Ahh, angst and romance, why can't I quit you? This story is the sequel to (and a direct continuation from) my fic "Justified," so if you haven't read it, I highly recommend checking that one out first so you're not too confused by all the references. This is the second one in that series - there will be several more coming that will continue this story. Rated T for swearing and "suggestive themes." A million thanks to my wonderful beta HeavenlyMuse for helping me get this done so fast and giving such amazing suggestions, as always! :)

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

Joker didn't scare easily.

He'd successfully put the Mako on the ground in twenty percent of the required landing space without killing any of its passengers. He'd faced what he assumed was certain death at the helm of the Normandy during the battle against Sovereign. He'd had his ship destroyed out from under him when Collectors attacked and only panicked a little.

But at the moment, he was seriously worried.

He knew something was wrong when Irien Shepard came back alone after her talk with Kaidan Alenko on the Citadel. They'd been there a little over an hour, and she'd given the crew a full 24 hours of shore leave when they docked, so he'd expected her to be gone a while.

Of course the crew hadn't known why they were given the break – they were grateful and didn't ask questions, and nearly all of them had grabbed a bag and rushed off the ship without a second thought, just in case Shepard changed her mind. But Joker was naturally suspicious, and had some very hush-hush sources where he got his information.

Like Shepard's private email account, which definitely wasn't as private as she thought it was. He'd read the email she'd sent to Kaidan asking him to meet with her, and not twenty minutes after she'd received Kaidan's short response back confirming the meeting, Shepard had set a course for the Citadel. Despite the apparently chilly reunion between the two on Horizon just two days ago, Joker had assumed they'd make up today and that she'd be staying with Kaidan on the Citadel for the night. So what the hell happened?

Okay, so their little chat on Horizon didn't go that well, he admitted, starting to get a bit concerned as he puzzled out what could have happened. He'd heard the entire reunion on Horizon, of course – just because Shepard wasn't talking directly into the suit comm. system didn't mean it wasn't recording, and what the hell else did he have to do while EDI was messing with the guns on the planet?

He'd been just as taken aback as Shepard was by Kaidan's response to seeing her alive again after so long. He knew exactly how Kaidan felt about her – or he had known, two years ago. He'd seen plenty of evidence of how much the lovestruck idiot cared about Shepard; far more than he cared to see, actually, and he grimaced at how sickeningly sweet they'd been for the month they were together after saving the Citadel.

Kaidan was humming.

He'd been humming the same goddamn song for the last goddamn hour as he sat in the copilot's chair on the Normandy. It was some stupid pop song that was popular at the moment, and Joker would have mocked Kaidan for knowing it if that wouldn't have given away the fact that Joker knew it too.

He was even doing a little dance in his chair along with the music.

Joker was about ready to kill him.

It wasn't like Joker could run away from him, and of course Kaidan wasn't going anywhere, 'cause that would be too goddamn easy and make Joker's life simpler and better, and that just wouldn't do, apparently. Kaidan was smiling as he did his tech thing on the panel above the chair, and as he hummed the last few lines of the song – again –Joker thought for a second that the torture was finally over.

Of course not.

"God dammit, Kaidan," he finally said, slamming his hand against the console in front of him almost hard enough to break a bone. "I swear to god if you hum that song one more time I will get out of this chair and find my crutches and beat the shit out of you."

Kaidan grinned. "Sorry, Joker," he said, and Joker scowled because he didn't sound very sorry at all. "It's catchy, and Shepard got it stuck in my head."

Joker sighed and looked back to his computer, happy about the silence for about three seconds before the humming started again. "You're awfully chipper today," he said, trying not to grind his teeth together in annoyance.

Kaidan looked at Joker and smiled. "You know what, I am," he agreed, looking thoughtful. "Now that Saren is taken care of, and Sovereign's gone too, it just seems like everything's going to be okay. Which is probably crazy," he grinned, "what with the rest of the Reapers probably on their way, but it's working for me right now, so I'm not gonna question it."

"Yeah," Joker said, his voice practically dripping sarcasm. "Saren and Sovereign. Of course."

"You aren't happy they're dealt with?" he asked, looking puzzled.

"Oh I am," Joker said, holding up his hands, "but it's the strangest thing, I have this feeling you're not telling me something about why you're in such a good mood."

Kaidan tried to look innocent. "What do you-"

Joker grinned. "Oh please. You guys may think you're being discreet, but some of us can listen in on any area of the ship at any time. Meaning me. And you know I do it. So don't pull that 'oh, I'm just happy we completed the mission, I'm a good little soldier!' crap with me," he said smugly, pointing at him accusingly, "because I got the impression that you're not so 'good.' In fact," he lowered his voice a bit and wiggled his eyebrows, "I've heard from a reliable source that you're bad. Very bad."

Joker was surprised. He'd had no idea that the fairly tan Kaidan could get so red from embarrassment. Kaidan squirmed a little, while Joker laughed his ass off.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Kaidan said once he'd gotten his blushing under control. "Don't make me get Shepard, she'll kick your crippled ass," he threatened cheerfully, then chuckled. "What has my life come to that I have to threaten to have my girlfriend beat people up for me?"

