After a few months delay, here's the next part of my ME2 Shenko series! This is a direct continuation from my fics "Justified" and "Demigod" (in that order), so I highly recommend reading those two first so you get the references to them and aren't totally confused. :)

Sincere apologies to everyone who had to wait so long for me to finish this; I moved to another country in February and didn't have time to really work on it until now. I've decided to call this the "Shepard's Loyalty Mission" series; everyone else on the crew has something that's distracting them from the mission, and Shepard's distraction is definitely Kaidan, so I thought it was appropriate for her to have a loyalty mission too. This is part three of five, the final two are planned and I'm already working on the next one, so I promise it won't be long before I upload it!

Undying love and gratitude to my incredible beta HeavenlyMuse, who didn't mind waiting months for me to finally get back to this series, and gives me such helpful comments and constructive criticism. These stories would be pretty terrible without her, so thanks so much! Thanks also to Lywnna for letting me bounce ideas off her, to the Bioware Social Network's "Kaidan Alenko Support Thread" for enjoying/recommending my stories, and to all of you for every review and fave and alert. It really means a ton to me. Thanks for reading! :)

When the hell did I become such a damn shut-in?

Joker tried not to grumble to himself as he walked – okay, limped – through the Citadel. He'd never thought of himself as the kind of guy who stayed in all the time; after all, he'd joined the Alliance despite having a disease that gave him the perfect excuse to sit around on his ass. And not only had he joined them, he'd gone on to be the best pilot they'd ever had, as he'd cheerfully tell anyone who asked and plenty who didn't.

So why do I never leave the ship anymore? he wondered.

He knew it might be part of having the Normandy back, that he was almost scared to let her out of his sight after the two years when he'd been stuck flying Cerberus-issue shuttles. He could lie and say that he was the rock of stability that all the crew depended on, that they'd be lost without him sitting in the pilot's chair, but he snorted in amusement even thinking something so ridiculous.

He could blame part of it on Shepard, he supposed, and the fact that every destination she plugged in to the galaxy map was as insanely dangerous as the woman herself. Unfortunately for Joker, getting mugged on Omega, frozen on Noveria, or shot/blown up/captured/who-knows-what on Tuchanka weren't really his idea of fun things to do on shore leave, so he didn't have much of a choice about staying on the ship when they stopped at those kinds of places.

But not everywhere they went was dangerous, and while he knew that most of the crew looked forward to their stops on the Citadel and the brief break Shepard allowed them, he'd never really gone for it himself. He told anyone who asked that it was because he needed to keep an eye on everything on the ship. Sure, Miranda was technically the XO, but Joker and the rest of the crew weren't her biggest fans, so he found himself mediating arguments more often than a pilot would normally have to, and he never knew when he'd be needed. Or what if they had to leave quickly? How was Shepard supposed to do that without him?

He knew that he probably could have left the ship if he'd wanted to, even if it was just for a few hours. He could have gone out and had a decent hamburger and seen something other than the goddamn cockpit for once, but he wasn't so desperate for a change that he felt the need to actually do it instead of just talking about it. His never-changing scenery on the ship never really bothered him.

But if he's being honest with himself, he knows why he hasn't visited the Citadel on any of their multiple stops there since Shepard came back.

He's been trying to avoid Kaidan Alenko.

Which is really goddamn pathetic, he thought, annoyed at himself. I can deal with Collectors and Reapers and the scariest thing of all – Shepard crying. But I can't face the guy who told me it was my fault that she died. He sighed at the thought. Mainly because he was right.

It had been two years since he and Kaidan had spoken, and their last conversation wasn't exactly friendly. They were lost and aimless after Shepard's death – they could barely deal with getting through a day, so thinking ahead or about what would happen next was pretty much impossible, despite how complicated they knew the situation was and how much attention they knew it would take to fix it. Continuing chaos in the Citadel from Sovereign's attack, rumors about Shepard's sanity being questioned, and the Alliance not making any promises about keeping the crew together without her all combined to make a hell of a problem, and it was one they weren't able to face without snapping from the stress. They'd felt lost, heartbroken, angry – and they'd taken it out on each other.

Probably be more accurate to say he took it out on me, Joker thought, more pissed off than sad. I shouldn't have stayed on the ship for so long, and it shouldn't have taken her to convince me that I needed to go. Seeing Kaidan was going to be difficult, and not just because of the two years of guilt he could never talk about. Logically, he knew that he wasn't completely to blame, but the things Kaidan had said to him had stuck with him for the past two years. He'd never quite been able to get over it, though he tried to force himself not to think about it.

But when Shepard actually needs something, something she can't do herself, he thought, scowling at a rude turian who jostled him as he stepped out of an elevator, then I don't really have a choice.

There weren't many opportunities to help her, however, and she wouldn't ever ask for help. She was too self-sufficient for that, too much of a damn go-getter to sit around and wait for someone else to help her out. She was much more the type to go confront any issue than sit around hoping it would be solved without outside interference. She was the one who helped everyone she could find with even the most insignificant problems, and it was easy to forget that sometimes she needed help too.

