Normandy-en route from Arcturus

Kendra Shepard watched Captain Anderson pace down the line of enlisted men and women that made up the Normandy's new crew. His voice, as age-lined as his face, clamped down on the requisite welcome-to-the-ship-now-shape-up speech. His tone and careful mannerisms, along with his service record, gave him an air of command that reminded Shepard of her father—kind, patient, and eternally unflappable, even when somebody's busted artery was spraying blood in his face and the front lines were getting closer and closer to his triage zone. His speech finished, Anderson stared down the ranks of servicemen assigned to the new ship.

A voice over the intercom interrupted the severity of his silence. "ETA to Eden Prime four hours, captain."

"Understood. Keep me posted."

"Aye aye. Enjoy training the Padawans." The comm clicked off.

She must have raised an eyebrow or gave a hint of a smirk, because Captain Anderson singled her out. "Do you have a comment, Lieutenant Commander Shepard?"

"No sir. Ready for duty, sir." She straightened up, trying to get her back as vertical as the wall of the vehicle bay behind her. She knew how to be a good soldier—her whole life had been spent around good soldiers.

But he said—

No smirking. Good soldier. No smirking!

Captain Anderson continued down the line. "To your stations; get ready for planetside." He crisply, curtly saluted.

The resulting salute and chorus of "Yes sir!" echoed through the bay, Shepard raising her voice and her hand to blend in with the rest. She joined the queue for the elevator as some of the crewmembers around her headed to engineering and others to requisitions. This felt like it would be a good posting—she had a secure position as a fire team leader, scouting out planets that weren't likely to have the chaos of Elysium.

Any world could turn into Elysium, a frightened part of her mind said. Anyone on the street could turn into one of the zombie-eyed civilians backing into one another in their hurry to follow your orders, while you're only holding together with pure gall and pure if I break down now we all get swarmed. Shepard had gotten a commendation and a news feature out of that engagement, but all she'd really wanted was to be safe and not fighting and around other people who could take care of themselves.

Was that selfish of her? Was she spoiled by growing up in a military family with the toughest, most level-headed pair of role models she'd ever known? It had taken a freak accident to kill her father, a freak failure of artificial cells—and that was much scarier to her than the purpose with which people tried to kill one another during war. Was she wrong to hate purposelessness?

That thought is way too vague and serious for right now, she thought as she fit into a narrow spot between two other recruits on the Normandy's elevator. Let's focus on something else. Like the movie buff over the comm.


Citadel

She got her chance to talk to him when she returned to the Normandy docked at the Citadel. She hadn't had time before—not with the Eden Prime mission, the Council session and her promotion to Spectre, Udina forcibly replacing Anderson with Shepard of all people, and that vision in her head occasionally raising its ugly, yellow-stained face. Blurred images ached behind her temples, whispering in long-dead languages, reminding her of the splintered Prothean beacon. But she had a moment to herself when she was ready to go, ready to begin to chase Saren down, and she marched onto the bridge to see the pilot. She needed to see everybody—it didn't feel like her ship yet, although she wasn't sure what having one's own ship was supposed to feel like anyway—and he was closest.

That was her excuse. Frak he was amusing. She couldn't quite tell whether he resented her or not, with that acerbic attitude he gave. Someone was going to resent her—Anderson had been a great leader, and Shepard had outranked the grunts by just a little a few days ago. But Joker had an energy she liked, something… stop analyzing so much, he called you a Padawan.

She hesitated beside him, her arms folded as she looked out at the unnatural Citadel landscape far below. No more people on this ship needed to die while it was under her command.

Joker looked sidelong at her. "You need something, commander?"

Not 'captain'. They all know my rank. "Just thinking about Eden Prime. About Nihlus and Corporal Jenkins."

He didn't stop fiddling with the console as he spoke. "It's hard to lose people."

"And I try and bring myself to think of them as redshirts and can't."

Joker nodded. There was a pause in which Shepard knew what was coming and waited.

The pilot drawled, "You watch Star Trek?"

"A little bit. Mostly the new sci-fi stuff though—Ladybird? Fourth Day?"

"Ladybird." He chuckled. "Yeah, I'll watch that stuff when I've got nothing else to do. Funny what writers come up with and pretend spaceships can run on it. Ion drives. Crazy."

Ha ha! Suspicion confirmed."But good. Maybe we'll talk about this later, Flight Lieutenant."

"If you insist, ma'am."


