. Hell, he was almost ready to pass out himself.

But he didn't, and neither did she; they just sat there, side-by-side, looking out at the stars. Joker's private thoughts were mostly about how bad his head was going to feel in the morning and about how likely his relief pilot was to screw up the settings on the helm. He didn't like turning his bridge over to the green second lieutenant they'd picked up on the Citadel, but apparently the Fleet wanted their helmsman to be "well rested" and "mentally sound" and "not running on two hours of sleep, Mister Moreau."

After what must have been almost an hour, Shepard's total stillness broke, and she rolled to her feet. She was almost like a cat.

"Hey," Joker said. Aw, shit. "You know that, uh — even if all these goes to hell, you know you've got — you know I'm not going anywhere, right?"

She stuck her hands in the pockets of her sweatshirt. Her eyes had gone all low-lidded again; it was like she was looking out at the world through the slot in one of those firefight shields Cerberus heavies liked to carry.

"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, Joker, I know."

"Well… good," he finished, which was pretty lame, but Joker was kind of — not to put too fine a point on it — an expert at lameness. "Night, Shepard."

"Night, Joker," she said. "Thanks for the drink." And then she left.

He went to bed himself not much later. Unlike Shepard, he didn't have a fancy rack with a fancy view, but he did know how to get into medbay even when the doc was off-duty. Sleeping in one of the surgical beds was a hell of a lot more comfortable than cramming in with the rest of the crew, and neither EDI nor Chakwas would tell on him. It was one of his favorite regulations to subvert, other than the one about shaving.

-

He found it easy to love the ship. He'd been halfway there since he'd first heard about the project and ass-over-head since he'd hijacked her from Arcturus Station for a joyride. The SR-2 was everything he'd loved about the first Normandy writ large. Her bigger size should've made her clumsy, but she was twice as fast and three times as maneuverable and also had actual bunks instead of weird Alliance sleeping pods. Not that he wouldn't have been happy to sleep at the helm, but the doc had made it clear right off the bat that she'd have Joker court-martialed if he didn't leave the cockpit for his scheduled PT.

He'd even thought about starting something with EDI, back when she'd first pirated her shiny new robot body. EDI was the ship, and she was sharp and sassy, and the robot body was unfairly but amazingly proportioned. Also, EDI had what Joker euphemistically liked to call a natural interest in humanity; she probably would've been game for whatever Joker suggested, no matter how weird the resulting relationship might've looked.

There was one night that he'd almost broached the topic with Shepard. They'd been slumped over a bar drinking, but he'd taken one look at her — alert, because Shepard was always alert, and relaxed, because she didn't get all stiff around Joker, but slumped, because she had to be so fucking tired — and he'd realized that pursuing EDI would've been taking the easy way out. He liked EDI, and the human-shaped parts of her were hot, but she wasn't… she hadn't been…

Whatever. She was still his closest friend who wasn't his immediate superior or his supervising medical officer. As a general rule of thumb, people didn't like Joker. The handful of people who did tolerate him usually had the patience of saints.

People like, say… Admiral Anderson.

"How's she holding up?" Anderson's holo flickered and jumped every couple of seconds, which was fair considering the half-a-galaxy communication span but still made Joker think about creepy cyberpunk films.

"This ship?" he asked. "She's fine. I think they screwed with the LADAR array during the retrofit, but I got Tali to make a couple of adjustments. Seems okay now."

Anderson swung his arm a couple of times, like he was trying to loosen up for something athletic. "That's… good to know, LT," he said, "but I meant Shepard, not the ship."

"Shepard? She's, uh, good. I guess."

"You 'guess.'"

"You know Shepard," Joker said. "She's a warhorse." What the hell? A typical briefing with Anderson consisted of about three minutes of discussion liberally dotted with the phrase "consult with Shepard." That Joker even had a 'typical' briefing with an admiral would've been miraculous on any other ship, but on the Normandy, sure, why not used the billion-dollar QEC communicator to let the lowly helmsman talk to the leader of the resistance on Earth. That made total sense.

"I'm not looking to hang her out to dry, son," Anderson said. "I know the Alliance hadn't always treated Shepard as well as she deserves, but what I want isn't ammunition to use against her."

And see, that was a perfect example of what made Anderson so unsettling. Did Joker know that being asked about Shepard would make him jumpy? No way. But it did, all the same, because she'd tried to tell the Alliance that this war was coming over and over and over, and they'd responded by locking her up for six months and shitting all over her reputation. That Anderson had predicted and understood Joker's reaction before Joker had… well, that was why Anderson was dangerous.

"I… yeah. She's fine. Holding together."

"Is she eating? Getting enough rest?"

"Look, no offense, but why are you even asking me? Talk to Williams or Chakwas or someone with some actual authority. I just fly the ship."

"I'm asking you," said Anderson, "because you're close."

