Disclaimer: I own nothing, I make no money.
Author's Note: A little platonic Shoker lovin' for NormandyStarlight.
Tossing 'Em Back
"Life's just too short to be serious all the time.' 'Our lives you mean.' 'Cheers to that.' He throws a smirk her way and the two clink bottles." - While several beers deep, Joker and Shepard talk Reapers versus the galaxy's finest fauna, the stages of drunkenness, and forgiveness.
"Okay, so now that the burning question of mankind has been answered, what do – "
"What burning question?" Shepard interrupts, beer bottle paused just before her lips.
Joker rolls his eyes her way. "Manners, Shepard. Don't interrupt someone when they're mid-sentence."
"Oh, sorry," she mumbles, her cheeks flushing pink from more than the alcohol as she gazes across the Citadel's Silversun Strip from her newly acquired apartment's balcony. Then she narrows her eyes in sudden annoyance. "Wait, but what question?"
Joker sighs, settling further in his chair beside her, feet propped up on the railing of her balcony. "Thresher Maw versus Reaper: who would win?"
"Ah," she answers sagely, nodding and taking a swig of her beer. "Yes."
Joker chuckles and takes a drink from his own beer. Several bottles litter the floor between them as they await the arrival of the rest of the Normandy crew for their shore leave party at Anderson's former apartment. "And wasn't that one epic?"
"Kalros for the win," Shepard laughs, pointer fingers in the air.
"Okay, but seriously, Shepard, I'm philosophizing here."
Shepard does her best interpretation of a sober, concerned friend, furrowing her brows and turning toward him, motioning with her beer. "Go on."
"So what are your thoughts on this one: Thorian versus Reaper? Eh?" He spreads a hand through the air in some sort of visionary motion.
Shepard snorts her incredulity. "What the fuck, Joker."
"I'm being serious," he defends, words only slightly slurring.
"You don't even know the meaning of the word."
He splutters his response. "Oh, of course I do."
She raises her brows in a challenge, beer tipping back.
He glares at her a moment, and then shrugs, laughing, taking a long drink himself. "Okay, sure, whatever. You've got me there. Life's just too short to be serious all the time."
"Our lives you mean."
"Cheers to that." He throws a smirk her way and the two clink bottles. Shuttlecars whiz by in a haze of light and motion. The Citadel's night cycle is only just beginning to dim the strip just past the balcony. "But really, Commander."
"Come on. Thorian versus Reaper? You've got to have some thoughts on that one."
She shrugs, nestling further into her chair. "Don't know. I mean, they've both got that annoying, freaky mind-control thing going on."
"Don't forget they're both older than shit."
"That too," she agrees. She rubs at her chin in thought, feeling light and buoyant from her beers. "Fuck if I know, Joker. I'm just glad we'll never find out."
"Oh come on, you can't tell me that in a universe as diverse and fucking ironic as this, that there's only ever been one of those things."
Shepard releases some sort of noise that's a cross between a snort and a scoff. She wipes her nose after it. "There better be. I mean, come on, killer flora? Seriously? One was too much, if you ask me. That shit is just…way past science fiction at this point."
"Well," he begins, taking another drink. "I've got to admit, the Thorian's cloning…thing…," he tries to articulate, waving his hand in the air with the words, "It creeps me the fuck out."
Shepard shivers at the memory. "And those tendrils."
"But," Joker starts imperatively, a finger held up in the air, "That whole bastardizing of the species thing the Reapers do is pretty on par, I guess."
Shepard shakes her head, groaning. "Goddamn Cannibals. Freaky little fuckers. Have you seen their mouths?" She turns to him with her question, eyes wide and only slightly unfocused.
"I leave the mouthing to you, Commander, you know that."
She giggles at his answer, taking another sip of beer. She holds her bottle up to the light to see how much is left, and then takes another long swig. Shepard takes a moment to think, musing over the experience of Zhu's Hope. So long ago. So far and so distant. Barely a glimmer of recollection. "We could have lost a lot more."
Joker narrows his eyes at her, not catching the switch in subject. "What?"
"Zhu's Hope. Feros. The whole pollen-infected-creeper shit." She waves her bottle at him as though it is obvious.