Normandy

They did talk about it later. He'd slip lines from movies into his official reports; she'd slip them right back. They started playing to see who had the most trivial knowledge, started moving back and back into history, into the good old stuff before holograms when film gave it that certain quality….you know?

I know!


Therum

It felt like the entire world was falling apart. Shepard barked into her comm as she turned on her heel and sprinted after T'Soni. The cavern's ceiling crumbled, rock faces sliding against one another and groaning. Dust spattered across armored bodies. "Joker! We need an evac, now."

"On our way." She could just picture him sitting secure in the ship, playing the console like a keyboard to make it happen. Then her hearing was filled up with her own breath in her ears and the collapse of the cavern as she pushed all her energy into running. Sunlight filled up the open mouth of the dig site, suddenly obscured by broken peddles and dust as a slab of rock slid down across the gantries. Acid burn in her muscles pumped angry energy through Shepard's limbs as she pushed herself the last few meters toward the silhouettes of her squad. On our way played over in her thoughts like an anchor. He won't let us down. He can't let us-

And then the Normandy stooped like a predatory bird. The sound of the engines added to the assault on her ears. The airlock door opened as the ship swayed to a stall right at the end of the gantry. Shepard dashed after her squad and followed them in, onto solid ground.


Feros

She had gotten used to hearing his voice in her ear. Whether it was in the debriefing room or out on a mission, Joker was usually a voice to her. She hadn't realized how much he reassured her that the Normandy was still there until she picked up the comm in what had once been ExoGeni and couldn't hear anything on the other line.

"Joker. Come in, Normandy. Joker!"

Garrus said, "The geth force field must be blocking the signal."

Tali looked around at the rusty tunnel. "We'll just have to unblock it."

Shepard was glad they weren't looking at her, because for a moment she stared at the ground, hearing the silence. Where are you? You're always there.

But he couldn't reply. So she kept going.

And when gravity dug the geth's ship's claws out of the tower and pulled it down to the dirt of Zhu's Hope and the comm signal came back, she tried to make her We're still alive message quick and formal and military, but he was already there, always there and searching. "Come on, talk to me, commander."


Alchera

Static jumped through the comm like electric arcs as Joker scrabbled for purchase on the door of the escape pod while the Normandy died, feeling that basic human desperation for something to hold on to. "Commander!"

She didn't say anything. Why didn't she say anything—he just heard breathing. Then static. A harsh, choked-off breath. Static.

"Shepard!"

A breath. Static.


Normandy-en route from Freedom's Progress

Kendra Shepard rubbed the heel of her right hand over her eyes, smudging around the lukewarm tears. She leaned back against the Hammerhead, feeling the nubs of her spine hit the hard metal. Not her spine. Someone's…someone new. Cerberus-fluids ran through those cavities, not her own. What did that mean? Two years since she'd had a ship of her own and it felt like no time had passed at all..and yet it also felt like when Anderson had handed the reins of the SR1 over to her and the least weird thing she'd had to get used to was a new bed. Rooms rearranged, her body rearranged…It scared her. It wouldn't have scared her father, but he was a surgeon, and they were used to killing things they couldn't see.

She felt her shoulders slump away from the cold metal of the SR2's shuttle bay. They jumped a little when Joker's voice came over the comm. "Commander, we've arrived at Omega."

She took a fortifying breath, wondering what he was thinking as he too got used to a new ship and helped her to make a new crew. He didn't need to get used to this too…"Are you spying on me again?"

"No, ma'am. Well, yes. It's part of my job to man the comms. I thought you could use a friendly face to, you know, give the cold shoulder. Just sayin'."

"Joker. I know you've got the comms. Does that mean you listen to every random sound on this ship?"

"When I'm really bored and there's nothing on TV. Ma'am. Some channels are blocked off. Miranda's room, the AI core, yours. I've gotta be able to call anybody if they're needed at stations…"

"So you heard me."

"I can listen anywhere, and, talk to anyone. This system could save a life, you know, if somebody's broken a toe on a bulkhead and they're screaming their head off and nobody cares but wise and benevolent Joker…Yeah, ah, I heard you."

"Crying."

"Ah. Very staunch tears, commander. I thought at first it might be…" He paused, presumably looking around for any possible way he could be overheard, and lowered his voice." … Miranda, but, no, you're made of sterner stuff."

Some more hot tears lurched down her cheeks as she laughed under her breath, but they were the rear guard. "I've just been having a nice chat with Miranda about how she's known me longer as a body than as a person. Don't worry. Won't happen again. The crying, I mean."