She was so good at figuring out how to solve the big problems – things like Saren and the Collectors and the Reapers were difficult, of course, and would be impossible for anyone else, but after seeing how capable she was of solving everything else, he had no doubt in his mind that she'd be able to do this, too.

But as good as Shepard was at seeing the big picture and solving problems on a galactic scale, he also knew that she often missed the things going on right under her nose. She was always able to quickly identify what needed doing, who needed saving, what needed punching, and once she saw the things she needed to accomplish, she figured out how she could make them happen.

But missing some of the "little details" were actually big problems in the grand scheme of things. As skilled and intelligent as Shepard clearly was, she had made a few mistakes that they'd almost paid dearly for during their last mission. She'd trusted the Council, ignoring the fact that they'd rather debate than actually get things done and clearly had their heads up their asses where galactic safety was concerned. She'd kept Udina in the loop with what she was doing even though she was a Spectre and didn't really have to, not truly realizing that he would only use the information she gave him to gain political power. And she'd tried time and time again to convince Saren that he was wrong for working with Sovereign, despite all the stories they'd heard of his ruthlessness and hatred of humanity. His obvious Indoctrination didn't help either – he couldn't stop helping the Reaper even if he'd wanted to, which Joker had seriously doubted.

If only it was "just" the important, galaxy-changing stuff she didn't notice, Joker thought with a long-suffering sigh.

She'd had a relatively normal upbringing on Alliance ships with her parents, but he figured that their transfers to a new ship every five years were the source of her difficulties with relationships. She simply didn't notice some of what he thought were the most obvious things. She always managed to know when someone was having problems, even ones they didn't admit to themselves, and she could convince them to open up to her so she could help them. But somehow, she'd never noticed how much Liara was hitting on her, she had no clue how much Garrus saw her as a mentor and modeled himself after her, and she'd just been confused when Joker himself had yelled at her about judging him for his disease – which she hadn't been, since she had no idea what he was talking about.

She'd been bad about not noticing things before, but she was being more oblivious now than ever.

Shepard thought she'd just be able to continue her mission, but anyone could see that she needed some resolution with Kaidan before she'd be able to do anything else.

It wasn't that she didn't know about the problem. In fact, she'd tried to fix it herself – of course she had, Shepard was a problem solver, and usually she was pretty damn good at it. But despite all her hopes, her reunion with Kaidan on Horizon colony had been a disaster.

Not because of anything she did, Joker thought defensively. Kaidan not being a complete moron would have helped some.

Kaidan had completely refused to hear her side of the story after she admitted that she was working with Cerberus. She hadn't even gotten the chance to tell him that she'd been dead for two years before he'd snapped at her, said he couldn't work with the "bad guys," and stalked off back to the Citadel.

Like a damn child, Joker thought angrily. It may be a little weird having her back, but he can't just accept that she's alive and be happy about it, noooo, couldn't do that, that would make sense to be excited that the love of your life is back from the dead. Goddamn idiot.

After Horizon, Shepard had sent Kaidan a message asking to meet and he'd grudgingly agreed, so she'd immediately set a course for the Citadel and given the crew 24 hours of shore leave to give her plenty of time to talk. Joker hadn't been able to listen in on their meeting, unfortunately, but she'd returned far more quickly than he expected. He'd seen the aftermath; Shepard had been sobbing in her quarters, wondering what she was supposed to do after he'd rejected her a second time.

He knew what she would do – pretend nothing was wrong and go about her mission to stop the Collectors as if nothing had happened. He doubted any of the crew members would know that something was wrong; even the particularly insightful Kelly Chambers didn't realize how upset Shepard really was. But Joker knew Shepard a lot better than any of the rest of them, and he knew that she could pretend Kaidan didn't bother her for a while, but eventually having another meltdown. She should have realized than pretending a problem didn't exist didn't mean it went away, and just because she was tough as hell didn't mean it wouldn't get to her again eventually.

Which is where Joker came in. After his long talk with Shepard – well, mostly him talking and trying to comfort her while she cried – he'd made the snap decision that he needed to go confront Kaidan and tell him exactly what was on his mind, and figure out why he was being such a stubborn asshole where Shepard was concerned.

Seeing her cry... he thought. That was freaky. I wonder how much she opened up to Kaidan while they were together? He suspected that she was mainly telling him these things because she needed someone to talk to and Kaidan wasn't there, but he was more than happy to be her friend when she needed someone to rely on, of course. Being so open about her feelings was definitely not usual for Shepard, and without some resolution on the Kaidan issue, he was doubtful she'd be able to make it through the mission.

I know how he feels about her, he thought, annoyed. But apparently I'm the only one, since she's convinced he hates her and he's telling her to get lost. I swear I have to do all the dirty work around here with everybody's damn relationships.

He knew that he could figure people out a lot better than Shepard could, so the idea of talking to someone when relationships got too complicated for her didn't seem like a bad plan to him. It was only a problem when that person was Kaidan and Joker would rather avoid him.