Joker noted the use of the word "girlfriend" but didn't comment on it. "When the girl is Shepard, it's a legitimate threat, she's more badass than anybody has a right to be. And I'm just glad you two aren't moping around or bitching about 'regulations' anymore, like you ever really cared about them to begin with," he grinned.

"I've gotta call bullshit on that, we didn't mope," Kaidan objected, then looked thoughtful for a second and recanted. "Okay so we might have moped a little. But we always cared about the regs. Just, eventually-"

"Other things got to be more important?" Joker asked impishly. "I'm just messin' with you. I wish I was in your shoes. Or pants," he grinned, and Kaidan blushed again. "I'm just sayin', dude. You walk around the ship with a smile on your face that basically says, 'Hey everybody. My girlfriend is super hot and athletic, and I'm getting laid on a regular basis. Attempt to deal with how fan-goddamn-tastic that is and how jealous you are.' That is what I'm seeing from you right now, and you know, I'm not gonna lie, it's making me hate you a little bit."

Kaidan laughed. "I hope I'm not that obvious," he said. "But... yeah, things are pretty great. It's been a long time since I was this happy with somebody." He paused and looked a little bashful. "Ever, really. But if it was those years of waiting that got me Irien, then it was worth it." He smiled and looked distant. "She's perfect."

"Okay, loverboy," Joker interrupted, rolling his eyes. "Don't get all mushy on me. How about you get back to work on fixing that panel so you can get back to fixing somebody else."

"I hope you mean me," Shepard said as she walked up.

"Uh, how much of that did you hear?" Kaidan asked nervously.

She smiled. "Plenty."

Shepard stood behind their chairs and the two of them looked at each other. She didn't approach Kaidan. They weren't the type to be all kissy in public, even when it was just Joker who would be seeing them – they were far too professional for that. But even without touching, he could practically see the electricity bouncing between them, and the sugary sweetness in their eyes was enough to make him gag.

Which he did. Loudly, of course, and it had the intended effect. The spell between them was broken, and they just grinned at him, not even bothering to try to look innocent.

Joker shook his head. Skeptical and bitter he may be, but even he could admit that the two of them worked extremely well together. So why the coldness on Horizon? Why did Shepard come back to the ship so quickly, and alone? His knowledge on Kaidan was two years out of date – after Shepard's death, the two of them had argued so hotly that they hadn't spoken to this day.

Shepard hadn't worn her armor to the Citadel, so his convenient listening device plan was foiled, giving him absolutely nothing to do except be eaten alive with curiosity.

And it didn't get any better when Shepard came back early. She didn't stop to talk with anyone before heading straight for her private chambers. He'd called a cheerful greeting to her as she came in through the airlock, but she didn't even look up as she headed straight for the elevator. The computer told him a minute later that she'd gone into her quarters and the door was closed.

That was definitely not normal. And not good.

She always greeted him. And Kelly. And pretty much everyone else, too – she was friendly that way. Some people could call her nosy, maybe, if they didn't know her that well. He knew all her questions were out of a genuine interest in other people, which he thought was kind of weird, but that was how Shepard was, and he'd learned that she didn't mean any harm by it.

My classmates from flight school would be amazed, he thought dryly. "Joker? That guy who hates everyone? Welcoming questions from someone else and answering them without being a smartass? What madness is this?" He paused his mental snarking for a moment and reconsidered. Okay, answering them and being a smartass, but still answering them!

At first, he'd thought she was trying to pry, or maybe that she'd assumed, like some of his previous captains, that he didn't know what he was doing or needed special treatment because of his disease, but he after talking to her enough – and listening in on her conversations with the rest of the crew – he'd learned otherwise. They'd established a little routine, even: she would come up to ask him how everything was going, he'd reply with a smartass quip about her latest ridiculous antics, and she'd pretend like she wasn't amused, but still smile, before going off to check on the others.

There weren't many crew members on the ship because of the quick shore leave, but she'd walked through the airlock, he'd said hi, and she'd ignored him. She hadn't looked angry, or sad, or anything, really – which meant, of course, that she was all of those things, but she was excellent at hiding all of them. But because she looked so perfectly neutral, he could tell that there was something seriously wrong. Guess her trying to look like there's no problem has started to backfire, he thought, slightly amused.

He checked the ship's monitors to see that the door to her room was both closed and locked. He was, of course, curious about what was going on in there, and his vivid imagination was running wild. Had she called Kaidan to talk to him more? Maybe he'd had to leave and had cut their meeting short – was she getting stuff together to go back and see him again? Did she call her mom to get advice about boys? He couldn't help but giggle at the thought of Shepard doing "girl talk" with anyone. Plus, that didn't sound like her, because did Shepard ever really need advice about anything? Or maybe... Could she be recording a diary about whatever happened? Did she have a diary? Could he find it and listen to it if she did?

Despite all his questions, for the first time, he didn't want to pry.

Okay, maybe "want" was the wrong word.

