" bones sinking like stones

all that we fought for

homes, places we've grown

all of us are done for.

and we live in a beautiful world,

yeah we do yeah we do.

we live in a beautiful world. "

- Coldplay - "Don't Panic"

The explosion rocked the ground out from beneath her feet. Or, it would have had she not already leapt loosing a terrible cry in a desperate bid to clear herself from the blast. The shockwave ripped up from the impact and smashed into her. A hot wind punched her back and lifted her like a crazed dragon bursting free from the ground with crushing force, the sound of glass shattering all around her.

Shit, her mind barked. Shields failed!

With a sickening 'whomp,' Shepard hit the dirt and felt the dull sensation of flesh ripping. Blood and soil invaded her mouth. Laying on the ground coughing out filth, she grit her teeth as she waited for the pain to hit. As the wave of sharp white noise washed over her she gave it no resistance, allowing it to burn itself out before staggering to her feet. Her sleek black and green armour caked in muck she thrust her shoulders forward into a dogged run for the shuttle.

Shepard saw him, the stony figure of Grunt holding open the door, his jaws open in a roar. The sound was so slow to her speeding senses that it was no more than a heavy reverberation, drowned out still further by the sudden and impregnable thunder of the next detonation. As she ran, time slowed to a near standstill. Shepard could see every detail as the firelight vomited flickering orange on every reflective surface. Her nerves were jangling from the adrenaline overload as she made it to the door and hauled herself in.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, flashing a roguish smile at her companions and ignoring the pain in her torn cheek. "Traffic was a bitch!"

Rolling into her seat, she closed her eyes as the thrusters roared to life and the shuttle began its hasty ascent out of the atmosphere. The mercenaries' base - or what was left of it - was now a fresh steaming shithole on the scarred face of the planet and Shepard was only too happy to have been its cause. Her insides felt as though they were squirming and spreading apart inside her as the shuttle broke free of gravity and began to align itself for the approach to the Normandy. He was never a second too late, she thought of its pilot, with gratefulness and relief. Grinding sounds and jostling heralded their arrival. She looked with a cool gleam in her eye from Grunt's expression of eager approval to Garrus' many thick scars. The grey turian lowered his head, tapped the butt of his assault rifle loudly, and flared his mandibles briefly in a toothy grin. The translator ignored the series of quiet, untranslatable clicks he gave as proud indication of a job well done, and Shepard cracked a grin in return.

Commander Shepard of the Normandy brushed the dust out of her closely-shaven hair as she made her way through the airlock, smudges of mud still clinging to her pale skin.

"Hey, would you look at what the cat dragged in," came a voice from the cockpit. The pilot's chair spun to face her. "Welcome back, Commander. And entourage," he said, airily touching the brim of his ballcap in the direction of Grunt and Garrus. "Judging from the explosions, I'll say it must've been a delightful little tea party down there," Joker said, crossing his arms. She rolled her eyes, green as her armour, and did her best to humour him.

"Simply precious. Nude asari in tophats and all," she muttered, unable to disguise her smile.

"What? And you didn't get me any souvenirs?" He mock gasped, watching her turn to go.

"You can have my face bandage when I'm done with it if you like," Shepard called over her shoulder, halfway down the hall on the way to the elevator.

/

Shepard stared at herself in the mirror, suppressing a grunt of pain as she removed small bits of stone embedded in her cheek, listening them clatter into the sink one by one. She could have gone down and had Mordin or Chakwas do it, but there was something about patching herself up that was more satisfying. Gently wiping the abrasion with antiseptic, she placed a small square of gauze over it, sealed it with medical tape and had done with it. That strange noise from the terminal outside the bathroom chimed, and Shepard sighed. Never once did she have any illusions that command allowed for laziness, but sometimes she really just wished for a chance to breathe.

"Yeah, EDI?" She shouted at the little representation of the AI, its holographic sphere blipping.

"Mr Taylor wishes to speak with you," the AI's smooth voice explained. Shepard sighed. What run-and-fetch errand was she about to be asked to do now? She'd never say no, of course. She knew solidly that her team needed to be focussed on what they were doing. Her crew needed to have their loose ends tied off, and who else were they going to ask? She clasped the front of her officer's overcoat shut with the heavy thought that this wasn't the only reason she was feeling trepidation about whatever this was.

The simple fact was, Jacob Taylor unsettled her. He always had, right from the moment she had met him. Sirens blaring, mechs flying, on the first night of her rebirth. She appreciated Taylor for his talents, his professional demeanour, and cool civility, but she just couldn't put her finger on what it was that made her recoil. She pondered this on her way down the elevator, one finger idly pressed to her chin. As soon as the doors opened, she fixed her features into an eagle-eyed look of authority. Shepard was a small woman but had a decidedly large presence, as if a lioness had prowled into the room. She flowed in and took up residence leaning against the table behind Jacob.