But I'm the only one who knows what's really going on with her, he thought, steeling himself, so it's time to man up and help her figure this shit out. He owed it to her after everything she'd done for him. Like dying to save my life, he thought, mentally wincing. But just because he knew he needed to do this for her didn't mean he wanted to do it.

He'd been walking through one of the Wards on the Citadel – he'd wandered through so many different areas that he wasn't even sure which one he was in anymore – but he finally made it to the place where he knew he'd be able to get in touch with Kaidan. It was a large, gray building at Alliance HQ with the poorly-chosen name, "Offices for Alliance Officers." While he wasn't a soldier anymore, Joker still knew where to go to get information, and his contacts among the former crew of the Normandy had pointed him to this place if he wanted to get in touch with anyone in an official capacity. He mentally thanked them all for the advice as the door whooshed open and he stepped inside.

He approached the clerk sitting at the front desk, a man who was wearing a formal uniform and looking very official as he typed away on his computer. Not looking half as bored as I would be at this job, he thought. This is probably the shit they would've given me if I hadn't left. Yeah sure, go ahead and stop me from flying, he thought, feeling rather smug and superior as he looked at the man, and I'll leave you assholes and get a better ship than you ever gave me. And it has leather seats!

He tried to rein in his bitterness, but it was made difficult by the very powerful memories of the time right after Shepard died. They Alliance had managed to mess everything up so completely that he'd be shocked if they weren't purposely trying to cause problems for them. After years of service and everything the crew had done, they'd split them all up and grounded Joker from flying "until his loyalty is no longer in question and his emotional state is less tumultuous," as the official psych report had said. To add insult to injury, some officers – none of whom had ever met Shepard, of course – had been vocal when they agreed with the Council and expressed their doubts about her sanity.

She spent her life protecting them and died trying to save them, but the second she's gone, they think she's crazy. He snorted. They're definitely right about that – she was crazy for wanting to do so much for people who don't give two shits about her.

The clerk looked up with a pleasant smile as he approached, and Joker tried not to scowl. "Good afternoon," he said politely as Joker came to a limping halt in front of the desk. "Do you have an appointment? Or is there something else I can help you with?"

"Hopefully," Joker said, and he knew he sounded skeptical as he said it. Don't piss him off, he thought, giving himself a mental shake. Just because most of the Alliance is incompetent doesn't mean he is. He paused for a moment. Okay he probably is, but I still need his help. Mock him after he gets you what you need, dumbass. "Hoping to meet with an Alliance officer, and I figured I could ask here and maybe you could point me in the right direction, or give him a call, or something. I don't have an appointment or anything, but I heard he was on the Citadel. We're... old friends," he decided after a moment's hesitation.

The man nodded once. "That shouldn't be a problem. Who are you trying to get in contact with?"

"Lieut- er, Staff Commander Kaidan Alenko," he said, correcting himself quickly. If the man recognized the name or knew who Kaidan was, he didn't show it, and just typed away on the computer. Joker mentally crossed his fingers that he wouldn't ask-

"And can I get your name and see some identification please?"


He tried not to sigh as he reached in his back pocket for his wallet and dug out his ID. The picture was several years old, but he still looked pretty much the same; he was even scowling in the photo. He handed it over and couldn't help but speak a bit quieter as he said his name. "Jeff Moreau."

The clerk accepted the ID and scanned it onto his computer without batting an eye at his name. Wait for it... The scanner beeped once. The computer whirred a bit. And up comes my information... The clerk continued to look bored as he skimmed it over, but only for a moment, and suddenly his eyebrows shot up into his messy brown hair.

And there's the deal-killer, Joker thought glumly. I wonder what it says. "Suspected member of terrorist cell Cerberus" sounds about right. So does, "Insubordinate and flunky of Commander Shepard." Or maybe they went with, "Former hotshot Alliance pilot, currently flying better ship than we've ever had and working with a bunch of humanity-first assholes?" Decisions, decisions.

Whatever the not-classified parts of his file said, they were enough to turn the once mild-mannered clerk into a completely different animal. He narrowed his eyes and frowned, and Joker caught the man attempting to subtly put one hand on his sidearm. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave Alliance property immediately, Mr. Moreau," he said coldly, emphasizing his civilian title. "You may have been part of the Alliance, but you are now a confirmed agent of the terrorist group Cerberus. You are not under arrest, but if you do not leave Alliance grounds peacefully, I will be forced to call security."

Joker rolled his eyes hugely. "Does your girlfriend know that you have to call for help to handle one crippled guy?" he snarked. "I think she'd side with me if she heard the whole story here."

"She'd never side with a traitor, no matter how pathetic he is," the clerk practically spat.

"Ouch, you really hurt my man feelings with that one, that was cold," Joker snorted, talking over his shoulder as he turned around to leave. "Fortunately, since I'm not Alliance anymore, I'm no longer a goddamn idiot, so I'll let you get back to playing Solitaire or whatever it is you're doing. Sitting at that desk is obviously very important to galactic security."

His exit would have been perfectly dramatic if he hadn't crashed into Kaidan as they both walked through the door.

