"What did you tell Admiral Mikhaelovich?"
"I told him that you'd said it was perfectly legal for me to be parked in the handicapped spot. Oh, and also that I wasn't going to be the one to get in his way if he wanted to insult turians, but if he called my ship badly proportioned I'd have to have him court-martialed. Sir. I called him sir."
Shepard says, "We have to be careful about annoying him…to his face, anyway."
Joker turns partly around with an elbow on the arm of the chair. "With all due respect, commander, I don't think we have to worry about him. Yeah he outranks you, but Captain Andersen has a lot of clout, and Udina sanctioned you having this ship…no matter how much he complains about it."
Kaidan walks into the bridge, stopping on the way to his station to salute Shepard.
"At ease," she says. She still isn't used to being in charge. She liked to talk to her crew as equals, and Andersen wasn't around all the time to tell her not to. Spectres and biotics and aliens were all welcome additions to the team, but she knew what it was like to be a human soldier, just working your way up through the Alliance and finally getting some breathing room.
(She knew what it was like to be a Spectre too now, but it had been what, two weeks since she'd gained the title? She'd almost died twice already, on Feros and Noveria. Joker said he didn't trust Spectres, and she thought he must have reason.)
"Udina is an idiot," said Joker, "but then so are most Spectres."
"What do you have against them?"
"They're just so high and mighty, like since they've got a title and a gun they're a different species. That and they tend to get people killed. Not that you're like that, commander."
"Of course not." She rolled her eyebrows.
"You've only been a Spectre for a little while. There's room to grow."
(While we're speaking freely…) "I hate you sometimes, Joker."
"Whatever you say, commander."
She's not sure how this happened, exactly. There was desperation in his voice when he said "Talk to me, commander ," and in the deep underground tunnels she had wondered whether he had been bending over the comm calling for her, trying out her names like one of them might work—Shepard, Kendra, Commander. Then she emerged from Therum and cleaned up and went to him with tales of the great seeping plant-thing and how oddly hard it was to have to incapacitate enemies without blowing their metal flashlight heads away, and she'd shivered and ran her hands over her arms because she felt like there was still green muck caking them.
"It was disgusting," she'd said, and then he'd reached up and rubbed her arm. He seemed so unconcerned all the time. Like he was about to fall asleep. How does he manage it?
She'd stared at him, surprised, and then he raised an eyebrow with this look that could be interpreted either as "What are you waiting for?" or "What's the big deal?" or "You know you weren't coming to complain to me just because I'm that personable." (All that in an eyebrow.)
She looks down at him and pats his hand, and then because she can't not she laces her fingers through his. He has short fingers and thick knuckles and strong hands. He shrugs at her, smiling at one side of his mouth like he knows every little secret she's got.
"I hate you," she says.
Kendra Shepard concentrated on the floor below her and Doctor Chakwas' soft arms around her shoulders as she moved slowly into the medical bay. "I'm alright. I'm alright." She looked up, and the view was the same as it always was when she came to visit Chakwas. No blur or silver string of data stream or anything else that might indicate the Overlord was still present behind her eyes. Shepard stood up straight and patted away Doctor Chakwas's arm from the Cerberus brand on her uniform.
Shepard was good at recovering from problems. She saw them as tasks to be completed, and then she completed them.
The Overlord, though. That thing behind her eyes….it had taken her vision from her and she had not known what else it would take, not known what it could do with her Cerberus reconstructions.
The medbay is a soothingly clean white and Chakwas is a soothingly calm benefactor. "Take a seat, commander," she says, and gives Shepard her own chair as she goes to a shelf and pulls down a pill pack. The two beds are occupied.
Thane is lying down with a white blanket pulled up to his green shoulders. His eyes are shut. Shepard feels then how the air is hot, how it rubs at her shoulders like a cat. This is the air of Thane's world and his body is pining for it.
Joker is sitting on the edge of the second bed wearing the pocketed pants of his usual uniform and yellow holograms up to his elbows. She looks for red branching scars like hers on his pale skin and does not find them. She knows he is here often, but has never been present for one of his visits before. She blinks, trying to get back to being formal when she's remember the tight grip of his hand on hers and thinking of running her palms across the taunt skin of his arms-
She asks, "How are you holding up?"
"Nothing special going on here, commander."
"Do you need to see Doctor Chakwas very often?"
His voice gains the edge it had when she first met him, when he thought she might be accusing him of being weak. "I know how to take care of myself. The doc usually just checks up on what Cerberus gave me."