"Commander, you've been dead for two years," he said gently—although the softness dropped away fast. "I'd be crying too if I weren't so, you know, manly and valiant. You've missed two seasons of Interstellar Misadventures and Fourth Day, one season of Ladybird and then it was cancelled, of course, and the premiere of this one called Lightspeed. Oh, and Citadel. We need to fix this."

More tears straggled out behind the main force, but they were of relief. He sounded so normal. Holovids felt so normal—and distracting. She didn't have to think about her ersatz body if she thought instead about who ended up with who on Fourth Day and why anyone would ever think cancelling Ladybird was a good idea. She wiped her eyes again. "Yes, yes we do."

"I'd say we go to your place, but the crew might start wondering, you know."

"Er." She said the first coherent thing that came to mind. "They made a holovid called Citadel? Boring title."

"It's about the attack on Sovereign. Very patriotic."

She remembered the adrenaline rush of the jolting, jarring ride through the conduit, remembered the Council chamber's ceiling falling. "Does that mean…it's got us in it?"

"Unflattering fictional adaptations, yes."

"Unflattering?"

"Well she does have nice legs, but he's an arrogant son of a…"

She interrupted the potential irony. The smile hurt her aching, tear-chapped cheeks but it was real. "I need to see this. Your place. In a few minutes."

"Ah, yes ma'am."


"Maybe we can…you know…I don't know."

"Don't worry about it."

"If you really wanna sit on the floor, commander."

"There's no chair!"

"It's a command station, not a movie theatre. Unfortunately."

"It's okay." Shepard made herself as comfortable as possible on the sloped floor leading to the bridge, crossing her legs and shifting around so she could see the main screen. "Is watching this here safe for the ship?"

"We're at faster than light speeds now. It's not like there's any trees or small, fluffy animals to run into. All the systems I need are right here." He passed a hand over the left side of the console, which wakened into familiar yellow screens and sigils. "I've got it."

"I know you do," she said.

He raised an eyebrow and looked at her and she looked at him and he started the holo.

The effects were good but that was about all she could say for it. She told him as much halfway through, as the movie version of Shepard shot her way through Virmire.

He said, "It got popular. You got popular, while you were gone."

"I'm flattered."

"Eh, it's no big deal. I usually don't get people asking me for autographs. You want to watch this part, commander? They thought you were dead; didn't worry about hurting your feelings."

The movie had been shot on location on Virmire; Shepard recognized the foliage as something she'd crushed under her boots sometimes. It smelled like water and mint in person. Joker paused the film, and Shepard watched a prettyboy actor assigned to Kaidan crouch with his cheek against his rifle. "What do they….how do they deal with it?"

"She tries to save Ashley," Joker said quietly. "Doesn't get there in time."

Shepard bit at her lip, nervous.

"I shouldn't have brought it up," he said.

"It doesn't feel like long ago, to me. But it's okay." She shifted forward and reached up to set her hand over his, gently. His expression did not change, although his fingers rose and settled so quickly that she might not have noticed at all if she hadn't felt the sinews pull.

"Commander Shepard."

Kendra turned around to see Miranda poised in the bridge, imperious as always. She quickly stood up."Operative Lawson."

"I heard you were going to find Archangel first; I was interested in going with you." From the narrowing of her eyes, Miranda really meant hurry up.

"Ah, of course. Let me get ready."

"We'll finish this later, commander," Joker said, irritable.

"We will," Shepard said. It was only as she hurried down the gantry in front of Miranda that her cheeks burned and she wondered what she'd been thinking.

Nothing, really. With Kaidan, she'd always had to think about how he'd react to what she said, where he and she wanted their relationship to go and whether it was the same. That's why she'd never fully accepted him. With Joker, things were a lot easier.


Normandy-in orbit around Joab

Joker was relaxing. It was almost easy to fall asleep in this chair, it was so posh. Cerberus at least tried to make things easy…

Maybe he had fallen asleep. No—he didn't fall asleep. That wasn't the sort of thing a top-ranked Alliance pilot did so he didn't do it, even though the chrono in front of him said almost half an hour had passed since the ground team had left to investigate the dig site, and his knees had gone stiff. He kicked the footrest down and his hands hovered over the keyboard to check up on automatic status updates as he listened to the comm call coming in from the ground team.

"We didn't expect frakking Collectors on Joab!" That was Jacob's voice, echoing like he was standing in a cave.

Jack's had the same quality. "Shut up, there aren't any Collectors."

"But this looks just like what they do, that "assume direct control" magic—commander!"