"Ah," he says, downing his beer. "Well, that's Commander Shepard for you. Savior of the Common Folk."
"Oh, fuck you, Joker," she laughs.
"No, really. Those colonists didn't know how good they had it. Even when they were shooting at your ass." He tries to hide his laugh behind his beer bottle.
"God, that was not fun," she mumbles, rolling her eyes.
Joker laughs again, short and loud. "Oh man, you missed the best part though. The colonists banging on the Normandy'shull? All zombie-like? That shit was utterly hilarious. If not the tiniest bit 'Night of the Living Dead'."
Shepard raises a brow his way at the reference.
He waves her off. "Old Earth film. You wouldn't understand."
She huffs, draining her beer and setting the empty bottle on the ground between them. "I'll have you know I have a great appreciation for the Earth classics." She teeters over the edge of her chair a moment, before righting herself.
"That include sobriety, Commander?"
"Hush." She brings a finger up to his lips as she says it, and then snorts her giggle and drops her hand. "I deserve a little non-sobriety."
"Drunkenness, you mean."
"There's a scale, Joker," she informs him, all suddenly straight-backed and knowledgeable.
He focuses on her, leaning over the arm of his chair. "Oh? Do tell."
"Well," she begins, smacking her lips. "There's…happy, to start."
He laughs. "That's an emotion, not a state of intoxication, Shepard."
"Oh it's a state," she argues, finger raised, and then her brows furrow in confusion. She glances around. "Where's my beer?"
"You finished it," he chuckles.
"Oh." And then she is pushing from her seat, a little too swiftly, wobbling for a moment before she braces herself against the railing.
Joker moves as though to steady her but the sudden dropping of his feet from the rail and the swift motion of sitting upright tells him that he's pretty far down 'The Scale" as well. So he simply stops, watching her, and bringing his vision back into focus.
Shepard's laugh is blaring and uninhibited. "Wait here," she says, and then she disappears into the apartment, and for several minutes, Joker can hear her banging around the kitchen. And then there's a dragging sound and he looks behind him to see Shepard trailing what looks like the bathroom garbage bin – sans garbage bag, instead filled with ice and beer bottles – out onto the balcony. He stands up, laughing. "Shepard, what the fuck are you doing?"
"I couldn't find a cooler," is her answer, as though it explains everything.
But he doesn't question her more, choosing instead to help her drag the jury-rigged cooler across the floor to settle between their two chairs. Shepard smiles triumphantly, hands planted on her hips. "There. Tragedy averted." She takes her seat once more and Joker does the same beside her.
"What tragedy?" he asks, taking a bottle from the bin.
Shepard pulls her own beer from the ice and settles back against her chair, popping the top off her bottle and letting it fall to the floor, unimportant. "I don't know anything more tragic than a warm beer."
"Not even a war?" he asks, intending to say it with levity, but it comes out more serious than he intends.
Shepard holds a finger up at the question. "Too heavy, Joker."
He only looks at her, beer stilled before his mouth.
She looks out over the balcony, eyes averted from his gaze, and takes a long drink from her beer. "Not tonight," she says softly, and nods, mostly to herself, mostly in some small, necessary reassurance that makes everything bearable.
Joker wonders sometimes how she does it. How she files it all away for another time, another place. How she circumvents her emotions with a simple 'not now' and a stoic face. Thinking back, he remembers how she didn't even cry when they left Ashley on Virmire, or when she sent that asteroid careening into a Batarian colony, or when Mordin said his goodbyes on Tuchanka. But he remembers, very clearly, the way she braced her hands along the railing of the CIC, the way she pulled a long, tight breath through her lungs, the way she clenched her teeth and kept her gaze locked on the galaxy map. The way she had excused herself, voice tight and body stiff, and how he didn't see her for an hour afterwards.
He understands now, that Shepard does not share her grief. She never has. And she never will. Because that's what makes her the savior they need, the soldier they wish for, the soul they don't deserve. Shepard locks away her heartache and keeps a dry face turned toward the world. And she becomes what they need her to be.
He wonders what she looks like when she cries.
He thinks he might never know.
Joker clears his throat and takes a long, slow drink from his beer, smacking his lips as he lowers the bottle. "So, you were saying?"
"I was saying?"