Spying on Shepard in her room seemed like he was crossing some kind of invisible line, one he felt like he should avoid. Apparently, somewhere along the line, he'd developed a conscience. Dammit, he thought with a sigh.

He also worried that listening in to whatever was going on in her room would make him a creepy stalker guy, even worse than he already was, so there was that too.

His thoughts were interrupted by EDI greeting Yeoman Kelly, one of the few crew members still on the ship during this final shore leave. He'd overheard her chatting with a crewman who'd invited her to join him on the Citadel, but apparently she considered her duties as Shepard's secretary – "administrative assistant," or whatever – far too important to spend 24 hours away, which made him laugh.

Of course he didn't see her coming, since she was behind him, but EDI's polite hello gave him the heads up to turn his chair around.

"Hey Kelly, what's up?" he asked, leaning back in his chair. Chambers' presence in the cockpit was unusual, so his interest was definitely piqued. He tried not to let it show. Damn psychiatrist can probably tell anyway.

"Hello Joker, EDI," she greeted them both, nodding as she did so. "Do you have a minute to talk?"

"Sure. Not like I'm busy or anything," he said dryly, hitting a few buttons to make his console fill with impressive numbers and data.

Kelly sat down facing Joker in the copilot's chair and leaned toward him a bit. "I was hoping to ask you a few questions," she said quietly, despite the fact that no one else was around. Except EDI, of course. "It's about the Commander. You've worked with her for a while, right?"

Joker nodded. "Yeah, she was transferred to the Normandy to be Captain Anderson's XO before the Council made her a Spectre and gave her the ship," he replied casually, as if he was telling her everything he knew. But he was being extremely cautious with the amount of information he gave her. She wasn't "one of them" yet. He, Shepard, Garrus, and Chakwas had been through a lot together, and while Kelly and the rest of the crew seemed decent enough so far, they weren't part of the original team, so he didn't trust them with the extremely sensitive info he was privy to. "But Shepard dropped off the grid for a couple years," he added dryly. "That was just weird." What the hell is she getting at?

She smiled slightly at his sarcasm. "And you worked with Staff Commander Alenko as well?"

Shit. "Yep," he said flatly, wondering how much she actually knew and how many lies he could get away with. He didn't know her that well, so he wasn't sure if testing him with questions she already knew the answer to was something she was likely to do. She is a psychiatrist, he thought. They all do the same crap. "Same time as when I worked with the Commander. But if you want info on him, I'm definitely not the person to ask."

She tilted her head quizzically. "Why not?"

Oh boy. "Cause we haven't talked in two years. Also, I think he hates me."

"I see," Kelly said, sounding surprised. No, you really don't, he thought. The subject of Kaidan Alenko was touchy for him; he tried not to let himself be bothered by the things his old friend had said two years ago. Cause he was right, he thought bitterly. It was your fault.

He and Kelly were both silent for a moment. "I don't mean to intrude on something private," she said hesitantly, "but could I ask what happened?"

"You can ask," he said dryly, then relented. "Sorry. It's, uh... I haven't talked to anybody about it. Don't think the Commander even knows." Probably a good plan not to tell her exactly what happened during the attack and our fight, he thought. If she knew the real story, she'd wind up agreeing with Kaidan that I got Shepard killed.

"Would she be upset to know that you haven't spoken to him?" Kelly asked.

"Of course she goddamn would," he grumbled, rolling his eyes. "You know her, she always likes to have everybody get along. And Kaidan and I used to be pretty close. But after she died..." he trailed off.

Kelly smiled sympathetically. "I imagine you took that pretty hard. It can't be easy to work so closely with someone and then lose them."

There was no judgment or anything in her voice, and for a moment she sounded exactly like the idiot therapists he'd been ordered to see after the Normandy's destruction. He'd managed to get through the mandatory sessions by giving them a liberal dose of bullshit and conjuring up some fake tears once or twice when they started to catch him in the act. Unfortunately, Kelly didn't seem to be quite as dumb as they were, and he got the feeling she wouldn't let this drop without a fight. Might as well control what she finds out as best I can.

He frowned at her. "Don't get all psych eval on me, Chambers. Neither of us was doing so good, but Shepard was dead, of course we were messed up. The Alliance grounded me, they and the Council were talking like the Commander was crazy, and she was dead so there was nothing holding everybody together. Kaidan and I got pissed at each other because we didn't have anybody else to get pissed at. It wasn't pretty. Haven't talked since." He shrugged, hoping that was enough info that she'd leave him alone again.

To be honest, he hadn't thought about Kaidan or the fight they'd had in a while – he tried not to, really – and it still bothered him that he and Kaidan had turned on each other so easily. He knew it was out of frustration and grief and emotions were running high after Shepard died and everyone else seemed out to get them, but it was something he'd never really gotten over. He hated living in the past or regretting anything he'd done, but that was something that stuck with him, and despite how hard he tried to forget it, it seemed he wouldn't ever escape hearing about Kaidan and being reminded of what happened.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kelly said, and it sounded like she meant it.

But Joker looked at her with some suspicion. "Mind telling me what this is about?"