"Close?" said Joker. "You're talking about the wrong woman, Admiral. Shepard doesn't do close."

"That was her choice of words, Flight Lieutenant, not mine." Anderson definitely had the patience to deal with Joker. He was like an unlimited rock of patience. No, wait — like a bottomless keg of patience. "But I can certainly order a detailed report, if you'd prefer."

"Uh, no. Sorry, sir." Joker shifted to relieve the pressure on his hip. He had more good days than bad now, thanks to Cerberus's experimental procedures and some pretty sweet medication, but sometimes he felt fragile all over. Because of his bone condition. Not for any other reason.

"She's… not great," he added. "Not that she's bad, don't get me wrong — she's still kicking ass." He hesitated long enough to reset his hat.

"Her biometrics look stressed but functional," Anderson filled in. "Field skills are sharper than ever. No problems with her command, either — if anything, she's rewriting the manual. So tell me, Joker: where do you get the idea that something's wrong?"

"...Okay, stick with me," Joker said. "You ever pilot a shuttle? Or any kind of air vehicle?"

"One or two in my time."

"Right," he said. "So it's like that. You can feel that she's drifting even though you don't know why, and six weeks later the mechanics tell you that the third starboard thruster is busted just enough to throw you off by a tiny bit. Shepard looks all right. She seems all right. But she doesn't feel all right."

"Good," said the Admiral. "Good, Lieutenant. That's my read on the situation."

"Huh. Okay," Joker said, and then, feeling like he was betraying a confidence but glad someone cared enough about Shepard's headspace to ask about her from the middle of a warzone, he added, "I don't think she's sleeping right."

For the first time, Anderson looked startled. "She's not sleeping at all?"

"No, it's more like… she's up at weird hours." That wasn't quite right. "Weirder hours. And she doesn't joke around as much."

"She doesn't… joke around," Anderson repeated. He looked like he was about to make an extremely targeted remark about Joker's attitude.

"I know it sounds crazy, right?" Joker said. "Shepard's not exactly what you'd call a comedian, with the obsessive work ethic and series of personal tragedies and… I get it, she's not ha-ha funny. But she used to toss off one-liners, you know? Rag on her buddies. She does smile. Or she used to."

"Interesting," said Anderson. "In your opinion, is her performance suffering?"

"What? I… what?"

"Do you think she's in danger of collapsing under the pressure?"

"Are you serious? You can't ask me that."

"I just did, Lieutenant."

Shit. Of all the shitty things to ask, Anderson wanted to know if he'd be willing to throw Shepard under the bus. Uh, no. "Yeah," Joker said, "I'm not going to answer that. In fact, you can feel free to retract the question. Because first, I know you aren't doubting the woman who is single-handedly holding our entire galaxy together, and second, I know you're not dumb enough to actually believe that I would rat out the one person who — the one commander who actually deserves my support."

"Is that so."

"Yeah," Joker said. Sometimes his mouth got ahead of him. "Uh, no offense intended. Sir."

"None taken," said Anderson. Fortunately, he sounded more amused than angry. "Okay, Joker, you've made your point. But do me a favor: take care of her."

"Say what?"

"You heard me, son."

This was why Joker didn't like talking to flag officers. "You might want to ask someone else, Admiral. I'm pretty sure there's nothing I can do when someone's shooting at her while I'm all crippled and, oh yeah, stuck on the ship."

"You heard me," Anderson said. "And good luck. Anderson out."

"Yeah, you too," Joker said reflexively, but the line was already dead. Anderson apparently liked cutting people off mid-conversation as much as his protégé did. And what was all that crap about taking care of Shepard. Screw that. Actually…

Actually, he couldn't decide if he was offended that Anderson thought he wasn't already looking out for Shepard or angry that Anderson thought Joker was the best guy for the job. A couple of hours later, it occurred to him that Anderson, who was smack in the middle of the most dangerous front in the entire war, was worried about Shepard.

And then it occurred to him that Anderson must be really worried if he not only spared his attention from being lasered to death but took the time to have a five-minute QEC call with Shepard's pilot about her mental health. And then it occurred to him that maybe he, Joker, should also be worried about Shepard (more worried — he was already pretty worried). And then a few days after that news rolled in from Tiptree, and he realized he was now basically in a common-law marriage with his anxiety.

Over days and weeks he learned to live with that misery. It became background noise, radio static, something to manage rather than something to fix. The unrelenting slog of war wore away at his patience with his own problems, but then Thessia happened. If it was hard to live with his worry after Rannoch and Tiptree, it became impossible in the wake of Thessia. Thessia was a shitshow the likes of which he hadn't seen since before the Council removed their collective heads from their collective asses.

Shepard had lost.

Shepard had lost.