"Sorry, I wasn't-"

"Watch where you're going, you-"

The two men stepped back and righted themselves quickly, then realized who it was they were looking at.

Two years didn't seem like they'd been kind to Kaidan, as Joker could clearly see dark circles under his eyes, and he was holding himself differently, as if he had been beaten down enough times that he could barely be bothered to get up again. Despite that, the other man still looked shocked to see him, and Joker felt a bit of smug satisfaction at the reaction.

"Joker?" he asked, as if he couldn't quite believe who he was seeing. He looked too shocked to be angry, and Joker was briefly grateful for that. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Just a day full of reunions for you, pal, he thought with venom. And this one's gonna go just as well as Horizon did. He folded his arms and looked pissed. "Nice to see you too, Kaidan," he said dryly. "I was just looking for you."

"Apologies, Staff Commander," the clerk said, scurrying out from behind the desk. "He came here just a few minutes ago and asked me to put him in touch with you, but I told him to leave once I saw his file. I'm sorry you had to be bothered, sir, I'll call security and make sure he doesn't get back in."

Kaidan had locked eyes with Joker, and the two men stared each other down as the clerk apologized. Joker felt a bit weird about it – he wasn't used to the grade-school drama of a damn staring contest. But he has been acting like a goddamn ten year old, so maybe sinking to his level will help, he thought. So he stopped himself from raising an eyebrow or making any sarcastic comments, and was rewarded when Kaidan broke the stare first and looked at the clerk. "That won't be necessary," he said.

The clerk looked relieved not to be yelled at and saluted sharply. "Yes sir," he said before slinking back to his chair.

"What do you want, Joker?" Kaidan asked flatly. "I thought I made it pretty damn clear the last time we spoke that I don't want to talk to you. I am really not in the mood to deal with you."

"Wait a sec. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but did I just hear you say you're not in the mood to deal with me?" Joker asked incredulously. "Did you become a goddamn teenager sometime during the last two years?"

"Insults and sarcasm. Why am I not surprised?" he said, folding his arms. "I have nothing to say to you." He started to walk past him toward the elevator. "Just leave me alone, Joker."

He grabbed Kaidan's arm to stop him. He tried to yank his arm free for a moment, but Joker held on and they locked eyes again. "You don't have anything to say?" Joker asked, his voice dangerously calm. "What, all out of words after everything you said to Shepard?"

Joker wondered if it was her name or his implication that he knew what they two of them had talked about that got Kaidan's attention, but either way, the other man looked like Joker had caught him off guard. They stared each other down in silence for a few more moments until Kaidan nodded curtly, yanking his arm free, and turned to walk back out the door and into the Wards. Joker wordlessly followed.

A few awkward minutes later, they were standing in a small, cramped apartment in the Wards, fairly near the Alliance HQ. Apparently Kaidan had kept paying rent on the place even during his assignment on Horizon colony, and Joker was half grateful and half uncomfortable.

The apartment was tiny, but Joker wasn't surprised by that, considering how little money Kaidan made and how expensive rent was on the Citadel. It was basically two rooms, a bedroom and a combined living room/kitchen, with none of the comforts he's expected from an apartment. In fact, the whole place was rather spartan, with only a small couch and coffee table in the living room and no decorations anywhere.

"Wow, I like what you've done with the place," he said dryly as he glanced around. It doesn't look like anybody actually lives here, he thought.

Kaidan had been pacing in the living room. He never was good at hiding his emotions, he thought. But at Joker's comment, he sighed and turned around, and he noticed how truly exhausted his former friend looked. Like the shit he has to deal with never lets up, even for a second, he thought. I'd feel bad for him if he wasn't being such an idiot. He brought a lot of this on himself. "What do you want, Joker?" He sounded as if he dreaded the answer, but was resigned to listening to him, at least.

He couldn't help but laugh at him. "Nice to see you too, buddy!" he said with over-exaggerated enthusiasm. "I've been doing great, thanks for asking. And it looks like the past two years have been really good to you too. Of course, I wouldn't know anything about that, since you quit talking to me and Chakwas and everybody else."

"I don't really associate with Cerberus agents when I can avoid it," Kaidan replied, crossing his arms. "I've noticed that they tend to murder Alliance officers."

Joker rolled his eyes. "Yeah, you caught me. I'm a pro-human nutjob and the only thing I think about is how I can kill high-profile members of the Alliance."

"Sounds about right," he shot back. "After you got Shepard killed, I'm sure they were happy to have you."

He was taken aback by the anger in Kaidan's voice, but only for a second. "Are you shitting me? You are seriously blaming me for her dying? Still? You have some goddamn issues, like that wasn't obvious enough already," he snorted derisively. "I didn't leave the ship. Fine. I should have left earlier. Maybe that was what got her killed, and if I'd just abandoned ship like everybody else did, then she wouldn't have died and we'd all still be doing our thing, trying to stop the Reapers. But we don't fucking know! And the fact that you are still putting all the blame on me two years later? I don't understand how you could possibly think that makes any sense."

"Who else am I supposed to blame?" he asked. They'd walked toward each other as they yelled, and were shouting right in each other's faces.