Jack shouted, "Let go of her!"
Joker stabbed the comm controls. "Ground team, what's going on down there?"

Jacob said, "We found the prothean relic they said was down here. Shepard touched it, and..she's not okay. She's knocked out, talking in some…some language."

"Crap, Jacob, this is just like—right, you weren't there. Just like the prothean beacon. On my way now; just get out of the caves. I'll sit the Normandy as close as it can get and send the shuttle out." This shuttle sure makes my dramatic rescues less dramatic. Doesn't matter—she can't see anyway.

He remembered the prothean beacon on Eden Prime, and how Alenko had carried Shepard's body, draped across his arms like a strip of cloth, back to the ship. He'd heard some of the babble too, before Doctor Chakwas had hurried Shepard away. The speaking in tongues had been useful in catapulting Shepard into the heart of the Citadel to take Saren down, but it had disturbed her too, and Liara's mental ministrations hadn't always helped so much as hurt by making the images more vivid.

"Get her back here," Joker shouted into the comm, and started to power up the ship and make it happen.

In the nervous silence while the shuttle descended he sat and stared at screens, waiting for something in them to change. When the green light flicked on he activated the comm fast, realizing that he'd been working his thumb against the bottom of his first finger for the past however-long-it-had-been.

Jack's voice. "We're back. No casualties except those mercs on the ground." She sounded satisfied.

Joker tried to sound unconcerned, but he wanted to get the words out fast so the reply would come the same way. "And the commander?"

For a moment there were no sounds except for some clicks that could mean movement, garden variety comm static, or impending doom. More clicks blended into Shepard's voice; probably Jack had transferred the comm channel over to hers.

"It's over," Shepard said. "I know what the visions mean now. It was the Collectors that I saw on Eden Prime."

"Right, great." But he was distracted; he was narrowing the channel for her ears alone. "You sure you're okay? That vision messed you up pretty well the last time."

"I'm fine. Really. I'm…"

"You don't have to talk about it. I'm not interrogating—" not invading you in the service of science or the soul or whatever freaky asari gods Liara ascribed to.

She started to say something; a fuzz of static might be her leaning the back of her head against the wall. Might be her thinking of what to say in front of Jacob and Jack? In front of the new people? "I could use some rest."

"Can't help with that…"

"But we'll finish Citadel." She sounded tired, and maybe her priorities were going wonky but he was okay with that. She's alive and she's speaking, blast it. No more comm silence, please.

Because he only realized how much he was losing when he couldn't hear her any more. He replied, "No question about it, commander."

That fuzzy click-sound was a smile, he knew it was. It was some indrawn breath and a little happy smile like he saw from above when the glow from the screen was highlighting the top of her cheekbones. It wasn't perfect, not with the thin scars cutting furrows in the skin. But she said, "Thanks, Joker," in her 'I am a serious soldier, hear me bark' voice, and he wanted to make sure she was safe, really safe. It didn't matter whether the ground beneath them was solid or not if they were connected by the comms, but when she got back...

He'd let her have her rest.


"We're gonna watch more now, right?"

"Sure, commander, just let me finish up some drift modulations, and…"

"If you say you're calibrating I'll kill you where you stand, Flight Lieutenant."

"I'm not calibrating! Neither, I'll have you notice, am I standing."

She could find herself forgetting, sometimes, that he had trouble walking. In the bridge he was in control of everything—one reach could change the engines in the back of the ship, another could alter the low, powerful hum of the mass drive core, another could call any crewmember to a different location. He didn't need to walk here.

She sat down on the floor again. It was cold, but she found herself not caring. It was her ship, her home, not some jumble of prothean images like ripped up paper that had been a book once. She thought she'd liked the lure of the alien—adventure, new scenery. She'd thought she liked Garrus.

But only humans could have come up with Citadel, and maybe only humans could have enjoyed laughing at how bad it was—leaden acting, shiny effects to make up for it.

They grew quieter at the end; it was hard to manage all the emotions connected to the final battle, even if it was a fictional version playing out on a small screen and the events distorted almost out of recognition. Shepard remembered how triumphant she had been after the death of Sovereign-in-Saren, but now it all seemed like foreshadowing for the Reapers' return, for the death of the Normandy (another ship which, even though it was not really a living thing like a Reaper, gave something like a second soul to those who grew close to it.)