She glanced around, making sure nobody was listening in. Other than EDI, as always, Joker thought, though he was annoyed by the AI less and less every day. But the area near the cockpit was completely empty, so she had nothing to worry about. "I'm worried about the Commander," Kelly admitted. "She seemed upset after meeting with Staff Commander Alenko on Horizon, and I got the impression that they had... an intense relationship. From the talk I had with her, I could tell that she cared about him a great deal, and she just seemed so sad," she said, sounding pretty sad herself. "She told me they were meeting on the Citadel today, and I'd hoped that things would go a little better this time, but it seems like that wasn't the case."

She gave him one of those looks, the kind that said she knew that he knew a lot more than he was saying. Which, of course, was true. But he wasn't about to admit it.

Fortunately, he'd gotten pretty good at playing dumb. He could only hope that Kelly was as easy to fool as those idiots who tried getting him to "open up about his feelings" before.

"Sorry, Chambers," he said with a cheerful shrug. "She didn't even stop to see me when she came back, so I'm not sure what to tell you."

"Hmm." She looked at him in silence for a moment, then stood up. For a second, he thought he'd pulled it off, but she leaned down. "If you don't want to talk to me, that's fine. But I think she needs somebody to talk to, and I'm sure EDI can keep us safely docked here for a while," she said quietly.

He met her eyes. He didn't know Kelly very well, and while he'd been with Cerberus for nearly two years now, that didn't mean he trusted them any more than he trusted the Alliance, which wasn't much. But for the moment, Kelly seemed legit.

"Yeah okay, I could definitely stand to stretch my legs," he said casually, and Kelly smiled.

"I'm glad to hear that," she said as she turned to return to her post. "I hope it goes well."

"Yeah, so do I," he muttered, standing carefully as she walked away. "Mind keeping an eye on things up here, EDI?"

"Of course, Mr. Moreau," the AI replied. "According to Commander Shepard's first announcement, there are currently twenty two hours and seventeen minutes of shore leave remaining. It would be prudent of you to return to your post before that time has elapsed so we can depart from the Citadel on schedule."

He snorted. "Yeah thanks for the advice, EDI. There was a real possibility I was gonna spend a day away from here. Thank god I've got you and your stopwatch function."

"You're quite welcome, Mr. Moreau. Have a pleasant walk."

I really have to teach that thing sarcasm, he thought with a sigh as he limped slowly toward the elevator, already regretting that he'd agreed to confront the Commander about whatever happened with Kaidan. Not in so many words of course. Too late for it now. At least I might actually find out what the hell is going on, he thought. He was extremely curious about it, after all. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

Only a few crew members had stayed on the ship during the shore leave, and he nodded or said a few words to everyone as he walked by them. Kelly smiled as he passed her and stepped onto the elevator, and he just sighed dramatically at her, making her grin.

The elevator took him up a deck to Shepard's private quarters, and he got more and more intrigued by the prospect of finding out what made her tick as the elevator rose. She was always asking so many curious questions about everyone else's life that they never really got to hear much about hers, and despite his best efforts, everything he knew about her was secondhand.

Of course he'd read the parts of her file that were unclassified, just as he had with everyone else on the ship – that was just common sense – but there wasn't much there that wasn't common knowledge. Parents in the Alliance, both still serving. Joined the service at 18. Saved Elysium during the Blitz at the age of 24. Not long after that, recruited for special forces training, graduated at the top of her class as an N7. First human Spectre at age of 29. Honors, awards, medals – a Star of Terra for Elysium, another awarded posthumously – or just "humously," now that she wasn't dead? he wondered – for the Citadel, a sharpshooter commendation from basic training, various weapon certifications.

Then, of course, that little section at the bottom. Killed in action, 29 years old, year 2183. He'd done his best to ignore that part.

But other than the basics in her file, he was a little ashamed to admit that he didn't know much about Shepard's history. He'd asked all the crew members on the original Normandy, of course, but all he got were rumors, and as a gossip connoisseur, as he called himself, he could easily distinguish which were exaggerations or outright lies.

He didn't know what Kaidan had said to her on the Citadel, but he did know that his old friend had gotten closer to Shepard than anyone else on the ship. Unfortunately, he'd also always been hesitant to flat-out tell Joker anything about Shepard that he'd found out. But he wasn't the best at hiding information – not like Joker, nowhere near that good – and he'd let a few things slip.

Her scars, which Joker had always wondered about, were from defending Elysium, when she'd been without medigel or reinforcements for hours while holding off batarians and pirates. Of course, she didn't have those scars after Cerberus rebuilt her, and Joker wondered now if she missed them. He also knew that she and her parents had transferred ships every five years, like clockwork, while she was growing up. She'd never owned a pet, other than the fish in her cabin now. She apparently thought art was kind of pointless, burned everything she cooked, and – though Kaidan had made him swear not to tell anyone, lest it get back to Shepard – she couldn't sing on key to save her life, and Joker had heard evidence of that when Shepard sang in the shower.

They were kind of random little details, but it was more than anyone else had, and he knew that for a fact. For such a gossip and collector of information, he was sadly ill-informed on Commander Shepard.