"How about the Collectors, you idiot!" he yelled, exasperated. "You know, the ones who came and destroyed the ship and killed Pressley and screwed everything else up in the first place? They're the reason that Shepard is working with Cerberus in the first place! They killed her and now she's gonna kill them right back. Too bad she's having some trouble focusing after Horizon and the shit you pulled on her earlier today."

Kaidan visibly flinched when he mentioned that meeting. "Say what you came here to say, but- I really don't want to talk about her."

"About who?" Joker asked mockingly, feeling smug. He'd seen an opening and was needling Kaidan where he could see it hurt. After everything he's said to me and Shepard... he thought angrily. He deserves it. "Oh, you don't want to talk about Shepard?"

Kaidan looked away and took a few steps back into the living room. "Drop it, Joker," he said flatly, but Joker could tell how hard he was struggling to keep his voice emotionless. "This is about you and me. I don't want to talk about- her."

Joker's hands balled into fists. He's the one who pushed her away, he thought, furious. And now he's gonna pretend that she's the one that hurt him and sit here feeling sorry for himself? "What do you care if we talk about Shepard?" he asked, his voice taking on a cruel edge. "I didn't think you'd mind. After all, she's just the woman who died saving both of us," he said, walking toward him, "just the love of your life, just the woman who came back from the dead and came back to you, until you told her to leaveand blamed her for being dead for two years you goddamn IDIOT!" He was right in Kaidan's face and shouting by the end of his little speech.

"I didn't blame her for anything-" Kaidan began, trying to defend himself, but Joker cut him off again.

"Oh no you don't. What happened to 'I have nothing to say to you'?" he asked. "You sure had plenty to say to Shepard, and look how well that turned out."

"What the hell do you know about it, Joker?" he spat back. Apparently mentioning Shepard enough times had snapped him out of his exhaustion, because his eyes were now sparking in anger. "I know you were spying on us all the time on the Normandy. But I didn't think you were so desperate and lonely that you'd resort to listening in on our private conversations on the Citadel!"

"Well for once you thought right, because I didn't," he retorted. "Shepard came back to the Normandy-"

"Don't call it that," Kaidan cut in, folding his arms stubbornly. "That new ship is not the Normandy."

"Don't call it by its name?" he asked, then shook his head in disbelief. "Shepard said the same thing, you know. When we first got it, she told me it just wasn't the same, and she was getting all depressed about it. It's a ship, who the hell cares if it has the same name! I can't believe you both said the same thing, god dammit. You're such a moron, Kaidan," he said, exasperated, "I barely know where to start."

"You think I'm a teenager? You're being real mature with the name-calling!"

"You wanna talk mature? You're the one who can't get anything done without a damn staringcontest," he spat back. "Can't you do anything without making it completely over-dramatic? And anyway, like I was saying before you interrupted me with your obsession with living in the past, Shepard came back to the Normandy," he said, with extra emphasis on the name this time, "and told me what happened between the two of you when you met up again."

"And how'd you convince her to do that?" Kaidan folded his arms. "She come back to the ship and fall into the first arms she found? I know how you feel about her, Joker. I'm surprised Garrus wasn't waiting there too, both of you were always in love with her," he said bitterly.

He was stunned into silence for a moment. "Are you seriously jealous?" Joker asked, baffled. "I can not believe you. She tracked you down twiceto try to explain everything that happened and you pushed her away both times, and now you're bitching at me for trying to help her?"

"Well apparently I pushed her right to you, so what are you complaining about?"

"I'm not in love with her, you idiot!" he shouted back. "How the hell could I be when I know how she feels about you? How she still feels about you even though you give her plenty of reasons not to?She starts looking for you the second she's back, and you call her a traitor and tell her to get lost. And when she tries again, and god knows why she bothered after the shit you pulled on Horizon, you get pissed at her about Cerberus when she's just trying to stop the Reapers and protect everybody. She doesn't need you giving her shit when she's trying to do her damn job, Kaidan!"

"Of course you're happy she's with Cerberus, you work for them too!" he shouted, clearly getting frustrated by Joker's arguments. Good, maybe if I keep at it for another ten hours or so he'll understand what he's doing wrong, he thought somewhat glumly. "She's not protecting everyone – she's protecting humanity and putting humans first, and I won't help her if it means I'd have to work with Cerberus. And why the hell am I saying this anyway, you know it already after she gave you a full report on our conversation, I'm sure," he said angrily.

"It sure would've been easier if she had been able to tell me what you said, but she was too busy sobbing to give me the details," he shot back.

This made Kaidan pause, and he looked taken aback. Joker let the silence stretch on, trying to calm himself down. I shouldn't let him get to me like this, but he's being an idiot, he thought, his heart pounding from stress and anger. "Shepard was crying?" Kaidan said after a long minute, sounding hesitant.

"Whatever you said messed her up," he said, pointing a finger at him for emphasis. "I don't know what the hell you did, but I've never seen her like that before, and I never want to again." He shook his head. "She has so much to deal with, and you used to be somebody she could depend on, but now you're just as much trouble as everything else. You don't know a damn thing, Kaidan."