He smiles, and it feels so easy and so natural with her. "Your 'Scale of Drunkenness"?
"Ah!" Shepard perks up at the thought, one finger raised in the air. "Yes. Okay. So, happy, right? That's the first."
"And the second is…wordiness."
"Wordiness?" His brows furrow.
"Yeah, you know," she starts to explain, hand waving in the air with her words, "Like, talking too much, too friendly, just – no filter whatsoever. Like, I would tell you at this point that I love you, and I do, but it would be all free and careless and you couldn't really take anything I said at this point too seriously."
"So you don't love me?" He takes this to latch onto.
She scoffs, rather unladylike actually, and takes a sloppy drink from her beer. "Of course I love you, you little shit, that is not what this is about. Just back the fuck up before you harm your self-importance, okay?"
He can't help the blinding smile that graces his face just then. "Okay," he agrees, because anything else doesn't seem quite right.
"Okay, so!" Shepard leans back in her chair, gaze flicking to the slowly darkening sky. She takes another drink, smile pulling at her lips. "Alright, phase three – that means 'emotional contemplation'." Suddenly, she sits up in her chair and raises a finger in the air. "Not to be confused with 'Deep, Life-Altering Epiphany', which is stage four. There's a subtle difference."
"That difference being 'life-altering' I'm assuming."
Joker smirks at her, settling deeper into his chair. "Alright, so I'm going to assume, by the nature of this conversation, that we're somewhere between these two stages?"
Shepard narrows her eyes in thought, her finger still raised in the air. And then, very slowly, she exhales. "Yes," she says in one long breath.
He can't help but laugh at the obvious thought she puts into her answer. "Should I be writing these down? I feel like I should be writing these down."
Shepard finally lowers her finger, smile flitting across her face then. "You probably should. There'll be a test."
"What the fuck, Shepard?" he snorts, laughing.
She waggles her eyebrows at him as she answers. "A kinetic test, of course. Hands-on. I don't believe in purely observational theory, you see."
Rolling his eyes, he raises his beer to that and then takes a swig. "Already on my way, Shepard."
"Good." She beams at him, settling back in her chair, taking a sip from her own beer.
"Okay, okay, so…stage five?"
"Ah, yes. Stage five. Also known as 'Stand Up Fall Down'."
Joker almost spews his beer through his nose. "Hah!" he barks, wiping at his mouth.
"And then there's tingly gums and depth perception disappointment for stage six."
"Oh, I remember that one."
"Stage seven is spiteful tummy."
"I love that you give human qualities to such things." Another sip of beer, a soft chuckle.
"And then there's…you know." She stops, resting a hand on the arm of her chair and inclining her head toward him. When he looks at her blankly in question, she raises her brows his way, inching one finger up from her lap in a pitiful attempt at imitating the male anatomy.
Joker scoffs, his laugh bubbling up from him to be soon replaced by an amused sigh. He smirks, shaking his head. "I'll have you know, this pilot has never failed to launch, if you get my meaning."
"Don't 'ew' me. How can you 'ew' me? You're the one playing erectile dysfunction charades." He motions to the hand in her lap and watches as her smile slowly breaks free on her face.
"You're so gross," she throws out.
"Nuh uh." She shakes her head with it.
"You…" And then he sighs, shaking his head, already done with this part of the conversation. His sigh is laced with humor. "You're probably right."
"I always am."
"Uh, not when it comes to xenophobic terrorist organizations that tote around Greek mythological monikers as a sell-point, okay? Let's try to remember the big picture here."
She punches his arm playfully, but the alcohol puts her off the mark a bit and it comes out more like a scrape of her fist along his bicep.
He pulls his arm back and glares at her. "Ow, Commander. Invalid here, remember?"
"You big baby."
"Still not a punching bag."
She rolls her eyes and takes a long swig of her beer. "You're no fun."
"Uh, excuse me, I rather like to think I am the fun. In fact, I'm so much fun, I might single-handedly exceed the world's fun quota, thank you very much. Too much funness, they call me. Excessive fun goodness."
She stares at him, bottle paused before her lips. "Wow. I forgot how full of shit you were."
"Says the person who thought seriously enough about her alcoholism to create 'The Seven Stages of Drunkenness'."