Great. This was just great. He didn't blame her — not every fight could be a win, not even when you were a badass, gun-toting action hero — but it was the last thing any of them needed, and most of all, it was the last thing Shepard needed. She was already on edge, growing more stoic by the day and turning up on the bridge at odder and odder hours (one insomniac always knew another). In her private moments, the times she thought she was alone, her face looked so hard he thought it might crack along her old surgical scar lines. Which he knew because sometimes he could convince EDI to spy on the Commander — not when she was in the shower or anything creepy like that, but when it was the middle of the night and EDI told him that Shepard was sitting on a crate in the empty cargo bay staring at her helmet, yeah, sometimes he pulled up a security feed.

"Jeff," EDI said. Her voice came from the console; she didn't always bother talking from her mobile platform, particularly when there wasn't anyone else around. "I have the after-action report on Shepard's metabolics."

"Yeah?" Joker said. "Let's hear it."

"I will only bother with abnormalities," EDI said. "Shepard's pulse is high for someone whose physiology has been severely augmented. Her blood pressure is low but not yet dangerously so, as is her core body temperature. Her reactions and feedback from her cybernetics suggest she is either distracted or suffering from intermittent tinnitus. Calculations show she has a current shock index of one-point-zero and climbing."

"And what the hell does that mean?"

"It means that Shepard is experiencing a greater degree of ongoing stress than during any previous campaign," EDI said. "My data from other points of reference is incomplete."

"What other points of reference?"

"The most relevant are the Skyllian Blitz, the Eden Prime War, and the conflict with the Collectors."

"The Skyllian Blitz?"

"Including related skirmishes."

"So, like… Torfan.

"Yes, Jeff. That includes Torfan."

Torfan was Shepard's albatross. He'd never really asked Shepard about it because inquiring about the battle where someone earned the nickname 'Butcher' didn't make for great conversation, but he'd always had a different perspective on it than the rest of the world. Outside of the Alliance propaganda machine, people usually made Shepard out to be a monster when they talked about Torfan, but the way he figured it, she'd done exactly what they'd sent her to do: secure victory against overwhelming odds by any means necessary.

He'd heard a lot of stories about that younger Shepard. In every account she was the woman he recognized, with the same decisiveness and the same sly humor and the same patience that turned to a slow, molten anger when she was pushed. That Shepard, like his Shepard, had never chosen a closed fist when an open hand would get the job done; but that Shepard too had been possessed of the same inclination to hit hard when hitting was required.

And yeah, he may have had a difficult time imagining Shepard deliberately sending her crew into a bloodbath, but he also knew she'd sacrifice every last one of them if she had to. What made that brutal instinct not only tolerable but honorable was knowing that she'd be the first to lay down her life if sacrifice was demanded. He didn't have to speculate; he'd seen her selflessness first-hand.

"Shepard is on her way to the bridge," EDI announced. A few seconds later the hatch behind him slid open, and Shepard took up her customary position behind his shoulder.

"So... Thessia, huh?" Joker said. "Guess the asari are wishing they had fewer dancers and more commandos right about now. Too soon?"

I DO NOT THINK THIS IS A GOOD IDEA, JEFF scrolled across the bottom of his console.

He could hear Shepard breathing. She inhaled, slow and measured, and exhaled; the next inhalation was cut short. "You're a damn good pilot, Joker," she snapped, "and I put up with a lot because of that, but we are in the middle of a war."

Oh, what, because he didn't know? Sorry for trying to help. He pulled up a holo of home and jabbed his finger at it. "You see this?" he said, and then didn't wait for her answer. "Tiptree. Little colony out in the ass-end of nowhere. My dad lives there. So does my sister. Reapers rolled in about two weeks ago. So you can assume that I'm generally aware there's a war on, Commander."

He could practically feel her teeth grinding. If she was barking at him instead of lying through her teeth about how 'fine' she was, he knew he'd walked onto a minefield. "So why the jokes?"

Normally he would have made a wisecrack ("Uh, you do know what people call me, right?"), but apparently rage was contagious. He spun his crash-seat around to face her.

"Because EDI says that according to your armor's metabolic scans, you're under more stress now than during the Skyllian Blitz," he said. "Like, more than Torfan, where you put your whole damn squad through a meat-grinder!"

Shepard's expression was going all hard again. The weird, shifting light of sub-space played over her face, throwing those old, healed-over scars first into sharp relief before hiding them in shadow again. Anyone with common sense would've pissed themselves in self-defense by now. (That was how you prevented a predator from eating you, right?) There had been a point shortly after her revival that those scars had been more like open wounds, and at the right angle they'd displayed all the stuff that lay beneath Shepard's flesh — her skin-weaves and bone-grafts, her artificial tissue and neuroenhancements. She was half-human at best now. All his fault.