He tensed up and looked away. "You have no idea what I went through-"

"Oh really? I have no idea?" he asked, furious. "Just because you were sleeping with her doesn't mean you cared about her so much more than the rest of us. How the hell do you think we all felt? Oh, wait – you wouldn't know, because you quit talking to all of us after Shepard died!" Joker could understand Kaidan not talking to him, especially after their argument, but he'd completely cut off contact with everyone on the crew, even the ones he'd thought of as friends. Maybe he didn't want to be reminded of her, he thought, but he really screwed us over. "We were scared and we had no idea what to do when the Alliance started messing with us. You were the only one with the rank to help us out, and you ditched us."

Kaidan didn't respond, just looked away and ran a hand through his dark hair.

"You think your loss was so much worse than the rest of ours?" he demanded. "We all loved her too, Kaidan. I know how you two felt about each other," he acknowledged, "but seriously, what the hell are you thinking? She's back from the dead. Literally! But you can't just be happy about it and you're making it even harder for her and everybody else."

"It's not exactly easy for me to deal with," Kaidan sighed. "I've been trying to get over her for two years. Then she shows up alive again out of nowhere and I have to figure out how I feel about her being back and her working with Cerberus."

"It's not easy for anybody," he replied. "You think I wasn't freaked out when I found out they were bringing her back?"

"Well sure," Kaidan admitted, "but you've had longer to deal with this than I have, you could actually get used to the idea before seeing her."

"Yeah, a whole three hours of advance warning," Joker scoffed. "That really makes a difference when your friend comes back from the dead."

"Three hours?" He looked surprised at this, his eyebrows knitting in confusion. "Shepard told me they'd worked on her for two years! You didn't know?"

"Oh please. My boss's name is the Illusive Man, for god's sake," he snorted. "He's not exactly big on sharing information with the rest of us."

"How'd you find out then?"

"I was flying Cerberus shuttles the whole time after I joined them," he replied. "Then I got orders that said I'd be getting a new ship and to return to base. I show up, they sit me down in one of those interrogation rooms, and I thought I'd done something to piss them off. As scary as the idea of a court-martial was when I was with the Alliance, let me just confirm what you're already thinking: Cerberus is not a group of people you want angry at you," he said dryly. "So I was freaking out and trying to figure out what I'd done wrong. Or what they'd caught me doing wrong, anyway," he amended. "But they just showed me a security vid of Shepard walking around and shooting things, just like the old days, and tell me they've been bringing her back to life this whole damn time. A few hours later, I'm talking to her again, in person, like nothing happened."

"I can't believe you didn't know," he replied, sounding amazed. "I figured that was why you joined up with Cerberus in the first place."

"I joined Cerberus 'cause the Alliance screwed me," he replied, looking away and unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "My ship was destroyed, the crew was split up, Shepard was dead, and my best friend stopped speaking to me." He glanced quickly at Kaidan before looking away again. "The only thing I had left was flying, and the Alliance took that too, so I found people who let me do the last thing I really had going for me. What the hell else was I gonna do? What the hell else can I do? The Alliance wasn't gonna give me a job where I can interact with anything except paperwork. Don't know if you noticed, but I'm not exactly a 'people person,'" he said, making sarcastic quotes with his fingers.

Kaidan was silent for a minute as he absorbed all this information. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

He's got a lot to apologize for, but that's something, at least, he thought. "Well, thanks," Joker said, trying not to show too much gratitude. Not the time for it – he's still got Shepard problems to deal with. "But I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."

Kaidan sighed again, shaking his head. "You're right," he admitted. "I just- I don't even know where to start."

He sounded so hopeless that Joker truly felt bad for him. "It's damn weird having her back, I know," he said, "and I know you said some shit to her that you probably meant in the moment, but I'm sure she'll understand, just tell her you didn't mean what you said. And if you did mean it, you can work it out somehow. You just have to talk to her."

"I just-" He sighed and sank onto the couch. "I left her there," he said, sounding even more depressed than before. "It was my fault all along, Joker, I blamed it on you because I knew it was me. I shouldn't have left her behind. And when I looked at her, that's all I could think about."

Joker knew he probably shouldn't have been surprised by the fact that Kaidan was blaming himself – he knew that his friend was the type to take responsibility for everything. But he couldn't stop his jaw from dropping, especially after Kaidan had insisted that it was Joker's fault this whole time, even two years later. As if Shepard coming back wasn't complicated enough, he's been thinking he was the one that killed her in the first place. He sighed. He's been punishing himself for this for two years. And so have I.

"She told me to go and I just went," Kaidan continued. "I should have stayed. I could have saved her."

"She's your commander," he objected. "You have to follow her orders. She didn't tell you to go. She didn't say, 'Kaidan, honey, would you mind hopping on the escape pod real quick?' I'm sure it was more along the lines of, 'get your ass out of here immediately, that's an order!' That's not something you can just say 'no' to, no matter how much you might wish you could."