"There are eight stages."
"So the last one is…?"
She sighs languidly, settling back in her chair and looking forlornly at her beer. "Eternal Regret."
Joker barely manages to contain his snort of laughter.
"Usually accompanied by bouts of unconsciousness," she tacks on, waving her bottle with the words before taking a long drink.
"Of course. How could I forget?"
"It's okay, I forgive you." She looks at him – at his smiling face – and then suddenly her own smile falters. Her eyes dim.
He watches her whole demeanor shift into something stiff and somber.
"I do, you know," she whispers. Everything is suddenly still and taut between them, and he doesn't understand why. The air changes. They change – in ways he isn't quite ready to articulate but feels nonetheless. Because everything is suddenly dimmer, suddenly heavier.
He doesn't know where the air has gone and he doesn't remember how to breathe.
He furrows his brows in question a while longer, not connecting the dots. But then her heavy stare becomes too pointed, her weighted words too searing. And suddenly he is back on the Normandy, a bright plume of fire above the bubble of his sealed off cockpit, debris careening past the nose of the frigate, his fingers tapping furiously along the console, because he knows, he knows, if he could only make it out of the planet's orbit, if he could only realign the thruster ports, if he could only reroute auxiliary power – if he could only, if he could only, if he could only – he might be able to save this ship, might be able to save them all, might be able to save her. But the Normandy is dying around him, and Shepard's hand clamped tightly around his arm, dragging him up, tells him that they are lost. There is no only. And the sharp hiss of pain that seethes from between his teeth, and her unrepentant march through the cockpit, tells him how desperate, how scared, how unwavering she is. The bright orb of Alchera, visible through the blown out ceiling of the CIC, is blue and cool and glistening. Flames flicker at the edge of his vision. And between here and there, bits of the Normandy float aimlessly through space. His ship, his home. Shattered and ruined. It is a grey and desolate graveyard. Perhaps even his own.
He remembers glancing to Shepard beside him and catching the glimpse of her profile through her helmet, the grit of her teeth, the clench of her jaw, the tight line of her brow. Her eyes are ever forward. He has no words when she deposits him into the escape pod, no words when a sudden blast sends her sailing into the wall, the door to his pod sliding closed and locking. He has no words when, through the small window of his cramped compartment, he sees her gripping to the corner of the wall, flailing in the loss of gravity. He thinks he might have imagined it, but she looks at him then, through the jostling of the ship, the bits of metal winding around them, the flames dancing before them. And then she nods, and her palm slams into the control console, and slowly, he is edging away, the distance growing farther and farther and he can see her, jettisoned through the ship's demolished hull, thrashing in silent space, a lost grey speck in glinting black and brilliant orange.
He can't even remember the words he last spoke to her. And fuck. To be forgiven for that? For that? For a foolish, arrogant belief that he could save them? That he was more than his bones and made of stuff far tougher. To think that the heaviest toll would be his life.
He was wrong.
There was a price far greater than he would ever know.
"Hey," she says softly, lowering her beer and leaning over the arm of her chair toward him.
There has only ever been one hero between them, and it was never him.
"I forgive you, you know. For whatever it is you think needs forgiving. But you need to know that I've never blamed you. Not once. I've never-"
"Hey," he interrupts, tapping his beer along the arm of his chair. "How about…not tonight, hmm?" He doesn't think he's ready for this conversation. Not yet, and not this prematurely drunk. And not…this full of war-bred anxiety and last-minute desperation. Because it sounds too much like a final goodbye for his tastes and he rather likes to think that they'll grow old on Tuchanka or something, raising hell with Wrex's pups and getting overly sunburnt. This is the after he imagines. And he doesn't imagine any kind of words about forgiveness until they can close their eyes to the sun and breathe deep that hard-won freedom.
So until then…
Until then he is willing to carry the load.
She blinks at him, eyeing him cautiously.
Joker scoffs good-naturedly at her concern, shrugging one shoulder in a quick jerk of nonchalance. "You said it yourself earlier: too heavy."
Shepard purses her lips and plants her chin in her palm, elbow propped against the arm of her chair. Her beer dangles between the fingers of her other hand. "I just…think about it sometimes, you know? And I…well," she trails off, eyes shifting over the balcony.