Joker wasn't sure how often the Commander had serious boyfriends – if you could really call Kaidan that after their unconventional relationship – but if he was a betting man, he'd say it probably wasn't often. Similarly, Kaidan had always had trouble opening up to people, and Kaidan had told him that it'd been years since he'd thoughtseriously about anyone in a romantic sense before Shepard came along.

Joker knew, from his long hours listening to their conversations, that the only reason Shepard and Kaidan got together at all was because of their instant connection and the long, long conversations they'd had during the mission. They'd started out innocently, with Shepard trying to get to know the then-lieutenant a little better. If not for that, Kaidan wouldn't have opened up to Shepard at all. As they learned more about each other, Joker saw that their romance was inevitable. By the time Kaidan's understandable caution about relationships had kicked in, which would have stopped him from getting too attached to Shepard, it was too late, and he was too in love with her to quit. If they hadn't taken things so slowly, if Shepard had been more pushy or Kaidan had been more cautious, their relationship would have died before it began.

From all the eavesdropping and spying and prying, he'd learned that neither of them were very experienced with relationships, so he supposed he shouldn't be surprised at how badly both of them were handling this very unconventional relationship and extremely awkward situation. Nobody would handle the love of their life coming back from the dead with any kind of smoothness, much less Kaidan, Joker thought.

Filled with worry that he tried to suppress, he pressed the comm. button outside her door. "Commander?" he said hesitantly. He felt awkward, which was, strangely enough, a rare thing for him, even considering how difficult even walking was.

There was no response for a moment, and he wondered if she was asleep, or ignoring him. "You need something Joker?" she eventually replied. Her voice sounded... odd, not like it normally did, though he couldn't put his finger on what was weird about it. He hoped it was just changed by coming through the speaker.

"Uh... I was kind of hoping I could talk to you?" he said hopefully. I sound like an idiot.

"Is something wrong?" Another pause. "Can it wait?"

Okay, that is not good, he thought. In all the time he'd worked with her, he'd never heard her turn someone away who wanted to talk. She loved to talk. She would talk to people even when they flat out told her they didn't want to talk, and she'd find out what the problem was and fix it. Taste of her own medicine now, I guess.

"I'm fine, but I don't think you are," he said bluntly. "Ugh. Okay you know I'm not into this whole, touchy-feely stuff," he said, knowing how uncomfortable he sounded, "but you were bummed after seeing Alenko on Horizon, and... I might have heard that you went to see him again. But then you run right up to your room and it's freaking me out. So if you don't let me in, I'm gonna have to track down Kaidan myself and find out what he did and kick his goddamn ass, and I'd break mine in the process. You'd have a cripple defending your honor, Commander," he said with a wry grin, "you really want to live with that?"

He heard a quiet laugh. "I don't think I could," she said through the speaker, and the door opened with a soft whoosh. He stepped through and didn't see her immediately. He glanced around the room, impressed. He'd never actually been up here in person, though he'd seen it before, through video surveillance. Not while Shepard was in the room, of course. Or not usually, anyway. He admired the fish tank for a moment before glancing at her desk, where the first thing he noticed was a digital photo of Kaidan. Shit.

She wasn't at her desk or on her bed, but she leaned over the arm of the couch behind the desk and waved at him weakly.

But it wasn't her presence that surprised him. It was the clear evidence of crying on her face – the puffy, red eyes; the tear-stained, red cheeks; the little sniffle she did as he walked closer.

"Hey, Joker," she said with a half-hearted smile.

He wasn't sure how to respond. Crying girl, definitely not my area of expertise, he thought, especially when she's the biggest badass in the galaxy and could kick my ass any other day of the year. ...and probably this one too. "Uh, hey Commander," he said. "You've, uh. You've looked better."

He was rewarded with another little laugh, and she moved over on the couch to make room for him to sit, which he nervously did. "Sorry you're seeing me like this," she said, trying to wipe some of her tears away with the back of a hand. "I don't usually..." She trailed off and sighed, hanging her head.

"Hey, hey, don't worry," he said, reaching over to pat her on the shoulder a little awkwardly, and she looked up to half-smile at him. "Do you wanna... talk about it?" Okay that sounded stupid even to me. "I know Alenko can be a stubborn jackass sometimes, and he doesn't know what he's doing, especially when it comes to you. I could make some witty, cutting comments about him if that'd help," he offered with exaggerated cheer.

She smiled a little, but the mention of Kaidan's name definitely upset her, and she looked down. "I just don't know what I'm supposed to do," she said quietly, and he'd never heard her sound so lost.

"What'd he do? I'm sure any of the crew would be more than happy to kick his ass if that's what's gotta happen." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Might not want to send Grunt or Jack though," he suggested, hoping that jokes would cheer her up a little. "I don't know if there'd be anything left of him after they finished. Miranda might be a good choice; she's pretty good at making people miserable."

Shepard shook her head. "It's not his fault," she said. "I can't blame him for being upset."