"I have to do what she says even when it puts her in danger?" he countered, meeting Joker's eyes. "I left her behind at the Tower after we killed Saren, after we saw that piece of Sovereign coming toward us. I didn't even look behind me when she told me to run; I got the hell out and just assumed she'd be there. She could have been crushed to death while I got away, but she broke her arm when the ceiling fell on her. Of course that wasn't enough to teach me," he said bitterly, "and I left her again on the Normandy and she died."

Joker shook his head. "You really think you could have saved her if you stayed?" he asked doubtfully. "Best case, you would've been sitting on that escape pod with me and you still wouldn't have been able to do anything." He couldn't stop himself from shuddering. He'd never forget pounding on the door of the pod and shouting as she was thrown into empty space, gasping for air... But he forced himself to suppress the memory and continue. "Worst case? You die with her. And no offense, but Cerberus isn't gonna bother bringing you back after all the trouble they went through with Shepard. You have to follow her orders, even when she's in danger. She's a big girl, Kaidan," he said dryly. "You can't babysit her. You should know after everything we went through that she can take care of herself."

"But I could have done something-"

"No, you couldn't," he said flatly. "She died. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't myfault. It happened and we dealt with it, or tried to anyway, and now she's back and we can deal with that too."

Kaidan didn't respond, and Joker couldn't blame him. It was hard enough to lose a commander you respected or a friend you trusted, but Kaidan had lost the first person he'd been able to open up to in years. Of course he couldn't get over her, he thought. He couldn't stop thinking that it was his fault she died.

"I know you're feeling shitty about this," Joker said sympathetically. "You're confused having her back, you've got guilt about her dying in the first place, maybe you thought you could get over her eventually. But seriously," he said emphatically, "just think about how she's feeling. She's dealing with being back from the dead. Everything's changed, everything she got used to is different or gone, and first thing they do when she wakes up is tell her about another damn catastrophe she has to fix. She didn't even get a chance to tell her parents she was alive again before she got a ton of work to do."

"I don't know how she does it," Kaidan replied, shaking his head in bafflement

"Yeah, me neither," he agreed, "but she's not going to be able to now, since you had to go and make everything even harder on her. She counted on you, Kaidan," he said, a bit of annoyance creeping back in to his voice. "She doesn't let herself rely on anybody but she needed you, and she finds you again and you tell her to get lost."

"I didn't-" Kaidan began, but Joker cut him off again.

"I'm sure you didn't mean to, and yeah okay you have to think about yourself sometimes, but damn, Kaidan. You messed her up. You have a lot to deal with too, but now she has to try to handle saving the galaxy and her boyfriend breaking up with her." He sighed. "If you don't want to be with her anymore, if you moved on or don't want to deal with it, then you need to tell her what's going on. You gotta be honest and let her know exactly what you're thinking, because from what I could tell when we talked earlier, she needs some closure so she can try to move on with her life and get all this important stuff done. Don't know if you heard," he added sarcastically, "but we've got some Collectors and Reapers causing problems and kidnapping people and shit. She's the one stuck solving everyone's problems and doesn't have time to handle people who give her more."

"I know, you're right," he said, sounding a little hopeless. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. "I- loved her, Joker." Joker noticed his hesitation before saying "loved," but didn't comment. "I just- I need some time to adjust to the idea of her being back. I tried so hard to get over her and couldn't ever do it. I compared everyone I met to her; I couldn't stop thinking about her; I even let myself think that she was still alive out there somewhere." He shook his head. "And I know after everything that's happened, everything she went through, everything I said... I know I'm probably more than she's willing to deal with," he said sadly. "I know we both need some time to figure things out, but... do you think she'll talk to me again? Eventually?"

When did I become the resident psych expert? Joker wondered. I'm not the Shepard expert – if anybody is, it was him. How the hell am I supposed to know? "Hell if I know," he said bluntly. "Maybe? You've got a hell of a lot of work to do to even have a shot at talking to her again though. She doesn't know what to think about all the shit you pulled, and she's scared. Commander goddamn Shepard is scared, Kaidan. She missed you like crazy – you should've seen her trying to convince Anderson to tell her where you were. But she finally finds you and you tell her to get lost."

"Yeah," Kaidan said sadly. "I just... it's a lot to deal with. And I know she has it worse than me, but I also know that she's also a lot more capable of dealing with issues than I am."

"She's more capable at everything than any of us," Joker replied dryly. "I mean, honestly, can you really blame her if she's not willing to talk to you again? She's dealing with the Collectors and Cerberus and the fact that she died, and adding more to that mix might be more than even she can handle."

"I tried for two years to get over her," Kaidan said quietly. "I did everything I could, took all the advice people gave me on how to cope when somebody you love dies. I tried to keep busy. I stopped talking to anyone who reminded me of her. I went to places she'd never been or mentioned. But I couldn't stop thinking about her anyway," he said, sounding a little frustrated. "I just hoped that, eventually, I'd be able to forget about her. And now she's back, and I pushed her away because I'm terrified of getting that attached again, after how bad I was when she died the first time. I can't deal with losing her again."

"But you love her," Joker pointed out.