Shepard shakes her head and touches her forehead, conflicted. Cerberus's science had restored her to life, but it feels like Overlord is still lurking behind her eyes. If she shook him off, maybe data and blood would fly out and paint dots on the walls. The shake when it comes is small, just a touch of her fingers to her warm skin. Shepard says, "It's strange…"
"What? I think it's kinda great. I mean, I don't recommend we get all buddy-buddy with Cerberus as an organization, but they fixed me up. I can walk around." ( Except he's not standing, now, and she wonders if it's because he doesn't need to or because he is denying the ground. I can, so I can choose not to.) "Do you realize how silly it is that humanity still has diseases?" he continues. "The protheans gave us all this mass technology but they didn't have any reason to fix Vrolik's. I can fling a spaceship across half a galaxy. I can sit here and look at you. And I can still barely touch anything." He lifts a hand as if to push at something, a wall or EDI's mute button. "But Cerberus did a lot."
She does not know what to say. She thinks he has exhausted his answers and she has exhausted her questions.
Thane opens his filmy black eyes and sits up. It has never really struck Shepard before how Thane is dying. He came into her life all controlled fall and smooth hands, and for Chakwas to put him sitting comfortably under the blanket seems like forcing him out of his element. But he and she know what he needs, and the air attests to that.
Thane says, "Each of us is gifted or cursed according to our ability."
Joker raised an eyebrow and looks at him and she thinks that she sees a don't give me the 'this is a gift' speech coming, but he says nothing. Shepard never can predict how he is going to react.
This time he doesn't. Chakwas comes over and touches Shepard on the arm.
Shepard says, "I'm feeling alright, really, doctor. Tend to your other patients."
"If you say so, commander." She leans in to whisper with a smile. "If I didn't treat everyone who told me they didn't need looking after, we'd have a lot less crew."
Chakwas lifts up Joker's arm and manipulates the hologram sleeve, murmuring something that Shepard cannot hear. Shepard moves over to Thane's bedside.
"How are you holding up?"
He smiles reassuringly. "I am strong, siha. This is a treatment I undergo every few days, this facsimile of my homeworld. There is nothing to fear."
She uses his bravery to harden her own pity. He doesn't want that—and she isn't sure how to give it. He is a killer, even if he sees his soul as separate from and unstained by his body. An alien philosophy. And siha- an alien word. She has been turning it over in her mind ever since the conversation in Life Support. It is something special, though. It is a breath from Thane's world.
"Good. I hope…" She can't say I hope you get well. And what does that mean to anyone, anyway? She hesitates."I hope you finish your fight."
"I will, siha. That is why I am here with you."
Shepard nods. Thane closes his eyes, and Chakwas takes Shepard's place at his side. She moves to where the doctor had been standing almost automatically in the narrow space.
The holograms have disappeared from Joker's hands. He doesn't make any move to put his shirt back on and she wonders if he's trying to bait her, or whether he isn't even thinking about it. He asks, "So what's siha?"
She glances back at Thane. Chakwas moves back to her desk, and the assassin is sleeping. "I don't know. He won't tell me."
Shepard walks around the foot of the bed that Joker has taken or been given. He shifts, leaning back on his arms and looking up at her (like usual. Why they're never at the same level seems more of an emotional problem than a physical one.) He says, "Was that difficult for you? It kinda sounded like you were on trial."
"All of it. The whole consolation thing?"
"No, he..okay. Yes, it was hard. Fighting geth is easy, but I have no idea what to say to a dying man."
"You're too nice. Talk to somebody like they're going to break any minute and they might. That's why I like you, commander. You have so little sympathy for the common man."
"Would you rather I tell you I hate you?"
"You already did."
They look at each other and she thinks and we know how well that went and maybe he's thinking the same thing.
She smiles and isn't sure whether that's a compliment but likes it. "You always say the wrong thing at exactly the right time."
"Give it back!"
"Come on, I want to see."
She backs off although she still leans over the desk and he leans over it too and picks up the framed picture. She feels the blush start to turn her ears red. The picture is of her and Tali and Garrus on the Citadel, their arms around each other, and Joker is in the background sitting on a chair and waving. Shepard did not know he was there when Kaidan took the picture, but she kept it because the three of them looked happy in it, and because Joker looked…like he always did. Hey, I'm here, doesn't matter really whether you acknowledge me or not but I'm going to lean back and look like I own this chair.
He tilts it side to side. "That's not embarrassing. I thought it might be Kaiden."