"And the last time I had a briefing with Anderson, he told me to take care of you," he said. "The guy leading the resistance — on Earth! — is worried about you." Fuck, it was like talking to a wall, and here came the part that damned him: "And I'm supposed to help," he concluded.

She didn't even hesitate. "When I want a damn pep talk," Shepard snarled, "I'll ask for one. Otherwise, you're my pilot, not my therapist. Are we clear?"

Oh, they were sure as hell clear. He swiveled the chair away from her — let her look at his back for once. "Yes, Commander."

The hatch snapped shut behind her.

"...Jeff," EDI said. "I do not believe that helped."

"Really?" he said. "No kidding? Because I thought it went amazingly well. Therapist," he added. "I'll show her who's a damn therapist."

-

He was pretty sure Hilary was dead. Nobody had sent any official confirmation, but that didn't mean a hell of a lot; if she'd survived, she would've sent word at the same time the rest of Tiptree's refugees started to surface. Someone out there had to be having a pretty good laugh at the Moreau family's expense — one able-bodied daughter, and she didn't even live long enough to graduate? Come on. That wasn't even close to believable.

EDI was waiting for him outside of the crew quarters. She'd tried to follow him into the shower ("I am interested in ablutions." "If it's an ablution you wanna see, you're going to have to wait until I figure out where the doc hid her tequila stash."), but he'd convinced her that she didn't actually need to dog his heels for the entire day to learn how humans functioned.

"Now what, Jeff?" she asked.

"Are you seriously telling me you don't know?" Joker said. "You could probably predict exactly what every single person on the ship would do down to the millisecond, and you're really going to pretend that you need me to tell you what to do?"

"There are slight divergences in your routine at this point," EDI said. "Some days you eat in the mess with the rest of the crew. On other days, you retire to the observation deck and finish your meal alone."

"Like I haven't heard that one before. 'Jeff doesn't know how to play with the other kids.' Please. As if I need a report card to tell me I use abrasive humor to hide my soft, squishy — oh wait, never mind, it's just abrasive humor all the way down." He ambled around the memorial wall and collected his tray of goo. Shepard was sitting with Williams and some young-gun private whose name he always forgot at the table behind them. Okay, fine; she wasn't going to get the dining room in the divorce, too.

"Hey, Joker," Williams said. "EDI."

Joker sat down next to her, and EDI settled her platform into the chair across from him. "Hey, Ash," he said.

There was a moment of silence so pregnant he half expected it to messily explode into birth all over his dinner.

"Lieutenant," Shepard said.

"Commander," said Joker. He didn't look at her, because… whatever. He didn't have to have a reason. Anyway, if he didn't look at her, he could imagine that she'd spilled reconstituted potatoes all over her utilities. Ha ha. Take that, Shepard.

He chewed his way through something that looked like shrimp but definitely wasn't while Shepard collected her tray and excused herself. Her voice sounded a little hoarse. Maybe she was coming down with a cold.

When Shepard was safely aboard the elevator and out of earshot, Williams said, "What's up with that?"

"With what?" Joker said. "This fake shrimp? Man, I have no idea, but it's almost the nastiest thing I've eaten on a ship. I'm pretty sure Cerberus tried to serve us varren tongue, though. Figures — spare no expense on the ship but feed the crew the cheapest thing you can find."

"Shepard and Jeff had an altercation," EDI said.

"See if I ever let you follow me into the shower again," Joker said.

"You didn't let me follow you into the shower," EDI said. "If this is a joke, I fail to understand its purpose."

"Maybe someday you'll be a real girl, but don't get your hopes up."

"Back it up there, you two," Williams said. "What do you mean — Joker and the Skipper had a fight?"

"We did not have a fight," Joker said.

"The term 'disagreement' may be more connotatively accurate," EDI said. "However, given the vehemence of the conversation and the usually amiable nature of Jeff and Shepard's relationship, I feel 'fight' and 'altercation' are both accurate descriptors."

"That wasn't a fight. Trust me," he said. "I've fought with plenty of commanding officers before. Did I call her an asshole to her face? No. Am I currently undergoing disciplinary review? Uh, definitely not. Which means it wasn't a fight."

"Neither hurting my feelings to deflect nor redirecting the conversation will change reality, Jeff," said EDI. He hated her. How had he never realized that before? It was probably the sexy voice, but no, he definitely hated her.

He hated Williams, too, which was a more familiar feeling. Oh, sure, back in the good old days he'd liked her just fine, but then she'd done the totally unforgivable but incredibly understandable by acting paranoid when her apparently-dead ex-commander showed up wearing the insignia of a terrorist organization. Again, incredibly understandable. Still didn't mean he was going to cut her any slack.

And a third thing — he hated Shepard, too.

"Yeah?" said. "Well… fine. When did you get all emotionally astute, anyway?"