"Look, look, this part is good." Okay, maybe he wasn't caught up in the moment in the same kind of way. He leaned forward in his chair as the Normandy on-screen swooped through a barrage of laserfire and skimmed Sovereign as if diving down the surface of a cliff. A panel of the Normandy scraped off and skidded down Sovereign's flank, trailing sparks. Joker tsked. He would never cut it so close—not without perfect timing, of course. He'd done brilliantly in the battle of the Citadel—and it hadn't been any fun.

The scene switched to Shepard and Kaiden trapped in an elevator turned vertical. The actress-Shepard wore her hair differently from the real one and looked older, more attractive in the over-healthy way of celebrities. She pursed her lips as Kaidan ran his hands around the door lock, opening it with a dramatized version of biotic powers that sent blue glow reflecting up onto his face.

"They end up together at the end, don't they?" Shepard asked wearily.

"It's a Hollywood romance. Gotta have its kiss."

She sighed. "I miss him, but I think I'm going to have to propose an alternate universe for this one. Set down my own canon without the kiss."

"Suit yourself. Ah, this part. Not important."

The on-screen Liara negotiated with the Council as the Destiny Ascension sailed into the battle to regal music. Joker knew their dialogue well enough to zone out.

Shepard groaned and leaned forward and he watched her push her fingers against the back of her neck.

"You okay?"

"My back aches; I must have fallen sometime….and I'm taking a moment to understand the dialogue, like I've got to translate the words in my head. This happened the first time I touched the beacon. It'll pass."

"The freaky language will pass, or else we'll all just have to read the subtitles. Come here."

"What?"

"Come here. All the physical therapy I've done I know something about aches."

She was silent compared to her usual armored steps as she sat down in front of him with her legs crossed. Was that blushing that he glimpsed? She wasn't blushing. She wasn't human enough to. That was why he had taken this step (taken this leap off the deep end, Jeff what are you thinking). The movie filled the bridge with gunshots and screams, changed its light in little increments. The screen filled with a glimpse of the actor supposed to portray Joker himself—a minor part.

Outside the screen he leaned forward to brush her hair away from her neck and started working at her shoulders. He'd had massage therapists himself and knew what paths to travel. Relaxing muscles didn't cure Vrolik's, but it reduced a little danger, and it felt the same as it did to anybody else—good. He pushed at the flat muscles of her back until she flinched.

"Are you trying to put me out of commission?"

"It's gonna hurt. That's how it works."

She shook her head and lowered her shoulders. Fine; if she wanted him to be gentle he'd just go back to watching the movie and stroke his thumbs along the back of her shoulder blades. Maybe she'd think it was a professional technique.

He paid less and less attention to his hands as he watched the battle with Sovereign. The on-screen version of Shepard heroically struggled against Saren's husk form, nearly getting trapped under falling pieces of the Council chamber and its decorative trees and arches.

"It was like that," she said from the floor, off-screen and quiet. "A lot like that."

He leaned down to slide his fingers over the front of her shoulders and push at her collar, skin warm where he brushed over the edges of her flightsuit. He didn't know what to say, just watched as his left hand stilled and his right traced patterns on her skin, gentle as if she was the fragile one, up her neck to the bead of bone at the back of her jaw.

It was with the same sort of detachedness that she slipped her hand up and pinned his against her scar-pocked cheek.

They watched movie-Shepard push a slab of stone aside with her forearm and crawl from the wreckage coughing dust. Kaiden rushed to her over the mounds of rubble. She braced against his forearms and started talking rapid-fire, both of them leaning in with tentative twitches so everyone in the audience would know they were going to kiss soon. (They were; he had watched it once before.)

She probably wasn't that clean after that fight, Joker thought. She probably had a split lip and goo-caked hair and dust snowing over her black armor. He could almost hear it in her voice when she commed him at the very end of the fight, hear her try and spit out the taste of Sovereign's betrayal of Saren and the final desecration of the turian body, keeping it fighting in its death-throes. She bit at the comm in her helmet and told him she was still alive. "Everything's shiny, captain," like they said on Ladybird, jaunty as if she'd come back from a party.

He didn't remember what he'd said but it had been about expecting nothing less, because of course the Normandy was the best ship out of the whole shining-with-pride Council fleet, and it had rubbed off on Shepard like diamond dust. (It choked you, war, or it made you harder than anything else there was in the natural world.)

He'd zoned out, forgetting what part of the movie they were watching. Kaiden kissed Shepard on the screen and in front of him she leaned back against his legs. He didn't have time to say anything; she felt the solid bar of the brace against her back and her shoulders jumped, dislodging his hands slightly as she sat up again like flinching.

He scowled. The credits rolled. She turned and looked up at him. "Definitely should propose an alternate universe."