She blushes some more."He took it."
"This was after the Battle of the Citadel."
"You looked like you were having fun." He sits down on the couch again, puts the picture on the table.
"It was one of the last good times before…"
"Before you died."
"Yeah." She meets his eyes. "I came back."
"But there was a lot of time before that." He looks up at her from the navy-blue couch, those green eyes accepting no other answer. "We had a funeral."
She looks down at the floor. (She can take Collectors, she can take husks shuffling at her like corpses, she can take bloodsplatter, but it's hard to look at him hurt.)
He stands up, bracing one arm against the back of the couch, and almost falls into her. (It's on purpose. He knows far too well for it not to be, and then) she's got her arms around him and he's holding her so tightly she thinks there must be something wrong, he must be mourning her over again, he must have wanted someone tocomfort him over those years but the someone he was looking for was the one that was gone.
He mumbles something. She can feel the scratchiness of his cheek against her cheek, and his shoulders relax like Okay. She's not going to kill me. She runs her scarred hands over his shoulder blades, thinking of molten metal, thinking Cerberus could bring me back from the dead; why can't they do more for him?
It doesn't matter now. She closes her eyes and buries her face in his shoulder and tightens her arms around him. She can feel one hot tear starting at the corner of her eye like she's the one in mourning, but she feels a little smile starting too and just wants to stay here forever.
(Her body is never quite her own any more.)
He says, quietly, "I visited your memorial. Twice."
She hugs him tighter and then leans back to touch her forehead to his. The hand he lifts to resettle his cap ends up cupped warm against her cheek.
She says, "I'm glad you're here."
His lips quirked. "You're lucky we figured this out." (She remembers the false starts.) He ducks his head to press his lips against her neck, leaving her to close her eyes against the softened fabric of his hat. He mutters, "You're not really my type, Shep."
She closes her eyes. "What's your type?"
He tracks kisses across her jaw and cheek to meet her eyes. "Blue."
"I hate you sometimes," she says, and she pushes his shoulders. As playful as it is he sits back down on the couch and pulls her down with him. As much as she wants to drape her legs over his, she tucks them beneath her instead and nestles against him, pulling lightly at the Cerberus uniform over his chest. He gets an arm around her shoulders and speaks with his chin propped on her hair. "If this is hate," he says, "I'm think I'm okay with that."
They're gone. Jack and Tali and Garrus (Garrus-!) and Miranda and it's Shepard's fault, it's hers more than it's the sickening, circling buzz of collector drones behind her in the cave mouth. They took her crew one by one, and now it's Shepard and Jacob and Grunt, and those two have already jumped. They're across the orange-hazed gulf of space, and the Normandy is bobbing right there.
Shepard breathes heavy. She was running flat out, and she's outdistanced the swarm a little bit. She can slow down and see the two men disappearing into the ship and Joker standing in the airlock with one hand on the hull (hold together, baby, hold together) and the other on the gun.
So many deaths on her head.
She's going to lose momentum if she stops now, and the swarm is following, so she pumps her arms and pushes all the power she's got into her legs and jumps.
There's a moment of blur and then her palms smack the cold, familiar Normandy floor. She grips the edge with all the might in her armor-scaled fingers, and flails her legs around trying to use the weight to get a grip on something, anything, and push herself up. The ship with EDI holding it is almost unsettlingly steady. And then Joker is leaning down with one forearm flat against the floor and one hand over her wrist, grabbing, and he must have set the gun down. The swarm is coming. She feels strength flow out of her shoulders and into the abyss. So many deaths. And he's looking at her with eyes that trigger memories of so much weakness-emotion-gain now loss—
"Tell them, Joker," she starts, and the wind takes her voice away.
His throat works but doesn't quite form words until he realizes what she's about to do. "Shepard. You can't do this to me again!"
And then his expression changes from hurt and angry to some kind of resigned and tired. "I can't pull you up, commander, I just can't, you've got to do this yourself or it ain't gonna happen-"
She's saving up her breath. (For what?) "I lost…" (everyone).
He's managing to solve her problem by ignoring it. That's so him. "We haven't got all day—"
And surviving really is more important. She is going to hurt for a long time after this but he is going to be there and she is going to be alive. She has killed the human-Reaper and space will not finish her. She and he command it.
"Hate you." She says, breathless, because he might just be refusing to help her, might know just what to do so that she lives. She climbs up, weariness climbing onto her back again, and with their arms around each other they rush into the oh-so-empty ship-