EDI met his gaze calmly. "I am not particularly emotionally astute," she said. "My relative inexperience with interpersonal affairs means I lack the insight necessary to be adept at understanding either my own feelings or the feelings of others. It is more likely that you are simply developmentally delayed regarding emotion, which may make me appear adept in comparison."

"...Burn," said the private.

"Nobody asked you, Campbell," Joker said. "In fact, nobody asked anybody, so maybe we should all just shut up and eat our nutritional mush like good little soldiers, okay?"

"Commander Williams asked," EDI pointed out, which made him angrier, because, what, Ashley deserved to be bumped up a thousand ranks just because she was the Alliance's good little lapdog? Shepard had only been promoted to Staff Commander in the past year.

"Man," Joker said. "You know what I miss? Professionalism. Remember that? Remember how we all used to do our jobs without butting into each others' business? Yeah. Those were the days."

"Whoa," said the private.

"Huh. No kidding," said Williams. "I've never seen you this touchy about something."

"Now that, that is a lie," Joker said. "Also, I'm not touchy, because me being 'touchy'" — he put down his fork to make air-quotes at her — "would require me to have 'had a fight,' which would require me to give a two shits about Shepard, which I clearly don't, so… stick it in your ass."

"You called me 'Benedict Williams' for four weeks after Shepard took me back onboard," Williams said, "and I'm supposed to believe that you don't give two shits about her?"

"Yeah, well, that was for unrelated reasons."

"So it wasn't because you're still holding a grudge that I didn't roll over for Shepard on Horizon."

"I'm pretty sure I said 'unrelated reasons.' Did I stutter?"

"Sure," said Williams. "And I'm guessing you didn't resign your commission and join Cerberus just so you could watch Shepard's back."

"Okay, you know what? I'm going to, uh. Go check on… yeah. Bye," said the private.

"Uh, no," Joker shot back. "I joined Cerberus because the Alliance grounded me, remember?" For incredibly understandable reasons like Joker ignoring his direct superior's orders and getting her killed, which had in no way led to a massive guilt complex and approximately two years of blind grief that may or may not have been less tied up with the guilt than he would've liked. "And that was apparently a smart decision, considering they court-martialed me as soon as I showed back up on Earth. Gosh, because it was so much fun sitting on my ass for six months while some desk jockey picked my brain about the Normandy."

"They court-martialed you because you colluded with Shepard," Williams said. "I'm not saying that you and the Skipper didn't have your reasons, okay? I'm just saying that the brass had their reasons, too."

"God, do you come up with this yourself, or does the Fleet brainwash you while you're sleeping?"

"Damn, Joker, I don't know — do you ever give up on the sarcasm, or are you just an asshole all the way down?"

"It is highly probable that Jeff is acting defensive because he is still upset from his altercation with Shepard but does not wish you to know he is upset," EDI said. "In addition, he is worried about his sister, although he confided in me several days ago that he is glad you are around to keep Shepard from going 'full krogan' again."

"God damn it, EDI!"

"I am attempting to lower your stress levels by demonstrating open communication," EDI said. "Is it working, Jeff?" She was leaning back in her chair, hands folded in her lap, legs crossed at the knee, but there was something about the self-satisfaction in her posture that suggested she knew exactly what the hell she was doing.

Williams stared at him, he glared back at Williams, and the tension snapped. Ashley burst into laughter.

"Yeah, yeah, shut up," he said.

"No way," Ash said. She was laughing almost too hard to talk. Too bad — maybe she'd choke on her own spit and that'd cut her off. "No way, Joker. Only you could… ha! Only you would get trolled by the ship's AI."

"I am not 'trolling' Jeff," EDI said.

"See, that's exactly what a troll would say," said Joker. "I know how much time you spend on the extranet. You're not fooling anyone with that 'oh poor me, I'm just a newborn robot who doesn't understand slang or comedy' crap."

"Then you admit that my treatment of you is comedic?"

"No," said Joker.

"Yes," said Ashley.

"Fine, whatever," Joker said. "Do whatever you want. I'm not about to go up against a ship with unshackled access to a Thanix cannon. Probably end up plastered against the moon like a pancake."

"You are too crunchy to be a pancake, Jeff," EDI said.

"Remember that talk we had about the line between 'creepy' and 'hilarious?'"

"I have perfect recall," EDI said.

"So," Ash said, "what was that about Shepard going 'full krogan'?"

"No. Well, yeah," Joker said. "She's under a lot of stress. Anderson's kind of worried about her."

Ashley's eyebrows climbed her forehead. "Anderson, huh?"

"Yeah. Anderson."

"Have you tried talking to her?"

"Are you kidding?" Joker said. "Of course I tried talking to her. You want to know how that ended? She told me I was her pilot, not her damn therapist."

"Sometimes I think the Skipper's almost as dense as you are," Ash said. "EDI, can anyone overhear us?"

"I would recommend the observation deck if you prefer to keep your conversation private," EDI said.