"I... loved her," he said hesitantly. "It's been years, Joker. I loved her more than anything, but I don't know if she's still the same woman I fell in love with. Am still in love with."

"Well if you're really still in love with her, then you really suck at showing it," he shot back.

Kaidan just looked at him in surprise for a moment, and Joker wasn't sure what he was going to do. I've said worse to him in the past few minutes, he thought, and this is what really gets to him? But Joker was surprised too – for the first time since Joker had seen him again, a slow smile spread across Kaidan's face, and he couldn't help but grin back. "I guess I do," he admitted.

"Just... figure your own shit out, Kaidan," he said. "We're all messed up by her being back, her most of all. Make sure you're a goddamn hundred percent positive that you want to give a relationship with her a shot. Don't even think about trying to talk to her before you're sure you won't freak out again, because knowing you, you'll manage to make this bad situation even worse. We really can't afford to have her not thinking straight, okay?"

Kaidan nodded gravely.

There was an awkward pause. Joker wasn't quite sure what else to say. He didn't feel bad for what he'd said to Kaidan – he'd deserved it, and it seemed like his friend now knew that, or was at least starting to realize it, which made this whole ordeal worthwhile. But, still...

"I'm sorry for what I said before," Kaidan said suddenly. "I shouldn't have... I didn't mean any of it. Even... before, when I told you it was your fault. I know it wasn't. I even knew it then; I was thinking it was my fault from the second we lost contact with her. And I'm sorry for everything I said to Shepard, too. I can't believe how clueless I am sometimes," he said, laughing bitterly.

"Yeah, almost as clueless as Shepard is," Joker said dryly, "which is one reason you two worked out pretty well before this whole 'dying' thing. But... yeah. Thanks. And I'm sorry for being an ass about this too. Kind of."

Kaidan chuckled at his last comment. "I think I deserved it," he admitted. "I got so wrapped up in how confused I am with her being back that I didn't even think about how she must be feeling about it. You may not have been subtle or nice about it, but you gave me the kick in the ass I think I needed. I mean there are still issues to work out, but at least I can start thinking about things a little more clearly now," he shrugged.

"Yeah, that's me – not subtle or nice, but necessary," he grinned. "I should probably get back to the ship before Shepard wonders where I went; somehow I 'forgot' to mention that I was coming looking for you, or I'm sure she would've stopped me. Just..." he started, then trailed off.

Kaidan looked at him curiously. "After everything we just said to each other, there's really something you can't say?" he asked.

"Like that's new. Remind me, when have I ever held back on saying what I think about anything?" he asked dryly, then looked at his old friend critically. "Remember those bullshit talks we used to have on the Normandy?"

"Well, not every single one," he replied, sounding skeptical.

"You'll remember this one," he said dryly. "We'd debate about who would win in a fight, Shepard or... anything else."

Kaidan half-smiled; he had fond memories of those debates. "We always said nothing could beat her in a fair fight."

"Which turned out to be pretty accurate," Joker pointed out. "The geth were barely a blip on the radar, Benezia went down like a punk, and she killed Saren, or helped him pull the trigger anyway. And that helped us get Sovereign, so she should probably mark that one as done too. She got killed and is back to kick even more ass than before, so even death can't handle her for long." Kaidan was smiling at this, but Joker wasn't finished. "But all it took to make her break down was you," he said emphatically, a trace of anger back in his voice.

Kaidan's smile faded, and he nodded slowly. "I know," he said sadly. "And I know it'd probably be smarter for me to write her and say that I can't see her again, then avoid all of you so I might actually be able to get over her. But..." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I don't know what I want, I don't know what I'm ready to deal with... Hell, I don't know anything lately, apparently. But giving up everything I had with her, when there's a slim chance that maybe, eventually it could work out again... Even when she died, I wasn't able to give her up. So now that she's back, I know there's no way I can give up on us completely. Is that crazy?"

"A little," Joker said bluntly, "but I can't exactly blame you. Just try to keep your crazy in check this time, and don't do this shit to her again. I don't mind being sobbed on once in a while, but seeing Shepard like that is just damn creepy and to be honest, I'm not really going to put up with you doing that to her again. Compared to now, chasing Saren seems like we were on a damn pleasure yacht. This time around, things aren't quite as much 'fun.' Honestly it's gotten so bad that we're desperate for help, and we've got a lot more psychopaths on the ship than we did before. Just a friendly warning."

He paused a moment, then walked over to Kaidan and held out his hand. Kaidan looked a bit surprised, but reached out to shake his hand. They locked eyes for a moment, then both nodded once and dropped hands before Joker stepped away. "I'll see you around if Shepard doesn't get us all killed," he said cheerfully.

"Sounds like I'm really missing out," Kaidan replied with a sad smile. "See you later, Joker."

Joker walked out the door and started heading back to the ship. As happy as he was that the talk had gone better than he'd hoped, he still wasn't sure what to think. I either made things better, or even worse than they already were, he thought. Probably a bad sign that I have no idea which it is. He sighed. But as long as Shepard gets some kind of resolution, I did what I came here to do. Now it's all on Kaidan.