"Wait wait wait, hold up a second there. He's upset?" he asked incredulously, and she nodded, looking surprised at his sudden outrage. "I thought he was confused about you being back! And you're telling me he's mad?"

"He's not mad, he's just..."

"Mad?" he offered dryly. He knew he was supposed to be helping her and making her feel better, but this was ridiculous. He blames me for her dying, fine, he thought angrily. But what the goddamn hell could he possibly be mad at her for? "Seriously I'm not understanding here. He's mad about what? The fact that you saved him from the Collectors? Or maybe he's upset that you came to find him the second you found out where he was? Or he could be pissed off that you're alive again. All of those make perfect sense to me," he snorted.

"He doesn't quite see it like that," she replied, rubbing at her eyes again to wipe away the tears.

"Well how the hell does he see it?"

"I'm working for Cerberus," she said glumly, not meeting his eyes. "And when he heard I was alive, he thought I'd just, I don't know, faked my death or something, and that I just hadn't bothered getting in touch and just let him think I was dead."

"Uh, problem with his brilliant theory being you were dead," he pointed out.

"Yeah," she said, and this didn't seem to cheer her up at all. How weird, being reminded of how she died didn't make her happy, he thought dryly. I'll have to remember that for the future.

She didn't elaborate, and he frowned. "Did you tell him that?"

Shepard didn't respond immediately. "I didn't get a chance to on Horizon," she said sadly. "He stormed off before I could tell him what really happened. That's why I met him here today. I was hoping I could explain about the... dying, thing, and make him understand that I wouldn't ever just leave him, not if I could help it. But..."

She paused for a moment and he could see her starting to tear up more, so he wordlessly reached behind him to the desk, grabbed the box of tissues sitting there, and passed it over to her. She accepted it with a weak smile and wiped the tears away.

"I told him what happened," she finally continued. "About getting you to the escape pod, and the explosion knocking me away, and... what happened after that," she said vaguely, thankfully glossing over the gorier details. I don't know what she remembers, he thought, suppressing a shiver, and I don't want to. "And then how I woke up at the Cerberus facility and it felt like I was waking up from a long nap. I couldn't believe it when Miranda told me I'd been out for two years."

Joker felt a surge of guilt as he thought of what had been done to her. My fault, he thought with sudden anger at himself. If I'd just gotten on the pod earlier, she could've gotten away safe and none of this bullshit would've happened. Kaidan was right to tell me it was my fault she died.

"But he didn't even care," she said, the tears beginning in earnest. She buried her head in her hands. "I told him everything and he looked surprised to know that they brought me back from being dead, but the only thing he cares about is that I'm working for Cerberus. He said they're evil and basically said I'm evil for working with them."

All his self-hatred? Gone. Now he was seriously getting annoyed. Not with Shepard, of course – he felt awful for her. But she'd told Kaidan what happened to her and he still turned her away because of who she's working for? Seriously, what the shit is going through his head right now? he wondered, starting to get really pissed off again. He blames me for her dying. Fair enough, I was an idiot and didn't want to leave the Normandy and I got Shepard killed cause she had to save my ass. But blaming her for taking all the help she can get when there's a galaxy to save? That's total bullshit.

Shepard's voice cracked a bit. "I wouldn't work for them if I didn't have to, I know they aren't the nicest people around," she admitted. Even Joker could admit that was true, though he'd come to work for Cerberus voluntarily and they didn't bother him as much. "But I told him that we have to stop the Collectors and I can't just sit here hoping the Alliance or the Council will come around and actually want to help me out for once. But he didn't care and told me he wouldn't help and that I was wrong about everything."

She didn't even seem to be talking to him anymore – she was just trying to defend and justify all of her decisions just to herself. Maybe, in her mind, Kaidan was still there, and she was making him understand, like she'd been unable to twice now. Or maybe she wasn't even thinking about Kaidan and just trying to figure everything out on her own. Either way, he'd never heard her doubt herself before. Damn Kaidan and his holier-than-Cerberus bullshit, Joker thought angrily. He has no idea what this is putting her through, and she's got enough on her plate without goddamn boy troubles.

"I don't have any other choice if I want to actually do something about all the colonists getting taken! I just want things to be simple good and evil and right and wrong again, but they're not and I have to do something and he doesn't even care!" She broke down at this, her face hidden by her hands but her sobs still clearly audible.

Joker's heart broke a little watching her, and before he knew what he was doing, he'd scooted closer and put an arm around her. He would never admit it to anyone else, but he'd seen a shameful number of girly movies. He had no experience with crying girls in reality – he tended to avoid people who caused drama, and he didn't have that many relationships anyway – so he was taking his cues on how to proceed from those stupid movies, which he was suddenly glad he'd sat through. Girl cries over boy who breaks her heart, other boy makes her feel better by mocking first boy, he thought. Got it.

"Hey, don't be like that," he said, trying his best to be comforting. All he really wanted to do was get the rest of the crew and go kick some ass, but for once he decided that restraint was the best choice. I've never seen her like this before and never want to again, he thought, inwardly freaking out even more than he was already. This is not right. "Don't listen to him. He's got no right to judge you. What's he know anyway? He doesn't get what you went through or what you have to do. Unlike him and the Alliance, you're actually trying to deal with all the shit in the galaxy, and you know that it sucks but sometimes you gotta take whatever help you can get."