"Thanks," said Ashley. "Come on, Joker. We're going to have a talk." She touched him on the shoulder as she stood, probably in lieu of grabbing him by the arm and hauling him behind her. Just as decisive as ever. It was probably what made her a good Spectre candidate, but on a personal level it was deeply and profoundly annoying.

"EDI?" he said. "You comin'?"

"No, thank you, Jeff," EDI said. "I believe my platform will stay here for a while. Mr. Vega and Mr. Cortez should be up shortly, and they make for good dinner theater."

"All right," he said. "Have it your way." It took him a little longer to climb to his feet than it had taken Ash to climb to hers, but he was only paid as an OF-03. He hadn't had as much practice jumping to his feet and snapping to attention as 'Benedict' Williams.

Ash was leaning against the drinks bar when he made it inside, but she wasn't drinking. As soon as he was through the hatch, she said, "EDI, can you kill the recording?"

A nearby console blinked twice in acknowledgement. It wasn't quite the same as body language, but it wasn't exactly not body language, either. "Done, Commander," EDI said.

"So, uh, not that I don't enjoy the cloak-and-dagger routine every now and then, because my life definitely isn't exciting or dangerous enough," Joker said, "but what's up with all this?"

She sighed. It was the big, deep, heavy kind of sigh, the kind of sigh you didn't understand in your bones until you'd fought a futile war against overwhelming odds to prevent mass extinction. Joker got that sigh. Boy, did he ever.

"This is just between us," she said. "I mean it, Joker — this doesn't go further than your ears, got it?"

"Yes, ma'am. Want me to sign on the dotted line? Make a blood pact?" He mimed drawing a knife over his palm. "It's a little old-fashioned, sure, but I figure, hey, if you aren't willing to bleed for a little shipboard gossip, are you really human?"

Ash ignored him. "It's… look," she said. "I've been thinking about Shepard. Noticing things. And…"

"And what?" Joker said. "Does she secretly pick her nose behind her helmet?"

"'They hail me as one living,'" Ash said, "'but don't they know that I have died of late years — '"

Screw this. Joker didn't want to talk about poetry, and he didn't want to talk about Shepard, and he definitely didn't want to understand where this conversation was going, but there were some things you couldn't un-understand.

"She doesn't have a death wish," he snapped.

"She doesn't think she's going to make it through the war, either," Ash said. "Come on, Joker, I know you've seen it. It's written all over her."

"Yeah, well, she's dumb like that. Probably thinks it's enough if the rest of us make it through." He cast one longing glance over his shoulder and then shuffled over to join Ash at the bar. God. This definitely required tequila. "Do we really have to talk about it, though? 'Cause I'm okay letting it be one of those unspeakably tragic things we all know about but none of us mention. Like Shepard's dancing."

"We mention Shepard's dancing all the time."

"Yeah, okay, bad example." He adjusted the brim of his hat. "It's… really gettin' to you, huh?"

"Yeah. Don't tell anyone."

"Me? I would never," Joker said. "Hey, come on — badass warrior woman like you, nobody would believe you're all worried over Shepard's feelings. At least not without evidence."

"'Badass warrior woman.'" Ash snorted. "Right."

"You and Shepard are two of a kind," Joker said. "See, I sound like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not. My voice is just stuck this way."

"It's like she's just walking around waiting for the right moment to throw herself on the pyre!" Ash said. "Like she just wants to make one last big, heroic sacrifice to end the war and then be done."

Oh, goody. This was just the conversation he wanted to be having.

"She probably does," Joker said. "Don't look at me like that, I'm not saying she's right. But shit, she's gotta be tired. This has been her whole life, you know. Not this war, but fighting. Being a marine. Killing people for fun and profit. I mean, sure, the profit of all humankind, but still." That was comforting, right?

"Maybe that's the problem," Ash said. "She doesn't have much family. Or much of a life outside of the Alliance. Maybe if she had a something to hold on to..."

"You mean a billion sisters? A hobby? A beach vacation? A retirement plan?" He swallowed. "Or, uh. A husband-and-kids kind of thing?"

"Any or all of the above?" Ash said. "It's probably stupid. I just keep thinking, hey, if we could give Shepard a reason to come back — "

"What, like I should mention my deep, unspoken love for her or something?"

"Joker, come on," Ash said. "For once in your life, be serious."

-

Joker's deep secret was that he was kind of a fuck-up. It wasn't actually that deep (most people were) or that secret (he'd gotten Commander Shepard killed), but various sources over the years had pointed out that he also used the label as an easy excuse to avoid things like 'personal growth' and 'addressing emotional turmoil.' Fine, whatever. Sometimes late at night in the cockpit when EDI was picking his brain because she thought it was funny, she'd bring it up. Have you ever considered the roots of your persecution complex, Jeff? Which was usually when he told EDI to go pick Shepard's brain for a while.