"Something I can help you with?" she asked.

Taylor was never startled by noise. He turned to face the woman he towered above and the set of his jaw put Shepard on edge. She did not like how he was so much taller, and more than that she did not like the way that he had shut down when she had asked a simple question of him in an attempt to get to know him better. She had dropped the question immediately as he had asked her to but she never forgotten that incident. Nobody else on the ship had a problem with her jovial curiosity and even Miranda had loosened up, accepting Shepard as a benevolent being. The fact that Taylor liked to keep himself to himself was not a problem, it was the standoffish way in which he had rebuffed her curiosity. She got the distinct feeling that he had something to hide, an attribute she felt no one else on the crew shared with him.

"Commander, I received news not too long ago about the Hugo Gernsback, the ship my father served on," Taylor formed the words slowly, carefully, as if his mind was preoccupied with another task. Shepard merely adjusted her posture, paying rapt attention. "That ship has been missing for ten years, Commander. I'll say that it's not standard procedure for SOS calls to be routed to me personally. This came direct from the source, and I was hoping you might be able to help me close the book on the issue, Commander," Taylor explained stiffly.

"I thought you'd be a little more enthusiastic to hear your father may be alive," She stated, acutely aware of his eyes fixated on her. Jacob was a man built from black brick. Something he clearly took pride in was the fact that his body was a weapon, and although Shepard admired it for its capabilities in combat, something about his stature made her queasy.

"My father was never really around for me growing up," the man explained, his pacing a little more urgent. Shepard resisted the instinctual urge to cock her eyebrow. The wall of Taylor was embellishing on a remark of hers? No matter, she dismissed as he continued. "Those are old wounds, but doubtless, I would appreciate if we could check this out, Commander. I do understand it's a lot to ask." Taylor finally averted his gaze from her and stared at the orange glow of his monitor. With a tic of annoyance, Shepard took this as an invitation to accept or decline, then leave.

"I think we can spare the time for you, Jacob," she responded with courtesy, "send Joker the coordinates and we'll head there."

"Thank you, Commander. I appreciate this," he nodded curtly, and turned on his heel to attend to his work.

A discoloured memory floated into Shepard's brain. Something hit her like a bucket of ice water and she turned away. The way Taylor had appeared as if broken from a deep concentration, the odd flicker of biotic static leaping from his shoulder, indeed, even the position Jacob held reminded her of someone. Someone very near and very dear, who not three weeks ago had broken her heart in front of Garrus and Grunt. Had her disguised loathing for Jacob simply grown more intense since then? Shepard could not say with honest certainty. Jacob was not Kaidan, and for that very fact, Shepard had disliked him. Recently, she had found more things to reject about him. She knew it was unfair, but nevertheless continued to find new and exciting ways to justify her distrust.

She sighed under her breath as she left the Armoury, heading for the Combat Information Centre directly in the heart of the Normandy. Shepard ran a hand through her buzzed hair and considered. Perhaps this intense dislike for Taylor was largely unwarranted. He had affronted her in his own way and had made her suspicious, but perhaps she was rejecting Kaidan's anger by rejecting the closest thing to him she could find? Her former Staff Lieutenant declaring her to be a traitor had been the hardest thing she'd ever had to hear, in her military career or otherwise. With suppressed irritation, Shepard recalled how stupid she had acted on Horizon. The honey coloured light shining through the trees, the broken remnants of a new world all around them, the fumbling words that had come out of her mouth. The memory stung. It stung her so much that she immediately headed towards the Galactic Map to confirm the coordinates Joker had inevitably received by now.

"Commander," the cheerful voice of her yeoman greeted Shepard. Kelly was on her way to the elevator. Shepard raised her head and returned the greeting. Kelly's normally fresh face looked disconcerted.

"What is it, Kelly?" Shepard asked. The strawberry blonde girl blinked her doe-like eyes. In an odd sense, she appreciated that Kelly had asked for Shepard to refer to her on first name basis. It made her feel a little more human.

"Well, it's... Joker. He's still on the bridge, Commander. It's been several hours now since his shift ended." The young woman looked vexed. Shepard did get the distinct impression that she alone was the only one whose orders Joker really gave a damn about.

"Send someone to relieve him, Kelly, please," was Shepard's patient response.

"Aye aye, Commander," she acknowledged, and returned to her station to tap on a keyboard as Shepard stepped up to the enormous holographic display of the galaxy.