Joker sniffs, nodding. "Yeah, me too."
Shepard frowns out into the night and turns to say something, but he interrupts her.
"Find me when it's over?"
She blinks at him, brows raised. "Hmm?"
He inclines his head toward her and smiles. It isn't so difficult. "When it's all over, come find me. Tell me then. And maybe…maybe I'll be ready to hear it."
She watches him a long time, finger tapping along her chin. And then slowly, painstakingly, her own understanding pulls the edges of her lips up and she is smiling at him. "Okay."
She nods vigorously, smile spreading wider. "I think we've hit Stage Four."
"You mean, you've hit Stage Four," he snorts, downing the last of his beer. "I'm sitting comfortably at Stage Two, thank you very much. 'Can't take anything I say at this point too seriously' remember?"
"I think your estimation of your tolerance may be way off there, Flight Lieutenant." She smirks into her bottle, nose bumping into the rim.
He raises his eyebrows at her. "Likewise."
Shepard stretches languidly, bare toes wiggling. "Nope. See, I've come to the very lengthy and well-considered conclusion that such a thing is most definitely not in my current priorities."
"Well that's a roundabout way of saying 'fuck it'."
"I'm trying to be couth, you know," she answers, hands raised in defense. "A little less sailor mouthy and a little more articulation, okay?"
Joker narrows his eyes her way as he leans down between their chairs and grabs another bottle. "Shepard, I don't think you can be 'couth' really."
"Well, you can be uncouth, can't you?"
"So how can you be un-something and not be…the original of that something?" She purses her lips in consternation, brows furrowing, and then she notices the beer in her hand and drains it instantly.
"I think you've just unlocked the next burning question of mankind." He nods his fresh beer toward her in a toast.
She beams at him, trading her empty bottle for another cold one. "Contemplation. It's my game."
"I thought your game was wanton destruction."
"That too." She takes a sip of beer. "I'm a multi-tasker."
Joker snorts into his bottle. "Is that what you call it?"
Shepard throws a playful glare his way, and then the buzzer rings. She perks up instantly, glancing back over her chair to the front door. "They're here!" she cries excitedly, smile blinding. She practically vaults over her chair to get through the patio doors, somehow managing not to spill her beer, and then she skids to a halt before she's through the balcony's threshold, turning back to her pilot. "Hey Joker," she whispers conspiratorially.
Joker turns in his chair toward her, chortling, eyeing her in amusement. "What?"
"Uh, okay?" He manages to hobble out of his chair and step closer toward her.
The buzzer rings again, and James' muffled but distinctly impatient voice can be heard from the other side.
"Coming!" Shepard calls back uselessly. Joker highly doubts they can hear her from out on the balcony but he also doesn't feel any compulsion to rush her to greet her guests. Shepard turns back to him, raising her bottle. "To tossing 'em back with your best friend, and to the next time I get to visit the Stages of Drunkenness with you, here on this balcony. To after the war."
Her smile is infectious, and Joker finds his own grin tugging on his lips as he clinks his bottle against hers. "To after the war."
"It's a date."
"I'll bring the beers."
"I'll bring the laughs."
"Excuse me, I'll be bringing those as well."
She pouts then, but there is amusement in her eyes. "Then what do I get to bring?"
He stares at her for a long moment, beer slowly lowering, and then he is laughing at himself, shaking his head. He reaches up and flips off his cap, plopping it onto her head as he answers her, "Just bring yourself, kid. Just come home to us." And then he knocks the bill of the cap down over her eyes and she chuckles in response, teetering slightly with the motion. The sight makes him ache in ways not unlike pain. The cap fits her somehow, perfectly.
"God, you're the cheapest date ever," she says, laughing, and then, suddenly sober, she fingers the brim of his well-worn cap, still filled with his warmth, and says steadily, easily, "I love it." She dips her head and tips the cap in a friendly salute, and then, without waiting for a reply, she bounds off toward the door, and the responding whoosh is followed by her squeal of "Steve! Come here you handsome fucker!" and Joker thinks maybe he's never been this happy. Not once.
He rakes a hand through his unfamiliarly loose hair and smiles, rolling his eyes.
He's never getting that cap back again, he knows.
And he couldn't care less.