God. If he and Shepard were who EDI was using as models of behavior, she was going to be so, so, so deeply and irrevocably messed up. In ten years the Normandy would be run by a workaholic smartass adrenaline-junkie whose coping mechanisms were either stoicism or Blasto impersonations. That was the rub — Shepard wasn't actually any better at feelings than Joker. Maybe she was even worse. It just looked cooler when she did her too-tough-for-this-shit act than it did when he whined about how boring funerals were so nobody noticed that all he wanted to do was buy a one-way ticket to Alchera, lie down in the snow, and die.

So that was one of the ways he was a fuck-up. Another was definitely the duration of his grudges.

Shepard had tried to apologize. To him. And he'd brushed her off, because, see, he could be professional when he needed to be, and also she didn't have to turn around and bite him on the ass when he was just trying to help, and also the idea that Shepard would ever need to apologize to him for anything was nuts and he was kind of pissed at her for not getting that. It didn't make a lot of sense, all right? He knew that, but it didn't stop him from blowing her off.

How many people had Shepard ever bothered apologizing to, anyway?

Probably more than he thought. She could be diplomatic when she needed to be — not charming, because her presence was too grounded and sharp and forceful to ever be anything as trite as charming — with a magnetism that was tempered by experience and efficiency. Shepard knew that rudeness was only occasionally expedient.

Still, though…

He was kept stewing about it. What he really need to do was get off his ass and go find her, but there were about four hundred diagnostics that EDI definitely couldn't run without his help, so obviously that took priority, and the doc was always riding him about exercising, and also he'd heard from Garrus that the turians had a joke about a human pilot with brittle bone disease, and he had to use his 0.005 seconds of free time to make sure that was all over the extranet —

Anyway. Shepard found him first.

"Commander," he said.

"Joker."

"That's Flight Lieutenant Moreau, ma'am."

Shepard was silent for a beat, and then she said, "Jeff."

Aw, shit.

"I was wrong," Shepard said. "I'd just seen Thessia get wiped out, watched Cerberus escape with the Prothean VI… I'm sorry I took it out on you."

If there was a surefire way to get him to pull his head out of his ass, it was Shepard herself reminding him exactly what she was up against. And yeah, he could cling to his pride and cut her off ("Will that be all, ma'am?"), but in the end, he would never add to her burden when he could lighten it. Even if he did go about it ass-backwards.

"I remember sayin' something about you being under a lot of stress," he muttered.

"We'll be hitting Earth soon," Shepard said. "Nobody knows what comes next. But whatever happens… it's been an honor to serve with you."

She waited behind his left shoulder for a couple of really fucking long seconds, and when he didn't acknowledge her, he caught her give a nod out of the corner of his eye before she stepped away and vanished from his peripheral vision.

"Shepard…" he said. "Wait." And then, before she could leave, he closed the hatch to the cockpit.

Joker had had a lot of dumb, pointless ideas over the years. Joining the Alliance — that was definitely one. He'd had to threaten legal action before he'd been allowed into flight school on even a probationary basis, which was particularly dumb and pointless when his family wasn't exactly rolling in money. Stealing the SR-1 — that was nuts, and he was continually surprised he'd gotten away with it, since hijacking the ship you had expressly been forbidden to fly just so you could prove to a couple of assholes that you were capable of flying her was about as shortsighted as Vega at a poker table. Going down with the ship — dumb, dumb, dumb. Joining Cerberus — wow, that one had been a doozy.

Also, fraternization regulations existed for a reason. There was a lot of crap in there about 'compromising personnel integrity' and 'respect for the chain of command,' and maybe Joker was less of a rebel than he liked to think, because he actually kind of believed in all that crap. A naval starship, even one that didn't have a batshit crazy commander, was as intense and high-stress an environment as it got, which meant that basically every shipboard relationship needed to stay within the boundaries of what was professionally functional. Sure, Shepard was hot, provided you liked sallow redheads who could break you in half with one stern look, but admiration and even attraction were no reason to disregard the code of conduct.

And he had killed her, which was pretty damn unforgivable. He didn't deserve to be having this conversation. He didn't deserve to even think about having this conversation, but sometimes you did things because they needed to be done, not because they were the smart move.

"Yeah, uh," he said. "Can I speak off the record?" She'd started it by using his name. In fact, he was half-wondering if he could get her to call him 'Jeff' again. The other half of his brain was occupied with working out a way he could unhinge his jaw and swallow his fear like a boa constrictor.

"Of course," was Shepard's immediate reply. "What's on your mind?"

"Good. Right. Great." He gulped, realized he was rubbing at his beard, and gave up all pretense of trying to work even though the only way he was going to make it through this conversation was if he didn't have to look Shepard in the eye. "So the thing is," he started, "that a lot of people have pointed out that I'm kind of… uh, protective."