She was still crying. This is not coming out as comforting as I hoped, he thought. Apparently the "point out the realities of the situation" approach was not the way to go. Change tactics. "It's not your fault," he said quietly, patting her back gently. "You're doing the only thing you can do and you're helping everybody that you can help. You're doing the best you can with what you've got. You're not doing anything wrong."

She curled up into a ball and leaned against him and cried, and as he hugged her and patted her and muttered comforting nonsense, he was alternately heartbroken and horrified. She was so strong and brave, no matter what she was fighting or where she was, but as he looked down at her and thought back on all the impossible feats she'd accomplished, he realized he'd never seen her look anything close to helpless before. Nothing like this, nothing even close to this, with her face red and tear-stained as she desperately clung to him for support.

"I just- don't know what else to do," she said through her sobs. "I thought, if I just- talked to him, and told him what happened, then he'd understand..."

Is this what Kaidan did for her, back when we were fighting Saren? he wondered, thinking of how strong and silent and unafraid she always seemed. Back then, he'd thought that nothing affected her. She was better than the rest of them, and he felt no shame in thinking it. Everyone on the ship, brave as they were to rebel against the Council's direct orders, to go through the Mu Relay to Ilos, and to rush back to the Citadel when they knew a geth fleet was waiting for them, all of them had balls of steel, but still couldn't help but shake in fear at the idea of fighting a goddamn Reaper.

He felt like they were all terrified little mortals fighting a titan from afar with sticks and rocks, while Shepard did what no one else could do and charged right up to the bastard herself. After everything she did, he couldn't help but look up to her like some kind of mythic hero, a real live Hercules – something more than human, more divine than mortal, more god than man.

But looking at her now, curled up against him and crying her eyes out, he was reminded of when she'd come back on the Normandy for the first time after defeating Saren. She'd broken her arm after the fight, so when she walked on the ship with a cast, both he and the crew couldn't help but be surprised. He wasn't the only one who thought her invulnerable, apparently, and the cast was a clear reminder that she actually could be hurt. It took a ceiling falling on her to break her arm, he thought. But it just took Kaidan pushing her away to do a lot worse. She's a lot more fragile than any of us realized.

It was obvious now how wrong he'd been before. Did she let him see how much she actually needs other people? he wondered. Or did he think she was fine alone like the rest of us do?

"But he doesn't even care that I'm back," she said, shaking her head as she leaned against his shoulder. "I know I haven't been back that long, but from the second I woke up, I wanted to find him. I missed him so much. I drove Anderson crazy trying to find out where he was, and once the Illusive Man told me he was on Horizon, I went straight there only to get told Kaidan didn't even want to see me. I thought-" she started, then hesitated, speaking so quietly he could barely hear her. "I thought we had something. Was I crazy? Am I crazy? Does he not care about me?"

"He's being a goddamn idiot," he said bluntly. "He's crazy about you. It's nothing you did. It probably doesn't even matter that you're working for Cerberus. He's all confused because you were gone and you're back and the Collectors showed up and everything, and he's taking it out on you." Just like he took his anger at you dying out on me, he thought.

She didn't respond, just sniffled, and he patted her back gently.

"Kaidan and I were pretty close, you know. Even before you got transferred to the Normandy and decided that everybody on board had to be 'best friends forever!'" he said, teasing her a little. Ignoring the sarcasm, he'd never talked to anyone so candidly before. And she's never cried in front of me before, he thought dryly. Lots of firsts today. "We talked a lot, got to be pretty good friends. But I always felt like there was some kind of... I don't know, it was like we were always staying at arm's length. It was always just casual stuff that we talked about. Girls, funny stories, stuff we missed from home, standard soldier shit. Which is cool, too. I mean I don't want to get to know every moron on the ship," he amended. "We just never really opened up to each other, you know?"

He paused a moment, considering how to continue without sounding like an idiot. "But when the two of you started talking," he continued, "it was like he was finally connecting to somebody. He always tried to avoid it before, I guess. And I'll admit that I listened in on your conversations a few times," he said with a half smile, and he was gratified to hear her chuckle weakly. "Right from the beginning he was telling you everything. He trusted you. And then he started trusting me, too. We talked about you a lot. A lot," he said again for emphasis. "He wouldn't shut the hell up about you, actually. It would've been annoying if he wasn't so hilariously awkward. You got him off balance when he fell for you and you made him connect to people again."

"But he doesn't care about me anymore," she protested. "He wouldn't have said what he said if he did."