It never ceased to be a wonder to her, flicking her finger through miniature representations of billions upon billions of lightyears of open space. Effortlessly and with purpose, Shepard flew through the motions to confirm the path Joker already had planned. Damned efficient, he is. Shepard unwittingly smiled to herself. Joker was a lot of things. Surly, foul-mouthed, and hermitish, but she had always had an unspoken understanding with him. She was, in her heart of hearts, a cynic just as he was and they had developed a kind of rapport surrounding the absurdities of their situation. Her task complete, she reached up and straightened the high collar of her jacket, looking up over the display towards the cockpit. He'd shown no signs of moving. Shepard shook her head as she headed up towards it. Doubtless he had received the request, and doubtless he had refused it. It was late, again, and she was still awake. Again. Something else they shared in common.

/

Joker monitored the fluctuations in temperature across the ship, less attentive now than he would have been some hours earlier. The deathly silence of late night Normandy watch was almost soothing. During the day there was no peace. Always intrusions. People came bustling around the cockpit for reasons he couldn't fathom. They weren't flying the damn ship, he was, so why did they need to be up here? If EDI wasn't nattering in his ear about something or other and if he wasn't occupied in making its task of monitoring him as difficult as possible, there were maintenance reports to be tweaked. Joker became aware of light footsteps and turned his head to see. Ah. He wiped the scowl off his face. There were some intrusions he never minded.

"Commander?" Joker inquired, surprised at her presence. Wait, this didn't have anything to do with the shift change, did-

"Cockpit's closed, Joker," Shepard said, cocking her hip like she always did when she addressed him. "Relieve your shift to your replacement. Now." Her tone suggested that she meant business. She turned to go. Joker bit his tongue. He knew better than to challenge Shepard. As if sensing his unspoken response, she turned her head as she left, saying, "I don't care how not tired you are, go."

As if in defeat, he pressed a few buttons to call up his relief and dragged himself out of the chair, steadying himself before proceeding in his odd gait towards the elevator. Joker walked with a limp and this was another reason that he preferred to slink away when few others were around to see. It bothered him that Shepard had only departed a moment ago and yet he couldn't hope to catch up. With some irritation he summoned the elevator and waited for it to take him to the Mess. As the doors closed, he knew that Shepard had been right. He was hungry. There would be something for him to eat.

Joker shambled his way to the tables and noticed Shepard poking about in the cupboards. She barely glanced at him, instead she smiled and gestured to a tray laid out on a table. A sandwich of some description lay on a plate. Looked as if there was breaded chicken with it too and some cans sat to the side of the tray. Shepard. She was an angel. She was wonderful. She was-

"If it isn't beer, I don't want it," he grumbled, peering at the tray as he drew nearer. Shepard's face fell.

"It's battery acid. Of course it's beer, what else would it be? Drink it, you ingrate," she said, attentions busy on preparing her own meal. After a moment she sat at the same table, a bowl of noodles in her hand and a can of her own.

"Beer and noodles?" Joker asked sceptically, taking a bite of the proffered sandwich.

"Beer and a vorcha sandwich?" Shepard mirrored, without missing a beat. He lifted the top piece of bread suspiciously, only to find some inoffensive sandwich meat of decidedly non-dubious origin. He grinned, asked her about the bandage on her face, and drank his beer.

"Why do you stay up so late?" Shepard asked, slurring only slightly and leaving the dregs of her third can.

"Why do you wanna save the galaxy?" Joker answered her question with a question of his own as he neatly polished off his fourth. Shepard paused. She was a cheap drunk and she knew it.

"I like existing, generally," she responded, the thoughts slow in coming to her mouth.

"And I like flying." Joker shrugged, a little addled himself.

Shepard frowned, looking at the remains of what she had brought down. No more beer, and her noodles were gone.

"Hey," she said, getting his attention. "You should really make sure you get enough sleep. You know?"

"You should bring less giant krogan babies on board and more asari," he nodded as he leaned on his elbows, lifting the brim of his cap.

Shepard smiled. "Really, though." She blinked at him and fished around in her empty noodle carton with her fork.

"What, I'm serious, too." He laughed, holding his can up to him as if he were going to try and get whatever last drops there were in it.

"Yeah, but really," Shepard said quietly, "you regularly stay up there for fifteen, sixteen hours at a time. How you gonna stay sharp?" The commander leaned forward on her elbows innocuously. That's when it happened. Their gazes met, and maybe it was the beer talking, but Joker could have sworn he saw a glimmer of something other than just professional concern in those large spaces. He didn't know what it was, but he took his time to look.

"... You've got nice eyes, Shepard," Joker muttered, matter of factly. The words were out of his mouth before they were even out of his head. Wait, wait. Wait. Fuck, that was out loud? Joker fumbled the can in his hands, putting it down on the table sharply. He cleared his throat.

"I, ah," Shepard began, clearly struggling for words. "I have guns to clean. I'll see you tomorrow?" It was not a question to which an answer was expected as she got up from the table, and suddenly whatever it was he had glimpsed in her - around her? He didn't know - but it was gone and rapidly covered over by that presence that made krogan bow to her as brothers, and geth fall at her feet.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.