"Protective," Shepard said.

"Right."

"That's… pretty understandable, Joker," Shepard said.

"It is?"

"Especially after Alchera," said Shepard.

"I… right." This conversation was not going how he'd expected.

"I can't make any guarantees," Shepard said, "but I can give you my word that nothing's gonna happen to this ship. Not if I can help it."

"Good. I mean, that's good to — wait. Ship?"

"The Normandy," Shepard agreed. "She means a lot to me, too."

Aw, shit. "I wasn't talking about… fuck," Joker said. "Let me start over."

He pinched the bridge of his nose and inhaled a couple of times: long, slow, deep breaths, like he had all the time in the world. When he looked up, he was met with the reflection of Shepard's face in the port. Her expression was calm and expectant, but there was a little furrow of confusion between her eyebrows.

"After Cerberus brought you back," he said, "I told you that I joined Cerberus because the Alliance took away the only thing that mattered to me. I wasn't talking about the ship, or flying. I was talking about you."

She stopped breathing so abruptly he heard it.

"And, uh, look, Shepard," he added, "I'm not expecting anything here. I know I'm putting you on the spot, and there's about seven thousand reasons this is a bad idea without even touching the military regs. Also, as I'm saying this I realize I should have planned this conversation out beforehand, because now I'm in the middle of it and it's kinda hitting me that I don't have a course charted. But, you know, Williams and I were talking, and she pointed out that you didn't have a lot to anchor you outside of the Fleet, so I thought I should tell you that you could. Have me, I mean. If you wanted — not that you do. Anyway, EDI and I were talking about maneuvers over gravity wells and we came up with a theory about the Reaper capital ships — "

"EDI," Shepard interrupted. "Wipe the past three minutes of this conversation from the logs and then power down all passive listening routines."

"Done, Commander," EDI said. "Please interact with a console if you require further assistance."

"Thanks, EDI," Shepard said.

"Oh, god," Joker said. "Are you going to kill me now? I knew this was a bad idea. See if I listen to Ash again. Her judgment is not what it should be, let me just say that now. Although I guess no recordings means I retain at least one tiny drop of dignity."

And then Shepard's hand settled over his shoulder, and she said, "Jeff."

The galaxy shifted and realigned itself around a new, uncharted core.

"Oh," Joker said, and then he reached up and covered Shepard's hand with his own. "Yeah? Huh. I guess so."

"I can't make any promises," Shepard said.

"Good, 'cause I'm not askin' for anything." He shoved himself upright, swung his legs to the side, dropped his feet to the deck, and then, because it seemed like the thing to do when the galaxy's most interesting woman kind of implied that she maybe returned your illicit feelings, climbed to his feet. Shepard's hand had slid from his shoulder; when he turned to face her, she was still hanging on to his chair.

"Hey," he said.

Shepard swallowed, and then one side of her mouth began to curl until she was smiling — close-mouthed and crooked, but smiling. "Hey," she said.

"So what," he said, "do I call you 'Jane' now? Not sure that's such a good idea. 'Jane' and 'Jeff' might weird everyone out. Joking," he added. "That was a joke. Still not asking for anything."

"Sure about that?" Shepard said. "Seems to me like you're in a pretty good position to be asking favors."

"Nah," Joker said. "I like to do things that hard way. But, uh — maybe just one."

"What's that?"

"Come back in one piece," he said.

Shepard reached out. Her hand hovered in front of his face for a second, like she wasn't sure she was at liberty to touch, and then she tugged the brim of his cap. Joker reached up and caught her by the wrist, and huh, wouldn't you know it — it was significantly more satisfying to make contact with her when he could see the look on her face.

"I mean it," Joker added. "No more dying for me again. Or anyone else. But especially not me."

"Tell you what," Shepard said. "I'll do that, and we'll finish this conversation on the other side."

"You got yourself a deal," Joker said. "And, uh… Shepard, for what it's worth… saying it's been an honor really doesn't begin to cover it."

Her fingers dragged over his palm, and then her hand slid from his grasp. "The feeling's mutual, helmsman."

Man. Who'd have thought?

"Right, uh. Back to work." He rubbed at his cheek a couple of times, realized Shepard was laughing at him (not outwardly, but it was there in her eyes), and cleared his throat. She didn't stop looking at him as she reached over the console and brought EDI back online, but when the hatch opened, her shoulders squared and her chin lifted. Yeah, there she was: the one and only.

"Flight Lieutenant," she said.

"Commander," Joker said. He saluted, because… aw, fuck it, it seemed like the thing to do.

Shepard, still with her laughing eyes and grim mouth, returned his salute and then broke for the hatch. Just before she crossed out of the cockpit and his territory, though, she paused.

"And Joker?" she said. "On the record… Thanks. For asking."