He wondered again what exactly had happened out there, but he shook his head. "I don't think that's true," he disagreed. "He never wanted to open up to anybody on the ship before you got transferred here. He never got close to anyone, he was just kind of there usually. Regular grunt soldier. Nice enough guy, but nobody knew him that well. Then you got him talking to you, and that got him talking to everyone else, and then we were all one big happy freakin' family who sings Kumbaya and eats s'mores every night then kicks the ass of huge sentient machines during the day." He grinned at this, but his smile quickly faded. "But when you... when you died," he said hesitantly, hating to bring it up but not seeing any way around it, "he couldn't deal with it. He-" Joker stopped himself suddenly, realizing he probably shouldn't tell her about their fight. No need to make her feel like this is her fault too, and from the state she's in now, I know she'd think that.

"What?" she asked.

He sighed. No help for it, shouldn't have brought it up in the first place. "We... argued. After we lost you. Kind of one-sided, honestly. He told me it was my fault, what happened to you. I told him it was bullshit and nobody's fault but whoever- killed you, but we were pissed off and neither of us knew who to blame for losing you, so we got mad and blamed each other. Haven't heard from him since."

She didn't reply immediately. "I'm sorry." Her voice was wobbly and weak still, though her sobs had subsided and she'd stopped shaking so much. He couldn't see her face, but he wondered if she'd stopped crying as well.

"No no," he said quickly, "I wasn't telling you that to make you feel bad, Shepard. You didn't do anything. You died saving my life, obviously I've got no issues with you," he half-smiled. "I'm just saying, Kaidan cared about you so much that when he lost you, he didn't want to be close to anybody anymore. He totally cut himself off. Stopped talking to the rest of the crew, too, not just me. And after we all got split up, I kept in touch with everyone else, but nobody heard from him." He sighed. "Honestly, you getting killed... the Kaidan I used to know died with you, as lame as that sounds. So as much as I hate hearing about him being a dick to you, I can't say I'm that surprised," he admitted. "Your death changed him. And not in a good way. He didn't know how to deal with getting close to somebody and losing control of yourself when you lose them. So you're back and I bet he's scared that if you guys started talking again, then he'd just lose you again. And that would suck."

They sat there together for a while in silence. He didn't know how long, but eventually she stopped shaking altogether, and he hoped that her tears had stopped too. I gave her all the info I had, he thought. That's all I've got. Just hope it was enough.

It was a long time since Joker had been this physically close to someone, and he couldn't say it was unwelcome, especially with Shepard. Would have laughed my ass off yesterday if somebody told me I'd be curled up with Shepard today, he thought, too puzzled by this turn of events to even laugh at himself. He'd been infatuated with her for much of their mission against Saren, but he'd done everything he could to get over it since then, especially after seeing the way she and Kaidan felt about each other. He wasn't big on hopeless causes. But even after that, he didn't feel weird about sitting with her like this, strangely enough. Even though he suspected she'd stopped crying, he didn't move his arms from around her, and she didn't sit up or let go of him, so he figured it was all right.

Even though he knew he hadn't solved Shepard's problems – or any of them, really – and knew that she'd probably be upset about this for a long time, he knew they'd both eventually have to ignore their issues and get up and do work again. So when she finally sighed and started to pull away, he wasn't surprised.

"Well I can't say I feel better," she said with a small smile at him, "but I don't feel worse. And I'm not crying anymore, so that's definitely something."

"Nice to know I was useful," he replied with an amused snort, "though 'I don't feel worse' isn't exactly a glowing testimony to my comforting skills."

She laughed, a real one this time, and he was glad to see that the sparkle in her eyes was back. "I'll keep you in mind for my future sitting-and-crying needs," she replied. "As long as you don't up your rates, I think you're a shoe-in for the position."

Joker grinned at this. "Like I needed more to do on this damn ship," he teased. "I've got an extremely full schedule, you know."

"So setting the ship to autopilot, spying on the crew, and watching porn is a full schedule now?"

"'Now?' It always has been," he replied cheerfully. "But I also have to keep an eye on EDI, who is probably having a fit down there without me," he replied as they both stood up. "I better head down there before she does too much damage."

He turned and started to walk away. "Joker-" he heard her say, and he half turned around. Her eyes were still a little red and puffy, and if anyone else saw her right now they'd know she'd been crying, but she smiled at him. "Thanks," she said quietly. "I really..." she started, and he wondered for a moment if she was about to launch into one of her typical "power speeches," but she seemed to deflate a little bit and stopped herself. "Yeah. Really. Thanks." She stepped closer and hugged him.

He was surprised. The lack of speech was a big enough change, and the hug was definitely new, too. He'd half expected her to just pretend the whole thing had never happened, and he was pleased to see that he was wrong about that – the first time he'd ever been pleased to be wrong about anything. "Anytime," he said with a shrug, trying to appear casual. "And I won't mention this, as long as you don't mention me actually having emotions and feelings and crap. That would totally kill my image."

She grinned. "Deal."

He nodded with a smirk and headed for the elevator and the cockpit. Shepard had things to do, like stop the Collectors, figure out what the deal is with the Reapers, and save the galaxy. Pretty important stuff.

But saving people wasn't just about killing the bad guys, and he knew it. Some people had different roles to play, different tasks to accomplish, to ensure that everybody could focus and get things done that needed to get done.

And right now, he knew what he had to do.

He needed to have a little chat with Kaidan Alenko.